Starting a Small Flock of Chickens
I have been giving the following article—an overview of our approach to flock management—as the handout for my poultry seminars for several years. I am now writing a replacement which will address the same issues, but will emphasize five areas: Pasturing the flock (using electronet fencing), “putting the flock to work” in various homestead endeavors, deep litter for best management of manure in the poultry house, using natural mothers for incubating and brooding new stock, and feeding issues. I will eventually post the new version on the site. ~February 2007
Chickens are the easiest of all livestock to raise. Their needs for feed and shelter are easily met. The eggs and meat you can get from a home flock will be superior to anything you can buy. And a flock of chickens is an endless source of fascination for the whole family. Give them a try!
Choosing a Breed
If your main interest in chickens is egg production, you might choose one of the Mediterranean class breeds - Leghorns, Golden or Silver Campines, Buttercups, Hamburgs, Blue Andalusians, Minorcas, etc. These breeds tend to be somewhat smaller and lighter in weight, as they put more of their resources into egg production rather than larger frames and greater muscle mass. They usually lay white eggs. Some of these breeds can a bit high-strung.
Meat breeds are typified by the Cornish Cross, a very fast-growing hybrid with a broad, plump breast, easy to dress out. These birds can be ready for slaughter at seven or eight weeks. (If slaughtered at 12-14 weeks they produce excellent roasters.) Because they grow so fast, they are not as vigorous or resilient as others, and easily expire from episodes of sudden stress. [Some breeders in the "pastured poultry" movement are trying to breed new broiler crosses especially for production on pasture that are considerably more robust than the Cornish Cross. Typically, such birds require a little longer grow-out than the Cornish; but exhibit better vigor, none of the leg and heart problems of the Cornish, yet dress out with the sort of plump, broad breast the market has come to expect.]
Many people prefer a compromise between the meat and the egg "specialists": The dual-purpose breeds, which lay well (usually brown shelled eggs) and grow fast enough to serve well as table fowl (though they are not as broad breasted as the meat-production hybrids). Birds of this type are ready for slaughter at about 12 or 13 weeks of age. They are usually more gentle and easy-going than the Mediterranean group. Among these breeds are New Hampshire and Rhode Island Reds, Barred Rocks, Buff Orpingtons, Brahmas, Cochins, Wyandottes, and Ameraucanas (which lay pastel-tinted eggs).
Usually the discussion of breed choice ends here. However, I urge you to consider also the historic breeds, such as the five-toed Dorkings, which originated in Rome before the time of Julius Caesar. While not as productive as modern breeds, the historic breeds have other virtues to recommend them. For example, Old English Games may not be ready for slaughter until five months old and may lay only 200 eggs a year - but they can virtually feed themselves if given enough space to forage; the hens are devoted and fiercely protective mothers; and their meat was once the standard against which all other table fowl were judged.
Sources for Stock
Just-hatched chicks can be sent through the mail. Many people turn first to one of the mega-hatcheries such as Murray McMurray. They feature large selections and illustrated catalogs. My own preference is to seek out smaller, family owned regional hatcheries, which I have found may provide more personalized service and superior stock.
You can get both chicks and started stock from the local farmers co-op, though the choice of breeds is very limited. You can also connect with local enthusiasts who have stock to sell through classified ads or a publication such as the Valley Trader.
Finally, of course, you can breed your own. This may not be a realistic option if you're just starting out. But at some time in the future, you may find that it is quite a thrill to "hatch your own." You might try your luck with an artificial incubator. Or, if you're lucky enough to have a broody hen, you can just "let mama do it."
If you start with day-old stock, you will have to be a surrogate mama to your baby chicks. Set up an enclosed brooder which is free from drafts and protected from rodents, cats, etc.; and which contains an absorbent litter such as wood shavings and a source of heat such as a 250-watt lamp or two. The waterer should be designed so that the chicks cannot wade into it and get wet. Temperature should be maintained so that the chicks are neither huddling under the heat source, nor huddling in a corner as far as possible from the heat. If they are scooting around the brooder like a bunch of little water bugs, all is well. Frequent monitoring of the brooder is the key to success.
