One of my cousins mentioned to me recently that she would like to have a backyard flock someday. We talked for a few minutes about keeping chickens and I answered a couple questions she had. This conversation got me to thinking about what we've learned with our flock and what I might be able to share with those looking to get started with chickens.
Baby chicks are everywhere each Spring. And with Spring right around the corner (I hope!), there are likely lots of folks out there thinking about becoming backyard chicken owners. If you're thinking of getting a little flock yourself, these tips may help you out along the way.
What every backyard chicken owner should remember:
1. Get your chicks from a reputable source - a hatchery, your local feed store, someone you know and trust. These places are your best bet for getting healthy, disease-free chicks. We purchased some off Craiglist and it did not turn out well.
2. Chickens don't need a McMansion. Your coop doesn't have to be spectacular to keep your chickens happy. Don't worry about not having hundreds of dollars to put into building a coop. I know folks who have renovated an old shed for their chickens, made a small coop out of pallets, built a coop out of scrap or reclaimed wood. We used a combination of scrap wood, scrap metal, new wood and locally sourced timber for our coop.
3. Once grown, chickens don't need a heat source. It may make you feel better, but it's not necessary. In fact, if they are used to a heat source and your electricity goes out and the heat can't be provided, they may be at risk of succumbing to the cold since they haven't acclimated to it. We've had temps in the single digits and our chickens have been fine without heat.
4. Keep up on their feed and water. Eggs are about 75% water and if a hen doesn't eat, she doesn't drink, so make sure your chickens always have clean water and plenty of food available to them or your egg production will suffer.
5. Sometimes chickens die and there's nothing you can do about it and nothing you could have done to prevent it. I learned this quickly and it totally changed my mind about getting attached to my birds.
6. Sooner or later, predators will find your chickens. Protect your birds well so they are safe from predators. If you're able to, be prepared to catch predators and dispose of them.
7. Chickens poop. A lot. Have a plan for managing manure and cleaning out your coop. We clean our coop 4 times each year. Basically, once a season. In the spring and summer, the dirty litter goes into our compost pile. During the fall and winter months we clean the coop straight onto the dormant garden.
8. Chickens like to take a good dust bath. If you let your chickens free range, they'll scratch a hole somewhere under a tree or in your landscaping to get their dust on. If you keep them in a run make sure they have a spot to get the job done. If they can't scratch themselves a spot, toss them in a shovelful or two of dirt every once in a while. During the winter we give ours a bucket of ashes from the fireplace. Dust bathing helps to keep down lice and mites so it's important chickens have the opportunity to bathe themselves.
|Even a rooster enjoys an occasional dust bath.|
9. If possible, let your chickens free range or have an outside run. You'll have healthier chickens and more nutritious eggs. And, your chickens will enjoy munching on the grass and chasing down bugs and ticks to snack on.
10. Just like Grandpa used to do with his herd of cattle, pay attention to your chickens. Watch them. Not only will they entertain you, you'll be aware of any changes in their demeanor or their health and, if possible, be able to help out a chicken in distress. I always look at my hens' combs. Not only can they indicate when a pullet is maturing and about to begin laying eggs, a pale comb may also be an indication of illness. I pay a little more attention to pale combs and make sure those chickens are eating, drinking and, if possible, I look at their poop. If it's 100% watery, that's not good (unfortunately, I've learned this from experience).
And a bonus tip:
11. You don't need a rooster to get eggs. You only need a rooster if you want to hatch chicks. A rooster will help protect your flock, but he's really not necessary if all you want is a few eggs each day. Your hens can do that on their own.
For us, having a small flock of chickens has been an enjoyable, entertaining and enlightening experience. If you've not been around chickens a lot I think you'll be surprised at how much personality they have. It's amazing that these little creatures can feed your family breakfast each morning with just a little shelter, feed and water.
If you're jumping in and getting some chicks this year, good luck! And enjoy the ride. I'm no chicken whisperer, but we've really learned a lot over the past couple years with our flock and I'd be happy to help answer any questions you have.
Check out our Chicken Chat page (tab at the top) if you'd like to read more about our chickens.
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