|first eggs from our first flock|
(everything you ever wanted to know about backyard chickens but were afraid to ask)
A while back, I saw someone had posted about raising chickens and getting free-range eggs for only a couple bucks per dozen. While that is an accomplishment, we raised backyard chickens WAY cheaper than this and we're planning to do it again.
We are receiving our new batch of chicks August 9th, as I'm well enough to start raising chickens again. I thought I'd post about how we did it with our original flock and what we're doing differently this time around.
choosing a breed
We raise Dominiques. There are several reasons I chose this breed.
Chicken breeds are divided into egg-layers, meat-producers and dual-purpose birds. Though we raise chickens primarily for eggs, meat is produced as a by-product of any egg-producing setup. Thus I thought dual-purpose birds were preferred over those bred strictly for egg-laying or for meat.
Dominiques lay much more than a meat bird, nearly as much as egg-laying specific breeds, but also have enough meat on their bones to make harvesting them reasonably worthwhile.
In my original learning about chickens, I read a lot of stuff about incubators, and what temperature and humidity eggs need, and how often the eggs should be turned, and all that.
It seemed to me to this was a chore best accomplished by a hen rather than by me, as the hen wouldn't have to track all this information I would need to accomplish the same thing, and Dominiques are an old heritage bird that goes broody.
Broody hens sit on a nest until the eggs hatch, then raise their chicks. During this period of several weeks, they do not lay. Thus breeding for maximum egg-laying efficiency has resulted in breeds that do not go broody. Dominiques go broody and thus can replicate themselves without a lot of human interference.
Dominiques are the birds settlers took with them when moving west. This old breed survives winters in which pioneers could barely finish their cabins before winter, let alone build coops. Since I had no plans to build a heated coop with lights and all that, I wanted sturdy birds requiring little coddling to prosper in Pennsylvania winters.
Finally, I just like them. IMO, it is important to raise animals that you actually like! You are going to be hanging out with them after all.
|our first flock as chicks|
You can buy chicks either sexed or straight run. If you only want hens, it would make sense to buy sexed chicks, which are more expensive (unless you buy males, which are dead cheap, but why would anyone do that?)
However, if you want to raise your own chicks and keep the flock going into the future, you are going to need roosters too, so it's cheaper to buy straight run chicks. However, straight-run means no one checks the sex, so you have no idea what you're getting. It isn't necessarily a 50:50 proposition.
Because I wanted to keep a flock, I figured we needed 2 roosters, a main rooster and a backup rooster.
Because chickens mate via a rooster holding a hen down with his talons and do this repeatedly each day, each rooster needs 4 hens to keep any individual hen from being torn up too badly. (BTW, there is NOTHING to envy in a hen's sex life!)
So I figured 2 roosters and 8 hens was a minimum flock size, what we'd want to keep over winter to reestablish a larger flock each year. And in ordering straight run chicks, I figured we'd need at least 25 to be reasonably certain of 8 hens.
I ordered 40 chicks the first time around as that was the smallest group I could find to order. This time, I ordered 25, from a different hatchery that allowed smaller orders.
|first coop, under construction|
building a coop
Our first coop was built of wood from pallets and siding off an old falling down summer kitchen. Our new coop this time around is made from a pile of windows and doors. Both are covered with old corrugated roofing that was here when we moved here. Basically, we choose available and cheap building materials and built our frame to use the stuff we had.
Our biggest expense in building has been hardware cloth. Basically, the primary purpose of a coop is to protect your chickens from predators so it must be predator-proof. The ironically-named chicken wire is NOT predator proof. So the floor of our coop is hardware cloth, which is folded up over the sides of the structure and attached.
We also leave about a foot of opening between the solid walls of the coop and the roof for ventilation purposes. This area is also covered with hardware cloth.
Our new coop uses the same hardware cloth as the old did; this stuff lasts a long time.
|new coop, under construction|
Space is important, if snow is deep, and the chickens cannot be let out cause the door won't open, they need enough space that one animal can get away from another that's hassling it. You can crowd them a bit in summer, when they're outside every day, but in winter they need a certain amount of space. So for my over-wintering flock of 10, I figured the coop needed 50-60 sq ft of floor space.
