Why would anyone want to keep chickens, I hear you ask? As a lifestyle suggestion, it sounds like a waste of time and effort, something best left to the rural landowners. After all, you can just buy a frozen chicken and all the eggs you need at the local supermarket.
But where's the fun in that? This article goes from acquiring your first batch of chicks, right through to slaughtering them for food, if you wish.
All of the following write up and the advice contained within comes from my own knowledge and research. I am neither a vet, chicken breeder, chicken expert nor run-of-the-mill farmer. All of this information is provided 'as-is', so don't blame me if your chickens all die of some hideous disease and their eggs give you explosive bowel problems. Thank you.
In addition, this is a quick guide to keep chickens for fun, not profit. If you want to make megabucks, you're not going to do it with chickens.
Your very own flock of chickens
Keeping chickens is actually pretty easy. They don't need an awful lot of looking after, and will produce yummy eggs automatically once they're happy. Contrary to what a medical textbook would have you believe, they won't die of hideous parasitic diseases or contact life-threatening viruses every week. In fact, they will happily live in the most squalid conditions (not that they're going to, if you're keeping them) and will look after themselves very successfully, especially in the summer months.
Plus, chickens make great pets. They only take about fifteen minutes a day to care for, even when they're raising chicks, so it's not as if you don't have the time. They're not scary or difficult to keep, and don't get angry easily, and just to watch them go about their day-to-day business is amusing enough to make it all worthwhile.
What chickens won't do is make you rich. Over the winter, your flock will be quite happy to eat its way through a bag of chicken pellets or cracked corn a week, and will use about one big bag of straw a week, too. And in return, you'll get maybe ten dozen eggs, which you'll be hard pushed to sell. But on the other hand, you don't expect your pet cat or dog to make you money, do you?
Cock-a-doodle-do you need a rooster?
A rooster (that's a male chicken, but you knew that already, right?) is very important to the social structure of your flock. He's the man, the daddy, and he keeps all those little chicks in line. He's so important, that if you don't have one, one of your chickens will give up laying eggs and start pretending she's a he. Now, that's not too much of a problem if you're not looking for maximum egg laying efficiency, but it can be a little stressful for the poor transsexual chicken in question.
Besides, roosters have their own cocky personalities that can be great fun to befriend, so, although it's a matter of taste, I'd say, yeah, have one. One rooster will keep approximately five chickens happy.
Acquiring your flock
You have two choices when it comes to acquiring your flock: you can either buy fully grown chickens and worry about what to do with chicks if-and-when, or you can jump right in and buy chicks and raise them yourself. Either way, you're going to have to find a local supplier of chickens and chicken supplies. Search the newspapers or telephone directories for farming supplies, ask old men in wellies at the pub, search Google, whatever.
If you buy grown chickens, then just let them out into your garden. Initially, put them in or near whatever structure you've decided they can use to roost in, where you'll be feeding them. Have some feed and water there, just so they know they'll be looked after.
Caring for chicks
Eventually though, you're going to end up with some chicks on your hands, and they need looking after a little more than chickens. For the first eight weeks of their lives, they're going to need separating from the rest of the flock, and kept in a heated box of some kind. It doesn't have to be amazing, just heated from the elements, inescapable, and covered, if you have young children or other animals to protect your fledgling flock from.
Your chick's accommodation just needs some wood or straw shaving carpet, a heating lamp, a water font or dish, and some feed. I would recommend a feed with an antibiotic mixed in; it will be called something along the lines of 'Chick starter medicated feed'. I know organic farming is all the rage now, but chicks get ill very easily, and hand dripping antibiotic into angry chicks isn't fun. Go organic after they've eaten the first bag and are a little sturdier.
Chicks grow fast – you'll be able to see the difference day-to-day, and after around eight weeks, their yellow fluff will have turned to fully-fledged feathers, and they'll be ready to see the outside world.
Roaming and roosting: chickens in your garden
Chickens need a roost to call home on a night, and they also need somewhere to stretch their little legs during the day. If your garden is enclosed, then you should defiantly let your chickens have the full advantage of it. Free range chickens are happier, healthier, and they and their eggs taste nicer. Everyone is happy.
One thing you should be aware of, however, is that any grass that a flock of chickens is allowed access to will be turned into dusty grassy remains within days. Chickens root in grass for extra tasty things with which to supplement their diet, and love to take baths in the resulting dust bowl. If you like your prize-winning lawn just as it is, then chickens are not for you.
When it gets to night, and especially the winter nights, your flock is going to want to be able to roost somewhere. Coops can be as simple or as complex as you can be bothered to make. The basic requirements of a coop consist of a hut, with straw in it, and maybe some shelves for the chickens to sit on. As for sizing, chickens need about four square feet of personal space, and if you can match the size of your coop to that, then it won't need heating, as chickens are quite happy to heat each other with body warmth.
Update: yclept suggests that I haven't stressed the importance of the strength of the coop, and she'd be right. If your chickens are likely to be attacked by foxes, doggies, racoons or other chicken-eating animals, theyre going to need somewhere safe to live. Reinforcements are the order of the day.
yclept says Heh. In the US, fox aren't that common, but racoon are everywhere, including the suburbs. They are extremely strong, extremely agile, and they can use their hands to grasp things. I've had a racoon punch right through chicken wire and rip the heads off of all the chickens it could reach. The chickens couldn't escape, because it was dark, and the heads came off because their bodies wouldn't fit through the chainlink that reinforced the chickenwire!
There may come a time when you need to slaughter older (around seven months to a year old) chickens for meat, or to make room for new born chicks in your coop. Then again, you may find the idea of killing what you regard as pets repulsive. The choice is entirely yours. If you don't feel comfortable with killing your flock, then you can either find someone who will, or just let them die of old age.
First of all, decide which bird you are going to cull, and then wait for a cold but sunny day. Cold, because it'll mean the chickens are cold and less energetic, and sunny, because you don't want to be chasing around chickens in the rain. You should wear clothes that you're not bothered about. Like it or not, you are quite likely to get splattered with chicken.
Find a sturdy branch, or pole or line, and tie cords to each, one for each bird. Each cord should end with a large slipknot. The birds are going to be hung by their feet from these cords. Early in the morning, when the chickens are either asleep or still inactive in their coop, go in and find the bird you are going to kill. Pick it up by the legs, and push its head down, so you are carrying it upside down.
Without being mean, chickens are pretty stupid, and so the bird will be docile, even as you slip it's feet into the cord, and pull the knot tight. The bird is now hanging upside down from the cord, by its feet. Take a knife, and cut the chicken's neck, catching both arteries either side, and leave it to bleed cold. This will take about four hours.
The next logical step is to process the meat of the bird. This bit is tricky, and you should consult someone in the know about this step. If you don't get the meat refrigerated quickly, you could end up with a roast chicken dinner that will make you very ill indeed.
That said, the basic strategy is to make an incision down the breast of the chicken, and pull the skin and feathers from the carcass, then to use a larger, cleaving knife to cut the wings, legs and neck from the body; but butchery is a little beyond the scope of this article.
Whether you decide to slaughter your chickens or not, keeping chickens can be rewarding and great fun. They'll provide you with eggs, and give your garden a very interesting feature! I hope if this short guide has shown you anything it is that chickens are easy to look after. They're not fussy about what they eat or where they live, and ask for very little in the way of time or care. The one thing they do need, however, is space. But if you have a little bit of land, or a garden that you never use, why not?
- Raising chickens: keeping a backyard flock
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