Of course, if you have a mother hen who is raising your new chicks, you don't have to worry about any of this. When it comes to raising baby chickens, a mother hen is a lot smarter than you.
Housing for chickens can be extremely simple. If you already have an existing shed or outbuilding, it can probably be modified to serve quite nicely. The fundamental requirements are that the birds be protected from the wind or heavy drafts; and that they be completely dry. Chickens have a strong instinct to roost; so will be more content if furnished with some structure on which to roost.
It is important not to overcrowd your birds. Allow a minimum of three square feet per bird, up to an ideal five square feet or more. Of course, if the flock has constant access to the outside, they will do fine with less space in their "sleeping quarters" inside.
If you plan to build a new structure in which to house your birds, I strongly recommend that you keep an earth floor in the building, and cover it with a thick layer of high-carbon litter such as oak leaves, wood shavings, etc. (I do not think straw is a good litter material over earth floor, as it can support the growth of molds which can be a respiratory problem for the birds.) The constant scratching of the chickens incorporates the droppings into the litter, preventing the typical "caking" of manure which results in foul odors, flies, and possible buildup of pathogens. The constant mixing of the manure with the high-carbon litter results in a decomposition process similar to that in a compost pile. The billions of microorganisms driving this decomposition actually produce Vitamins K and B12, various natural antibiotics, and other immune-enhancing substances which the chickens ingest while scratching for and eating tiny critters in the litter. A study in the Ohio state university system in the 1920's demonstrated that chickens could obtain 100% of their protein from a mature 12-inch litter. You can periodically (say once a year) remove the litter and use it as compost without further processing.
If you have to use an existing building with a wood floor, that's okay. Here, too, you should lay down a thick layer of dry, high-carbon litter. (In this case, where the litter remains dry, a straw litter is okay.) Your poultry house will be far more pleasant for you and more healthful for the chickens. When you remove a mix of litter and manure from a structure with a wooden floor, you should compost it before adding it to the garden.
Whenever you notice a strong odor of ammonia, especially upon opening the poultry house in the morning, it is time either to clean out the litter, or add another layer of high-carbon material.
Joel Salatin has observed that, if allowed five square feet per bird, the chickens will continually turn in all manure laid down. At four square feet, there will be some "capping" of manure (accumulation of an impervious layer the birds cannot incorporate), especially under the roosts. At three square feet, there can be capping over all or most of the litter. If you find that the manure is building up in this way, simply use a spading fork to turn over the capped areas in clumps. The chickens will then be able to break up the clumps and work them into the litter.
Whatever shelter you give your birds should protect them from wind and sharp drafts; but at the same time should allow for adequate ventilation. I installed solid outer doors and inner frame doors with wire mesh. This configuration allows me to open up the house completely to air flow, while still keeping the birds confined and protected when desired. Also, the birds are able to sun themselves in the direct sunlight coming through the mesh doors and windows at various times during the day.
Please note that, if their shelter is tight and dry, chickens are very cold hardy. It is not necessary to provide artificial heat; and it could be detrimental to do so. [Occasionally single-comb cocks will get some frostbite on combs or wattles. If this becomes a serious problem, you could keep breeds with rose or pea combs instead.]
You will of course design your housing with predator protection (especially at night) in mind. But don't anticipate threats like dogs, raccoons, and foxes only - a least weasel can get through any opening large enough for a rat! (I once lost 19 young chickens to a least weasel!) And speaking of rats: Remember that they can be a serious threat to chicks. Half-inch hardware cloth is a great thing!
