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Raising backyard chickens is fun and relatively cheep

Last week, I was picking up a few items at a local farm store, and I noticed they have their live chicks in stock already. For me, this is just a bit early, but it made me think it’s a good time to start thinking chickens.

We have about 80 chickens at home and have had for several years. We really enjoy the varied personalities of our flock.

So why have chickens?

For us, it is a few different reasons — the best one being that they are fun pets. Of course, it also has to do with education; knowing where your food comes from and understanding the interdependence within nature.

If you have ever seen pictures of caged chickens, you know what I mean. Fresh, free-range eggs from your own chickens are much better quality in many ways.

If you are a gardener, you also know the benefits of chicken manure in the garden. (Make sure to age or compost it.) Chickens can help weed and feed the garden!

However, before you let your chickens roam your garden, I like to point out that chickens will also eat your garden if you let them. They are great at the start of the season before you plant, at the end of the season to do clean-up, or during the growing season if you contain them to areas you want weeded.

Once you decide to have chickens, there are some basic things you need to get started.

First, check the laws where you live to make sure you are allowed to have backyard chickens.

If so, you need to consider safe housing for your chickens.

What kind of chicken coop do I need?

The coop is the chickens’ home. It is where they sleep, lay eggs and hang out on rainy or cold days. The size of the coop needs to be at least 3 to 5 square feet per bird, according to the University of Minnesota Extension.

Your birds will need some basic things in the coop.

  • In order to keep their feet healthy, chickens require something to perch on; ideally something square that is about 1½ to 2 inches in diameter.
  • Chickens also need nesting boxes; at least one box for every four or five chickens, but not less than two nesting boxes. There are all sorts of nesting boxes, and they can be either store bought or homemade. Regardless of which you prefer, it is best to stop at the farm store first to look at what they have and design yours similar to the store bought ones.
  • If you are building your own coop, keep in mind chickens poop on everything! Make sure you incorporate that in your design. Most store bought coops have removable trays for cleaning.
  • As far as flooring goes, a dirt floor with fencing underneath to keep predators out or a washable tile floor work well.
  • The next area to focus on is the run. This is the outdoor area where your chickens hang out all day. The bigger, the better! The chickens need as much diversity of forage space as you can give them. You will see your chickens looking for bugs, greens and grit (tiny stones). Chickens do not chew; they grind up food in their gizzard with the grit they pick up. A moveable coop is a good option to keep the chickens’ foraging area full of fresh greens throughout the year.
  • The coop and the run both need to be predator proof. Raccoons are a real threat in urban areas, and they are crafty — a simple latch may not keep them out. But it is even more important to make the run predator proof, so the chickens are safe when they’re outdoors, too. Hawks can be another big threat, so it helps to keep netting or chicken wire all around, and even on the top of the run.

There is more great info on the website BackYard Chickens regarding chicken coops.

Where to buy chicks and how to raise them

Purchasing your chickens is so much fun, but there is a number of considerations. You can buy chicks and chickens online or you can go to a local farm store like Matthy’s Farm Market, Rural King or Tractor Supply Co. in our area.

If you order online, your chicks will come in the mail. You will want to get them out of the packaging as quickly as possible and feed them sugar water in a dropper. New chicks without a mother hen do not know how to eat, and this will get them started and energized.

Keep baby chicks contained indoors with a heat lamp and sturdy box with wood shavings in the bottom. Chicks need the temperature to be around 80 to 90 degrees. If you notice them huddling below the lamp, it may not be warm enough.

Initially they need chick starter feed and fresh water. There are specific feeders designed to assure the babies do not drown, or some people use marbles in a dish of water.

Once the chicks are feathered out and the outside temperatures are warmer (mid-May), you can move them outside for the day, then longer as night temperatures remain consistently warm. This will help get them used to foraging.

As they progress to adult feed, a good layer feed will get them what they need. This is especially important if you do not have ample space for them to roam in. You can add some cracked corn and food scraps as treats. They should not be fed meat, junk food, avocados, potatoes or citrus fruits.

What breed of chickens should I get?

Picking chicken breeds can be fun also. What type of bird do you want? One of the most important characteristics in our area is winter hardiness. Besides that, personal preference is your guide.

Chicken breeds vary in many ways; meat chickens verses egg layers, egg color and size, bird size, and even temperament. Gently handling birds from an early stage will make most breeds a friend for life.

Here are the top five chicken varieties:

  • Rhode Island Reds: These classic hens are a dual-purpose breed; they are both proficient egg layers and the males are large enough to eat (meat birds).
  • Barred Rock is the name of a particular color pattern in the Plymouth Rock breed. These black and white birds are another dual-purpose breed, very hardy and a steady egg layer. They are known for their docile personality.
  • Americanas have been dubbed “Easter egg chickens” because of their lovely eggs, which have shells colored various shades of blue and green.
  • Leghorn hens, a breed originating from Italy, are possibly the best chicken to have for overall egg production and efficiency.
  • Orphington chickens hail from England, and are another dual-purpose bird as they get large enough for meat purposes but also produce friendly hens that lay brown eggs in abundance.

Depending on the breed, chickens will start laying in about six months. They can produce about 270 eggs a year in their prime under good conditions.

After they are about two years old, they will decline in production, but will still produce. Slowly they will stop producing but can live for several years longer.

Eggs are laid as part of the normal chicken ovulation cycle, so they do not need a rooster in order to produce.

Chickens can be fun for the whole family, and they are comparatively inexpensive to keep.

There are several websites that make good resources, like BackYard Chickens or your local extension website. Also watch Unity Gardens website for upcoming chicken classes! This summer, you can visit our LaSalle Square Unity Garden to see our flock in action.

For more tips and stories about backyard gardening from Mitchel Yaciw, subscribe to the Growing With Unity email newsletter.

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