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by Judy Hurvid
Those of you who are avid gardeners, freezing and storing your own food, and who would like to become even more self-sufficient should try raising chickens. In our experience, chickens are very easy to look after and require minimal space and effort. In return they provide meat and eggs and great entertainment!
When we first started to keep chickens, we wanted them to be "free range" so we just let them wander at will. This method certainly kept the feed bills low and we enjoyed watching the ever-alert rooster look after his hens in many comical ways. However, my kids didnt appreciate finding droppings everywhere they walked; my flower and vegetable gardens were scratched up and destroyed; and neighborhood dogs harassed and killed many of our flock.
After a few years of these problems, we reluctantly fenced the chickens in. Now, our sixty young chickens have an area 50' x 150', about the size of a city lot, and we usually overwinter only 18 grown chickens, so they have plenty of room. If you can prevent your chickens from jumping the fence, put the coop beside your vegetable garden, and have vegetables on one half and chickens on the other. Every year rotate the garden and the chicken yard. The chickens will clean the area of bugs, weeds and debris and will fertilize it. And with a coop near the garden, you can just toss spoiled vegetables or extra produce over the fence to the birds.
Chickens need safe shelter at night, a yard with sufficient space and protection from predators, free access to water, and the right kind of feed.
The coop need not be fancy we use an 8' x 12' garden shed but it should be equipped with a dry floor of wood or concrete, a light source, good ventilation, roosting pegs and, for layers, laying boxes. We also have a cage where we can isolate any sick or bleeding chicken from the others.;
We have divided our coop into two sections, each having a chicken door to its own separate yard. This separation is handy when introducing young chicks to the main flock; they will be picked on if they are smaller than the other birds. You can also close one yard and seed it with a legume or grass while the chickens forage in the other yard.
In the coop you need bedding such as straw, hay, wood chips or peat moss whatever you can find cheaply. We clean the nest boxes weekly, and the floor whenever it smells, usually six times a year. The bedding and manure are dry and excellent in flower or vegetable gardens. (We even put it on flower gardens "hot" and have only killed one seedling plant.) Manured wood chips make great mulch around trees and perennials. Used peat moss and wood chips are also good additions when worked into the veggie garden after they age.
Our coop has a hinged window for sunlight and fresh air. We use lights in the winter and a heat lamp hangs over the waterer to keep it from freezing. We turn on two white heat lights on cold days (-10° C) and from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. every day to provide enough light for egg laying in the winter. We have an outside winterized tap near the coop and a steel garbage pail for storing feed in the coop. (Feed bags are heavy so have the coop accessible to a vehicle or you risk injuring your back.) Ten young hens should give you five or six eggs a day in winter (depending on light and temperature) and seven eggs in summer. By the way, it is illegal to sell eggs to retailers or restaurants unless they are graded. You must sell at "farm gate" only. You may not sell meat to anyone.
Small flocks in the fresh air are healthier and do not need pesticides in their coop or antibiotics in their feed. You can buy feed for growing chicks, meat birds or layers at your local feed store in 40 kg bags. It does not have additives but is not organic.
I strongly recommend heritage breeds of chickens for the same reason we buy or trade heritage seeds: to preserve genetic diversity and special genetic traits for future generations. With heritage breeds you can get the kind of chicken you prefer. Some examples are the little red hen (Rhode Island Red or New Hampshire), the striped chicken (Plymouth Barred Rock) and the large black (Jersey Giants). There is even a Canadian chicken bred for our cold winters (Chanticleres). You cannot obtain heritage chickens at your local co-op store. You must buy them from someone who breeds them or imports them from the States. (See sources on page 11.) We now hatch our own chicks in incubators and buy the occasional rooster to prevent inbreeding. Many of these heritage breeds are called dual purpose, which means they produce good eggs and meat. Co-op hybrid birds can do the same or you can order just meat birds or layers. Meat birds consume more food to sustain body weight so they cost more to keep for egg laying. Egg layers are small for meat but cheaper to feed. The breed of hen that you buy determines the color of the egg, so if you want brown eggs be sure to specify.
For us, a typical year begins in early April, when we gather 90 eggs throughout the week and store them in the root cellar. Then we put them all in two incubators for three weeks. The beginning of May sees the excitement of the hatch. We feel like proud grandparents as we take the little chicks out of the incubator and into their nursery, a warm protected area away from older chickens. Kids love this process, but be careful not to open the incubator more than once a day or the unhatched eggshells could dry out and harden. Within 36 hours, all the viable eggs will hatch and the new chicks will be drying in their box in the barn under a warm light. I spend most of that first day with them, only because they are so cute. Its important to check their butts for paste-up of manure; they will die if this is not wiped off.
After about four weeks, I move the teenage chicks to the coop (with doors closed between them and the adults). At fifteen weeks, we sex the chicks. No, this is not some bizarre ritual but rather just a matter of looking for larger development of comb and wattles, tail and total body size to determine which are male. We send the males and any undesirable females to the local butcher to be processed for $2 each. We raised about sixty-five chicks (from ninety eggs) last year; the thirty-five we sent to the butcher fed my family most of the year. The teenagers and "old girls" spend the first weeks apart; then, after establishing a "pecking order," they spend the summer together. In the late fall, after the teenagers start laying eggs, we cull the old girls and use them for burgers or soup. Some people keep hens for five years, but when we tried to keep them older than 18 months we found that we were just running a geriatric ward for eggless hens.
Now we have about thirty young hens and a rooster or two to over-winter and keep us supplied in eggs. Roosters are not necessary for eggs. Their role is for breeding new chicks and providing entertainment! By the way, roosters crow on and off all day when outside, especially if they feel like bragging.
Daily chores are simple. I go to the coop after lunch to collect eggs and feed the kids table scraps to the chickens in the yard. They come running when they see me and chatter away to each other about the food as they eat it. If a chicken has a particularly tasty morsel, she will run around forever with others chasing her as if they are playing football. When they were not fenced in, they would run to greet every visitor getting out of their car. This impressed the visitors immensely, but the chickens were just begging for food. My husband goes out in the evening, collects eggs, and waters and feeds the chickens. If we are away for a day or two, the chickens look after themselves as their food and water containers last for two days. (I throw out any eggs kept at hot temperatures, however.)
We do not raise chickens to save money. The cost of food, equipment, lights, butchering, etc. probably equals the money saved in eggs and meat. However, we have free manure for our organic garden, and drug-free meat and eggs to feed our children.
Further Reading: Chickens in Your Backyard by Rick and Gail Luttmann, Rodale Press, l976.
Judy Hurvid is a regular contributor to COGNITION and a member of the management board. When not in her garden or chicken coop, she works as a mother of three and a freelance editor.
Copyright © 1996.Judy Hurvid.
Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.
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