By Paylie Roberts
Raising chickens for eggs is quite simple, if you have the right tools. I’m hoping to save you some money and time by not having you repeat my mistakes. This goal of this article is to provide a condensed foundation article for those new to raising “back yard” chickens.
Note that I have no affiliation with any companies or products mentioned in this article, nor do I receive any compensation for mentioning them. They are merely products that I have tried for my own use.
There are two types of shelters you need for your chicken. The coop, and the area where they will forage, sometimes referred to as their “run”.
The coop: There are an amazing amount of designs of coops available locally and on the internet, and if you’re handy with a hammer and saw, you can probably build one pretty easily. What kind of coop you decide to build will depend on your needs. If the temperature gets fairly cold, as in below zero, you want a coop that will allow you to place straw, will prevent drafts, and will keep your hens cozy through the cold nights. If you are out in the country, then your coop needs to be predator proof. (Though I did also have an orange tabby ally cat stalking my chickens when I used to live in a major city).
The recommended amount of coop space is a minimum of two to three square feet per chicken. Smaller than this and they will be too cramped, larger and they may have trouble keeping the coop warm in winter. Chicken coops do not have to be complicated, and I find the fancy ones that cost a lot of money often do not work as intended. You will likely be better off with a simple structure that is elevated off the ground, has a door for the chickens to go in and out of, has vent holes, somewhere for the chickens to roost, and allows access for cleaning. The coop will also need a good roof to keep the snow/rain from getting the interior wet, and which secures well so that predators can’t get in. You will also need some nesting boxes and access to them to collect the eggs.
I have seen coops built out of old enclosed trailers, old travel trailers, and sheds. The good news is that chickens aren’t picky. The bad news is, you do have to clean it, so consider that in the equation.
I built my first 4’x8’ coop out of pressure treated 4x4s for the legs, 2x4s for the frame and nesting boxes, ¾” plywood for walls, standard roofing shingles, paint, and some hinges for the doors. I kept it simple, and as luck would have it, it worked perfect for my needs. Since then I have played with different designs in coops, but I like my simplest model the best.
Once they have good overnight shelter and a safe place for them to lay eggs, you need to consider how much area you will allow for your chickens to free run. The recommended amount of run space is at least 10 square feet per chicken. This doesn’t mean you can’t do with less space, this is just a recommended amount, and if you’re in the city, then you might not have much choice. Just realize that your hens will want to forage for bugs, they will want to sit in the sun and take dust baths, and they do have a pecking order, so they will need room to run and chase.
Once I moved to the country, I chose to have three separate runs for my chickens so I can more easily control breeding selection. The three runs are next to each other, separated by fencing. Each run has a coop, a tree or other structure for shade, and bushes for them to hide in if a hawk flies by. (Note: if you live in the country, predatory birds like hawks or eagles can fly off with your chickens.)
You do not have to settle for chicken wire, as that might not be strong enough to keep certain predators out. If you decide to use different fencing, such as field fencing, you have to consider that baby chicks will be able to get out. You can do a shorter row of chicken wire or deer netting on the inside of your field fencing to keep the baby chicks in. There are other options of fencing available, you will just have to look around and see what fits your needs.
You can also use deer or bird netting over the top of your chicken run. It keeps both chickens in, and unwanted wild birds out. If you choose not to have a cover over your chicken area, you need to clip one side of your chickens’ wings so they can’t get enough momentum to fly out of their area.
You will have to feed your hens, especially through winter. There are a wide variety of chicken feeds available at your local feed store. I won’t get into feed specifics here as most feeds offer the correct protein ratio. But also note that most feeds are corn based, and that is not a chicken’s natural diet.
There are several chicken forage mixes you can buy to grow feed for your chickens, and if you let them have a big enough run, they will have bugs to eat during warmer weather. You can also place a compost pile near your chicken area which will attract bugs. I once chose to place my compost pile in the chicken area. It took a few weeks, but they finally discovered the worms that were in the compost pile. They didn’t touch their feed for almost two weeks as they worked their way through the pile. The pile was five feet tall when they started, and there was almost nothing left of the pile when they were done.
