Thursday, May 03, 2012

Keeping Chickens - A Death In The Family

Keeping chickens is great fun, but it can be hard. Tell anyone that your cat has died, or your guinea pig or even your budgie, and chances are they’ll respond with a modicum of tact and sympathy.

Not so when it comes to saying goodbye to a chicken.

“Well that’s dinner sorted out, then.” is the common response or “Curried or casserole?”

But our chickens are pets – and you wouldn’t eat your pet, would you? Also, to be pragmatic about it, they’re laying hens, which means they’re pretty stringy and, by the time they go to the great chicken coop in the sky, are also rather old and tough.

Even if we weren’t vegetarian, there would be precious little to do with them apart from making stock. But it does prompt the question of what do you do with chickens when it’s the end.

Although hens can live to a relative old age – I’ve heard of them living up to 10 years – a shorter lifespan is much more common. The little brown hybrid laying machines, which have been bred over the years to pop out an egg on a daily basis, have correspondingly short lives. They’re lucky to make it to three or four years, although some miraculous birds last a while longer than that. Pure breeds, which take a break from laying for a few months each winter, and which only lay every couple of days, can expect to live longer.

All of this means it’s inevitable that the chicken-keeper will face a death in the flock sooner rather than later, so it’s as well to have a plan. I’m relatively unusual in the rural area where I live in that I don’t treat my little flock as livestock. That means that I even take them to the vet when they are ill. This, I might add, is greeted with some incredulity among the local farming community (and sometimes at the vet’s, too).

In particular, people seem to think it very odd that I’ve taken hens to the vet to be put to sleep – that’s really not the done thing in the country. But what are the alternatives? In the three years that I’ve been keeping chickens, I’ve lost four – and, as I write, one of the current 11 is looking a bit wobbly on her feet.

The first casualty when I started keeping chickens was Agatha, one of the three ex-battery hens which arrived in November 2009. She didn’t quite manage it to a year out of prison, but it’s actually amazing she lasted as long as she did. From the start she was always a bit hopeless, really. Her bottom – rather than being fluffy and clean like the others, and despite regular worming – tended to be matted with poo, which we regularly had to cut off with scissors so that she wasn’t dragging round this great faecal weight. That meant we also used to spray her bare bum with gentian violet spray to stop her being attacked by the others, for whom a bright red bottom is like a rag to a bull.

Agatha was also too slow to get any of the treats which we threw into their run, which inevitably meant she was hand fed corn and other titbits so that she wasn’t left out – I told you they’re pets. Despite all that, she seemed to have a happy enough life, although she rarely laid an egg. Around nine months after we got her, however, she started to look miserable and unhappy and hunched up. She was probably aged less than two and a half at this point. A trip to the vet confirmed she had a blockage from which she wouldn’t get better, so we said goodbye.

The next two had the consideration to fall off the perch (not literally) while we were away, leaving my lovely chicken-sitting neighbour to cope. The first death was expected – Wonky had been looking a bit, well, wonky, for a while, with a recurring limp for which she was under veterinary attention (don’t even ask about the bills); and the second wasn’t a huge surprise. The most recent also involved a trip to the vet and another fatal injection.

So why do I go the pricy vet route? I personally don't want to wring their neck or chop off their head as they are my pets and deserve more respect than that. If you think I'm being soppy, then try and kill a chicken yourself. It's not a pleasant experience and if don't wrong, can result in a lot of stress for the chicken and the executioner. I think they deserve better than that.

Of course sometimes death isn’t intentional. One friend lost a chicken to her lurcher dog (who was well and truly walloped with a Wellington boot and is now the hens’ best friend). The dog had left the chicken half-dead, so my friend had to finish her off with a meat cleaver and was traumatised for days. I admire another friend along the road who, having decided to breed chickens for the table as well as for eggs, has taken on the responsibility of killing them herself. My feeling, largely, is that if you eat meat you should be prepared to kill it – or at least not try to pretend that the killing part doesn’t happen. (And I know that’s easy for me to say as a vegetarian).