Commercial poultry feed contains products from rendering plants, reprocessed deep-frying oil, feather meal, and other low quality ingredients which can be quite stale by the time it is fed. For these reasons I prefer to grind my own feed every few days, using certified organic ingredients I buy from Countryside Natural Products near Staunton. Making your own feed may not be a realistic option for you. Countryside also offers premixed versions of the feeds I make, in 50-lb. bags. Fortunately, they are now delivering once a month into the Northern Virginia area. Call them at 888-699-7088 for more information about products and deliveries, or visit Countryside Natural Products.
However, if local commercial feed is the only realistic alternative for you, by all means use it. If your birds have access to pasture, your eggs and dressed poultry will still be superior to any you can buy. If you do use commercial feeds, keep a couple of precautions in mind. Chickens are appropriately fed different mixes at different stages of growth, varying especially with regard to proportions of protein and of minerals, particularly calcium. It is important to feed your birds appropriate to their stage of growth. However, you should strictly avoid feeding chicks a chick formula containing antibiotics. Feeding such medications as a steady part of the diet is completely unnecessary in a small batch of chicks not stressed by crowding such as yours; and excessive use of antibiotics in our food supply has serious long-term implications for both animal and human health. If you cannot get an antibiotic-free starter mix (such as Countryside's), I suggest starting your chicks on the next stage formula ("grower mix" or "pullet developer") instead, perhaps supplementing with a little fish meal to boost the protein.
When using commercial feeds, you can also add a little kelp (dried seaweed) meal, an excellent natural all-round mineral supplement.
Whatever you feed, always make sure your birds have daily access to some green forage. When they are confined to the winter housing, you can dig dandelion and yellow dock up by the roots and throw them to the flock - the tops stay green much longer than other forage plants, and they are very palatable and highly nutritious to poultry. If you have a greenhouse, set aside a little space for greens (assorted grains, mustards, kale, rape, and other cold-hardy greens are good candidates) for the birds. Or sprout some of those same seeds and expose them to sunlight long enough for them to green up, then toss them to the flock. Remember, you don't need to feed a lot of green forage - even small amounts are highly beneficial.
You should also feed the flock grit (small bits of stone and gravel, which they need for grinding their feed in the gizzard) and, in the case of layers, crushed oyster shell as a calcium supplement. These amendments are not so important for birds on pasture, since they are able to pick up what they need on their own. I usually offer them anyway, since it is easy to do so and they are cheap; but they should always be provided (free-choice) to birds confined to the winter housing. Grit and shell are available at any farm co-op or feed supply.
Chickens must have fresh water available at all times. Waterers come in a number of designs. Choose a type which minimizes the surface area exposed, so the water will remain as clean and litter-free as possible. Placing it above floor level on a stand will also help minimize contamination with litter. Guard against wet spots under or around the waterer. (Pathogens are more likely to grow in wet than in dry litter.) If wet spots do develop, use a spading fork to scatter the wet material so it can dry as the chickens work it into the rest of the litter.
I recommend some form of automated watering, which saves a significant amount of time and effort even in a small flock. There are various designs of vacuum-flow and float-activated waterers. The most sanitary of all watering systems is the nipple waterer.
Of course, watering becomes a greater challenge during freezing winter weather. If electricity is available in the poultry house, there are various heating devices that can be used. Carrying the waterer into the basement at night is also an option.
Be sure to provide sufficient nest boxes (maybe one for each seven to nine hens or so) positioned above floor level; keep them lined with plenty of clean straw; and collect eggs frequently. All these measures help keep the eggs clean and unbroken, and reduce the likelihood of egg eating, a bad habit which - once established - is difficult to break.
I prefer not to wash eggs if they come perfectly clean from the nest. (They actually keep better if not washed.) If they have even the slightest trace of litter or - yes, occasionally - poop, I wash them with a half and half solution of water and vinegar, which dissolves the smear and has a sanitizing effect.
Fresh eggs do not need to be refrigerated if eaten within a few days. Just set them out of direct sunlight where it is not too warm. (Remember, in nature the mother bird doesn't refrigerate her eggs. They remain perfectly viable for up to two weeks as she day by day assembles her clutch before starting incubation.)