It seems that GRIT editor Hank Will and I are “on the same sheet of music” this week. He put up a great post about saving money in 2009 by raising your own chickens on the same day I was planning on putting this one up, so I thought I’d give it a day or so before adding my two cents.
One of the first things that many small scale growers and aspiring “urban pioneers” decide to do after they’ve established their garden plans is to look into obtaining some chickens. I know a lot of the Grit readers probably already have them or have had them in their past so this may be old news to them. I’m guessing though, that with purse strings getting tighter all around the country and concerns over industrial food products in the news so regularly, that there’s probably a good number of folks trying to get a good idea about what it takes to get started with some small scale egg production.
First off, and in my mind foremost, I have to say this; these are not just egg producing fertilizer factories. They’re that too and much more honestly, but they’re also a responsibility as would be any other livestock that any size farmer decides to integrate into their operation. The scale may be smaller but the obligations are no less pressing. That said, I think the most important thing that any aspiring farmer should do, regardless of scale, is to make an honest assessment of what they want to gain vs. what they are willing to give for this addition. The second thing that you’ll need to be aware of, particularly if you’re like we are and you’re in a residential area with close neighbors and often times limiting covenants and restrictions, is whether or not you are even allowed to keep chickens. Take heart if you’ve already learned that they are not currently allowed, however, mine weren’t either when I first decided I wanted them, but with a good dose of persistence and some community involvement, laws can be changed, and anything is possible! And there you go … the caveats are out, chickens are great, but they are a commitment, so then, on with the fun stuff.
There are a lot of websites and good books that can help you to make a decision on what kind of chickens would be the best for you to keep at your home so I’m not going to try and reinvent the wheel here. A couple I recommend would be “My Pet Chicken’s” Breed selector tool and of course GRIT’s Perfect Chickens, a guide to heritage breeds of chickens. Whichever way you decide to go, however, this is another point where you’ll just have to be honest with yourself about what it is that you want from your birds. It won’t do you a lot of good to get a beautiful Bearded Silver Polish hen because you like the way they look if you’re looking to keep a family of five in eggs regularly or to be able to possible sell some at the farmers market. Do your research thoroughly and honestly. You’ll be happier later because of it.
Now, once you’ve decided what it is that you’re looking for and how many of them you will need and can have, it’s time to look into the different ways of getting them. You may have a farm store near you or perhaps you’ve seen the cute little chicks at the pet store. These are both potential ways to get your chicks but you may want to check out some other possibilities. There are a number of excellent hatcheries out there that can provide you with day old chicks of almost any breed. Some have requirements that you order a minimum number of chicks however, so if you have a friend that’s also interested in raising birds, you may be able to split an order like I did with one of my neighbors. It’s a good idea to order 1 more bird than you will ultimately be able to keep as it’s not uncommon for one to get sick and not make it to adulthood. You can also order fertilized eggs that you can incubate and hatch yourself. Either way, you’ll need to set up a brooder for your young chicks.
You can probably find a company that’s willing to sell you some automatic self regulating brooder set-up if you’re so inclined but I’d say most of us are probably the make do with what you have type. I know I am! This is the brooder box that I used last spring to raise my two clutches of hens. I just lined an old computer box from work with some wood shavings and notched a piece of pvc so that it would hang from the top of the box. This allowed me to hang a light from the pvc so that I could elevate the light or lower it as the chicks required. Hank goes into the requirements of the brooders pretty well so I’ll defer to his article at this point.
And that’s the basics of getting started with Chickens in my opinion. It’s not rocket science, but it does take some thought and some planning. There’s a lot more beyond this though as the chicks start to grow; too much to cover in just this post in fact. Check back next week, and we can continue the discussion.