Given that my little flock isn’t intended for that route, however, I’m happy to outsource the task to ensure that there’s as little suffering as possible – yes, for me as well as for the chicken. But what to do with the little chicken corpses? Would you be surprised if I confessed to having a little hen graveyard, with individual headstones lovingly carved, for each of my girls who have gone to the great coop in the sky? No, don’t be silly – they’re double-bagged and put in the bin. They might be pets, but I’m keeping chickens and I'm not that soppy....although it might be different when my favourite hen Ena goes ;)

Monday, March 19, 2012

Hatching The Best Laid Plan For Keeping Chickens

If you’re thinking of keeping chickens at home and joining the backyard chicken movement, now is the time to spring into action.

Spring brings more light and warmth as well as longer days, which equates to more egg production than in winter. Warmer weather is a good time to get chickens acclimated to your yard and their coop, and this is the best time of year to get your new 16 week old layers.

The main benefit is fresh eggs of course, but raising chickens is a fun family hobby and a way to teach children about the food chain and responsibility. The chickens will also provide hours of entertainment, as they all have their own quirks and characters.

"It’s really created a nice sense of community in our neighbourhood," said Barry Roth, who raises chickens with his wife, Barbara, and children, Tilley, 10, and Jake, 8, at their home in Devon, UK, "Our neighbours love them and all want to get involved. They fight over who looks after them when we go away for holidays."

Here are four things you need to know about keeping chickens:

-- Make sure chickens are permitted.

Regulations in some counties, cities and neighbourhoods may keep you from raising chickens in your backyard, so always check. In the US, call your local zoning office. Regulations related to the coop’s distance from the property boundary also may apply, so you need to check them out. In the UK, raising chickens is permitted as long as they are not a nuisance to your neighbours (Giving free fresh eggs normally keeps even the most disgruntled neighbour happy).

-- Determine how you want the chickens to live.

One decision is whether you want them to be “free range,” stay in the coop, or both. We let our chickens free range, being let out first thing in the morning and lock them up again at night, but we have a large garden and accept the risk involved with predators. They will keep your garden clear of bugs, but they can make a mess of your flower beds, so be warned!

Most backyard hens are kept in a hen house or coop with a covered run, which should ideally be moved around the garden every day to avoid a build up of poultry poop and the problems that come with that. If you do let your chickens run free in your garden, make sure they cannot get into your neighbours garden and cause damage, as you will be liable if they do. It is your legal responsibility to keep them in your garden and not your neighbours responsibility to keep them out.

Buying chickens varies a lot depending on whether you rescue a older battery-farmed bird (which are normally free) to a rare-breed organic bird that can cost up to £100 each. A regular layer will cost you about £10. Feed costs also vary depending on whether you go organic or not. Find your nearest animal feed supplier to check current prices for Layers Pellets.

-- Don’t count your chickens before getting a coop or hen house.

It’s very easy to get carried away by these really cute fluffy chicks, but they get really big fast. Always make sure you build the hen house or coop first before getting any feathered friends. I don't recommend getting chicks, as you may end up with boys, and then you're in a dilemma as to what to do with them when they get older (No one wants a Cockerell and putting them in the pot may be your only solution, and that may be a step too far for you). Get 16 week old hens that have just starting laying.

Hen houses or coops can range from old sheds, dog kennels or hutches to very elaborate custom-built structures and prefabricated poultry palaces. Making your own hen house is a lot of fun and one of the best things about keeping chickens.

We adapted a have 8-foot-square shed into a hen house and houses 12 chickens. It's 3 feet off the ground to keep out predators and vermin (And under the hen house is also a great place to create dust baths for the hens).

You can buy a hen house or coop from most garden centres these days for around £150 or you can go all trendy and get an Eglu. But it's not cheep at £400+ for the house, run, two chickens and some feed. I prefer to make my own.

-- Consider the coop’s location.

You don’t need a lot of space, but you must be able to move the hen house or coop around to avoid a build up of poop and bugs. Just make sure you clean out the house every week and smells won't ever be an issue. Also make sure you store the chicken feed in a secure metal container as that is what attracts vermin. Having water nearby is also a big bonus when keeping chickens, but that shouldn't be a problem for most backyards.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Raising Chickens - Jennifer Aniston's New Friends Are Chickens

raising chickens at home

We all know that former Friends star Jennifer Aniston is a dog lover, but now it seems she has discovered the joys of raising chickens.

Jen found she had inherited a chicken coop on the new property she recently purchased, and it included a flock of chickens!

