Thinking of Keeping Chickens?

It's been only two years since we got the chickens as coop-ready chicks (actually, not quite - we got them in February of 2015), but I feel like I've been keeping them forever. Over the past weekend, I've been caring for a neighbor's hens, and I've seen countless other coops and chicken systems in the last two years, which leads me to some conclusions about the easiest way to keep chickens. There are some definite things that I would recommend, and some I would vehemently NOT. I thought I'd share them with you, in case you are thinking about a New Year's project of keeping your own chickens. 

And keep them, I think every household truly should. Homegrown eggs are far superior to anything we can get in the store, both in flavor and nutrition. I was recently reminded of this, as we had to buy some eggs to supplement our Christmas baking. In wintertime, our (and all) chickens are designed to have a bit of a rest from laying when the days are shorter. Some folks keep a light going all year 'round, so the chickens are fooled into thinking it's summer, and keep laying - but I personally feel like they should have the rest. After all, both God and evolution designed them that way, and who am I to mess with that? We do get about one egg a day during the coldest, shortest days, so the hens aren't totally dormant. But it's not the steady supply to which we are accustomed. So, we bought a dozen. As per our habits BC (before chickens), we bought 'cage free' organic eggs. These run about $10/dozen in our local Whole Foods. The first thing we notice about store bought eggs, even expensive, humanly-raised eggs, is that the shells are much thicker and stronger. This is likely due to the farmer feeding a lot of calcium to the chickens, to make stronger eggs for traveling. Our home eggs have a more delicate shell, though I do feed supplemental oyster shell every few days. The other most obvious difference is the color of the yolk. Our home yolks are bright orange, an indication of their greater nutritional content. Even though our chickens don't free range through our garden, I bring the garden to them, by giving them greens, weeds, wood chips, leaves, earwigs, slugs, and snails. The store-bought eggs are more typically pale yellow, an indication of a heavy reliance on grain (which my chickens also get, but the stuff I give them from the garden makes up a large percentage of their diet). And the cheap, factory farmed eggs are even worse. I don't have to tell you about the conditions those chickens live in, do I? If you want to explore that issue further, you can look here, or here, or here. But you may want to look before you eat breakfast. I mean, if you're going to buy eggs, the best place you can go is your local farmers' market. Or perhaps a neighbor has an egg business. An organic market or Whole Foods would be your next best bet. But please, for the love of all God's creatures, don't buy the eggs that are a buck and a half a dozen at your local Target. There's a reason they are so cheap.

By the way, the color of the eggshell has nothing to do with the nutritional content of the egg. It's merely due to the breed of the chicken. For instance, my Rhode Island Reds lay a light brown egg, my Plymouth Barred Rock lays deep brown eggs, and the Easter Eggers lay a blue-ish green-ish egg. They all look the same inside - a small volume of firm, clear white and a huge, orange yolk. Our eggs are not fertilized, as we do not have a rooster. And in fact, it would be against our city ordinances to keep a rooster. There's really no need for a rooster unless you'd like to breed your own chicks, or if you need protection of your flock, both things for which roosters are ideally suited. If I was living in a rural setting, I'd prefer to have a rooster. I'd also prefer to have my chickens out on pasture, moving them every week to a new site, preparing my garden beds for me. This is all in the realm of 'someday' for us.

Another myth is that eggs you produce at home are cheaper than ones you buy in the store. Well, maybe that's true, after many many years of raising your own chicks. But our chickens haven't paid for themselves yet. Now, you can cobble together a coop out of almost anything (pallets come to mind as a free source of wood), so you don't need to spend the money we did on gorgeous cedar and redwood (actually, my parents bought that wood for me. Thanks again, Mom and Dad!). We also buy organic, un-pelleted grain mixes for our birds' daily feed. You can find a cheaper way to feed your chickens - but you know how I feel about that. You're going to eat the product of that feed, so you want it to be as high-quality as possible. And actually you can really cut your feed bill down by giving them kitchen and garden scraps, and we certainly do that too. Plus, chickens provide more than just eggs for your breakfast; their manure makes a prime addition to your compost, and they are quite entertaining to watch, especially for younger children. And if you put them out in your garden beds, they also do quite a bit of work for you as well.

