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Raising Chickens – Happy Hens for the Backyard or Barnyard

Raising Chickens
Chickens at the local watering hole

Raising chickens for the backyard or barnyard is a fun and important part of prepared living. If you’re thinking seriously about becoming a prepper, achieving as much food supply self-sufficiency as possible is surely high on the list of your priorities. Access to nutritious food is fundamental to building a solid foundation for life, and the ability to produce it supports tremendous peace of mind. Delicious, nutritious farm-fresh eggs are one important way to accomplish all of these goals.

Living a prepared lifestyle for many years now, we have learned a lot about raising chickens, the joys (and challenges) of free-ranging birds, and budget benefits of having your own fresh eggs every morning. We would like to share some of this knowledge with you. The circumstances of each reader may vary, and adjustments to ideas and options may be important too for anyone who might like to raise and keep their own chickens. As with almost everything about prepared life, there is no “one size” that fits all! Prepared life is as unique among preppers as people are, one to the next!

Let’s get started.

Chickens are curious creatures. They have their own personalities, their own behaviors, they are easily individually recognizable by the sounds they make. As you get to know your birds, you may start to recognize their voices. They are beautiful animals, and are an immense amount of fun to watch in the yard. Who needs a TV when you have chickens? They typically travel as a flock (or groups within a flock), and provide a tremendous amount of entertainment. Your roosters will have a lot to say, calling out through out the day, and often during a full-moon at night. Your hens may be friendly, and some may even eat from your hands. If you’ve lovingly and attentively raised your flock from hatchlings, you may find that they are especially attached to you. Don’t be surprised if they spend time wherever you are in the yard. A bird may even hop up into your lap as you relax in your favorite lawn chair. Whatever you’re doing is exactly what they have in mind too!

Chickens can also be incredibly destructive, just so you know. They dig holes. They scratch around in your yard, and will dig it up. And for goodness sake, don’t let them into your garden, unless you keep them VERY WELL FED, because they won’t just eat the bugs in the garden, they’ll sample all the fresh produce grown there too. You might consider a chicken garden just for your birds, and deterrents including motion-activated water sprayers. And they poop. Everywhere. All the time. Keep a hose handy, and never walk into your house without first checking your shoes. Now, much of this assumes that you free-range your birds. This is up to you, but we’ve found that our own chickens are happiest and healthiest when they are allowed to range. Chickens love liberty.

Not only that, but from mid spring to late fall, if they free-range, they’ll keep your yard free (mostly) of ticks, scorpions, mosquitoes, moths, grasshoppers, and even smaller snakes. They typically leave bees alone, but they will go after mice. Did you know that? Spring and summer convey an added benefit. Your cost of feed should go way down, and the quality of your eggs should be excellent. We call these “grasshopper eggs”. The yolks are a deep, rich orange. Our farm fresh egg yolks are never pale yellow, like those we’ve always found at the grocery store.

Be aware of predators. Every wild hunter out there loves chicken. Among the most pernicious chicken hunters are foxes, coyotes, dogs, raccoons, wild cats, and of course hawks, eagles, and owls. Do not be fooled, dogs will chase and kill chickens. Chickens are about as good at outrunning a dog as you or I are on a good day. You may have well-intentioned family, friends, and neighbors nearby who cannot imagine that their dogs would ever harm your birds. Just know this… The moment that dog gets loose, his focus will be singular. Your chickens will be the only thing on that dog’s mind. There is always an exception to this rule, and we do know of one (and only one) dog without any interest in our birds (or any birds). Just don’t count this! The odds are not in your favor or those of your birds. About the only way to save your birds when that happens is to make very loud sounds near the animal, or or use pepper spray if you can get close enough. Understand the risks, and talk with your neighbors about your birds and your concerns, and ask them to govern their dogs accordingly. You might even encourage them to join you in the backyard chicken adventure. This is very reasonable and a good dog owner will respect this.

Now you know some of the risks, and many of the joys of caring for egg-laying chickens. You’ve made the decision to raise your own. What’s next?