Within that, we have four perches. All chickens prefer the highest perch, but those highest in the pecking order actually get it. If those on lower perches are not going to be pooped on all night, there needs to be enough perch space for them to spread out some. So we built about 30 foot total of perches, set up in a stair-step manner so they can get to the highest and thus to the nest box.
|nest box of first coop|
Both coops had a large communal nest box on the top half of the shorter wall. We could shut off half of it when a hen went broody (broody hens need to not be hassled by other birds and fed and watered in place as they won't leave). We built it accessible to the outside so that we could gather eggs easily.
The area under the nest box is the area that doesn't have perches over it, thus food and water is less likely to be pooped on. Our new coop is setup so we can feed and water from the outside also.
Instead of cleaning the coop regularly, we throw down grass clippings (in summer) or straw (in winter) to cover the mess and keep the smell down. In winter, the composting process under the straw provides warmth. In summer, more pooping occurs outside while they're free-ranging, so it doesn't get too bad even in the heat (which is also part of the reason for having the coop ventilated).
Twice a year, in spring and fall, we remove the perches from the coop and get in there and dig down to the floor and use the resulting compost for our garden.
|area outside chicken coop|
When I first began reading about chickens and how to raise them, even books and web sites aimed at backyard flocks talked about using feed mixes. Some of these are pelleted, packaged mixes, others are mixed at local feed mills, which buy grain from local farmers and sell this grain in various forms to other farmers.
This dependence on feed mixes just didn't sit right with me.
Most feeds are medicated with antibiotics, and while I don't object to treating a sick animal, I do object to just randomly giving low-level medication to animals, a practice that produces antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. Non-medicated feed is hard to find in pre-packaged feeds and a feed mill is not going to want to make me a custom batch of feed given how small my purchase would be compared to a real farm.
|our front lawn|
Also, I just don't see how ANY mix could possibly provide an optimal balanced diet for ANY animal. Variety is absolutely necessary for a healthy diet, and it didn't seem to me that relying on any one food was reasonable. About the only time that a one-food diet is healthy is in a breastfeeding mammal, but the mother's diet should be varied to produce the best milk.
And finally, chickens existed before Purina did! When settlers took chickens out west, there were no feed mills out there waiting for them! It MUST be possible to raise chickens without this stuff.
So I researched a bit more deeply.
Obviously, all animals need access to clean water all the time, that is point one.
|neighbor's cow pasture|
The basic way agriculture looks at feed production is in terms of total protein and total calories. Generally, feed mixes contain enough high-protein food to meet the protein need of the animal (usually GMO-soy or alfalfa) and enough grain is added to get the calories high enough (usually GMO-corn). The specifics vary depending on the animal, the stage of life, what it is producing, etc. Thus there are feed mixes for chicks versus egg-layers versus meat birds (this applies to all agricultural animals, cows are fed differently depending on if they're producing milk, breeding, etc.).
In addition, all animals need some minerals and egg-layers specifically need lots of calcium.
Chickens also need "grit", basically small stones that reside in their crops and act to grind weed seeds and grains and such, which would otherwise pass through undigested. Free-ranging animals gather their own grit so don't need it provided.
Chickens are omnivores and their natural diet consist of any plants that grow in the area (mine particularly loved dandelion), lots of bugs, and whatever small mammals or reptiles they manage to catch (they've been known to eat both mice and snakes!)
When free-ranging, I assume they are getting both the protein and calories they need as they're eating as much as they want of whatever they want. In my experience, they are particularly stupid animals, but if they were too stupid to eat what they needed, they'd not have survived as a species. So during the appropriate times of year when there's enough forage, chickens can pretty much feed themselves.
However, I do feed them some. Basically, everything I would normally add to a compost pile, both from my kitchen (except coffee grounds) and from my garden (except nightshade stems), gets fed to my flock by the simple expedient of throwing it on the floor of the coop beneath the nest box. Whatever they don't eat becomes part of the general floor compost within the coop.
