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There's something very satisfying about raising chickens of your own for eggs or meat. Having a small flock of hens is not only a good source of food, but it's also good entertainment. I love just sitting and watching and listening to my small flock scratch around in their fenced yard and interact with one another.
Fresh eggs, laid by hens that are allowed to get out and forage for a part of their food, taste different than eggs from a commercial farm.
Grass, sunshine and bugs make for very tasty eggs. They look different too. The yolks are near orange, instead of the pale sickly yellow color of store bought eggs. If you've never tasted fresh eggs, you're missing out.
Home raised chicken meat has a far better flavor and texture as well. Commercially raised birds are generally kept in small cages, under low light conditions, their entire (short) lives. They never see a blade of grass, a ray of sunshine or a single bug.
Commercial meat breeds have been selectively bred over many generations to grow to butchering size very quickly, but as a result the meat doesn't have time to develop and mature. Raising your own chickens, and letting them out to forage, get the sun and get exercise makes for a firmer, better flavored bird.
If you're thinking about raising chickens of your own, I encourage you to try it. Start small at first to get the feel for it and to see if you really like it. Many people raise chickens for eggs.
Less people do for meat, but that number seems to be increasing as well. Before you start your flock, there is some preparation work and basic knowledge you need to know to ensure a healthy happy flock.
If you live in the country, raising chickens shouldn't be an issue. However if you live in town or a larger city, you may have to check to see if raising chickens is legal. Most cities and towns have ordinances against keeping ANY kind of livestock.
There does seem to be a trend toward allowing people to keep
chickens and rabbits in towns and cities. Often times hens are allowed,
while roosters are not. Your neighbors might not enjoy hearing a
rooster crow starting at 3am...even if you do!
If you do try to raise chickens in town, it's even more important to keep it clean. Don't let your coop and pen get dirty to the point that they start to smell bad. Neighbors certainly won't appreciate that. Of course clean quarters equate to healthier birds, so keeping it clean is a good policy wherever you live.
One of the first things you need to figure out is what you want from your flock. There are a few different reasons for raising chickens...eggs, meat, entertainment, all of the above? Make sure of what you expect before you start.
-Do you want a flock solely for egg production? These are generally lighter breeds selectively bred for their ability to produce high numbers of eggs over their lifetime. Remember that laying hens rarely start laying until they are around 6 months old.
-Do you plan on raising chickens just long enough to get them to
butchering size an then not have to mess with them for the rest of the
year? Meat breeds tend to be heavier than egg producing breeds. They
generally grow bigger and faster, and tend to convert feed into muscle
(meat) more efficiently. Some meat varieties can reach slaughter size
in as little as 8 weeks.
-Are you looking to have a flock of all purpose egg and meat producers? There are many varieties of chickens that have been bred to "split the difference" so to speak. These birds produce a reasonable amount of eggs, while still getting large enough to make good meat birds. They may require a little more time to get to butchering size (12-16 weeks), but for someone who wants to raise birds for their own families use - these breeds are probably the best choice.
-Are you looking for just a few nice looking birds so you can say you
have chickens that are really just pets? (there's nothing wrong with
that...). There are many breeds of chickens that have been developed
simply because of their appearance, size (bantams) and personality.
There are many genuinely beautiful varieties.
All that being said, meat birds and bantams do lay eggs, just not as many. You can eat egg producing breeds, and they taste just as good, they will simply be on the small side. And as far as appearance, even many of the egg and meat breeds are attractive in appearance and have interesting personalities and habits.
Finally - nothing says you can't have a mixed flock of several
different varieties for different purposes. That's how I keep my flock,
and it work very well.
One of the first things you need to consider is whether you will start raising chickens with day old chicks or just buy adult birds. There are advantages and disadvantages to each.
Chicks - There are many poultry hatcheries around the country where you can buy day old chicks. Most of them will ship to you through the mail. Day old chicks are far less expensive than adult birds, but require special care and equipment.
When chicks hatch, they have some remaining egg yolk in their tummies, so they can safely go a couple of days without food or water - that's how they can ship in the mail so successfully. It's not unusual even for chicks hatched by a mother hen to not start eating for a couple of days, so it's not really a hardship on them when they are shipped. Shipping IS stressful though, so you have to have everything ready for when they arrive. Do NOT place an order, THEN go start buying supplies. Advanced planning is critical to success.