HOUSING

Your birds need a safe place to roost at night and lay their eggs during the day. There are an almost unlimited number of ways to achieve this. You’ve probably driven down the highway and passed any number of shed sales shops… they’re almost ubiquitous nowadays. Frequently you’ll see a small selection of chicken coops. This is one possibility, if you are not handy with cutting your own lumber and screwing together the boards for your frame… that’s okay, but these are skills, as a prepper, you really need to start learning. You might consider getting a little bit of practice building your own hen house! Additionally, pre-built coops are expensive, and in our experience, they don’t last very long. Not only that, but there are many things in the woods that can easily defeat these, including foxes, coyotes and bears. You do not want to have the experience of going down in the morning to collect eggs, only to find the coop smashed, and the birds missing or worse. Bears use brute force. Raccoons are clever, and determined. They can also dig. When designing your hen house, use the strongest materials available to include sturdy wire cloth or mesh for aspects of the hen house that are ventilated for fresh air. You might have to implement some additional protections, such as an electric fence around the coop, which can also be effective deterrents.

We encourage you to learn a lot about hen house designs, and if possible, to build your own. There are several books about building chicken coops and raising chickens – SEE THEM HERE. Buy them, study them, make them part of your personal library. Many will recommend digging footers for your coop. Not fun (or glamorous), but this first step is necessary and important. Remember those raccoons! A good concrete footer is an essential part of securing your birds at night. Once this is in place, use ONLY pressure treated wood for the entire build, not just for the ground-contact. Why? Because if you don’t, and you live anywhere except the desert southwest, moisture will collect on the wood, and your chickens will stir up an immense amount of dust in their coop. This dust (which is mostly dry chicken poop, BTW), will collect on the wood, and provide fantastic fertilizer for moss and algae. If the wood isn’t pressure treated (and stained wood would be even better) you will be replacing it all too soon. Save the work and the additional future expense by taking preventative steps from the start!

Another consideration is the wire mesh around the frame. Avoid chicken wire. You might as well just leave the birds out in the open… Hen hunters can tear through chicken wire with relative ease, and they will make very fast work of detaching it from the frame in any event. We’ve enjoyed excellent success using ½ inch wire fabric, securely stapling it to the frame, then sandwiching the wire fabric between the frame and additional wood. All the way around. Build it right the first time, and you won’t have to re-do it in six months. No need to ask me how I learned this valuable lesson!

Make it tall enough. You don’t want to clip the top of your head when you walk into the house — and you will have to walk inside. Create roosts at different heights for your birds. Make some of them high up, and just under the roof. We suggest using metal roofing material. Be sure to leave enough room for the birds to perch comfortably. What we have is an 8 x 20 outside pen, which is very secure, and a smaller 8 x 8 inside pen where their metal nesting boxes are located. The birds can travel in between their living spaces through a scuttle hole which has a sliding hatch if we ever need to close it off. Some people like to have access to the egg boxes from outside. This is convenient, but we did not end up making this part of our design. If we were to do it again, we might. An important consideration to us was keeping the nesting box area highly secure and as temperature controlled as possible. This strategy helps to keep the eggs from freezing in very cold temperatures, and has been successful in keeping out snakes, possums, skunks, and weasels.

When we built the protected portion of our hen house, we included a floor, then put vinyl down on top of the wood. In hindsight, this was an outstanding idea, since at some point you are going to need to hose out your inside pen. Plus, did I mention that chickens poop? A lot? That poop will eat right through a wood floor. Our coop also has a window for fresh air exchange in the summer.

Some people ask if you should provide heat for the chickens in the winter. No. Chickens have lived their entire earth-bound existence without supplemental heat. The exception to this rule applies to baby chicks. An incandescent bulb, or a heat lamp, should suffice in a comfortably protected brooding box. You’ll need to adjust conditions according to your climate, and season. In fact, you might even consider raising chicks during those times of year when conditions are best for them. We know our little chicks are comfortably warm when they’re quiet or just very softly peeping. Your chicks will let you know when they’re too cold, or too warm. You may even have a broody hen who will sit on the clutch, and help raise the little birds. We have also hatched birds this way with great success.

