Chickens: The Gateway Animal

Two years ago if someone told me that I would have any animal aside from cats and dogs I would have told them they were crazy, correction I would have said they have lost their damn mind because I would never in my life have farm animals. Knowing all that I know now, I can honestly say that Chickens are the gateway to all other farm animals. When I first started reading about chickens I was so overwhelmed and scared of killing them, there are so many things that can go wrong and of course every single book makes you think you will kill them all in the first two weeks of life. Let me correct this notion for you, they actually aren’t that easy to kill. Even freshly hatched chicks are pretty hardy if you follow the basic instructions. You can go with the bare minimum of food, water, heat and clean bedding or you can get super fancy and mix electrolytes into their water, get medicated feed and even dust their bedding to protect from bugs. Lets go back a few steps before getting into all that.

Did you know there are hundreds of different breeds of chickens? And they have a range of purposes. First things first, you need to decide what you want chickens for. We wanted egg laying chickens, no meat chickens in the beginning. Lets face it, I have a bleeding heart and could never in my wildest dreams butcher a chicken that I have loved and raised and cared for from hatch. So its pretty easy to come up with a list of desired breeds that will get us the most eggs to feed our family. Next you need to decide quantity of chickens that will feed your family. I have a pretty simple way of figuring out how many are needed, it all depends on how many eggs you need a week. For example, most egg laying breeds will give you at least 5 eggs a week per chicken. So If you go through a dozen eggs a week you probably can get by with 3 chickens. If you are like my family when we were looking at this we were going through 4 dozen a week so we needed at least 12 chickens to support our habit. If you get more, you can sell the extra to help pay for feed or give them to neighbors to say thanks for putting up with my loud singing hens everyday. You can’t really go wrong with too many chickens. Once you know how many you want, then you need to decide how you will house them. Egg laying breeds are smaller chickens, they don’t get as big as dual purpose or meat chickens because they put all their extra energy into egg laying not building their meat. So for an enclosed coop an egg layer needs 3-4 sq/ft per bird and for an enclosed run area 8-10 sq/ft per bird. I had Micah put a fence up separating our front and back yard so we could have lots of safe free range space for them. We built an enclosed house with a run attached so when we were gone they would be safe or if there were flying predators we could get them to safety. But 99% of the time they are free ranging in our back yard rain or shine. You want to think about where you want to put the coop also, you don’t want to put it in a place in the yard you never go to or can’t see at all because you need to remember to care for your chickens. The last thing you need to decide is where you will get your adorable chicks from. Our first chickens were mostly from the feed store, we didn’t know any better so we ended up with hatchery birds. What most new chicken owners don’t know is hatcheries sex day old chicks and dispose of the roosters by grinding them up alive. Its a horrific fact of the hatchery business that I no longer support. As hard as it is when you walk into the feedstore to walk past those bins full of chicks that have been shipped from who knows where and under who knows what conditions, I beg of you please do not continue to support their barbaric practices by purchasing chicks there. There are so many chicken breeders all across the nation and world who truly care for their birds and take great care in their breeding practices to purchase new chicks from. Ok I’m off my soap box now and moving on.

Ok, so we got home with our first chicks. They were fluffy, adorable and peeped like loud little fire engines. They were perfect! We used our large dog crate as the brooder in the laundry room and set it all up with shavings, food, water and a heat source. I was like a crazy mommy who had just brought her newborn home from the hospital. I kid you not, I was checking the temperature every hour to make sure I wasn’t cooking or freezing them. All day and all night for the first week I was an absolute mess! Do you remember being a first time parent and checking to make sure your baby was breathing every few minutes they were sleeping and even waking baby up to make sure? Well thats what being a new chicken mommy is like. When baby chicks sleep they look dead, a big pile of dead baby chicks that you just have to bump into the brooder they are living in just to make sure they are alive. It gets easier though. I learned that if they are eating, drinking, running around and then sleeping off and on during the day they are just fine. We also made sure we were handling them several times a day, not just me but every person in the house had to hold them all at least once a day, even Wade our 1 year old with help from us. It didn’t take long before we were singing to the chicks and made up a chicken call when we brought treats to them so they would learn early on to come when called and they would be given treats. Within a week they were perching on our shoulders and knew that being held meant they would get chin and ear scratches which they loved! You can have chickens that are scared of you and have no relationship with their humans or you can have chickens who come to you when called, follow you around the yard, will jump on your back or shoulder when you are cleaning their space and will give hours of fun entertainment; we chose the latter. Its so much easier to check on your chickens health and well being if they will let you hold them and inspect them. I highly recommend giving them a little time everyday, it will be of greater benefit in the long run.

It takes about 8 weeks for your chicks to be fully feathered, they will need to be under heat that entire time. Its not like you can just throw them outside and they will survive. After the initial 2 weeks in our laundry room they had outgrown their dog crate brooder and it was time for an upgrade. Farmer Davis built a 3’x4′ plywood box with a removable chicken wire lid in our garage. Chickens are dusty and man did they spread it around! I was very happy when they went into the garage, they were still close for easy visits, they had their heater so I didn’t have to worry about them freezing and they had enough space to grow until they had all their feathers. We put a little roost in the new brooder so they could learn to sleep while roosting, gave them a pan filled with dirt and sand for dust bathing and they had their food and water raised off the ground. Two things to know about chicks, they love to kick all their food out of the feeder and then they will scratch around looking for the food they so carelessly spread all over the floor of their home. Dirty little things! Where do all those shavings go that they are kicking all about, well in their water of course! You also need to know that chickens keep themselves clean by taking a dust bath, they flail and roll around in dirt spreading it everywhere, getting the dirt all over themselves and then shake it all off… thats why you end up with dust all over the entire room they are living in.

You may think that 8 weeks won’t come soon enough however by the time their first set of feathers has come in, you will think it was a year! However, do not wait to build their big house, give yourself some extra time because something will inevitably slow you down or you will want to make changes. So make a plan, and due to chicken math make it bigger than what you think you will want to have. What is chicken math you say? Chicken math is what happens when you get your first chicks, you say oh I only need 6 chickens. Well I can promise you that you will want more. It only took me 4 weeks to experience chicken math first hand. Over the course of the last 2 years, I have been bit by the chicken math bug time and time again. At one point my chicken numbers hit 40 chickens, I’m currently sitting around 30 chickens total. So if you don’t want to end up with more than 1 chicken coop, plan to build it bigger than what you think you want, your numbers will grow. Either by seeing new baby chicks for sale online of some rare breed you think is so beautiful (happened to me twice) or an orphaned chicken is looking for a home, or best yet a chicken somehow wonders into your yard and never leaves. So just be smart so you don’t have to rebuild, add on or build a whole new coop. If you don’t plan ahead like me you will end up with 3 chicken coops and 2 duck houses spread out all over your yard.

The first 8 weeks are exciting, scary, nerve wrecking, funny and full of love. Enjoy it and don’t worry about not knowing everything from the beginning, you will always learn new things and can never know it all!!

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