As Spring approaches – many begin to think about the possibility of raising their own little flock of chickens. Backyard chickens have become popular in the last decade – and with good reason – not only can they provide your family with great tasting eggs – they can also become a great source of free fertilizer for your garden – and a great way to control insects!  (see: The benefits of raising your own chickens)

The original coop at the farm - made from pallets and shipping crate wood
The original coop at the farm – made from pallets and shipping crate wood

We began raising our first chickens back in early 2011 – and it has truly been by far one of the most rewarding experiences we have ever had at the farm.   We started out with little knowledge other than what we had read in books and researched on-line –  but before we knew it, we had a coop, nine full-grown hens and about four to five dozen eggs a week!

The process of raising your own chickens is quite simple – and really comes down to the ability to provide the basic necessities of life – food, water, shelter – and a little space to keep them happy.

The Baby Chick Process:

The entire process starts with the purchase of baby chicks – many local farm and feed stores will carry a supply each spring – or you can purchase through the mail from a reputable supplier.

Baby chicks chowing down
Baby chicks chowing down

Either way – your chicks will come to you as little 1 to 2 day old balls of fur – and for the first 8 weeks of their life – you will need to keep them in brooder until they are ready to join the “real world”.  We made our own brooder for free from some old shipping crates – but you can also something on hand – such as a galvanized stock tank or large plastic crate – both of which can be excellent temporary brooders.  You can also of course purchase ready-made brooders at your local farm store.  As a note – cardboard boxes are not a good choice – not only are they a fire hazard when a heat lamp is used – but they simply do not hold up well with the soiled bedding material created by the baby chicks.

Once you have your brooder on hand – you can fill it with pine shavings to serves as a bedding for the chicks. Sawdust and straw are not good choices for baby chicks – as they can get stuck to their backsides and create all kinds of issues for the chicks.

Our home made brooder - protected by our lab :)
Our home made brooder – protected by our lab 🙂

We use a heat lamp attached to the brooder to keep the temperature around 90 to 95 degrees during the baby chick’s first 5 to 7 days.  With no feathers and just a little fuzz to protect them at birth, its important to provide them the warmth their little bodies need to survive.  As they continue to grow – we reduce the temperature by about 5 degrees each week until they feather out and can provide their own body heat – changing pine shaving bedding as needed to keep it as clean as possible.

It is amazing to watch how quickly they learn to use the water and food feeders – and by the end of the first week, they are already trying to learn the art of perching.

At about 8 weeks, they will be ready to move to their permanent home.  For more on raising chicks – see : Raising chicks to become chickens

Providing a Permanent Home:

When we first started out – we built our first little coop for nearly free from pallets (see: Building our first coop) – but have since expanded the flock and built a more permanent structure at the farm.

Our new coop - completed in May of 2013
Our new coop – completed in May of 2013

There are numerous chicken coops available commercially – but again – you simply need to provide them with secure and safe housing – and a little area to roam about and enjoy the great outdoors.  Chickens do have natural predators such as racoon, coyote and foxes – so you will need to have a secure coop for their protection.

As for what room do they need – most chicken “experts” will tell you to use 4 square feet of floor space per chicken in the coop – and about 10 square feet per chicken in the run a good rule of thumb. Using that formula – you can easily keep 4 to 6 chickens in a 6 x 4 coop – and 6′ x 10′ run – not a lot of space to enjoy fresh eggs and the companionship of a few backyard chickens!  In addition to a big outdoor protected run for our chickens – we also like to let them free range around the farm.  (see: Building a safe and secure coop for our chickens)

Depending on the variety you choose – your chicks will usually begin to lay their first eggs anywhere from week 16 to 20

You can't beat fresh eggs - Check out the size of the middle one!
You can’t beat fresh eggs – Check out the size of the middle one!

The first few eggs are usually on the small side – but they get the hang of it pretty quick and start laying nice sized eggs within a week or two of their first egg.  We raise mainly Golden Comets and Leghorns, and they are prolific producers –  laying an egg about 5 to 6 days each week.

Ans speaking of those eggs – YES – there is a huge difference from those store-bought eggs!  With one simple crack of a “home-raised” egg  – its easy to see the difference in yolk and color – not to mention the great taste! Whenever we give some of our fresh eggs to friends and family – they marvel at how our eggs barely fit in the cartons – and then always tell us later they couldn’t believe the difference in taste.

The Added Benefits:

In addition to those great tasting eggs – chickens provide valuable manure that can be all of the natural fertilizer your garden will ever need!

The chickens also provide valuable and free fertilizer to help our garden grow strong each season
The chickens also provide valuable and free fertilizer to help our garden grow strong each season

It is also a key ingredient to our composting pile. Chicken manure is high in nitrogen, and when mixed with carbon materials such as shredded leaves, coffee grounds, straw, grass and vegetable scraps – it helps to heat compost piles quickly – and the end result is rich organic matter that can provide valuable nutrients to grow great-tasting vegetables each year.

Chickens also provide crucial pest control services – devouring hundreds of bugs each and every day as they roam about.

Maintaining your Flock:

We spend on average 5 minutes a day to fill up the feeder – re-supply the water, and collect the day’s eggs. And once every month – we will take and extra 10 minutes to clean out the straw in the coop and add to the compost bins – that’s it!

Happy Chicken Farming! – Jim and Mary

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