CHICKS

You are now ready. You have decided that chickens are cool, and you are ready for eggs that have actual flavor. Now to get chicks. There are several possibilities. In the spring, and frequently in the summer, your local hardware and feed stores sell chicks. You can also order them online from a company like Murray McMurray, and have them shipped to you (usually delivered to your local post office). We have done this several times from multiple hatcheries. There is a whole lot of fun in choosing from the varieties. What kind should you get? There is no one right answer! You might choose your hens based upon the kind of eggs you want, either brown, white, blue, or green, and for temperament. Some chickens are a bit noisy (Silver Laced Wyandottes) while others are skittish (White Leghorns), and some are very friendly (Buff Orpingtons, Rhode Island Reds, among others).

You’ll need a brooding box in which to raise your little birds. Size it larger than you imagine, because chicks grow. Fast. You will need to keep them warm with either a heat lamp, or a regular incandescent bulb. Fluorescents or LED do not produce enough heat. You’ll also need chips, and a plan to clean out their pen every couple of days. A healthy environment is much more likely to produce healthy birds. You’ll also need chick food, and will have options for medicated or non-medicated feed products. They eat a lot (and do scratch and toss much of their feed). Don’t be surprised! You will likely underestimate how much you need. Be sure your starter birds get high protein feed for the first twelve to sixteen weeks at least. The brooding box should be protected, and high enough to keep them inside. Watch them carefully when you open the door to provide fresh water, add food, or to clean their chip litter. Your birds will be able to fly in about three weeks, and they can hop pretty high almost from day one… imagine an armadillo with feathers. Or a superball. And yes, chickens can fly.

Now let them grow, and make sure they always have fresh, clean water. You will need to attend to them a minimum of twice a day. They’re naturally super cute, and you’ll need to look at them often, and take pictures too.

FREE-RANGING YOUR CHICKENS

Wow. Your chicks are all grown up, and ready to let loose. If this is your first time with chickens, you may ask the following question: “How will I get them back in their house at night?”

Leave the door open. That’s it. Your birds know where they live. Just be sure that it cannot be closed by the wind so they’re not locked out! We place a small block of wood in the doorway to keep it from closing, and prop a rake against the door to keep it from swinging too far open. There are certainly far better ways to do this. We have discovered that predators don’t typically enter the pen during the day if they think they may get trapped in there, so your chickens will be relatively safe as they come and go. Be sure to close the door around dusk, but not too early. Remember that your chickens love liberty. If you try to lock them in too early, they may all run out before you can get to the door. They love to make choices for themselves, and to decide when they’re “in” for the night. Even if you can get them back in after an unfortunate escape, there will be at least one that will not comply, under any circumstances. Even worse, if you are able to actually catch that chicken, and put it in the pen, that will be the last time you are likely to do so. They learn, and they can be quite crafty. Best option: just wait until dusk.

If you must get them in before dusk, and you know this in advance, don’t feed them during the day day. Place their feeder at the opposite end from the door, and fill it with feed at the time you need to lock them up. This will work, occasionally. Just don’t spill any food on the way to their feeder! They would much rather eat their feed off the dirty ground with liberty than from the feeder inside the pen. A weather related thought to share… We generally don’t let our birds out when it’s raining. They don’t like to get wet, and will congregate under the roof on your porch. You know what that means.

If you forget to block the door, and they can’t get into their home, your chickens will roost in nearby trees. This is a nightmare. You will need to wait until absolutely dark to get them, and catch them one at a time from the trees. This usually takes two people… one to find and retrieve the birds, the other to light up the door to their pen when one flies out of the tree before you can grab it. Beware, roosters are very strong, and holding a flailing, flapping rooster is a challenge. It’s like bathing a cat. Try to get a hold of your birds in such a way that their wings are safely tucked to the body, and not flapping about. You might be surprised by the wing span of a full grown hen or rooster.

FEEDING

Chickens need food and water all year long. Spring through fall, they will forage for bugs, grubs, worms, snakes and other critters. They especially like ticks and scorpions, which is a huge benefit for us. They also love grass clippings (pesticide free, of course). When you cut your grass, collect the clippings and place them in a pile. Your birds will have a field day (no pun intended) with a pile of freshly mowed grass — a significant part of your bird’s diet. It will also save you a small fortune on feed. You can expect to go through about 80 pounds of feed and 40 pounds of scratch grains every two months in the winter for 30 chickens, and much less in the spring through the fall. For feed, we do our best to buy natural, organic feed whenever possible. It’s not cheap. Regular feed is fine, but it’s nice to know you’re not getting GMO ingredients and pesticides in your eggs. Buy a quality dumpster-style trash can with wheels to keep and mix your food in. Keep it under something, so that your chickens don’t perch on it. Again, you know what that means.