The former “Friends” actress seems to be taking their care very seriously, and commented that she's really enjoying the company of her new feathered friends. She said, “They’re very social animals, and they like it when you visit them with a cup of coffee in your hand. They also love pasta.”

More than a few people have quit eating meat once they get to know their chickens up close and personal, so I wonder if Jen will soon be announcing that she is a vegetarian now she has started raising chickens of her own and getting to know their individual characters?

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Build Your Own Chicken Coop or Hen House

One of the greatest pleasures of keeping chickens is building your own chicken coop or hen house. Not only does it save you a lot of money, but it is a lot of fun and will give you an enormous sense of achievement once it is finished - You also get to customize your coop just the way you want it!

best chicken coop plansThere are many chicken coop plans available to buy online, but the ONLY one I recommend is Bill's excellent ebook, which provides you with no only the best chicken house plans, but really great advice on every aspect of building and maintaining it.

But don't take my word for it. Read the genuine testimonials from a couple of very happy customers below...

best chicken coop plans
"...If you are considering keeping chickens in your back yard, you MUST read this book. Whether you have a tiny courtyard or acres to play with, Keene’s advice will stand you in good stead and help you build the right chicken coop. The focus of the book is on being well-prepared for your flock before they even arrive. Keene ensures that you consider every issue before you spend a cent on birds, feed or equipment. He discusses which species is appropriate for your garden, what they should eat and, as the title suggests, how you should house them. Anyone with basic do-it-yourself tools and a patch of land could follow his instructions. The drawings and diagrams are easy to interpret and the lists of materials and tools needed are very helpful. Keene also appreciates that the value of using recycled materials in your chicken coop – cheap and environmentally friendly. Keene encourages responsible husbandry – his reminder of tasks to be completed weekly, monthly and sixth monthly should be replicated onto the calendar of any careful poultry keeper. The level of detail is just right, from a list of the color of the egg you might expect from you hen to a description of healthy hen’s poop! If you follow his tips, your happy hens will be very productive. Next we need a cookbook for ideas to use up all the spare eggs…" Tracy Ann - Amateur Chicken Farmer from Devon, UK

"Have you been planning to make a cozy, comfortable and tidy coop for your chickens? Well, follow the guidelines in this wonderful resource! My chickens are happy with their new home! Bill's book helped me make a well-planned, easy-to-clean-and-maintain coop for my chickens. I got practical tips on locating, positioning, protecting and maintaining the climate in the coop. Like me, it will help you too to choose the appropriate size, building design and materials for construction. This book not only helps you save while you build, but also enjoy the freedom to customize the coop to your individual specifications and needs. With valuable inputs on light and ventilation, I was able to ensure that the coop position was such that it allowed enough light in, but did not make the coop draughty. I particularly enjoyed the creative and innovative ideas thrown in about building low cost nesting boxes with material lying around the house. It set me exploring my own creativity and resourcefulness! An informative and easy to follow read, this book will guide you in building your own coop at a fraction of the cost of purchasing one! " Rachana Misra - Go Green Farms™ Owner

best chicken coop plans

Raising Chickens From Eggs Is Child's Play

Raising Chickens - It's baby chick season, and thousands of newbie chicken owners will bring home days-old chicks for the first time.

Over the past few years, there has been a growing nationwide trend of urban residents choosing to keep backyard chickens. Even for inexperienced poultry people, raising chicks to egg-laying maturity (16 weeks) is fairly simple if you know what you're doing and follow a few simple rules.

Here are the basics to help you get started;

Which to buy first: the chick or the egg?

When buying chicks for the first time, there are some important things to note. Most communities have ordinances prohibiting roosters (Myth Buster - Hens DO NOT need a rooster to produce eggs), so many chicken owners prefer to buy only female chicks (Always check you are allowed to keep chickens in your area).

Unfortunately, determining the gender of baby chicks is virtually impossible, so when purchasing chicks, those labeled “straight run”will include both female and male chicks, so you need to have a plan of action if you have boys as they don't lay eggs and will make loud noises when they're older. One solution is to raise the cockerels for eating, but not everyone is comfortable doing this. If you do eat meat, then you should consider this option as you know the chicken has led a good life.