In the same area, I keep water, which is changed daily. I also provide several milk jugs with holes poked in the side. One contains mixed livestock minerals (from the feed mill), one contains ground oyster shell, and the third contains food-grade diatomaceous earth. This is sort of like daily vitamins for them, providing the appropriate micronutrients that may or may not be available in their foraging diet at various times of year. The stuff with my first flock never got used up so never got replaced so cost almost nothing.
Finally, I do feed small amounts of grain. First time at the food mill, I asked what two grains were cheapest, going for two types for variety. They identified wheat and oats, so I bought 50 lbs of each (cost about $20-$30 total). This lasts about a year around here.
I do not "feed" grain so much as I use it in taming them. Chickens consider grain a treat. If you call them and fling grain on the ground, they come running. Thus they learn to come when called, letting you round them up whenever you need to (like if you won't be home at dusk and need to put them in for the night early). So they got a handful or two of grain a few times a week.
In winter, I fed them a bit more. There is less available forage, sometimes they can't even get out to forage at all, plus they need additional calories to keep warm. I tend to feed them stuff I'd usually compost, like dried beans that have gotten too old to boil up in a reasonable time. I also gave them bacon grease, which is a high calorie food (though I do cook with it, I never use as much bacon grease as is generated by our bacon consumption). When they can't get out, I add grain for both protein and calories also. Luckily, the flock is small during winter, so remains pretty cheap to feed even when they can't get out at all.
The original coop cost us under $100, and we used it for 5 years. This one cost a bit less cause we had hardware cloth, but we had to use some purchased 2x4s and buy some hinges, so around $30 total. So I estimate their housing cost about $20/year.
I don't remember what the original batch of 40 chicks cost, but the batch I ordered for August 9 cost under $50, including shipping. This is a one-time cost that will be spread over however many years we raise chickens. Experience with my last flock is that can be at least 5 years, probably a lot longer if you don't have a heart attack and become bedridden and have to give them away. So say that is $10/year.
Dollar in Piggy Bank
Their food costs about $30 year. So the total cost of my flock is about $60/year.
My minimal flock being 8 hens, I get at least 2000 eggs a year. 167 dozen free-range soy-free eggs would cost me about $850. We also harvest 20-30 roasting birds each year and 5-10 stewing hens, which would cost me another $650-$750. So keeping chickens saves over $1500/year.
Realistically, we often have more than 8 hens laying, and eggs and chicken displace a lot of other food since we are overwhelmed with the amounts being produced, but I'm aiming for a conservative estimate here, worse-case scenario.
This does not count labor though.
On a daily basis, the labor is about 5 minutes around noon to let them out of the coop and gather eggs, and another 5 minutes to feed and water and lock them in at dusk. Since we would otherwise be composting stuff we feed to chickens, the actual work caused by them is nil.
Additional labor involved is the big chores, the twice-annual coop clean out and the slaughtering, plucking and butchering each fall. So basically, three fairly unpleasant days net us about $400/day - darned good wages.
You must LIKE chickens though, as the darned things are running around your yard all the time. I don't mean you must like them in the cuddly-animal sense like a cat or dog, as chickens are not cuddly at all. But you must like them in the same way you get amused by cartoon animals, by their antics, stupid and mean and sometimes both. For us, chicken watching replaced television for several years!
raising a first batch of chicks
You can buy a bird or two at a livestock auction, but to get a batch of chicks of a particular breed, you're going to deal with a hatchery.
|Mail Order Chicks by thievingjoker|
Believe it or not, they send chicks to you through the mail.
What happens is that right before a chick hatches, he eats the entire egg yolk to gain the energy to peck his way out. Since the yolk is nearly as large as he is, this leaves him well fed for the first day or two of life on the outside, allowing him to be mailed.
There's usually a minimal number of chicks they will mail, as the mass of chicks keep them warm and alive until you receive them. This is why you can't buy 10 chicks, as 10 chicks can't be mailed safely.
We got our first batch in spring. We put them in a plastic-form car-top carrier we had handy, lined with newspaper, with lights attached to keep them warm. There are charts online that will tell you how warm they have to be at various stages of their lives.
When they were first settled, we took each cat into the room, holding it tightly, to introduce it and possibly "explain" that these were not birds for catching and eating. The cats utterly refused to see the chicks, no matter how you turned the cat, it turned away. The chicks were utterly invisible. This remained the case throughout the life of our flock, our cats just refused to see them even when they free-ranged right next to them.
