Homestead Chickens

So far in this homesteading series we have covered growing crops, finding land, and deciding between country and city homesteading.  So, now let’s talk about the quintessential dream of a homestead; chickens!  They make an ordinary house in the city feel like a farm.  They provide lots of colorful eggs and they replace cable television.  All you need is a lawn chair and a drink in the evenings and watch them run and dirt bathe.  It’s hilarious.

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Now, I can be pretty sassy when I think I am right. (Aren’t I always right?)  But I will be the first to admit when I am wrong.  And I was wrong.  Let me swallow my pride right quick.  Ahem, okay, well, I have been a vegetarian/vegan for the better part of thirty-three years and have been pretty adamant and downright pushy about the health benefits and a utopia society.  I realize that every culture since the beginning of time has consumed animal protein.  I realize that cultures without access to animal protein usually have nutritional deficiencies.  I realize that the environmental impacts of animal husbandry and our own health are caused by factory farms, not the small, local ranch or fishing hole.  Getting soy fed hamburger from New Zealand and salmon from farms is a really great way of screwing up the earth and body’s health.  Trucking in out of season produce and processed soy products aren’t so great either.  I recognize that keeping meat chickens so long on a perfect urban farm was to cause pain and suffering to them.  Death is quick and is not necessarily a negative to the party affected.  Five ten pound chickens came back to me without pain.  The rooster no longer crying in the corner of the coop with broken legs.  My daughter was overjoyed to receive one for food.  It will feed her family for a week!  They are sweet and dopey and then they are food.  I get that now.  Now on to chicken husbandry!

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Chickens- You can keep laying hens and get close to 300 eggs a year from one.  They produce eggs for two years pretty good and then start to decline.  They produce a certain amount of eggs and there is no tricking them into having more.  I haven’t had a chicken live longer than three years, though I have heard they can.  You can keep meat chickens and keep them for ten weeks then send them to camp.  They can all be kept together.

Home- They need a sturdy house.  A shed or designed coop works great with a sturdy fenced in yard.  Everyone (dogs, raccoons, hawks, skunks, coyotes) loves chicken dinner, so you must close the door to the coop each and every night!  The girls put themselves to bed at dusk.

Yard- Forget the Country Living cover photos of chickens in the kitchen (they poop) or luxuriating amongst plants (they will eat every one of them), they just need some good foraging space to dust bathe and eat bugs and what greenery they haven’t already eaten.

Food- Free feed them organic chicken feed and every day give them a few scoops of organic scratch for treats.  They love slightly off veggies and fruit and leftovers.  Feed them back their own eggs shells crushed for calcium.  Give them oyster shells if they need stronger shells.  Always keep fresh water available.

Chicks- When you bring home your peeping box of joy, place them into a plastic bin with a little shredded newspaper or straw, a little feeder of organic chick starter, and another one of water.  Have the heat lamp on the edge of the box.  They should be at a cozy 95 degrees.  If they hover in the far corner away from the lamp, they are too hot, if they huddle under it, they are too cold.  You want to adjust the heat lamp so they are running freely and pile up wherever.  Dip their beaks into the water to teach them to drink.  Raise the heat lamp a little each week, lowering the temperature ten degrees a week until it matches the outdoor temps.  By then they will be jumping out looking for food and fun.

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I have been writing and speaking about chickens for over six years now.  You can read through any of my articles under Animals/Chickens for laughs and info.  This article was published in the newspaper some years ago. You may be surprised at some of the chicken facts!  13 Things the Ladies Want You To Know 

 

 

 

Chicks and Ducks (the first six weeks and joining the flock)

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The mini-quacking from the chicken coop cannot help but bring a smile to my face.  The ducklings are so amazingly adorable.  The chicks are cute running about in hysteria.  Yes, the babies have been moved to the coop with just a little worry on my part.  Last year we were absolutely paranoid when we transferred the new chicks to the coop.  The hens look larger than life when you compare them to six week old chicks!  They also seem pissier.  But we have found a way to do this successfully each time.

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1 day old through four weeks old we destroy the bathroom.  The bathtub is safe, weather free, continuously warm, and dry (except for the ducks).  We set up a plastic tub in the bathtub with a little straw, their feeder and a cup of water.  We attach the heat lamp rather low, just above the box.  We dip each chick’s beak into the water to get them drinking. We check for poopy bottoms that need to be cleaned (just yank it off) the first couple of weeks.  We see if the chicks are huddled under the light (too cold) or in the far corner (too hot) and adjust the lamp from there.  The chicks should be running around.  Raise the lamp a little each week.

