I often find myself surprising new chicken keepers (and some experienced ones) with these tips on keeping chickens. I don't claim to be an expert, but I have been keeping chickens for a while — eight years, in which I’ve gotten at least 20 years of experience, unfortunately — and our approach is definitely unconventional.
For odd tips that you probably won't find in a book, read on, friends! But keep in mind — this is going to be a series and there are many more tips that will be coming soon!
ONE: Collect the eggs every day.
If you happen to have a lazy child in charge of collecting the eggs, who may or may not collect them on a regular basis, you might want to consider putting someone else (more reliable) in charge of the job — or simply doing it yourself.
When I have two or three dozen eggs sitting on my counter, somehow my children think this is a cue to take the week off from collecting the eggs. I guess they think we have plenty, and it's cold out, and they'll go get them when we run out.
Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.
This is a bad idea for many reasons.
1. Poopy Eggs: By the time your child decides to bring the eggs in the house, they will be covered in a nice coat of poop. Gag. This is not only disgusting, unappetizing, and gross, it also greatly effects the shelf life of your eggs.
Huh? Yes. A freshly laid egg has a protective coating on it. An unwashed, fresh egg can be stored at room temperature (or middle-east temperature) for three months. Once that protective coating is washed off, the egg needs to be refrigerated and consumed within a few weeks. Poop-covered eggs need washing. Washed eggs need refrigerating. Refrigerated, washed eggs have to be eaten.
United States is one of the few countries that requires eggs to be washed prior to selling them. In most countries, American eggs would be illegal. Other countries ban the washing of eggs so that the protective coating remains on the eggs. In other countries, you also wouldn't find the eggs in the refrigerated section of the store. Believe it or not, unwashed eggs don't need to be refrigerated. If you were in a supermarket outside America, you would find the eggs next to the bread and onions.
2. The opossum will eat them before you do. We have had our share of varmint problems (and then some). Opossums are quiet, sneaky and they don't (usually) bother my girls. The only time I realize I have an opossum problem is when the chicken feed is disappearing at a ridiculous pace or the eggs aren't there. The opossums I typically have visiting my coop are looking for a low maintenance, free lunch. They eat all my eggs, and if it's winter and there's feed available, they'll eat it too.
3. You'll turn your hens into egg eaters. If you leave the eggs in the coop for days and days and days, it's just a matter of time before a chicken decides to peck one open and taste it. Once a chicken becomes an egg-eater, it is a hard habit to break. Really hard. They'll lay eggs and eat them.
TWO: Feed them for free (mostly).
If you don't want to buy food (often), there are some ways to feed your chickens for free. This may or may not be possible depending on where you live. Here in Kentucky we can get away with free eggs most of the year.
How to feed your chickens for free:
Free-ranging. For a quick intro to keeping chickens completely free, go here. It's called "Keeping Chickens the Redneck Way" and will have your chickens eating all the wild things chickens were born to eat. If you fence in your chickens or they have limited access to forage, you probably need to supplement with some good quality chicken feed. Our chickens are free with access to pasture, compost, woods, bugs, creeks, and anything else they care to find on our 23 acres.
Kitchen scraps. We are in the habit of tossing anything "organic" into a giant, stainless bowl that lives by my kitchen sink,. By organic, I mean dryer lint, nut shells, scraps from meals, onion tops, lemon rinds, watermelon shells, egg shells (crumbled into bits), beef bones from making stock, old leftovers that never got eaten, any food beginning to rot from the bottom drawer in the fridge, etc. The only thing we don't toss in the "scrap bowl" is chicken. We take this mash of random food and other organic junk and deliver it to the compost pile (which happens to be just outside the chicken coop door).
Garden debris. Any time I’m rotating crops, ripping out plants, clearing a bed, or just weeding my garden, I carry around a five gallon bucket to toss all the matter into. This makes it easy to deliver the goods to the compost pile/chickens.
The compost pile. This is the best tip ever. If you don't hear anything else I said, listen to this: Put your chickens on top of your compost.
You may have already caught on ... our compost pile is just outside the chicken coop. They have access to it and all things composting. This is such a beautiful arrangement. The chickens are going to partner with you to make some the most beautiful soil you've ever seen. There are some considerations and tricks to this, though.
Here's why you want your chickens on your compost:
They will eat anything they like and the rest will turn into soil. I toss all things into the compost — whether the chickens want it or not. The cow manure, old moldy hay, litter from the coop, debris from the garden, scraps from canning, weeds, old (disease-free) plants, rinds, peels, seeds, etc. Everything gets tossed onto the compost pile. The chickens get in the middle of it and eat everything they find appetizing. Anything they don't care to eat will stay put and compost into soil for me.
It will be filled with tasty chicken treats. The compost pile is always bursting with bugs, beetles, grubs, maggots, rolly pollys, worms, and assorted other chicken delicacies. If we ever need earthworms for fishing, the compost pile is a sure thing. The warmth, ripeness, and rotting food will always produce an insect buffet for your birds.
Those chickens scratch, peck, rotate, and turn the compost. I am not fussy about my compost. I have not attended any classes on composting or even read a book about it, so I don't know what I'm doing. At the same time, I have piles of glorious soil each spring to top dress my gardens. I throw everything into the pile and let the chickens and Mother Nature do the rest. I will add that cow manure is not as hot as other manures and is quick to break down into soil. I have this going for me. Between the manure and the chickens helping, I have been able to avoid "turning" my compost for years
The chickens eat for free and deposit more glorious manure during the process. Yup. As they scratch, peck, and consume all the free goodies from your organic pile they'll be fertilizing it, too.
Here's some logistic issues to contemplate as you design the compost and chicken set-up:
The chickens need to be able to get to the compost. If you want to put up a fence to keep your chickens safe, be sure to include the compost pile inside the chicken fence. This way, no matter if they are having a free-range day of exploring the farm, or if they are being kept fenced in, they will have access to all that wonderful compost and goodies.
You need to be able to get to the compost to add to it. If you use equipment (side-by-side, tractor, etc) to move manure and debris to your compost, be sure you have a gate that opens wide enough so that you can get to the pile and dump into it easily.
You need to be able to get the compost out. Consider how you will get the precious black soil out of your compost bin and into your gardens and pots.
Even with all this, I still buy feed sometimes.
There are a couple of months here in Kentucky that we do offer free-choice chicken feed for our girls (and boys). Those would be the deep winter months, when it's tough for a hen to scratch out a living. I find that they still prefer the scraps from the house and any hidden goodies they can dig out of the compost pile. I don't want any girls to go hungry, though, so we have some good (non-GMO) feed available in winter if they want it.
Stay tuned everyone! More unconventional chicken tips will be coming shortly!
Happy Chicken Keeping!