Chickens are the gateway drug to homesteading. Really, that statement sums it up. You start out thinking that having fresh eggs would be great and chickens really aren’t all that hard to keep, so you get a few. It’s really easy, then the next thing you know you take on just a little more and a little more until you are like me and My Lil Farm.
So here I am, ready to show you just how easy it is and how just about anyone with a little patch of land can have them. The first decision you need to make is what kind of chickens you want to have. You could just go down to your local farm store in the spring, most have a few varieties to choose from in stock, and pick up your desired number. Most of those will do just fine for your region. They are good multipurpose birds that are good layers and are large enough to eat if you choose. Personally, I wanted to do my research and find a bird that I felt met all the needs I had. I wanted chickens that were hardy layers, large enough to make fryers, did well through our cold winters and had a docile temperament around my kids. I settled on Black Australorps, but there are several that would have also fit that bill.
Next, you need to decide where your feathered friends are going to live. There are a million places out there that would love to sell you chicken coops that are thousands of dollars. Yes, they are really nice looking, but until you determine that chicken farming is something that is going to stick, I wouldn’t make that kind of investment. Additionally, many of those cute coups are not made very well, I just really am not a fan. For My Lil Farm, we had a shed that I had been keeping my gardening tools in, we also had a dog kennel that we were not using that had two panels with doors. I took one of those panels and put it inside the shed, filling the gaps with wire mesh and mounted the other three panels outside to make a pen off the back of the shed. We then cut a small rectangular door to join the two sections and the basic area was set. Knowing what I know from growing up around chickens, and also getting some words of wisdom from my dad, I took the wire mesh and went all the way around the base the of the kennel. Raccoons are really good at reaching in and grabbing a chicken by the leg and then dismembering them through the fence. The wire mesh is strong enough they can’t bend it and small enough they can’t reach through it. I also needed to close in the top of the exterior run so the raccoons couldn’t climb over. I was able to secure that with a spare piece of plywood, a tarp and some ratchet straps. This also provided a place for me to hang their food and water containers and protect the food from precipitation.
Now I needed some accessories. We needed a heating lamp for the baby chicks, a chicken feeder and chicken waterer. I was able to get those from my farm store and set those up on the interior run. My dad also recommended that for perches we use sassafras saplings. The sassafras acted as a natural insecticide. The saplings also need to have enough girth that the grown chicken’s foot would not wrap all the way around. This allow the chicken to tuck their feet under their bodies in the winter and helps to prevent frostbite and lost toes. When placing the perches, take into consideration that your chickens will spend a lot of time there, and that also means that is where a lot of feces will accumulate. Think about what you are going to do to deal with that and how you are going to clean it up. Other accessories that we would need, but not for a few months, are the nests where the chickens lay. There are many options to pick from. Some make wooden boxes, some use the metal prefab nests, I started with milk cartons but then used 5 gallon buckets and I cut the lids in half. I had 12 hens and allowed for 5 buckets, which I set against the wall of the interior of the coop. You don’t need a nest for every hen.
Now it is time to actually get the chickens. After checking on minimum order sizes and shipping from some reputable hatcheries, I was a little frustrated. I didn’t want 24 birds and certainly didn’t want to pay the large shipping costs. So, I went to my local farm store and asked if they could order in what I wanted. Since they were ordering large quantities weekly, I was able to get the number that I wanted, without the shipping cost, get a rooster, and the store held them until I was ready to pick them up, assuming the risk of any that did not make it. Honestly, considering the amount of money I spend there, I still think they are getting the better end of the deal. I picked up my chicks and a bag of chick starter feed. The first couple of days, it seems like they consume very little, then about day 3, they are hungry and their feeder is empty just about every time I go out. They grow so fast, in a matter of a couple of weeks they start to lose all their down and feathers begin to grow. Every week, I am raising their water and feeder in higher to accommodate their increasing height. Before you know it, you no longer have the fluffy little down chicks, but small feathered chickens.
It will be about 4 months before you should start looking for the first egg. I will never forget the first egg my first chickens laid. It was so small. As your chickens age, the eggs will get larger. I was very happy with my black Australorps. I could consistently count on getting one egg a day from every hen. It doesn’t take long to have way more eggs than you know what to do with. Luckily, fresh eggs are really easy to sell, and most of the time, you can’t keep up with the demand.
So that’s it. Fill up the auto feed and water about once a week, collect your eggs every day and make sure they remain safe from predators. Of course there are other things that come up like, the weird shaped shells, decrease in productivity and, if you have a rooster, the possibility of hatching your own, but those are all topics for another article.
Really, anyone can have a few hens and easily keep them for fresh eggs every day. But I will warn you, learning to manage livestock, no matter how small, and having the freshest most organic grocery store in your back yard is highly addictive and can really be the gateway to other lil farm adventures.