Chickens also appreciate leftover spaghetti and other human treats. For the health of your birds, share these in moderation. Avoid salty foods which can result in shell-less eggs. Don’t feed your birds onions, as these can make chickens anemic. Leftover salad, other safe dinner scraps, even crushed eggshells will delight them, and they will very quickly become accustomed to, and expect those scraps. It’s a great way to recycle. The downside is that if you don’t have any leftovers on any particular day, your birds will have a lot to say about it. You may find them marching back and forth on the deck in front of your door. They will also leave physical evidence of their displeasure. You know what that means. Watch where you step when you go outside to chase them off the deck. A broom is effective at making them scurry away, but their memory of what they shouldn’t do is much shorter than are their memories about where to collect those treats.

ROOSTERS

Let’s talk a little bit about roosters. They are beautiful birds, and will generally protect their hens. They can also be dangerous. Our best advice is to ignore them. Don’t let them see you looking at them. And for goodness sake, never, EVER crow back at them. Never mimic a rooster. Not even once. This will mark you as the enemy, and you will forever be having to carry a self-defense broom. FOREVER. Don’t be tempted to do it. Roosters have spurs on the back of their legs, and they know how to use them. We’re talking real possible injury, maybe stitches. No kidding.

You might be wondering how we know this. You only need one guess. Yep. If you can resist the strange temptation to crow back at your rooster, you and he have a much better chance at a good relationship. Live and let live. Never crow. Be careful too about how many roosters you have, how they relate to one another, and how they relate to the hens. We currently have five, and twenty-five hens. This appears to be a tolerable ratio, the disagreements among the roosters seem limited to short distance run-offs, and the hens are content.

EGGS

Little egg, big egg
Little Egg, Big Egg

So, you’ve made it this far. You have your chicken house, your flock, your feed in a secured feed bin, and birds are successfully free-ranging. Now they’re laying eggs in their boxes (usually). Woohoo! The first eggs may be tiny. Then you’ll suddenly find a double-yolk egg. It’s fun to place the two next to each other, to take a picture, and share it with everyone you know — even the “non-chicken” people. But first, you have to collect them. Check your boxes every day. You will usually find the eggs under a bird. I suggest wearing a glove, because chickens bite, and they don’t like it when you take their eggs. Some birds are more tolerant of this process than others. When a chicken bites, it generally will not break skin in our experience, but they can. It’s always best to minimize the risk of an injury and possible infection.

So, now what? A common question is how to clean them? Remember, chickens poop. Sometimes the younger hens will sleep in their boxes, rather than roost. This makes for a messy combination, and requires more frequent attention to the nesting boxes. Your birds may eventually outgrow this behavior, unless they are broody, but this usually takes several months. How best to care for eggs (as a matter of food safety) includes some debate, and there are varying ideas about how to handle egg care. We can share with you what we do, but this should not be construed as advice. We keep our nesting boxes very clean, collect our eggs daily and wash them, dunk them in boiling hot water for a few seconds, dry the eggs and refrigerate them immediately. In all our years, we have never had a problem, and these strategies have worked well for us. Some people are true believers in leaving their eggs untouched with the bloom in place. Having said that, we encourage everyone to take food safety seriously, and to rely on authoritative resources for guidance including suggested protocols.

Now, depending on how many chickens you decide to raise, you’ll generally get about an egg a day unless their molting. Molting??? Oh for Heaven’s sake! What’s that? This is when they shed their old feathers in preparation for new ones. The poor birds just look terrible, but only for a little bit. They don’t like this, may become very grumpy, and typically stop laying eggs until it’s over. This is normal. Among our birds, the process usually lasts just a couple weeks, and our hens pick back up where they left off. In the meantime, this will give you an opportunity to enjoy the eggs you’ve preserved. Wait, what?

Not today. Next article. Hope you have enjoyed reading this, and have learned something from it. If you have, go to our bookstore at https://repositoryproject.com and buy some books. We receive a small commission on sales, and there is no additional cost to you. We have several booksellers, including Books-a-million, Biblio and Better World Books. Notice there are no stores named after big rain forests. Never will be!