You might also consider raising your own insects such as crickets, or worms, to feed to your chickens. After TEOTWOAWKI, buying feed from a supplier may be impossible, or too expensive. (Worms also function as compost improvers and fishing bait.)
I have tried the chicken salad mix from my pet chicken (http://www.mypetchicken.com/catalog/Treats/Chicken-Salad-Seed-Mix-non-GMO-p928.aspx) and was overall very happy with it. My only complaint was that the seeds came mixed. Since my first purchase, I have saved my own seeds and grow my own from these seeds.
I have also tried the poultry package from sustainable seeds http://sustainableseedco.com/heirloom-seed-collections/poultry-package.html and was happy with that as well. The seeds came in separate packages, so that worked better for me. I also liked the fact that it introduced me to growing tobacco. I don’t use tobacco, but as it states on their site, you can use the tobacco leaves to help prevent many diseases that can occur with raising poultry.
The combination of all these plants with insects and worms, should feed your chickens well. You can also add your vegetable scraps to their diet. There are some foods that you may want to avoid as they can cause chickens digestive upset. These include: avocado, onion, chocolate, tomato leaves, apple seeds, and mushrooms. Some of these are up for debate, so best to do your own research.
With your feed, you will also need a good way to get fresh water to your chickens, and a way to keep their feed from being scratched into the ground. Chickens can be very wasteful if you let them.
The double wall galvanized waterers by Miller have worked great for me. But I also empty the water each evening after the chickens put themselves away in their coops, and clean the waterers regularly. I tried the plastic style once, and it barely lasted one season. The combination of hens perching on it, combined with the sun’s UV rays caused it to crack rather quickly. There are other new waterers available there that are quite inventive, but I have not tried these so can not speak for them. I’m also in an area where the temperature can drop to -25’F. These new style waterers would easily freeze and crack. During the coldest days I find myself bringing fresh water to the hens a couple times a day so they have something other than an ice block to drink. They do offer a heated base for these waters, however, I have never wanted to use the electricity for that, so have never used them. I just use my muscles to bring the hens their thawed water.
I have also used the galvanized hanging poultry feeders, and they work fine for keeping the hens from scratching the food out. I can’t speak for any other feeders. I guess I got lucky: the first ones I tried worked.
One more item you will need is some form of calcium if you want strong egg shells from your laying hens. You have a couple of options. The easiest is to buy bags of oyster shells from your local feed store. These are fairly inexpensive (for now), and will last indefinitely if you stock up on a few bags. You can free feed it to your hens. Another option is to find your own oyster shells and grind them down yourself, but you would have to live in the right area to do that. In a TEOTWAWKI scenario, if you do run out of oyster shell, you can feed the egg shells back to your hens (after hard boiling the eggs). You would have to crush them up using a rolling pin before offering to the hens. I would only do that in a situation where I have no other source of calcium, as it may encourage the chickens to start eating their own eggs.
You have your coop, your run, your feed, so now for the birds. You have to consider your locale, as some breeds are better adapted to cold/heat than others. You will have to decide if you want birds primarily for egg laying, primarily for meat birds, or a combination of both. As you might expect, layer breeds will lay more eggs, but grow less meat. Meat birds will lay fewer eggs but grow more meat. Choosing both means you will likely be compromising slightly with both traits. You will also need to decide if you want a breed that will sit on eggs and raise chicks (go “broody”), or if you want to use an incubator. Egg color should not be a deciding factor, as there is no nutritional difference between different colored eggs.
Rather than go over a long list of detailed boring information on what chicken breeds offer which traits, that job has already been done by this wonderful chicken tool selector at mypetchicken:
http://www.mypetchicken.com/chicken-breeds/which-breed-is-right-for-me.aspx Just enter your preferences and it will tell you what breeds are recommend for you.
So now you know what breed or breeds you want. Next, how to obtain your chickens. You have some options here, and it will depend on your situation. If you are already set up with an incubator and brooder (more on these later), then you can order the eggs straight from a hatchery, and hatch them yourself. Or, if you don’t have an incubator, you can order the three day old chicks. If you decide to order chicks, you usually have to order between 15 and 25, and you might not have room for that many. Some hatcheries let you order less, but you have to shop around. Depending on where you live, your local feed stores will probably have chicks for sale in early spring. Some feed stores even offer free chicks with the purchase of their store brand chicken feed.
