Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A Backyard Flock

A good friend of mine is thinking about getting some chickens and asked me a few questions about getting started.  I've been asked about our backyard flock quite a few times and thought I'd answer the basic questions here for you.

Having your own chickens is a wonderful thing!  They are beautiful, interesting creatures and having fresh eggs is amazing.  They taste so much better, are better for baking, and are much more nutrient dense.  We purchase day old chicks, which arrive in the mail, and start them from there.  Raising them from chicks is much more cost effective than raising them from the egg although I always think that part would be really fun to watch.  The day old birds are so sweet.

 They need heat, light, clean bedding, fresh water and feed and a little bit of attention.  Keeping them clean and free of drafts is really the most important thing.  They feather out in about two weeks and then are ready for a little more room but still should be in the brooder for a bit yet.  Once they are about 6 weeks old we put them in the hen house and out in the yard.
 checking out the coop at about 6 weeks
an Auracana, a colored egg layer...the shells can be pink or green or blue

 We have a coop to keep them safe at night from predators and weather.  A coop is a good thing, but chicken tractors are also really effective and perhaps better suited to a small backyard flock.  Here is a great link to learn more about chicken tractors including tons of photos and ideas.

 Our flock in their yard...they like the nettles and fallen apples
Our Auracana Rooster...isn't he a beauty? ...and no you don't need a rooster to get eggs!

After about 16 weeks (give or take) they will start to lay eggs.  At which point you need to change their feed to a laying ration.  The first eggs will be really small, but wow is it ever exciting to find that first little treasure!  In a few more weeks they whole flock will be laying and the eggs will start to be normal size, although still medium in size.  The eggs increase in size as the bird matures, and you can especially notice a growth in size after the bird molts.
A "first" egg next to eggs of hens that have been laying for a few weeks

A laying flock will produce for a few years if kept in good health, and generally you can expect 2 eggs a day from every 3 hens.  That's what they say in all the books anyway, but we have several days a week where we get an egg a day for each hen.  In the winter, chickens need a well protected, yet well ventilated space including fresh water that isn't frozen and extra feed.  This can be tricky in Wisconsin, but our flock layed throughout the winter and only now went into a molt which is normal to do once a year. (we are still getting 8 eggs a day as opposed to 15)  Get your hands on a good book to guide you through this and other questions you may have.  The one we like is Storey's "A Guide to Raising Chickens".  

One other thing I get asked all the time is if having chickens is cost effective.  Yes!  Having hens saves us money. When compared to buying organic eggs at $3.80 a dozen we pay about $14 for a bag of feed which lasts us about a week.  We supplement with pasture and fruit and vegetable scraps from our kitchen.  The water and heat is a minimal cost.  If you consider that we get about a dozen eggs a day, sometimes more, sometimes less....that's 7 dozen a week.  Times that by $3.80 and you are paying over $26 dollars for that many eggs.  We don't use 7 dozen a week, but we are able to sell enough to cover the cost of feed so we are basically getting our eggs for free unless you count the manual labor.  Which is truly not fun somedays, but other days it's such a joy!  Our children have loved having chickens!  They love feeding them and gathering eggs and picking berries to throw to them through the fence.  

Just one more thing to mention.....
Raising birds for meat is also really worthwhile.  If you eat meat, you really should know where it comes from and raising your own birds is a wonderful way to understand what it takes to bring this kind of food to the table.  We raise about 60 chickens a summer for meat, with another family, and it provides for us all the chicken we use for a year, plus tons of homemade chicken stock.  We do the butchering and processing ourselves.  Our friends are so cool.  They made a chicken plucker out of an old washing machine drum and it works super well!  We now have the butchering process down pretty well and between the four of us we are able to process one batch of 30 birds, plus watch all eight of our children, in an afternoon.
We have raised the meat birds in a chicken tractor so they can be on pasture 24 hours a day.  Meat birds are not the same breed of chicken as the ones used for laying.  (There are dual purpose breeds, that might work for you if you have lots of land, time, and the intention of breeding your own birds. )  These birds go from brooder to butchering in 6-8 weeks.  If you are interested in this, I would consult the Storey's book and find someone in your area who can guide you through this.  It's not hard to raise them at all, but butchering is a different story.  It takes practice and patience and is not for the faint of heart.  If you choose to have the butchering done by a processing plant it really takes away from the ecnomical advantages of raising your own birds.  I will say that now that we have done this, we will never go back to buying store bought chicken unless we have to!
And, yeah, I have pictures of the chicken plucker and of J plucking a bird, but I thought I'd spare you. ;)


  1. 1. I am glad I was referred to as a good friend
    2. I found this post very informative
    3. Reid has told me that he will not eat any chickens that he has to butcher because a) he hates the taste of chicken meat (unknown to me until yesterday!) and b) he can't stomach it.

    Isn't that really funny??! I was so amused. So I've been thinking, if I were to raise two or three chickens for fun and just to try it out, and we were to move away from our home in a year or two (or if they just became too much work)...could we give them to you?

  2. oh rebecca! oh how i wish we were neighbors! this was an awesome post :)

  3. S,
    I do think It's funny that Reid doesn't like chicken. He eats it though, right? Anyway, it's not for everyone...and yes of course we'd take your birds as long as they are healthy and don't have any bad habits. (that sounds funny but we once took a bird from a friend and she ate eggs the little stinker!)
    I have the number for the hatchery, I'll send you an email.

  4. Thanks Jenny!
    I so wish you were my neighbor too! I would sneak over at night to knit with you!