We started off feeding the chicks scrambled and hard-boiled eggs, as close to their "natural" diet since egg yolks are sort of chicken "milk." We began feeding soft foods as well, including lots of spring greens, which they just devoured. While they do love greens, this is not a very calorie-dense food, so we fed some grain. Grains given at this point need to be ground as their digestive system isn't fully developed yet and their crops haven't got grit yet. Basically, until they were big enough to go outside, I fed them largely the same way I fed us, by looking around the kitchen and seeing what we had that would go bad if not eaten soon.
Two things we learned from this experience. The first is, you do not want chicks in your house. We cleaned their home twice daily until they moved outdoors and it still stunk through the whole house badly.
Secondly, when you start raising chicks in spring, they get big enough to lay pretty much just as the days are shortening, when laying slows down or stops. So you get a few dozen eggs and then it stops.
These two facts are the reason we are getting our new batch August 9th. It will be quite warm enough for them outside right from the beginning and we will only give up a few dozen eggs in exchange for not having to have them in the house, a toll we can live with.
Chicks are fuzzy and cute and full-grown hens and roosters are pretty, but there is a stage between the two, where they are neither.
Chick 4, Peanut (Dominique), 4 weeks old
When the down is partly turning into feathers which are pointing every which way like a REALLY bad hair day, they are the most awkward-looking animals. Adolescence is a bad time to be a chicken as acne is nothing compared to how these guys look.
In adulthood, each year, they molt, usually in fall, but sometimes a minor molting in spring too. This is when they loose random feathers and new ones grow out. They're pretty fugly when molting too.
Because we chose straight-run chicks, we had too many roosters. During adolescence, the flock itself deals with this. Basically, the dominant roosters and all the hens start beating up on a rooster. I suppose in the wild, this rooster would be chased off in the wild to die alone.
Around here, we tried caging the picked-on rooster to keep him safe. He desperately wanted to rejoin the flock, which just wanted to peck him to death. He was the fugliest bird ever, as besides the mixed fluff/feather thing, he also had scars and bloody spots from the flock's attacks.
And you thought being unpopular in high school sucked!
We came to the conclusion that he was unhappy and not going to become happier. As an extra rooster, he was destined for being cooked, so we decided we should just slaughter him and get it over with. Having never actually done this before, a friend of Steve's came to assist with the dispatching (more details below).
Once he was gone, the flock picked a new rooster as the scapegoat and started beating him up regularly.
Eventually it was fall and we just slaughtered the extra roosters, keeping the two we intended to over-winter.
harvesting birds overview
I'm not going to lie to you, this is an extremely unpleasant chore. If you don't want to do it, you can offer your extra birds on Freecycle or CraigsList and someone hungry will come get them.
I've skipped including any gory pictures through the next few sections, but if you don't even want to read it, skip to eggs.
We are city folks, accustomed to our meat arriving wrapped in plastic with the unpleasantness having occurred somewhere far away. But we were determined, we decided that if we couldn't accomplish this, then we were hypocrites and should become vegetarians.
Steve summarized my attitude when he said about livestock that "We owe them a good life and a good death."
Both the first fall when we dispatched mostly roosters, and subsequent falls, when we dispatched both hens and roosters, Steve was in charge of killing. I just couldn't deal with it.
On the other hand, Steve could not deal with butchering, the "autopsy" part of the proceedings, and I could manage that just fine.
In between the slaughter and butchering is plucking, which is a nasty job. Basically, you take the dead animal and dip him in hot water to loosen the feathers, then pluck them off. They have to be dipped repeatedly, because as they cool, the feathers become too hard to remove.
Plucking stinks pretty badly and we both avoided it, Steve claiming he couldn't pluck cause he had more birds to kill, me claiming I couldn't pluck cause I had birds to butcher, both of us avoiding plucking until we had no choice.