If you don’t have an incubator or a brooder, then you will have to find older chicks, or fully grown hens. The good news is, if you’re not picky about breed, there is usually someone on craigslist that is moving that needs to get rid of their hens. You can also place an ad stating that you are looking for fully grown hens. These will cost you more, but when you consider the cost of feed and heat for growing chicks, it would be about the same cost in the end.
All that manure!
When you first bring your hens home, settle them in their new area, and in their warm straw padded coop, you quickly discover that, my gosh they poop a lot! Yep they do. I use straw in their coops because it helps to keep them warm in the winter, and because it composts well with their manure. I also like using straw because it is something that I can grow myself (stalks of grain plants). You can try other things, but I find the straw to be inexpensive, smells good when freshly laid in the coop, and it works wonders on snowy days when I need to line a path from the coop to the food and water so the hens don’t get their feet too cold.
You will have a lot of chicken manure, and you will have to clean their coop (and the run if it is small) regularly. The good news is that it’s not hard. Just use a rake to rake it out of the coop with the straw into a large bucket, and then dump it in a compost pile. Flip the compost pile once a week (making sure to add other garden scraps to it and water it), and you’ll have a very nitrogen rich soil for your garden. However, be careful not to put chicken manure directly on your garden as it can burn your plants from the high nitrogen content. Chicken manure has to compost for at least a few weeks before it’s safe to use.
How many eggs? To wash or not? How to store, and how to tell if expired
A young hen will generally lay (depending on breed) an egg a day, and maybe miss a day once or twice a week. The older a hen gets, the fewer eggs she will lay. Your hen will be most productive the first year after she turns about five months old.
Hens prefer to lay their eggs in clean nesting boxes, but things happen, and sometimes the egg gets a little dirty. Now, if you ever want to hear a never ending debate and have people get so mad at you that they will never speak to you again, then just suggest to either wash the eggs or not wash the eggs. You can’t win with either one.
So I’m going to tell you what the egg shell is composed of, and let you decide for yourself what you want to do. But don’t tell anyone, I’m warning you, it will be an argument to no end.
The egg itself is a very complicated structure, and it has something like 27 layers. I don’t recall exactly, college biology was a long time ago for me now. But what’s important are two factors. One, the egg shell is permeable, and two, the last layer that the hen puts on the egg is a protective membrane layer that has a bit of antibiotic on it. This prevents any bacteria from entering the egg shell and harming the potential baby chick inside. If you wash your eggs, you are washing off this protective layer. Commercial egg sellers replace that layer with mineral oil in an effort to replace the membrane that gets washed off. The mineral oil extends shelf life, but not as well as the natural membrane. The mineral oil also permeates the shell and seeps in, and is also a laxative. By the way, that’s why store bought eggs taste so plain in comparison to farm fresh eggs.
Storing eggs is another interesting topic. Some people will swear that their eggs will store at room temperature for three months, while others claim six. I have always refrigerated my eggs, so I can’t answer that question. But I can tell you how to test your eggs to see if they are spoiled or not. Simply place your egg in a bowl or pot of cold water. If the egg floats to the top, it’s spoiled, don’t eat it. If the egg sinks, with just the fat end sticking up (where the air bubble for the baby chick is located), then it’s good, and you can eat it.
Of note: if you hard boil your eggs, then it is better to use eggs that are a couple weeks old, otherwise you will never be able to peel off the membrane just between the egg shell and the white. Fresh eggs don’t do well hard boiled. There’s nothing wrong with them, they just won’t separate from the shell for nothing. If you have to eat very fresh eggs, I recommend using a different method to cook them.
If you keep your chicken area clean, you will reduce the chance of diseases attacking your hens. However, some things are just unavoidable. Birds are birds, and wild birds will fly into your chicken area for the feed. These wild birds can bring diseases such as general mites, and scaly leg mites.
There are many chemicals available that are recommended to be used as a preventative or treatment. However there are three problems with them. 1. They are expensive. 2. They won’t be available after TEOTWAWKI. 3. Some of the chemicals are ones you might not want to use on livestock that you will eat. So I have done quite a bit of research into old fashioned remedies. Below are some things you can do instead of using chemicals.