Pullets are supposed to be all females, but it has been known for an occasional chick to turn out to be a cockerel. Sex-linked chicks are cross-bred chickens that produce gender-specific color variations at birth, so purchasing black or red sex-link chicks ensures a flock of just hens.

Most farm stores also sell home incubators for people who want to hatch their own baby chicks, and a search of local online classified ads will produce several potential local sources for fertile hatching eggs. Those who go this route should know that success rates for home incubation is not 100%, so be prepared for this. Maintaining proper heat and humidity levels is critical, and the eggs need constant monitoring for 28 days.

Providing the basics for baby chicks

A baby chicks primary needs are the same as any living animal: shelter, food and water. Shelter for chicks is a warm, dry box called a brooder. A cardboard box will work just fine for "one-time use." A plastic storage tote or a wooden box is a more durable alternative.

The farm stores that sell chicks are good sources for inexpensive feeders and water containers specially designed for chicks, but a small plastic or glass container will also suffice. Chicks are messy, so food and water should be changed at least a couple times a day. Bedding made of wood shavings or several sheets of paper will help keep the brooder and the chicks clean. Replace it every two or three days or as needed.

Warmth is easy to provide with an inexpensive reflective heat lamp, available at any hardware or farm store. The lamp should be about a foot above the baby chicks and the temperature in the brooder should be between 90 and 95 degrees.

The best rule of thumb when raising chickens is to always watch your birds behaviour, and chicks are no different. They will tell you if they are too hot or cold. If they are cold, they will be huddling under the lamp, chirping loudly. If they are hot, they will be as far from the lamp as possible. Ideal temperature is reached when the birds appear to be acting normally, some eating, some drinking, some sleeping, etc.

Raise the heat lamp a little every week to help the chicks adjust to normal temperatures. After four or five weeks, they should be able to survive without supplemental heat as long as they are kept in an area that is dry and free of drafts.

At about four weeks, the chicks will have enough feathers that they can flutter up like a helicopter. At that point the brooder needs a screen or lid on top to keep the chicks contained. The chicks can be moved outside at about six weeks, but they still need shelter and possible supplemental warmth depending on weather conditions. They will also need a protected enclosure to keep them safe from predators like raccoons, foxes, and neighborhood cats and dogs.

Depending on the breed, chickens will start laying eggs between five and nine months. The combs and wattles of hens will be bright red and fully developed when they reach egg-laying maturity.

Health and safety tips for handling baby chicks

Baby chicks can carry salmonella germs on their bodies, feet and feathers. That's why it's so important to practice proper hygiene when handling chicks, especially for children.

Baby chicks are fluffy, cute and fun to hold, but when you handle a chick, the salmonella germs get on your hands. If you touch your hands to your mouth you can get sick, so always follow these tips for handling baby chicks:

[1] Wash your hands with soap and warm water after handling chicks.

[2] Make sure young children wash their hands after handling chicks.

[3] Never hold baby chicks while you're eating.

[4] Do not nuzzle or kiss baby chicks.

[5] Do not use the kitchen sink to clean a chick’s cage or feed or water containers.

[6] Keep chicks out of family living areas.

[7] Chicks and ducks are not good pets for children under 5 years old.

Follow these simple rules and raising chickens will be both fun and safe.

Friday, February 24, 2012

How Raising Chickens Changed Our Life For The Better

Raising Chickens - Keeping Chickens

A few years ago Donald Keller and his wife, Sarah Bailly said they wanted to live an agrarian lifestyle that was eco-friendly as well as self-sustaining. They maintained a garden and grew some of their own food while in New Orleans, but their new adventure really began three years ago when they started raising chickens in their backyard.

Their personal passion simply for “good food” was the initial motivation for taking on raising their own poultry. There are many published studies indicating that farm-raised chicken not only tastes better and is healthier than poultry mass produced in a plant, Keller said.

Initially, raising each clutch or “batch” became a matter of trial and error, he said.

“We did a lot of research about keeping chickens, but no amount of research could have helped us to really know what we were up against,” he said. “It may have been a good idea to work on someone else’s farm first.”

But their laborious operation is starting to bear fruit. Less than a year ago Keller and Bailly moved to rural Iberia Parish to create Bayou Farm.

They began the poultry business on property of owned by a family friend who had relocated to Iberia Parish from New Orleans for business.