So say, like me, you live in a suburban area, with a decent yard, and nice neighbors who won't mind a little chicken noise. (Hey, they use their leaf-blowers and gas mowers, I figure we're even on the noise scale. And yes, hens make noise. Not like roosters, and not all day, but they do tend to sqwak! a lot more than I expected.) How do you begin? 

The first thing is to decide whether you'll have a mobile coop that moves around in your yard or a static coop that stays in one place. I'm guessing that if you have restricted amounts of property, like I do, you'll go for a static coop. (For mobile coops, check out Joel Salatin's systems, or Justin Rhodes on youtube. He builds what he calls 'chickshaws.') For a static coop, you need to figure out where to site it. The best placement has a southern exposure at the front of the coop, or the place where the birds will be hanging out most of the day. You want them to get as much sun as possible in the winter. Ideally, your site would have a little extra afternoon shade in the summer months, as too much sun is also hard for the chickens. You can get around this, as I did, by making sure the coop run is large enough that there are patches of shade in certain areas in high summer. Or, also as I have done, planting some sort of deciduous tree or bush, or ones with lacy foliage, right in front of the coop. I have mine in extremely large pots, so that I can move them too if I need to. Olive trees were my plant of choice and they provide a little shade in the summer, but the leaves are small enough that they don't prohibit sun in winter. Also, the hens like the fallen olives. I very much wish I had planned to the coop to have an extended daytime run in the compost piles, that would be ideal for both the birds and me - they like to scratch through, finding bugs and weeds, and that scratching would turn the compost pile so I wouldn't have to! I still think all the time about how to make that happen now.

Once you've found the site, you'll need to consider a coop. You can buy it ready-made or make it yourself. This is going to require a lot of research on your part. Either way, there are some things to have in your coop and run that are absolutely necessary for the chickens. This won't include anything you will need if you start your chickens as 1-2 day old chicks - for that, you can find plenty of information online or in books. We bought our chickens older and will continue to do so, in order to save many steps of caring.

One, it needs to be Fort Knox with regards to predators. I'm betting you have raccoons and opossums in your area, at the very least. Consider hawk populations too, as well as coyotes, your neighbor's dogs, and maybe even your own pets. Consider using very small-meshed hardware cloth to prevent rats (though chickens have been known to eat rats). The gold standard is 1/4" hardware mesh, surrounding your coop and run from the sides and ceiling, everything except the floor, and sunk in one foot deep on all sides to prevent predators from digging under it. Chicken wire is too holey. Get the hardware cloth. Do not skip this very important step. 

Two, it needs to have plenty of ventilation. Chickens can stand a lot of cold and heat (and you'll research which chicken breeds do best in your area with regards to your high and low temperatures, right?), but they can't stand moisture combined with cold - this is what causes frostbite. Condensation is a killer. Your chickens will nestle together to stay warm at night, but your hen house needs to be open to the air, ideally from the top. So you could have four solid walls and floor in your hen house, but a mesh top covered with something that repels rain a few inches above that. Your run should be open air, with maybe a protected corner to escape wind.

Three, your chickens need to scratch and bathe. To do this they need plenty of organic matter. I prefer the run to have deep bedding made of sawdust, but you can use straw, wood chips, leaves, or shredded newspaper. The other benefit to deep bedding is that you never really need to replace it, just add to it. Once in a while, I'll rake it and shovel some out to put on the compost pile, but mostly I just continue to add carbon as everything breaks down. It's a little like a compost pile itself, in that it is constantly shrinking (carbon + nitrogen in the form of urine and feces = an active pile), and it really never smells. The sawdust in my deep bedding is also good for dust baths, a necessary ablution for chickens, as it cleans their feathers and keeps them free of mites.  Some people provide a box with dirt in it for dust baths; either way, you will need to make sure that your chickens have a way to do this. Diatomaceous earth is another option, but I don't use it in the deep bedding system as it kills the microbes necessary for decomposition. Some folks I know just have dirt in their runs, which is fine in dry weather, but in rain turns to a wet, muddy muck that sticks to your shoes and causes your chickens to have wet feet (not good in winter; remember, moisture plus cold is bad). As for the hen house, you can use straw, many folks do. I did at the beginning, but found it incredibly stinky and messy. I was cleaning it out faithfully every week and replacing it with fresh straw, but by the end of that week the straw was completely caked in feces and it was a nasty job. The coop smelled, too. So I switched to sand and I have been enormously happy with this. I just scoop out the poop every morning and put it in the compost. The coop never smells, the chickens have a fresh house every night, and it's only minutes of maintenance every day and not at all unpleasant. Just like scooping out a cat pan. And better, actually, because you can put the sand and poop in your compost, unlike kitty litter (which I have never found an acceptable substitute for, unfortunately, though not without considerable effort and expense). 

