Friday, September 6, 2013

::getting started with chickens::

Big Mama

Can a hen lay eggs with out a rooster?
I get this question more than any other question.  If you want your hen to lay you eggs for breakfast, she will lay away with no rooster.  She will be a happier and more laid back lady with no rooster constantly sexually harassing her.  And I do mean CONSTANTLY.  (More about roosters next.)  Your pretty hen will average one egg a day depending on the amount of daylight and her breed.  Some breeds lay more than others.  For example my little Silkie (MJ) is not going to lay what Big Mamma lays, but Big Mama is a Rhode Island Red and is designed to lay lots of eggs.  MJ is designed to be fun and pretty.  She will still lay eggs but they will be smaller is size and she most likely will not lay daily.  If you want your hen to lay eggs that are fertilized and could potentially grow into a chick, you need a rooster.    

Roosters going to the chopping block

Should I get a rooster?
Dear God - NO!!!!  Roosters have one job and they force the ladies to participate.  The hens scream and try to get away, but the roosters literally pen them down and have their way with the hens.  My hens looks at me like the need rescue.  It's dramatic and if you don't want to explain chicken rape to your kids - DON'T GET A ROOSTER.  When they hit sexual maturity they are stunning and noble looking - and loud and aggressive.  Every single one I have had  ends up starting to attack me or the kids every time we feed or water.  I am sure there are exceptions but every rooster that has accidentally made it to my farm has broken the cardinal rule that earns you a 22 caliber exit - if you attack a human kid you die.  No exceptions.   

Punk chicks

Where should I buy the chicks?
Tractor Supply and other farm supply stores general sell chicks in their stores in the spring.  The policies vary but here they require that you buy at least six.  The breeds our local store carries are pretty basic.  Chicks are in in big metal water tanks sorted by breed and gender.  You are looking for pullets, which are young female chickens.  Straight run - are chicks that no one has checked for gender.  You might get all males or a mix of some female.  Maybe you will luck out and get all female, but that sort of logic is how I have ended up with my attack roosters.  I would go to Tractor Supply and they would have some interesting breed that I really wanted but they were straight run.  I would buy just a few and they would promptly grow into attack roosters.  

If your life allows you to buy day old chicks online, you have the best chance of getting exactly what you want.  I highly recommend My Pet Chicken.  Their entire business is for hobby poultry people.  They have lots of good information and many varieties to pick from.  The only problem is that you don't know exactly what day they are coming and you have to have someone that can go to the post office the morning they arrive and pick them up.  With Josh and I's work schedule that couldn't happen.  Now I got my three newest chicks from them because my friend placed an order and let me add my wants to hers.  She picked them up and I paid her for mine and picked them up when I was off work.  She was essentially my chicken middle man :)    Don't underestimate facebook or craigslist for finding chicks.  Utilizing a local breeder is a great way to establish a support network for future questions you might have.  I have had great luck with local breeders when I want something a little bit more interesting (like the green Cayuga ducks).

Early spring 2010
How much work do they take?
They take about as much work as a house cat and not nearly what a dog or new puppy would take.  You have to clean out the coop when it is dirty.  How often varies on how much space they have.  If you have 20 chickens crammed into a space too small they are going to make a huge mess way faster than 5 chickens in a huge coop.  You have to keep food and water in front of them.  But your local farm store will have feeders that will give you plenty of space to fill it to the top and leave the girls alone for a few days.  Just like a house cat.  I have to hire a farm sitter when we travel because we have dogs and sheep/goats that can not be left unattended, but the girls would be fine.  Fill up the water and the feed and they can keep for a long weekend just fine.  If for some reason the eggs get forgotten for a day or two I just feed the possible old ones to the dogs.  I don't want to risk it if it is hot outside.  Here is a link to other ways to check the age of the eggs if you are uncertain how long since they found their way into the nest box.  