There are machines that do the plucking for you, but we felt the cost was not worthwhile for the few number of birds we harvest. I plan to post on CraigsList to see if we can't hire someone with one of those machines before we do a big harvest with our new flock.
preparing for harvest
First is preparation. You need this all outside where you will work, so you don't have to go in and out while covered with feathers, blood and guts. You will need more water than you can imagine, so make sure you have a hose handy.
In order to pluck, you need a large container of heated water for dipping birds to be plucked, and you need a way to replenish that water, so you really need two pots of water going. We used two hotplates.
To butcher, you need a basin of clean water to rinse the bird in. I also keep a bottle of bleach handy, I add a glug to the basin of clean water, and also use it to disinfect the basin between birds.
You need several containers for sorting organs you keep into versus organs you discard, one for necks, and one for feet if you'll save them for broth making.
Finally, you need a big container of ice water to cool the meat as quickly as possible. For this, we made "ice water" by adding 2-liter bottles frozen solid to our very cold well water.
It's important to be as efficient as possible as you want to get from the bird's death to having the meat cooling on ice as rapidly as possible. Use this excuse often to make the other person have to do the plucking. ;)
Finally, you need several sizes of very sharp knives and a good pair of sharp scissors.
So... step one is the kill. Over the years, we tried various methods, gleaned from friends, books and the Internet.
The standard method that occurs to people involves a tree stump and a hatchet, as every cartoon has taught us this method. The problem with this method is you must have very good aim, else it is catastrophic for the bird and emotionally devastating to you. Also, you simply CAN'T hesitate, as cutting a neck lightly is pretty bad. You must be certain and definite about it.
A second method is holding the chicken by it's head and whipping it like a whip, so that the force snaps it's neck. This method worked well for us, until the one bird, presumed dead and laid down on the ground, got up and ran off.
Our best method involved picking the bird up by it's legs, putting it's head on the ground, standing firmly on the head with a boot, and pulling it's body away.
We plan to use a killing cone next time. This is like an upside-down traffic cone, where you put the bird in head first. The head and neck extends through the cone and you cut the through the neck with heavy-duty sheers to remove the head. The bird remains positioned for bleeding out.
Once the bird has bled out, you hold it by the legs and dip it in simmering water, which loosens the feathers. And you then pull the feathers out. When they start being hard to remove, you dip again. This continues until the bird is defeathered, which takes much longer than you think.
Finally comes the butchering, which never bothered me because at this point, the bird looks like something from the grocery rather than like the animal you once knew.
At the bottom of the neck is the crop, which contains undigested food. Pull the neck away from the bird, and cut with scissors to remove the neck, saving it for broth. Basically, you have made the cavity that you are accustomed to seeing in a store-bought bird, except it is stuffed with a larger set of organs than the little bag you get with a store-bought bird.
Reach in and remove the crop and add to your garbage bucket. It will be stuck to the breast inside. If it breaks as you're removing it, rinse the stuff off with a hose.
Next cut the "tail" off to open the other end of the bird. Next you stick your hand all the way into the chicken, orienting your hand as close to the breast as possible, basically inserting your hand between the breast and innards, all the way to the front, and pull the whole mess of innards out.
I found this bit fascinating. The liver was easy to recognize, I think I'd recognize it on any animal. The green bit attached to it is the gall bladder, which should be cut off whole and discarded so you don't get bile all over meat.
Gizzards were easy to figure out too, since they come in those little bags inside store-bought birds and are the biggest organ in there. If you're going to use them, cut in half and remove the contents and peel away the yellow lining.
Also obvious is the intestinal tract. If you're lucky, you won't have broken the intestines so won't have chicken poop all over everything! If you did, rinse the bird off with a hose aiming it so the poop goes AWAY from the bird, then rinse the whole bird in your clean water basin with a glug of bleach added. The intestines also go in your garbage bucket.
The heart and lungs tend to be pretty obvious, but may not have come out with this whole glob of organs. If not there, reach back inside and pull them out, they're up near the breast in front.
I look carefully at the organs to make sure they look how I expect as I assume I'll be able to identify a seriously sick bird from my little "autopsy". Also, I just find this stuff fascinating. ;)
Rinse all the bits you're keeping in your basin of clean water and stick them in containers floating in your ice water to cool quickly.
Then bend the feet back to expose the joint and cut through with scissors and save or discard, as you wish.
