One of the most common sights on any homestead, big or small, is the backyard flock of chickens. There are many benefits to raising your own chickens. Farm-fresh eggs are more delicious than grocery store eggs. Their bright orange yolks stand straight up in the pan, and they are rich in Omega 3 fatty acids due to the diet of chickens that are allowed to free range on grass. Chickens are also easy to slaughter and dress, and their meat is tastier and healthier than the dry, flavorless chicken you buy at the grocery store. Hens in a backyard flock are also gentle, and make good outdoor pets for children.
Choose the Right Breed of Chicken
The first choice when deciding to raise chickens is what breed to get. This depends on the purpose of your chickens. If you want eggs and no meat, you will want to get an egg laying breed such as Leghorns. It is not necessary to have a rooster for hens to lay eggs. They will lay eggs regardless of the presence of a rooster, and all a rooster will do is create the possibility that some eggs will be fertilized and you will one day crack open an egg to find a baby chicken inside. If you want only meat and no eggs, you will want a heavy meat breed such as Cornish Cross. These sorts of birds gain weight very fast and are ready to slaughter at 8-10 weeks old.
On the other hand, if you want both meat and eggs, you can choose a dual-purpose breed such as Rhode Island Reds or Buff Orpingtons. These birds produce fewer eggs than egg breeds and grow smaller than meat breeds, but tend to be hardier and healthier than both. Egg breeds are sensitive to weather extremes, while meat breeds are inclined to joint and bone problems due to their fast rate of weight gain. Dual-purpose breeds are the sturdy heritage breeds of homesteads of the past.
If you get a dual-purpose breed to raise for both meat and eggs, the best method is to buy a straight run of chicks. You can incubate eggs if you want to get an egg incubator, but fertilized eggs do not have a 100% hatch rate, and you get a better return if you buy the chicks. Chicks are hatched with enough nutrition in their stomachs to last for a day or two without having to eat, so they will arrive at your post office healthy and well. Good hatcheries have a guarantee of live delivery, so you can count on receiving as many live chicks as you ordered. Two reliable hatcheries in the US are Cackle Hatchery (www.cacklehatchery.com) and McMurray Hatchery (www.mcmurrayhatchery.com).
Creating Perfect Conditions for Keeping Chickens
To brood your chicks, you need a box or crate with clean bedding and a heat lamp. They need to have a 90 degree environment for the first few weeks, after which the temperature can be lowered by 5 degrees every week by raising the lamp and moving it farther away from the chicks. Keep a thermometer in the brood box, and watch the chicks’ behavior to determine if they are comfortable. If they are huddled together, they are cold, while if they spread to the outside of the box, they are too hot. Ideally, they should be spread evenly over the space of the box.
When the chicks’ adult feathers come in, they can begin regulating their own body temperature and can be moved outside. They need a coop to protect them from nighttime predators and a safe place to lay their eggs, once they begin laying. Chickens sleep roosting, so you will need to give them an elevated place to perch in their coop. They like to lay eggs in small, enclosed areas. You should plan for at least 1 laying box per 4 hens.
Once you can tell the difference between the roosters and the hens, you will want to separate the roosters and begin to feed them broiler feed to increase their meat production. They will grow slower than meat breeds, and will be ready to slaughter at 3-4 months. They can be slaughtered later, of course; in fact, hens past their laying can also be slaughtered for meat, but the older the birds get the slower and longer they must be cooked in order for the meat to be tender.
If you want to breed new chicks from this flock, save roosters with a rooster-hen ratio of 1:10 or 1:15, so as to keep your hens from being overbred. Hens that are stressed by having too many roosters do not lay at their peak capacity and become ill easily.
With or without roosters, hens will begin to lay at 4-6 months old. They will continue to scale up their egg production for the next couple of months until they reach a peak rate of about an egg every day and a half, for most dual-purpose breeds. in the winter, they will slow down production. Some farmers use artificial light to extend the hours of light and keep the egg production up, but it is healthier for the hens to have a rest from their high rate of egg production. Similarly, in the high summer hens will often decrease their egg production as a result of the heat, though you can help to prevent this by making sure they have plenty of shade and by spraying down their coop with water to provide evaporative cooling.