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“I dream of a better tomorrow where chickens can cross the road and not be questioned about their motives.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Keeping Chickens: What You Need to Know

Taking care of chickens is similar to taking care of your pet dog or cat. You have to feed them the right food, watch for any health issues and clean up their poop. If you’re already rolling your eyes I suggest you stick with PEEPS.

What do they eat?

Chickens eat chicken feed.  You’ll be able to buy it at a local farm store.  Yes.  You probably really do have a local farm store. (if not you can always get it at Amazon, yes Amazon has chicken feed) The feed costs around $15 for a bag of regular feed or $22 for organic feed.  A 24kg bag will feed 4 chickens for around a month. 

You can stretch that feed by fermenting it. Fermenting chicken feed is no big deal, it’s just adding water to it and allowing it to sit a few days until it ferments. I have a whole post on doing it here. The result is full of good bacteria and nutrition that’s more easily absorbed due to all kinds of very sciency stuff. It’ll make sense if you read the post. 

Chickens will also eat good food scraps from salads, vegetable peelings, fruit, nuts, leftover mashed potatoes and on and on.  They’re carnivores so they’ll also dive right into meat.  It’s why they love to hunt bugs and mice.  Yes.  Chickens are excellent mousers.

Can I get just one chicken to see if I like it?

No. Chickens are very social creatures and one chicken would be painfully lonely.  Starting with 2 chickens is even a bad idea in case one of them dies.  Plan to start with 3 or 4 chickens for a happy, happy flock.

How soon before I get eggs from my chickens?

You’ll be waiting a long time to get one from your rooster, but young hens (pullets) will start to lay when they’re 4-6 months old depending on the breed. If you want eggs immediately then buy 4-6 month old pullets instead of cute little chicks. The disadvantage to this is you haven’t hand raised them so they might not be as friendly and cuddly as one you’ve raised from day one.

How long do they lay eggs?

The older a chicken gets, the fewer eggs it will lay per year.

Chickens are born with a certain number of egg yolks in them ready to be turned into full fledged eggs.  For the first year they lay almost every day (depending on the breed because some breeds lay a lot more.)  By the third year of laying a chicken will lay less.

Older chickens will lay quite regularly in the spring and then drop in egg production during the rest of the year.

By the time she was 8, Cheez Whiz only laid a couple of eggs a month at the most.  My current 7 year old chickens are each laying an egg every other day  but that’s unusual and will likely slow down to a few a month once spring is over.

Chicken Laying Eggs

Do I need a rooster for my hens to lay eggs?

Nope. Hens are like ladies. They walk around with hundreds of eggs inside of them all the time regardless of whether there’s a man around. The rooster only fertilizes the egg so the hen can have chicks.  No rooster = no fertilized eggs = no chicks.

Where do you buy chicks?

You can actually buy chicks (usually 1-2 days old), pullets (young hens that are at or close to laying age), or ready-to-lay hens (they’ve already laid their first egg). There are advantages to all of the options, but for now I’m talking about chicks.

A lot of towns have farm animal auctions.  Also, if you live anywhere near a farm, chances are they have chicks, chickens or fertilized eggs  for sale. Google it.  Craigslist it. Jump on Facebook Market Place lots of local sell there.  it.

You can also mail order day old chicks from hatcheries. This is one of the easiest and most popular ways to get chicks but you won’t be getting show quality chickens.  You know the pretty pictures of chickens you see of certain breeds on Pinterest?  Hatcheries generally don’t provide that type of representation of the breed.

But if you just want eggs you might not care.  Keep in mind if you order from a hatchery there’s always going to be a minimum order of many chicks. They need to travel in groups to keep each other warm during shipping.

For show quality chickens that are perfect examples of their breeds, you should get your chicks from a chicken farmer who shows their chickens or whose hobby is breeding for perfection.

How can I tell if a chick is a boy or girl?

That’s a tricky one. Some chicks you can tell immediately because they’re what’s described as autosexing. That means they’re an obviously visible characteristic that lets you know immediately if it’s a boy or a girl. A boy chick might have a dot on its head and a girl chick a stripe on its back for example (as with the case with Cream Crested Legbars.) 

Following are a few commonly used methods to make the determination. 

Vent sexing baby chicks

Vent sexing – or manually examining the reproductive organs – is one way to determine the gender of your new chicks.
 
Vent sexing is not easy and requires a trained eye. The training for vent sexing is lengthy and difficult; therefore, it is a practice most often only performed by large commercial hatcheries. Done improperly, vent sexing can cause disembowelment of the chick, so the process should not be attempted without professional training.
 
Trained professionals follow this process for vent sexing: the chick is turned upside down, fecal material is expelled, and the vent area is turned outward in the process. The observer looks for the presence or absence of a rudimentary male sex organ to determine if the chick is male or female. This method takes a lot of practice and is generally used only on commercial farms, and even the pros don’t have a 100 percent accuracy rate.

Feather sexing baby chicks

Another way to determine the gender of your birds is by their feathers. This process is called “feather sexing.”
 
Unfortunately there are no set rules in feather sexing across breeds. In some breeds, there are some notable differences between the feathers of male and female birds. The catch is that some of the differences are specific to certain genetic traits. Many breeds do not have such traits, and feathers can appear the same in pullets and cockerels. 
 
