Fresh eggs and chemical-free meat are two good reasons to raise backyard birds. Keeping a small flock of chickens also provides plenty of nitrogen-rich manure for the garden and natural bug control for your yard.
Backyard chickens are common in rural areas, but chicken farming is becoming increasingly popular in urban areas. As a result, many city ordinances have amended laws that allow residential coops. Most ordinances dictate a maximum of six hens, no roosters, and require the chicken coop be 15 to 100 feet from the house. Some require permits. Check your local regulations.
Determine which breed to buy
Hundreds of chicken breeds exist. Some breeds are better for meat, others for eggs. Mail order poultry catalogs identify several breeds as “dual-purpose.” My experience has been that the meat from dual-purpose birds is inferior to meat from broilers.
Different chicken breeds lay different colors of eggs. Interesting fact: the color of a hen’s earlobes tells what color egg it lays. Although all egg colors taste the same and contain the same nutrition, a multicolored carton of brown, green, blue and white eggs has a beautiful effect. If you have an egg color preference, choose a breed of laying hen accordingly.
Best time to raise chicks
You can buy chicks through mail order any time of year, but if you plan to keep them outdoors, warm weather makes it easier to maintain a 90-95 degree environment the first week. After week one, gradually lower the temperature by five degrees for five weeks to help chicks acclimate to an average temperature of 70 degrees. Once chickens have traded their baby fluff for full feathers they do not need supplemental heat.
Chicks live their first 8-10 weeks of life in a brooder box. If you are only raising a few hens, you can use a large cardboard box as your brooder. Hang a 250 watt heat lamp a safe distance from the cardboard edges to achieve a temperature of 90-95 degrees. Fill the box with bedding, chick feed and fresh water. I add powdered electrolytes to their water for the first week of life to help chicks recover from transit and maintain hydration.
An average laying hen requires only 1.5 sq. ft. of indoor space and 8 sq. ft. outdoors. My free range chickens enjoy much more. Factory farmed chickens are given much less. If your space is limited, consider mini Bantam breeds that require only 1 sq. ft. of indoor space and 4 sq. ft. outdoors.
People fashion creative coops out of everything from old car frames to discarded playhouses. If you’d like a look at my coop check it out here.
Whatever shape coop you design, it is necessary to include a roost and nesting boxes. Fourteen hours of light each day and good ventilation are critical to keeping layers healthy and productive. Food, water and clean bedding make the coop a home-sweet-home for chickens.
Hens start to lay eggs when they are 20-25 weeks old. They reach peak production at one year old. The amount of eggs laid decreases every year thereafter. Chickens can live over 10 years, but a typical natural lifespan is closer to five years.
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