First, you have to notice that there is a problem. A drop in egg production is a good indicator that something is wrong. Also, if the combs (on top of the head) and waddles (just below the beak) are looking dull, or if your chickens are shaking their heads a lot, something could be irritating them. Check your hens regularly. Pick them up by their feet, flip them upside down while holding on to their feet, let their wings flap until they calm down, then inspect their vent area. The “vent” is where both the eggs and the high nitrogen fertilizer comes out of – yep, the same hole. Look for signs of mites or scaly irritated skin. Also look at the legs. Scaly leg mites will cause the legs to look (more) scaly.
Hopefully if you are reading this, you have already chosen to heat your home with wood, as a means of keeping yourself warm. And if you’re heating with wood, then you have wood ash. Allow it to cool as you would before disposing of it, and then dump it where your hens like to dust bathe. They usually like to pick a spot or two that they share where they have dug out a hole in the dirt and they literally take dust baths. Dump that ash in the hole and let your hens bathe in that. This will serve as a mite preventative.
If you do find a problem, you have a few options before rushing to get expensive chemicals that force you to throw away the eggs for about a week for your safety. You can treat your hens with extra wood ash, preferably in the evening when they are ready to put themselves away, so they are easier to catch. Just dunk them in the ash bucket (the cold one), and then put them away. You can also spray their coop with an oil, such as neem, or vinegar. The oil will help to break the egg cycle of the mites. If you use vinegar, it usually will kill off any mites that are in the coop; just make sure to allow the coop to vent well. I wouldn’t want to spend the night breathing in vinegar.
If you find your hens have scaly leg mites (you’ll know, their legs get very scaly and deformed looking), you can find an inexpensive oil, such as vegetable oil, pour it in a container big enough to dunk their legs in, and dunk the chickens legs in the oil once a week for 8 weeks, before their bedtime. (You can re-use the same oil to save money). This will break the egg cycle as the eggs won’t be able to hatch in the oil.
There are other problems that chickens can develop, such as sour crop or pendulous crop, egg bound chicken, and an encyclopedia full of infectious diseases. Going into detail about all of these would go beyond the scope of the basic introductory information offered here. However, all this information is freely available on the web and can be downloaded to save for later. A good start is this website that offers detailed information on diseases, and a chart of symptoms: http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/ps044. You can also check out this site that offers many details on chicken diseases as well: http://www.backyardchickens.com/a/chicken-injuries-diseases-how-to-diagnose-treat-your-chickens.
You don’t need heating lamps for your chickens, provided: you get the right breed, your coop is draft proof, there is sufficient straw, and you have many chickens in the same coop keeping each other warm.
Without a lamp in the coop, they will stop laying in winter. Also, once a year about the time that your hens stop laying, your hens will lose most of their feathers and look pathetic. This is called molting, and it’s during this time that they don’t lay eggs because their bodies are repairing their reproductive systems, and at the same time, conserving that energy to grow new warm feathers to get them through the cold winter. This is a natural process, and I myself don’t like to disrupt it. If you would like to extend your egg season, you can supplement with lights and heat throughout the winter.
I have never lost a chicken to the cold, but I make sure they have plenty of feed, fresh straw to walk on during snowy days, and that their coop is fully secure. I will sometimes add bottles of hot water in the coop when they first put themselves away in the evening. This helps them get a jump start on generating warmth in the coop to get them through the night.
Whether or not you choose to keep a rooster is dependent on your needs. If you want baby chicks, you better get a rooster. But know they crow, loudly, and at three am. They will fight with other roosters if there’s more than one rooster per ten hens. They also have spurs on their legs, and if you have a mean one, they can attack and hurt you or your children.
You can prevent that type of problem by regularly handling your rooster, so that he is used to you, and he knows you’re the top of the pecking order. But you won’t be able to prevent the roosters fighting with each other. They have a brood to take care of, and they take their job seriously.
You do not need a rooster for a hen to lay eggs. She will lay regardless. But if you do end up having a rooster or two, those eggs will be fertile.
When a hen plucks out all her bottom feathers and sits on eggs and squawks at you when you try to collect your breakfast, she’s probably gone broody. This is hormonal, and no one has yet figured out what conditions cause it to happen. Usually when you want a broody hen, she won’t sit, and when you don’t want one, she won’t get off the eggs.