You can also get chicks at local farm stores in the spring. These birds have been shipped to the farm store from a hatchery. They are then are placed in a brooder cage, where they can learn to eat and drink BEFORE you get them. That way you can avoid the few losses from the ones that never do learn to eat.
A word of caution...many (though certainly not all) chain type
farm store employees don't really know how to care for baby birds, so
these birds could be less healthy than if you had ordered your own. You
will usually find that selection of
varieties are less, the varieties may not be labeled correctly, and you
will pay more for each bird.
Adults - Adult birds can be purchased at local livestock auctions, from local breeders, even some of the hatcheries will sell started adults.
A good place to watch is the classified ads in your local newspaper. Craig's List is another good way to find local breeders who have birds to sell. Adult birds are ready (or nearly ready) to start laying eggs as soon as you get them. Day old can take around 6 months before they start to produce, so going this route can get you started with egg production much sooner.
Be prepared to pay a higher price per bird taking this route. Also watch for people looking to sell off their old birds - 2-3 years of good egg production is about all you can expect to get. Birds that live longer slow way down on their egg production.
You should also be cautious about getting sick or diseased birds this way. Be wary of birds that just sit around, with their feathers fluffed out, sneeze a lot, or even sound congested. Pay attention to their quarters as well. If the coop or pen is very dirty and smelly, I'd be wary. Active, healthy looking birds, living in clean quarters, and that appear to have been well cared for, are probably OK to take home, but there's always SOME risk.
Before you buy the first piece of equipment or nail down the first piece of chicken wire, be sure to decide which way you will get started - Chicks or Adult Birds. Either way has it's advantages and risks.
There are a list of basic supplies that you need if you plan on raising chickens. Essentially you need the following:
Coop or Pen - A safe secure place for the birds to roost at night and lay their eggs.
Yard or Run - A fenced in, grassy open area where your birds will spend their days foraging and interacting with each other.
Feeder - A container where your birds can go to eat prepared feed. Most pens aren't large enough for chickens to forage ALL of their food, so you have to supplement. Especially in the winter when most forage plants and insects are dormant.
Feed - Your chickens can forage for a good portion of their food, but they need some supplemental feed. A starter/grower mix is the right thing for raising chickens from day old chicks. It's also for growing meat birds meant for butchering - it has a higher percentage of protein for growing birds. Layer mix (or mash) is designed for egg production, and had lower protein, but is supplemented with calcium which is essential for egg production.
Waterer or Fount - Your birds need a steady source of fresh clean water. A pan of water in the coop will do, but it has to be changed twice daily. A fount will gravity feed water to the birds, and needs to be changed/refilled much less often.
Roost - Most breeds of chickens like to have a place to roost in their coop that is up off of the ground. This isn't essential, but it does seem to make for happier (or at least less stressed) birds.
Bedding - You'll need something to cover the floor of the coop. My preference is straw, but saw dust, wood chips, or even dry leaves work well too. Your chickens will love to scratch and scrape around in the bedding looking for little treasures to eat.
Nest Box - If you're raising your chickens for egg production, you need a next box for them to lay their eggs in.
There are many designs of nest boxes, but chickens aren't particular.
If they have a box that gives them some privacy, they'll use it.
Brooder - If you're going to get day old chicks, you need a brooder to keep them in for the first few weeks. A brooder is essentially a large covered box or penned off corner of a pen that will keep your new chicks out of drafts and safe from critters that want to kill & eat them. Something as simple as a small stock tank or a plywood box, or as elaborate as a commercial brooder. Brooders need a source of heat, clean bedding, water and feed.
Incubator - If you plan to raise your chicks from
fertilized eggs, you need an incubator to keep them in. An incubator at
it's simplest is an insulted box with a reliable source of heat &
humidity that mimics the heat & moisture provided by a mother hen
sitting on a nest.
Raising chickens of your own can be an adventure. They can provide you with eggs and meat, fertilizer and entertainment. Chickens are easy to care for if you have the right supplies and keep them clean. They don't demand much - just clean water and bedding, a safe place to get out of the weather and roost at night, a run big enough to forage in, and maybe a little supplemental feed. In return you'll get fresh great tasting eggs, free entertainment, and if you're adventuresome enough...fresh home raised meat as well. Raising chickens is just one more way for you and your family to become more self sufficient.