There are only two adversaries of bathtub chick.  Cats that can get through the door (thankfully no issues here), and an open toilet seat.  I am afraid Decaf could not swim.  She hadn’t even flown out of the box yet when Emily found her.  How did she get over there?!  Conspiracy theories fill our heads.

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On their fourth week birthday the bathtub is again available for use.  The chicks move to the garage.  We bought a large metal portable fence rather inexpensively at the farm store.  It folds up or out and becomes whatever size you need.  A folding table covered the top with about a foot open on one end to allow the heat lamp to shine through.  Same procedure, see if they are running around, make sure they are comfortable and loud.  Sure sign of happy chicks.

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On their fifth week birthday the whole contraption moves inside the chicken coop.  The chicks (and ducks) stay in the cage for another week while the ladies get used to them being there and all the ruckus.

On their sixth week birthday night we prop the door open a few inches.  That way they can come out and run in but the big girls cannot get into the cage.  The next morning at the crack of dawn I am out there checking to make sure there were no massacres.  No one seems the wiser and the interest is in food and freedom.  While the hens are out running around enjoying the lawn and the day, the chicks and ducklings wander the coop.  They will at some point discover their way out only to have to be corralled back in when they cannot figure out reentry.  It is one of our jobs here, rounding up chicks.  Not a bad gig.  They will eventually grow even bigger and be a part of the flock before we know it.  Look who else is trying to join the flock!

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Ready..Set..Chicks!

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I carried the box of babies, chirping up a storm, out the back door to the garage.  Apparently eleven chickens and a red light were a bit too much in the nursery for a new mom so Emily banished them to the garage!  So out we traipsed to the garage where the set up and Aretha and Ginger had been moved.  The noise raised the attention of Daffodil the grown chicken.  She pulled up tall and started attacking my boot.  Seems one of the babies was talking smack.  Safely in the garage, I dipped each tiny beak into the water and let them have a drink.  They settled in immediately.  The sheer horror and confusion on Aretha’s face was more than amusing as she was ten days old when the chicks came and had clearly made this her domain.  While Ginger hid in the corner, Aretha pecked at their little toes and ran right over the top of them.  I held my breath and tried to calm her but I knew she just had to get used to the new infants.  Which she quickly did.  Lesson one: Don’t put chicks around the big chickies yet.

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Lesson two: Make sure you keep the red heat lamp on them.  A draft will kill such fragile babies.  Lift it a little each week as they grow to help them get used to the outside temperature but if they are huddled beneath it, lower it again.

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Lesson 3: Some will die, it is inevitable.  They are taken immediately from the shell and placed in boxes and shipped all over the country.  It is a hard beginning to life.  The strongest survive.  I came in the other morning to check on the little fluffs and saw one laying down.  They do sleep a lot, sometimes with their little faces in the shavings.  They look dead, but then jump up in a surprise manner to let you know they were just kidding.  This one looked flat, deflated.  Her sisters ran over her and she didn’t budge.  I gently lifted her little body out of the box.  One Buff Orpington less.

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Lesson 4: This is where being a mommy comes in.  Check bottoms regularly.  If they get plugged up with poo, just take a hold of the dried mess and pull quick, like a bandaid.  It will free up the space so they don’t get stopped up.

Lesson 5: Feed organic chick feed, specific to new chickies.  You do not need the antibiotics and fillers that are in conventional.  It doesn’t cost a whole lot more and you know they are getting good nutrition.

Lesson 6: I used a small saucer for water because the chickens were so small but with eleven it sure emptied out quick and there would be a little yellow chick sitting sadly in the middle of the empty saucer.  I couldn’t seem to find the little automatic waterer I had for babies so I went to the feed store and bought a new one for five dollars.  I filled the water reserve and placed it in their box.  They danced around with joy and drank around the miniature water trough.  Make sure you check it a few times a day.  These kids love to scratch and will pile shavings and poo right into the water….often.  As I walked out of the garage, there was the old waterer.  In the chicken yard.  Who put that there?!

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Lesson 7:  Give kisses daily.  Hold them and introduce yourself so you will have a good shot at having friendly chickens like Peep, who you have to be careful not to trip over because she stops right in front of your feet to be pet!

Food, water, kisses…what more could a baby want?