Our lives aren’t the same anymore; not since we started raising backyard chickens. And I’m happy to report that our chicken adventures were inspired by and began right in the pages of this very magazine. In the January/February 2011 issue of GRIT, I was so inspired by the articles on chickens, I convinced my wife, Elaine, that we should make our initial foray into raising backyard birds on our 38-acre rural parcel in Botetourt County, Virginia. One of the reasons for wanting to do so is because Elaine is a recent breast cancer survivor, and she hired a nutritionist to help her discover a better diet so the odds would lessen that cancer would return.
One of the foods that the nutritionist told her to avoid was meat from animals that had been factory farmed. Besides encouraging Elaine to buy free-range or organic chickens for their meat (which we have been doing), the nutritionist also told us that those same chickens produce eggs high in Omega-3 fatty acids, which offer health benefits for cancer survivors as well as, obviously, the general public. Thus we took the plunge to begin our chicken-raising careers.
Like any new venture involving animals, much preparation had to occur before our 2-day-old chicks were to arrive.
Our first step was to visit the local Southern States Cooperative where we met the resident poultry expert, Lynn Sowers. She showed us copies of Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens, by Gail Damerow, and Chicken Coops, by Judy Pangman. These books greatly broadened our knowledge of chickens and gave us ideas on how to design a coop that would be just right for our backyard.
Next, it was time to start the run. I am an avid hunter and frequently pursue deer, turkeys, squirrels and other game behind our house. I have observed 13 different predators there, ranging from raptors (hawks and owls) to omnivores (raccoons, opossums, skunks, coyotes, foxes, bears and bobcats) to the creature I feared the most in terms of attacking our chickens: minks.
Every step of the way, my foremost thought was how would those 13 predators try to access our run, and what could I do to prevent them? At least I knew how to sink posts, which is the first thing Elaine and I did, followed by stapling 1-inch hexagonal chicken wire – to hopefully exclude a mink – to each post, leaving only a space for a door.
Opossums, skunks and coyotes would try to tunnel under the fence, so we attached several feet of chicken wire extending horizontally from the bottom of the fence and used 2-by-4s to anchor that wire. Elaine drilled holes in the 2-by-4s, which I then pounded rebar through to further make it difficult for a predator to tunnel. Then we placed cinder blocks every two feet or so on top of the horizontal wire. Our next step was to run two electric wires, powered by a solar battery, around the entire perimeter. As our final act of security, we positioned netting across the entire top of the chicken run.
Raising backyard chickens: Building a chicken coop
Elaine and our friend Ken studied plans from Chicken Coops, and together they came up with a concept that looks something like a doghouse. The front of the coop features a door that can swing down for a gang plank, and the back has a window for aeration that can be opened to access the three nesting boxes. Running from side to side within the house are two wooden roosting rods.
Selecting meat chicken breeds
I grow heritage apple trees and understand the importance of keeping alive older varieties. So it was only natural that I would want to rear heritage chickens as well. Recalling that my Grandmother Maude reared Rhode Island Reds, that was what we selected.
The Rhode Island Red originated in Rhode Island (imagine that) and Massachusetts in the 1880s and 1890s, and has long been known for its hardiness and its ability to be a dual purpose bird (great at producing eggs and meat). Jennifer Kendall of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC), which works to conserve rare breeds and genetic diversity in livestock, says that first-time chicken raisers might want to consider such heritage breeds as Buckeyes, Dominiques, New Hampshires, Javas and Delawares. Kendall suggests comparing different chicken breeds before buying.
“Heritage or traditional chicken breeds often retain essential attributes for survival and self-sufficiency such as fertility, foraging ability, longevity, maternal instincts, ability to mate naturally, and resistance to disease and parasites,” Kendall says. “These were the chickens raised by our grandparents and their grandparents on small farms throughout the country.”
It was only after I had communicated with Kendall that I realized that we had not ordered heritage Rhode Island Reds.
“Typically, people end up with the production Reds,” Kendall says. “It’s getting harder and harder to find the old-type Rhode Island Reds, and they are typically obtained through breeders. For GRIT readers wanting to buy heritage chickens, we suggest that they do their homework.”
The ALBC’s website features a breed directory into which you plug certain preferences, your location, and run a search for members of the ALBC in your area who raise any breeds you might be after.
