One of the first things people get really excited about on their Homesteading Journey is adding chickens. They seem like an easy first livestock animal; small, easily managed, and they produce eggs and meat with minimal effort. Many towns and cities are allowing chickens within city limits giving urban folk a chance to grow more of their own food. Some sufferers of “Barnheart” tend to think of themselves as Snow White when it comes to their livestock dreams ... everyone is sweet and friendly and you all sing together and there's minimal poop. Reality can come as a bit of a shock. (A great read for the homesteader and homesteader wanna-be is Barnheart: The Incurable Longing For A Farm Of One's Own, by Jenna Woginrich)
If you have never kept chickens before there are some things you will want to consider.
1. Choosing the right breed for your intentions.
I cannot put enough emphasis on researching the breed you want to keep. It could make all the difference in your chicken keeping experience. Consider the birds' size, activity level, rate of maturity, rate of lay, and friendliness. You don't want an active bird living in a confined space like a chicken tractor. Crazy birds = unhappy chicken keeper. And you may not be willing to wait a whole year before you get your first egg out of your Cochin pullet (like we did).
The best resource I have found for poultry picking is the breed comparison chart on The American Livestock Conservancy website. You can print it off and check out breeds that fit into your chicken keeping goals.
2. Where will your chickens be living?
Choosing the appropriate home for your chickens falls in closely with what breed you pick. You want an easily accessible coop, dry, free from drafts, with sufficient roosting and nest boxes. You also will want to consider having an electrical outlet for the winter months when a water warmer will be necessary.
A note about chicken tractors: They have many benefits. But there are some flaws as well. The chickens have access to fresh grass every day. The run and coop provide a safe place to live. Tractors are easy to clean for the most part, the small size is the benefit here. The downside? You WILL have to move the tractor every day. This can get a little annoying and its not necessarily as easy as you think when its loaded down with chickens and water and food. It will be heavy and bulky and may not be easy for you to move by yourself. If you are in the market for a chicken tractor, go see it in person first and move it around a few times. Keep in mind how many chickens you want to keep too. Many say 14 bird capacity ... but that's for bantams, not standard chickens. There is also the option to build your own to your desired specs.
3. Choosing “Litter”:
Seriously ... skip the pretty and fresh smelling pine shavings, the crushed corn cobs, and the straw. Go straight for the construction sand. It is cheap. You only need to refresh the sand once a year. Cleaning up is a snap. It really does take a whole two minuets of raking and sifting with a modified manure fork with ¼ inch hardware cloth zip tied to it, think of it like chicken kitty litter! Chickens don't sleep on the floor. They poop on it. It dries quickly too. Sand cuts down on mold growth and moisture which can mean respiratory issues, and in the winter months frostbite and freezing birds.
4. Feeding on the cheap.
Besides your starter/layer ration it really helps to give your girls a chance to eat all the delicious bugs and veggies they can. Supervised free range them as much as you can, (yeah, supervised ... chickens are tasty treats for hawks and other critters ... they also have a tendency to get greased in the road) or if that isn't an option, save your grass clippings and toss them into the run; they like to scratch through it and find bugs. Save your kitchen scraps, and send over those torpedo sized zucchini from the garden that you thought “just needed one more day.” We also like to fence off our garden every year after it is done producing to let the chickens clean things up for us. With 6 chickens during the spring and summer months we only need to buy 1 bag of feed every 5 weeks.
5. Brush up on Poultry Illnesses, how to treat wounds, and general poultry knowledge.
Be prepared for disasters. Have a chicken first aid kit ready. That way when your chicken gets viciously mauled by a rogue chihuahua you aren't running to the farm store in a panic wearing your pj's looking for the Vetericyn. The best resource by far is the blog "The Chicken Chick" by Kathy Shea Mormino. She has fantastic informational posts about any chicken thing you can dream. Her information has helped me save a dog chewed chicken and taught me how to treat mite infestations efficiently.
Here's to happy chickens and happy chicken keepers! Good luck!