Stapling down chicken wire

How much space do they need?
There is a great deal of debate about this.  The forums list numerous equations to figure out how much coop space (indoor covered space) and how much run space (outdoor space).  This is how I do it.  I have a former horse stall that is converted into a predator proof coop.  It is 12ft by 12ft with many branches hung up for the girls to roost on and five or six nest boxes.  My goal has always been to have this coop attached to a predator proof run outside the barn.  That hasn't happened yet.  Maybe next year (said for the third year in a row).  The girls live in this coop from the time I plant my first tomatoes in May till I harvest the last tomato that is less that 24 inches off the ground.  Hens are killer on a garden.  I have a few tips and tricks to help keep them away, but that is a post for another day.  

Usually I let them out of the coop about now (early September).  This is for their safety.  Safety from Josh because he will not forgive them eating his tomatoes and safety from the wild fox that lives on my property.  She has babies about that time of year and that is the only time of year I have issues with wild animals trying to eat my chickens.  My dogs keep my chickens pretty safe.  No one wants to get in a fight with my Bruno, he is a lover to us and a defender of his territory to all others.  So - back on track.  The girls have only that coop space for the summer.  All other times of year I leave the coop door open and they come and go as they please.  At night they wander back to the coop or they roost in my barn rafters.  They love to be allowed to free range.  I hardly feed them any store bought feed when they are free ranging and they get fat as little baby hen cows.  In a neighborhood backyard setting this might have to be watched a little closer.  Most backyard chicken people I know that live in neighborhoods let the girls out to graze the backyard during the day.  They usually have a coop and an enclosed run area that the girls use all the time.  There are about 1 million different coop plans available online.  Everything from pretty to totally just functional. Google it.  You will be floored by the amount of possibilities.  Don't forget Pintrest too!  It's got lots of us chicken geeks pinning chicken coops.             
Alberta sleeping while chicken range

How long do they live?
8-15 years, but a great deal of that varies on the animal living in a healthy environment.  I hope my Big Mama lives to be 100.    

Baby Max and terrified poultry

What kind of vet care do they need?
In my years with my chickens I have never taken one to the vet.  Ever.  I have never had an issue with mites.  In the last three years I have spent $0 at the vet on my chickens.  KNOCK ON WOOD.  

How much do they cost?
Cheap.  (pun intended)   
You are looking at about $2.50-$5 each chick.  I am sure you could go over that if you really tried hard, but in general chickens are not very expensive.  You will have the expense of initially getting your coop built or buy a kit if you are not that handy.  I can't estimate that because how grand your plans are is going to have a lot to do with your expenses.  Feed for these animals is about $17 a bag.  That would be enough to feed five hens for about a month if they are locked up.  They do not need store bought feed if they are free ranging.  They will find their own food and be happier for it.  They need a waterer and a feeder, but these can last you indefinitely and should cost less than $40 total.  I use my extra eggs to barter for things.  I need basil to dry, so I trade eggs for basil.  Easy and everybody wins.  If you live in a cold part of the world you will need some kind of heated water bowl to keep unfrozen water available to the girls all winter long.     

Bad Big Mama entering my garden
Will they fly away?
 Chickens don't fly like a hawk.  They more hop with some good airlift.  They can get up into my rafters but they have to work their way up there.  And when they jump down they sort of fall slowly.  They could get up on a privacy fence if they really felt motivated to get away from something.  Mostly they just want to perch to sleep or they want to pick around for food.  You can trim their wing feathers if you want to so that they can't fly at all.  I have never done it.  I want my girls to be able to escape to the rafters if they need too.  They do not runaway like dogs sometimes do.  They stay pretty close to their home (their coop).  Even with all 16 acres to roam I have never seen them go further than about 150 feet from the barn and that was to destroy all my watermelons.      

Got more questions?  Ask me.  I'd love to help.  I was a person that hated chickens but these ridiculous creatures have waddled their way into my heart. 


  1. Very interesting! I think more and more people are keeping backyard chickens. I have thought about it too. I love farm eggs, they are the best.

  2. Awesome post! Love your beautiful pics! Wanted to send a link I found years ago about roosters. As a horse person, I found it very useful and understandable... Bet you will too. Train n dominate your roosters! I've had great luck this way. Also works for guinnea cocks that are extra tough. When in doubt they say to isolate your roo for a few days til he learns he ain't the head honcho!



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