Today we’ll talk about what you can expect from the experience of keeping chickens.
Chickens belong to flocks. You usually won’t want any fewer than 3 or 4 chickens. When you buy chickens as chicks, they are usually just a couple days old. If you buy them as hens, they may be several months old or even a couple years old.
There are many, many breeds of chickens. We will discuss this in greater detail later, but for now you should be aware they are classified as egg-laying breeds, meat breeds, and dual-purpose breeds.
Chicks do not need mothers to raise them, but they do usually need to be raised in a “brooder,” which is a temperature-controlled cage. Gradually the temperature of the brooder is reduced until the birds have full feathers and they are capable of keeping themselves warm. Chicks also huddle together to keep each other warm.
Chicks need special food. Their food is usually called “mash” or “crumbles” or “chick starter.” It is in small bits that are easy to eat. When you buy chick starter, you have the choice of buying medicated or non-medicated feed. The medicated feed is supposed to prevent some common chick illnesses so that chicks are more likely to survive. It is very common to feed chicks medicated feed. When we first bought chicks, we fed them medicated feed on the recommendation of the feed store. Since then, we have decided not to medicate our chicks, because we want to raise them as naturally as possible. We make sure they always have clean water, and food, and we change their shavings regularly, and we have never had any problems with sick birds. So, the choice is yours.
Hens can eat an egg-layer mash (crumbles) or pellets. Chicken feed comes with varying amounts of protein. Usually people buy a lower protein amount during the summer, and a higher protein amount during the winter, because the higher protein content helps keep the birds warm.
Chicks (and hens) are given free access to food and water.
Chickens also love to eat bugs, and table scraps! Chicken waste makes excellent fertilizer.
Once they are big enough, chickens need to have a coop. The coop should provide adequate shelter, and it should have a roost (which is a bar for the birds to perch on) and at least one nesting box for your chickens to lay their eggs in. Surprisingly, most chickens like to lay their eggs all in the same spot. Inside the coop you usually want about 2-3 square feet per bird.
The chicken coop should have pine shavings or wood pellets at the bottom. The coop will need to be cleaned out periodically. If you use what is called the “deep litter method” you will only need to clean the coop a couple times per year.
Chickens should also have space outside their coop. Depending on where you live, you may be able to let your chickens just go where they please, or you may need to provide them with a chicken run. The chicken run should have a minimum of 4-5 square feet per bird.
Most chickens will lay eggs about 2 out of every 3 days. Some breeds lay more, some breeds lay less. Birds tend to lay less often during the winter.
Your birds will start laying eggs when they are about 4-6 months old. When they actually start depends upon the breed of chicken (some mature faster than others), the season, and the temperature. Chickens usually lay eggs really well for 2-3 years. Each year the eggs usually get a little larger, and the birds lay them less often.
Chickens will lay eggs whether or not you have a rooster. If you have a rooster (and a chicken that is “broody,” or interested in raising babies), then you can have chicks. If you do not have a rooster, you will still get just as many eggs, but they will never hatch into chicks.
Chickens have little personalities! Different breeds vary, but many breeds are friendly to humans if you interact with them as they grow.
You will need to protect your birds from predators. Our biggest predator has been our dog, but if you live somewhere more rural you may have problems with coyotes, raccoons, or others.
Hopefully, this has given you a very basic idea of what it is like to raise chickens! Next time we will look at what things you need to start keeping chickens.