Last time, I showed you my vegetable garden, and mentioned that I would use chickens as a pest control strategy. At this point, said chickens are still small fluffy things, although they are growing rapidly. Let’s go into some of the reasons I wanted chickens before I go too far into what I’ve done so far.
- Yes, I plan on eating them, at least the roosters. My wife and I don’t eat much meat, and most of what we do eat is chicken. I think it’s important to take responsibility for our meat whenever possible, the same reason that I took up hunting in Arizona. By raising my own birds, I can make sure they are treated as humanely as possible, a guarantee I cannot make when I buy a pack of drumsticks at the store.
- I plan to keep most of the hens for eggs. A hen will lay for several years, which means that I will get more protein from the eggs than I ever could from meat. A single hen can lay 200 lbs of eggs a year, or 25 lbs of protein at 2 oz per egg. I bake a lot, and I hate it when I’m halfway through a recipe and find out that I’ve run out of eggs. In addition, I know several people who would like to trade for fresh eggs, so this will be worthwhile even if I get more eggs than I can eat. When they get too old to lay, they will be too tough for grilling, but we make a lot of chicken stew and older birds are well suited for that. Until that point, they will have the healthiest, happiest life I can provide for them.
- Meat and eggs from the grocery store just don’t compare in quality to those from animals kept in healthy conditions, allowed to act in a reasonably natural way. The best chicken I ever had was in Indonesia, at a roadside restaurant. The woman running the stand went out and caught my chicken, went behind the house, and butchered it for us. That fried chicken is what sold me on keeping my own birds, more than anything else.
- Chickens turn bugs and scraps into fertilizer. The feed bill for chickens is low, and they turn most of it into manure. This, when composted, goes back into the garden to cut back my fertilizer bill. In addition, they will eat kitchen scraps and hunt bugs, which all gets turned to fertilizer as well.
This spring, I ordered 20 straight-run (unsexed) chicks from Cackle Hatchery, to be delivered to my local post office. I chose Barred Plymouth Rock chickens as they seemed to meet my needs on all accounts. They grow big enough to eat, and lay a lot of eggs. They are supposed to be tough and can handle the heat, while also, apparently, being docile enough to work with. The chicks arrived in good shape two days after I placed the order, spending only a day and a half in the mail. Chicks have a residual internal yolk sack when they first hatch, which they live off for the first three days after hatching. This means that they can be shipped easily as long as they arrive before they are three days old.
This is not the first time I’ve shipped animals in the mail. For example, in college I once ordered a box of 500 live crickets to the mailroom on campus, so it’s not a new thing for me to walk in and say “I’m here for the loud box”. There was also the case of the gardening club’s earthworms-in-a-bag, which I had to bring the dean in to resolve. This time was much easier than that experience, and we were soon on our way home. The hatchery even sent us two extra!
Most of them did very well, although we had some issues with “pasty butt,” where fecal waste gets caught on the feathers around the cloaca and plugs the pipes. We lost one chick to this, and I spent hours picking at chicken butts with wet cotton swabs. It’s a wonder they still let me come anywhere near them…
When I got them, I housed them to a cardboard box I turned into a brooder, and with some food and water they began to grow like crazy. At three weeks they had outgrown the brooder, and it was time to finish building their coop. We have several sheds on the property, and the one nearest the vegetable garden got a makeover. One half is garden shed, but the other half is chicken coop. I painted the floor with urethane to waterproof it, which should protect it from moisture from chicken manure and water spills. I also put up a wall of chicken wire to separate the chickens from the tools. As soon as the weather warmed, the chicks went outside, although I still provided a heat lamp. Now that the weather is in the 80’s during the day, I am turning the heat off during the day, and just leaving it on at night.
We let them outside in a little fenced enclosure a few times and they really enjoyed themselves each time, so it was time to build them a permanent run. We decided to build it against the side of the shed, so we can let them straight out of the coop into the run. When we’re home, and they’re big enough, I’ll let them range free in the yard, but I want to give them an outdoor space when I’m not around. This is what we ended up with…
All in all, they have around 90 square feet of coop space and 160 square feet in the run. Since I plan on ending up with about a dozen chickens, with occasional peaks as I raise males for meat, that would be about 20 square feet per bird. For comparison, the minimum legal requirement in California (which other states sued against because it was more space than they wanted to provide) is 1 foot per hen. Even with the 20 birds I have now, I am right at the 10-15 feet recommended for backyard flocks. All in all, it cost about $800 for all the startup equipment. We’re spoiling them, but considering what they will be doing for us it seems only fair.
~The Homesteading Hippy