May 4 – The chicks arrive
“We’ve got chicken nuggets,” beamed Elaine as she lofted a cardboard box (that looked like a Happy Meal container) through the car window. I was working on lesson plans during my planning period at the school where I teach when the office called and said my wife wanted me to meet her in the parking lot.
“I’ve got to hurry home and put the chicks in their new home,” she announced, and with that drove off down the highway. A few hours later, I joined Elaine to observe 10 2-day-old chicks inside a Rubbermaid container, a heat lamp affixed to the side, pine shavings on the bottom, and a chick feeder and waterer within.
Lynn Sowers had told us if we wanted gentle future hens and roosters that it’s important to handle the chicks often, but also to make sure that we always wash our hands in hot, soapy water before and after to prevent transmitting or receiving germs. So after scrubbing, we did as Lynn had instructed, which the chicks did not seem to mind. Indeed, even now, we try to touch every chicken every day, which is one reason we think the birds are so calm and friendly.
Everything went well for the first few days as the chicks ate and slept a great deal. We even checked them during the night and became used to seeing them active at all hours. But on the morning of May 9, one chick seemed sluggish and died later that day.
The next day, another chick acted lethargically, so Elaine called Sowers, who told us that the chicks might be suffering from coccidiosis (an intestinal disease that chicks often contract). She gave us some medicine to put in the waterer and also to give to the sick chick through a medicine dropper. I awoke at 2 a.m. to give the chick some more medicine only to find it dead. What had we done wrong?
“Nothing at all,” consoled Sowers. “It’s normal to lose two or three out of every 10 chicks. Sometimes the cause is coccidiosis, sometimes something else, sometimes they were just the runts of the litter.”
Reassured, we continued to talk to and touch the chicks often, and we marked each week of their lives with pictures.
When they were 3 weeks old, I began feeding them stinkbugs that I caught outdoors, and we were constantly entertained by how excited they were to catch and then try to eat a stinkbug – which was quite a mouthful – before another chick stole it.
It was about this time that we identified our first rooster, Little Jerry, who received his name from the luckless cock in a Seinfeld episode.
June 15 – Moving to the chicken coop
Sowers also told us the chicks would have developed enough feathers to live outside when they were 5 to 6 weeks old. So when our young charges, which we now called “teenage chicks,” were 5 weeks old, we began taking them to the run for a few hours at a time. On their initial visit, they were terrified of their new surroundings and spent much of the time sitting on Elaine’s lap. Only Little Jerry would venture away from her – and then only a few feet.
But by June 15, the six-week marker had arrived, and we placed our no-longer chicks in their new home. The entire first day went smoothly, but when night came, none of our young chickens knew what to do in terms of entering their coop.
As darkness descended, Elaine and I decided to pick each one up and place them inside the coop. After that night, the process leading to roost time was predictable.
Raising backyard chickens: Successes and failures
It’s time to share our successes and failures from our first experience with chickens.
Success: Attending a workshop for novice chicken raisers. We learned a great deal about chick and chicken care and what materials we would need.
Failure: Buying straight-run chicks. Even though we could have purchased 10 hen chicks, we wanted the experience of raising hens and roosters, and also of having a rooster in the barnyard to protect the hens. However, we ended up with six roosters and two hens. The next time we buy chicks, we will purchase five hens and five straight-run ones.
Success: Electric fencing is great. Three times during the night, I have heard a wild animal squall in the vicinity of the chicken run, most likely from the electric wires.
Failure: We are not happy with the strength of chicken wire in terms of thwarting a determined predator. Every other wire we looked at features openings that a mink or opossum could slip through. Any advice from GRIT readers?
By the time this article appears, our hens will have been producing eggs for several months. In any event, you can count on us ordering more Rhode Island Red chicks come May.
Bruce and Elaine Ingram write a weekly blog called Bruce Ingram Outdoors on raising backyard chickens and the outdoors.
Construct a DIY chick brooder out of cardboard boxes.
Want to get into raising chickens and not sure which breed suits you best? Check out Mother Earth News’ Pickin’ Chicken smartphone app that takes into consideration climate, temperament, egg production, egg color, growth rates and more. And if you don’t happen to have an iPad or smartphone, no problem, just visit chicken GRIT articles for plenty of GRIT-ty information on poultry. To purchase the Pickin’ Chicken app, visit Backyard Chicken App Update: Pickin’ Chickens Expanded and Improved.
Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens and Chicken Coops were two books that helped us a great deal. The former work is especially beneficial about anticipating questions that novice chicken raisers, as well as experienced ones, might have.