Because of these genetic differences, feather sexing is easier in some breeds than in others. For example, male Rhode Island Reds and New Hampshire breeds are hatched with a white spot on the down over the wing web. This spot is lost as the down is replaced with feathers. There is a lot of variation in the size of the spot, so this method is not always accurate.
 
Similarly, Barred Plymouth Rock breeds are born with a white spot on top of their heads. The spot is typically smaller and narrower in females versus males, but again the variation makes it an unreliable sexing tool.

Sex link chickens

With no definitive way to tell the gender of chicks from day one, some breeds have been bred to further show the gender from day one. These breeds are known as sex-linked crosses.
 
In sex-linked crosses, like the Black Sex-Link, genetics help tell the gender by both the color and the growth rate of feathers. The traits for color and growth rate, called alleles, are carried on the same chromosomes that determine the sex of the chicken. If the traits of the mother and father are known, the traits (and therefore the sex) of the hatchling can be deduced based on the appearance of color and feather growth.  
 
Unfortunately, sex-linked adults do not breed true, so to continue to produce sex-linked chicks one must maintain a flock of each of the parent breeds.

Chick-sexing myths

There are several myths about how to determine the sex of a baby chick. Here are the facts. 

  • The shape of the egg that houses a developing chick is not indicative of the hatchling’s sex.
  • Holding a weight on a string over the developing egg and watching it swing in a circle (female) or back. and forth (male) is not an accurate or scientific way to determine the sex of the chick.
  • One cannot candle an egg and determine if the embryo is male or female.

How to sex chicks: No easy way

By now, you’ve probably guessed that there is no simple way to determine the sex of a day-old chick.
 
The best tried and true method is to watch the chick grow. Cockerels will develop larger combs and wattles, as well as longer tail feathers. They are typically larger in body size and will begin to crow (or try to) a few weeks after hatching. While not a quick determination, the “growth watch” method is the only practical, truly accurate way to determine the sex of a chick.
 
Even if you’ve ordered or purchased pullets, know that mistakes happen and there is a margin of error for everything. Make sure to have a plan in case you accidentally end up with a rooster and cannot keep him. Some town or city ordinances do not allow roosters in suburban areas. Working with your local farm store, you may be able to network and find other farms or backyard enthusiasts more than willing to raise roosters.

Chickens in the winter

Where do the chickens live in the winter?

Mainly though they just live in the very same coop they live in the rest of the year. Taking care of chickens in the winter isn’t very different than caring for them in the summer. Chickens are covered in feathers just like other birds that live outside all year are.  They’re very good at keeping warm but not nearly as good at cooling down. 

So if you’re worried about the weather taking a toll on your chickens, you should be more worried about the heat than the cold. It’s also more important to keep a coop dry than it is to keep it warm. Dampness can kill a chicken and create respiratory illnesses. 

How do you keep a coop dry?  Make sure you clean out the poop and make sure your coop has a lot of open venting. Yes. Even in the middle of winter the coop should have open venting for moisture to escape.

Chickens also don’t like to get drafts so make sure the coop venting is well above where they roost at night. Bottom line, look into what breeds will do the best in whatever weather you have. Some breeds are better with the heat and some are better with the cold.

How often do you need to clean the coop?

I clean the inside of their coop where they sleep twice a week and for the rest of my coop and chicken run I use the deep litter method.  This is where you leave all the poop, give it a rake once a week and add more bedding on top.  I clean out the entire thing 3 or 4 times a year, transferring everything to my compost bin and then starting over in the run with a new 5″ layer or straw or pine shavings.

What to do with chicken poop

Chicken poop and bedding can go straight into a compost pile or bin. Sometimes I just mound it up and lay a tarp over it.  The poop and straw is a perfect combination of materials for making fast and hot compost.  I do hot composting which produces fully ready compost in one month. 

Do chickens stink?

Sometimes.  But mainly no, especially if you just have a small backyard flock and not a ginormous chicken barn.  No worse than dogs or kids.  And if you do what I say regarding coop maintenance then neither you nor your neighbours will ever smell your chicken coop.

Can they get sick? 

Oh boy. Yes, they can.  Chickens get a variety of ailments. Some I’ve experienced with my flocks and some I haven’t. Common problems with chickens are Bumblefoot, prolapsed vents, respiratory problems and mites.  Personally my flock has experienced Egg Yolk Peritonitis, Fly Strike, general bloody wounds, mites infestations and sour crop. 

What else do I need to know?

Chickens aren’t an accessory. If you never even thought about having chickens before the great chicken rage of the past decade they might not be for you.  Or they might!  You have to give it careful consideration and know that they’re living creatures that you’re committing to taking care of. Take these next few things into consideration …

A Case Against Owning Backyard Chickens

If more than a couple of these things bother you, you might not like keeping chickens.

  • If you go on vacation you’ll need a chicken sitter.
  • You’ll need to feed, make sure their water is clean, and give them a quick health check every day.
  • You will touch chicken poop.
  • You will need to build or buy a coop to keep them save from predators and the elements.
  • Even with a coop much of your time will be spent worrying about predators.
  • You will become addicted to chickens.  You will want more and more chickens.
  • You’ll discover some chickens are cuddly and want to sit on your lap all day while you pet them.
  • You’ll discover some chickens want nothing to do with you and may even bite.
  • Eventually they will die and it will be very, very sad.

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