Fourth, your chickens need a place to roost at night and nest boxes to lay eggs. A fat dowel or wide branch will work for the roost; we have both and they use both. Position the roost(s) on the side of the hen house that is away from your nest boxes, so the nightly deposits don't end up in the place they lay eggs. The nest boxes need something soft, straw is great, or feathers, or fluff. Something nice for the chickens to nestle in and lay their daily egg. If you've positioned it correctly, it should never be soiled, but you'll need to add more straw every so often to keep it nice and fluffy. Think about what your own bum needs and translate that into chicken bums. :)

Fifth, and maybe most obvious, is fresh water at all times and good healthy food designed for either chicks or layers, whatever stage your chickens are in. I have found that hanging the bins of water and food is difficult for me as they are heavy to lift and take off a chain, but if it's at floor level, it's going to get dirty immediately. After a lot of trial and error, we found that a simple bench/shelf across the width of the run was best - low enough for the chickens to access, but high enough to keep it out of the daily scratching/defecating. The feed should be high quality, and you can also bring things to the run for your chickens to work on, such as branches, kitchen scraps, piles of leaves, greens filled with aphids from your garden, etc. Put these items directly on top of the deep litter, and they'll continue to work to find bits that you can't see for several days. This gives them plenty to do as they are not out on pasture, scavenging. No bored chickens allowed! I like to take out treats like hot oats on the coldest mornings, in a bowl placed on their food shelf, or leftover pasta and sauce flung into the deep bedding for them to find. Vets and chicken experts will tell you to keep treats at a minimum and there is a lot of sense in that, but we also want them to have things to DO. So get creative. Hang a suet cake in the run and see what they do. Smash a pumpkin and see how long it takes them to decimate it. All that they do not eat will become part of your deep litter compost pile.

Those are the things that chickens need. Now, here are the things that I think are necessary for their keepers. 

Make sure all the doors and hatches are large enough for you to go through comfortably, and that every corner is more or less easily within your reach. I just cleaned my neighbor's coop, and while it's a cute building and has everything that the chickens need, the door is a narrow squeeze even for a skinny person, and as you know I'm not skinny. It required a hoe to access the far reaches under the perches, and I needed to lean in on the dirty floor to get the corners. I had trouble accessing the nesting boxes because they have them barricaded on the outside - clearly they've had trouble with predators and the box design didn't take that into account. So you have to lean over all the mess of the night before to reach the eggs. Yuck. They use straw, so you have to get that all out of the house, preferably without getting it all over you, and the henhouse door was also narrow and inadequate. Then to squeeze out the main door with a load of smelly hay - well, you get the picture. Not terribly user-friendly. Make sure your coop, both the hen house and the run, are easy to access and work in. If not, you're not going to want to keep things clean, and that's unhealthy for your hens. If you have arthritis in your fingers and hands, make sure the latches and locks are easy for you to open and shut, and that the food and water are easily reached and lifted out. Make it convenient for YOU. It shouldn't just be perfect for the chickens, it should also be perfect for the keepers. 

We lucked into a lot of these things because we bought a good design and made the coop ourselves. I'm not sure I really noticed these things just from looking at the designs, though - most of this was discovered through time and everyday use. I wish someone had told me these things ahead of time so that I could plan for them, but I'm very happy with our design and construction. Like I said, the only thing I would change is a way to incorporate another run over into our compost piles. 

As our hens near their middle-age, they are starting to slow down egg production, even in the warmer months. Therefore it might be time to consider getting a few more younger chickens to add to our flock, so we can keep ourselves supplied. The issue of whether to cull old hens or keep them as pets is one we discuss quite frequently, and we are forming our future plan. I would advise that you discuss this BEFORE you get chickens. There is no magical place that old chickens can go to live until they die naturally; their death is going to be part of your time with them. Meanwhile, you will make sure that they have a happy life.

I want to encourage you to make room for chickens on your property, wherever you live. Keeping them has been incredibly fulfilling for us, and we can't imagine our homestead without them.