I have read that some people suggest you put some straw and eggs in the bottom of a five gallon bucket, stick a hen in, put a wire cover over it, and within a few days she will become broody. I have never tried this, and some may find it inhumane, but it just goes to show you how much people have tried to force hens to go broody.
I’ve had hens go broody and have had success when I limited their eggs to only around a half dozen at a time. But I’ve also had hens go broody where they didn’t sit on the eggs properly. Then when an egg started to chirp, they didn’t know what to do and ate the egg. So I gave up on being dependent on the hens and bought an incubator. A cheap $50 one did the job just fine. Sure, I had to turn the eggs three times a day for 18 days, but it was worth it. More expensive ones with automated egg turners are also available and make the process more convenient. I won’t go into details here about raising chicks because that could be an entire article in itself. But I’ll just make a quick mention about brooders.
A brooder turned out to be the easiest thing I ever tried to make. I just used my spare bath tub, taped a large garbage bag to it (unfolded and cut on the sides) with painter’s tape, then put in some wood shavings (not cedar – it can cause respiratory problems in chicks), and turned on a heat lamp pointing at one end of the tub. I put a thermometer in the tub to make sure the heat lamp wasn’t too close or too far.
I changed the bedding weekly, and by week four, I was taking the chicks to an outside chicken run in a pet carrier to get them used to being outside. I still brought them back in overnight. (I tried raising chicks in the dead of winter when no one else would – it was a challenge I decided to overcome.) Then by week six, they’re usually fully feathered and ready to face the real world of living in the elements. By then I’m also ready to move them out of my tub. I provided them with extra straw and extra everything, since they were so young, but the breeds I chose were resilient.
If you do hatch eggs, whether it’s you or the broody hen, you will end up with a few roosters, and you have to decide how to deal with that, just as you will have to decide what to do with older hens who have stopped laying. If you eat chicken or any other meat, than you should really get used to the idea of culling your own animals. If you think about it, when you buy store bought chicken, all you did was pay someone else to raise and slaughter the meat for you, and you have no idea what conditions that meat was produced in. When you raise your own, you have full control over all of that, including a very humane way of slaughtering your roosters and old hens, if that is what you decide to do. I won’t go into detail about slaughtering and butchering either, as again, full articles could be written about those topics. I will mention that older chicken’s meat is tough, and is best cooked in a crock pot for several hours so that it is more palatable.
I’ve often been asked what the best way to dehydrate eggs is. I can’t answer that, as there is not a proven safe method to do so. That doesn’t mean you can’t, I just don’t have an answer that I would feel comfortable providing publically. I have heard people suggest that you freeze the raw eggs first before putting in the dehydrator, and I have even heard people suggest you cook the eggs first. I myself do neither. Instead, I have become very creative in egg recipes from quiche to egg sandwiches. I have also bartered my eggs for chicken feed. I’m sure after TEOTWAWKI you won’t have any trouble getting rid of your extra eggs. I do know that some people store their eggs for long periods of time by doing things such as covering them in mineral oil, or refrigerating them. Since I myself have not experimented with these long term storage methods, I will not comment on them one way or another. The extent of my experience with long term egg storage is keeping them refrigerated for three to four months and still being able to eat (most of) them.
Training your dogs
Lastly, I want to bring up an important point if you have dogs, or other pets. You have to train them around your poultry. I started with a very wild adopted German Shepherd that everyone doubted could ever be tamed let alone trained. But we worked hard at it, starting with keeping him on a leash when around the chickens, and repeated commands of “no”. We now have two German Shepherds that help us catch and herd our roosters/hens when needed. They are extremely gentle with them and never try to eat them. So it is possible; you don’t have to raise your dog from a pup, you just have to be consistent and patient.
Having a dog trained to protect your poultry is a good idea, for you never know what kind of predators might try to come around (coyotes, foxes, people, etc.).
I hope you found this article informative and helpful, or at least entertaining.
Paylie Roberts is the author of Bugging Out To Nowhere and Life After Bugging Out. She lives with her husband, two German shepherds, and various livestock, somewhere between the Cascade Range and the Rocky Mountains.