You now have a bird which needs washed in your basin of clean water and then put in your container of ice water to cool down while you go on to the next bird.
Dump the basin out, rinse it, refill with water and a glug of bleach and go on to the next bird.
When done butchering your birds, drain and put the whole birds in the fridge for a day to tenderize the meat and dry the skin a bit before freezing. If you want to store as packages of breasts or drumsticks or such, cut them up just before freezing.
I use large ziplock bags, as I can squeeze them pretty tightly around the bird and get most of the air out, but a vacuum bag system would be even better.
On to a more pleasant topic...
|Chicken eggs in nest by brittgow, on Flickr|
Even with what I considered a minimal flock, we always got too darned many eggs.
We had omelets and frittatas and eggs cooked every which way. I found every recipe I could to use up eggs, we made eggnog regularly, I baked pound cakes.
We still had a few extra dozen each week, which wasn't enough to bother setting up for sale, but was too much to handle ourselves. If you have 2 dozen extra eggs this week, and 2 dozen extra next week, and 2 dozen extra the following week, eventually your fridge fills with eggs.
We gave eggs to everyone we knew, and occasionally to people we didn't know!
However, there will come a time when the days are short and the hens stop laying. Some people get around this by using lights in coops to lengthen the time exposed to light so they keep laying. We didn't. We had plenty of eggs to last through this period.
There's two methods of storing eggs long-term. The first is simply to NOT wash the eggs and refrigerate immediately. Eggs are laid with a thin impermeable layer called "bloom" which protects the egg from anything entering. If you don't wash them, they keep much longer, weeks without refrigeration and months with it.
The downside is you have some eggs with chicken poop on them in the fridge. If cracking eggs, I just cracked on a clean side to avoid the dried poop area. If boiling eggs, I went ahead and washed them before boiling.
Speaking of which, fresh eggs are not worth boiling, they're too hard to peel. I kept track of which eggs were oldest versus newest. We never ate the freshest eggs in case a hen went broody (see next section). I always boiled eggs at least a week old or more.
The other method of storing eggs for longer-term use is something called waterglass. Basically, you mix up a batch of this stuff in a bucket, and put freshly washed eggs into it. It seals the eggs so they stay fresh a long time. I never did this as the rotation seemed difficult to deal with, if you put eggs in as you had extra through the laying season, then when you went to retrieve them, the freshest eggs would be on top, which seems backwards. You'd need a second bucket to rotate the eggs into. I never actually did this as not washing the eggs and refrigerating them worked fine for me.
raising subsequent batches of chicks
One day when you go to gather eggs, there will be a hen sitting in the nest box who will not shoo away. This is a broody hen. She will likely be sitting on 2-3 eggs.
|Broody Mama by thievingjoker, on Flickr|
I would remove the dozen freshest eggs from the fridge and stick those under her also. We also put a divider into the nest box so she could set without being bothered by the other hens. And we'd provide food and water to her there as she won't leave until she's done.
From the time the first egg hatches, we'd leave her there for a couple more days as some of the newer eggs might take longer to hatch. Eventually, we'd move her and the chicks to another location.
The chicks and mom need a nursery away from the main flock so the babies don't get killed by bigger birds.
In the past, we had a small chicken tractor, basically an A-frame built of PVC pipe and covered with chicken wire, which we moved on the lawn daily. This was a pain because it had no floor, so we had to move it very carefully to avoid smushing anyone. We plan to just put up a circle of fencing next to the coop with our new flock and let her raise her chicks in there.
The momma hen does whatever to feed them and teach them to feed themselves. I don't know all the details, as I didn't watch too closely. I just know it was easier for her to do it than me!
When they start to get fugly, she perches out of reach of the chicks, and they scramble to try to get to her, but she's done. While not quite big enough to join the main flock, they're past needing a mom anymore. So for a brief period, you have two flocks of chickens until you join them to the main flock.
And that completes the circle-of-life chicken style.
more about chickens
We are not experts, we just kept a flock for 5 years and are planning to do so again. I've tried to include everything relevant in this post. But if I've forgotten soemthing, or you have further questions, ask me in the comments below.