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Chicken Keeping Basics – Backyard Chicken Keeping
Chickens…I believe that ANYONE with a yard the size of a postage stamp can raise chickens without a problem. Yes, you heard me right, they are easy to keep, they are quieter than your neighborhood dog, they live as long as dogs, they eat your leftovers and give you something to eat almost every day.
However, as with all good things, comes responsibility. First and foremost, young children should not play with chickens, and children should generally be supervised around chickens as they are very fragile and easily injured. They also need to be protected from dogs, cats and other potential predators, so they need a chicken coop and an enclosed area where they can safely hide. But believe me, it’s really worth it.
My big bonus…In the nine years since I started keeping chickens, I haven’t had to buy a single egg.
I enjoy collecting fresh eggs every day of the year, although when the days get short and it gets really cold or really hot, the hens lay more slowly. They are also excellent soil tillers, rivaling most dogs in how well they dig. They also eat weeds, seeds and insects, providing rich fertilizer along the way. In addition, they are natural composters. I shove all my food and yard scraps into the chicken yard and let the chickens do their thing. Then once a year I rake everything and put it in the compost bins that I keep in the chicken area. In this way, the chickens do most of the work.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. For several years before I actually got my first hen, the mystery of keeping chickens kept me from taking the leap. After all, I live in the heart of the 5th largest city in the United States and I was wondering – How can I keep chickens? What do they eat? When do they eat? Where do they live?
I often visited my friend Debee, affectionately known as the chicken lady, and often talked about her chickens. She would sell me a dozen eggs for a dollar. Then a mutual acquaintance offered to give me some adult chickens and concrete advice for keeping them. I was also running.
Just keeping chickens is easy. First build them a small coop to live in at night, make sure they have daily food and water and you’re good to go. Your local feed store will have all the advice, materials and feed you will need. I started with some grown chickens (I value my sleep so no roosters, plus hey, I don’t want to disturb the neighbors). However, at some point, I really suggest getting a few day-old chicks and raising them to adulthood. And it’s easier than you think.
I started with a large box the size of a dishwasher and a smaller box the size of 10 reams of paper. Cut a small hole the size of a chicken in the smaller box and place it open side up in the larger box. This creates two rooms for the chickens to live in. Now get a 25 watt light bulb and hang it in a smaller room so the chickens can heat and/or cool as needed. Add a small water bowl (keep it small as chicks can drown easily) and a bowl of some protein kibble for them. Change the water daily and add food and in a few months they will be ready for the yard.
Once you have grown chickens, move them to their permanent home, which can be a stationary coop or a portable chicken coop, called a coop. (They can survive in your yard and find places to shelter in trees and bushes, but they are not protected from predators and like to eat greenery, grass, flowers and plants.) Chicken tractors are great because you can move them from bed to bed and let the chickens clean insects, weeds and manure. This makes the planting process much easier.
I chose a permanent spot in my backyard and erected a small 4 x 8 foot coop for her to retire to each evening. I then built a 20 x 30 coop yard for them to live in during the day. This is where I feed them, collect eggs and generally let them hang out.
How many eggs does a hen lay? The hen starts laying eggs at about 5 to 6 months. You can tell when they are laying because they tend to screech like they are laying an egg. For the first year or two, given that they are not under too much stress; she will lay about 6 eggs per week. Then, as they grow up, they lay less and less, but the eggs get bigger. Stressors include heat, cold, a dog around, or anything else that you think would upset them a bit. They also stop lying when they molt. And to completely dispel the urban myth – chickens do NOT need a rooster to lay eggs!
For spring chickens and a happy egg harvest until autumn.
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