by Bitsy Pieces
A Step-By-Step Guide to How to Raise Backyard Chickens.
Chickens are ideally suited for survivalists who want to prepare for disaster, especially those living in urban or suburban settings who may not have ready access to hunting lands or fishing streams. These dual-purpose birds are easy to raise, and they provide both eggs and meat during hard times. Indeed, because of the growing movement toward local foods and self-sustainability, chicken “farming” has reached a new level of popularity and trendiness.
Browse the homesteading section of any bookstore, and you’ll find numerous books about raising chickens in both rural and urban settings. Although these books are loaded with great information, I’ve learned through experience that keeping chickens is a relatively simple venture that requires very little time and work. Here’s a step-by-step guide:
Step 1: Check your local laws.If you live in a suburban or urban area, you should check your local laws to ensure that “backyard” chickens are permitted. You may be surprised to discover that a small flock is allowed within your city limits. Baltimore, Seattle, and St. Louis are just a few of the cities that permit chickens. You may still have to follow certain regulations, such as limiting your flock to just 3 or 6 hens, and roosters are allowed.
Step 2: Prepare their home. Your chickens will need a home to roost. The size and luxuries are dependent on your personal situation, but all chickens will need a coop to safely sleep at night. The coop needs to be well-ventilated safe from predators. It should have a roost for your chickens and nest boxes (about one nest box for every three to five chickens). Coops can be purchased premade, in kits that you assemble, or you can build it yourself. Old sheds, kids’ playhouses, and dog houses can all be easily modified into a functional chicken coop.
On average, plan to have at least 4 square feet of coop space per bird, if you choose average size chickens. Before putting your birds in your coop, look it over carefully to ensure there are no spaces where a predator can enter during the night. Cover any openings in your coop with hardware cloth (a wire fencing with small holes). Make sure you have plenty of ventilation for your chickens, too.
Keeping the coop too stuffy can lead to respiration problems and disease. A few windows covered with hardware cloth will help keep the air fresh inside your coop while still preventing predators from attacking your flock. Your coop should also have some type of litter on the bottom, like straw or sand. Clean this whenever it starts to develop an odor. My flock of 5 birds in a fairly small coop requires I clean the straw litter about once a month.
Step 3: Give them a space to roam. It’s not healthy for your birds to keep them “cooped” up all day, so they’ll need a space to roam outdoors. While outside, your chickens will soak in the sun, nibble on the grass and munch onbugs—all behaviors that help keep them healthy and happy. In an urban setting, you will probably need a fenced chicken run for their safety (and to prevent them from annoying your neighbors).
If you have a rural farm or a big fenced backyard, you may simply choose to allow your chickens to roam “free range” on your property without the restriction of fencing. Depending on the predators in your area (which can range from hawks to weasels to fox to stray dogs), you may want to consider making your run predator-proof by covering the top with hardware cloth. Unless your chickens are free range, its best to plan for 10 square feet of run space per bird.
Step 4: Pick your chicken breed.When I initially purchased my first flock of birds, I chose a variety of breeds. I wanted to become familiar with differentbreeds—including their personality, temperament, and eggproduction—before settling on one particular type of bird. My recommendation for survivalist (and my plan for my next flock) is to choose just one breed of bird.
Should the need for breeding arise in an EOTW situation, having one type of bird helps ensure that your chickens will breed “true,” rather than future generations becoming sterile or having decreased egg production.
Research chicken breeds thoroughly before deciding on one. Some do better in colder climates. Some tolerate confinement better than others. Some are more sociable, others are more temperamental. My one suggestion is to choose a “dual purpose” bird, rather than a breed known strictly for either eggs or meat.
An egg bird is too skinny to provide a meaty meal at the end of its life, and a meat bird will eat a lot of feed without laying a lot of eggs. Dual purpose chickens aren’t the top birds for either eggs or meat, but they do reasonably well at both.In addition, you’ll need to decide what age of chicken you want to initially purchase.
Baby chicks are readily available in the spring and fairly inexpensive (around $1-$2 per bird), but they require additional care. You’ll need to keep a heat lamp on them until they are fully feathered (around 8 weeks old) and watch them closely for signs of illness or disease. Older chickens are more expensive per bird (anywhere from $6 to $20), but they don’t require as much care.
Step 5: Feed and water your flock. Your local feed store, hardware store or pet store should be able to provide you with chicken food. Chickens have different stages of life which require different nutrients. Typically, there are different types of food for baby chicks, pullets (chickens before they’ve laid an egg), and hens (chickens who have started laying).
Your chickens should have food available to them in a chicken feeder at all times.They should also have fresh water constantly available. Feeders, waterers, and food are all available at farm stores and through online resources. Keep everything clean and sanitary to prevent illness among your hens.
Although this may sound like a complicated chore, it’s actually relatively simple. For my small flock, I rinse and refill the waterers and feeders just twice a week. It’s a 10-minute task that requires very little effort. In addition, you can feed your chickens table scraps if you’d like.
My hens love bits of strawberries, rice, macaroni, cheese, and green beans. You should also supplement their diet with something high in calcium (like ground oyster shells or ground egg shells) and grit (small pebbles to help them “chew” their food), which is also available at farm stores.
Step 6: Watch your birds. Although chicken farming can be a very hands-off experience, it’s best to watch out for your chickens. Check their run and coop periodically to ensure there are no spots where a predator can enter. Keep an eye out for signs of disease or illness. Make sure they seem happy and content.
They will coo and chatter when they’re happy, and they’ll seem listless when they’re feeling sick. Expect a certain amount of squabbles between your birds, especially when they’re first establishing their hierarchy (or “pecking order”). Chickens are very social birds, and they can be great fun to watch.
Step 7: Enjoy your eggs! The average chicken will begin laying eggs at around the age of 18-20 weeks. To encourage egg-laying in the proper place, consider placing a fake egg in a nest box. In general, chickens lay their eggs during the day, so check the nest boxes every afternoon.
Most dual purpose breeds will lay about 4 eggs a week, although egg production will decline in the fall and winter when there’s less sunlight. Chickens also typically go through a molting period once a year that lasts a few weeks, during which they lose their feathers and stop laying. Most chickens produce the most eggs during their first year of laying.
After that, they will lay fewer and fewer eggs each year. Once their egg production reaches an undesirable level for your particular situation, a dual purpose bird can be very tasty in the stew pot.
Do you keep backyard chickens? How many? What have you learned? Let us know in the comments below…