Keller calls it a modest operation, but the small business now has nearly 1,000 farm-raised laying hens on the Darnell Road property, and the couple are beginning to eye other business endeavors such as cultivating farm-raised eggs and raising sheep, as well as continuing to keep chickens.

The operation is touted as “considerate animal husbandry and wise land maintenance in South Louisiana.”

The farm requires non-stop maintenance, Keller said, but the way of life has become just as fulfilling as it is tedious.

“It’s about being outside first and foremost and working for yourself,” he said. “Connecting with the earth and being hand in hand with nature instead of trying to force nature or trying to bend nature. We thought, ‘Let’s instead try to cooperate with it.’ ”

Bailly was working on her master’s degree in English and teaching while they were living in New Orleans. But, she said, she is better off a “writer than a teacher” and has taken on the Iberia Parish farm full time with her husband.

The two sell their homegrown products in farmers’ markets in Lafayette and in New Orleans and the newcomers are still tapping into the Teche Area.

“We really love raising chickens here,” Keller said. “Acadiana overall just has good culture, food and good people with character. Everyone is willing to help out.”

Friday, January 20, 2012

Why We Love Raising Chickens :)

Today I want to explain a little about how easy it is to raise chickens, how chickens provide food security in an unstable world, how fun chickens are to keep, and why we keep chickens for eggs.

We think it’s a very important step in homesteading, and was one of the earliest ones we made.

Here are six of the main reasons we love raising chickens;

1. Nutrition – This is probably the most obvious reason we raise chickens. Our eggs are fresh and from well-treated, healthy chickens allowed to free range during the day, with supplemental grain in the evening. Our chickens are eating lots of good, natural things (like insects and plants) that make the eggs much healthier than the caged, solely grain-fed chickens that store-bought eggs come from. (Although during the months we have snow on the ground, they’re eating mostly grain, with food scraps as a supplement to vary their diet. That’s the best we can do in our northern climate!).

2. Keeping chickens saves money (well, sort of) – If you buy the expensive cage-free, organic eggs in the store, then raising your own chickens will definitely save you money. We used to buy the cheapest eggs in the grocery store, but that was before I learned so much about where those eggs come from! If I were to buy eggs now, I would spend the extra money on healthier, cage-free eggs (from a local farmer, if possible!). So in that respect, keeping chickens saves us money. We also keep enough chickens that we can sell some of our eggs, helping to off-set the cost of keeping them.

3. The coop was all set up for us, making it an easy first step – Most people don’t have this blessing. When we moved in, the people who lived here before us had kept chickens. They had a stall in the barn already set up as a coop, with nesting boxes, roosts, and all the feeding/watering equipment we would need. I fully recognize that most people starting out homesteading don’t have this luxury! But it made getting chickens an easy step for us to take, with minimal investment.

Here are a few more of the reasons we love keeping chickens.

4. Raising chickens really is easy! – People are always surprised when I tell them how EASY it is to raise chickens! Our daily routine is simple. We collect eggs and check water and food supply twice a day. We don’t spend more than 15-20 minutes total on an average day caring for the chickens. Once a month (more or less depending on need), we spend a little extra time to clean out the coop well, change the bedding, etc. It’s really that easy!

5. Food security – We live in a very unstable world these days. If you pay attention to the news, even a little, you know that our economy is shaky (at best), there are threats and violence throughout the world, and it’s debatable whether our government has our best interest in mind. Add to these concerns that the majority of our food supply is shipped in from far-away places, rather than produced locally, and one interruption in the supply chain could devastate us. Given these worries, and others that I don’t have the space to detail in this one post, it doesn’t hurt to be prepared. There are lots of ways to be prepared for an emergency situation, and one of those ways is to raise chickens. Yes, in chickens you have a continual food supply (both eggs and meat). Not to mention, eggs provide nutrients like omega-3’s that can be difficult to find elsewhere if a crisis strikes.

6. Chickens are fun! – I can’t write a post on raising chickens without mentioning how entertaining they are! It’s a blast (especially for our two-year-old) to watch them peck around the yard, scurrying from here to there. And I just LOVE that my son gets to see where his food comes from!

So there you have it! Six great reasons to raise chickens. Are you ready to take the plunge and get chickens yourself? I’d highly recommend it!

Leave a comment below and tell us why YOU love keeping chickens :)