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buying and raising chickens

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Doesn’t it seem like everyone is suddenly raising chickens? Perhaps it’s just because I am interested in doing it myself that chicken-raising seems to be hitting a tipping point. Yesterday I read a good post from Off the Grid about the cost of raising chickens versus buying eggs, and then a few hours later I opened my new Food & Wine magazine to discover evidence of chicken-raising left and right. Even the Olympic swimmer Natalie Coughlin is doing it…and blogging about it! Here’s yet another fellow blogger’s post with some great practical information about deciding whether to take the plunge.

For me, raising chickens wouldn’t be all that odd because, when I was growing up, I went to an elementary school and camp that raised chickens and involved us in the process of caring for them, including feeding, cleaning, and gathering eggs. As a child, I particularly enjoyed peeking in at the new chicks, who would always be kept indoors with a heating lamp over them; sometimes they would even spend some time in our classroom. I am still fond of the little peeping sound chicks make because it whooshes me back to being a kid again. Now, roosters are a WHOLE ‘NOTHER STORY, but I won’t get into my stories today of being bullied, annoyed, and generally traumatized by roosters at school.

A rooster getting cocky. Get it? Cocky! Yuk yuk.

Cut to an email I received a week ago. We adore the family farm that we support via a CSA agreement. Chestnut Farms, i.e. Kim and Rich and their three children, are the perfect match for us not only because they supply us with humanely raised, sustainable meat, but also because they are so kind, giving, and transparent about their farm practices. Kim sends a lengthy email every month about the happenings on the farm; I shared a bit of the December email here. This month Kim shared a detailed account of how to buy and raise young egg-laying chickens. I was so pleased that she agreed to share it with all of you as well. If you’ve tried raising chickens, I would love to hear your stories and tips too!

Take it away, Kim…

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Buy Quality Poults
imageYes, it is true. Chickens come in the mail. There are hatcheries all across the country who make their living by hatching baby chicks, ducks, geese, pheasants and turkeys and mailing them to farmers and homesteaders to raise. Prices for the baby chicks can vary widely and are not always an indicator of quality. And NO company or organization is perfect. Sometimes you order hens and get roosters. Occasionally chicks die en route. After several decades (on Rich’s part) of raising poultry we have two favorite Hatcheries: Murray McMurray Hatchery and Mount Healthy Hatchery.

Murray McMurray is awesome for show birds, a wide variety of laying hens, meat birds and exotic birds. The catalog alone is amazing and we have spent untold hours over the years reading and picking out different chickens to try. They also offer a wide range of supplies and are great with information. They do tend to be a bit pricey – but you get what you pay for!

Mount Healthy Hatchery is a smaller company located in Mount Healthy, Ohio. They do a great job with turkey poults and meat birds. We do occasionally get some laying hens here, but have the best luck with our meat birds. We LOVE their free poster with every $100 spent and have decorated many spots on our farm with the poultry poster.

Dip the Beaks upon Arrival
imageAs soon as the box with the chicks or turkey poults arrives in the mail, we take the babies out and dip each beak individually into the water to teach them how to drink. They are able to figure out food somehow, but the beak dipping into the water goes much better if they are held and shown how to drink. We also only put cardboard or newspaper on the bottom of the chick box for the first week. Baby poultry are not able to discern between the yellow chick grain and the yellow shavings and can end up eating the shavings instead of the food. The flat surface makes it easy to add a clean layer each day for the first week and make sure the birds are not eating shavings.Keep the Babies Warm and Draft Free
imageChicks need to be kept at about 98 degrees for the first week of life. We usually make a box or series of boxes out of wood boards that are 12″ high and place a feeder and small waterer in each box. We then install a heat lamp over the top of the box to make sure there is heat. After the first week, we raise the height of the heat lamp about an inch a day, and this will decrease the temperature in the box. If it is before the middle of May, the chicks spend the first couple of weeks in the farmhouse basement or in the barn meat room to keep them free of drafts and as warm as possible. If chicks become cold they will pile together, and this will ensure early mortality. In other words, they will smoother each other in an effort to stay warm. The chicks need a heat lamp for the first two weeks of life – longer in early spring or fall.

Move from Box to Pen Carefully
imageBetween two and four weeks of age (depending on lots of factors, including breed, time of year, pen availability) it is time to move the chickens or turkey poults from the box to the pen in the barn or the chicken coop or the school bus. The poultry usually let you know when to do this as the fluff begins to feather and they start being able to jump up and out of the box – watch the barn cats carefully during this stage! We usually set up an intermediate pen in the barn before we move the chickens outdoors. This allows them to live without the heat lamp and in a chicken pen, but because they are in the barn they are safe from predators and can grow as a flock.

Outdoors is Great!
imageAll our poultry love pasture. The green grass, bugs, worms and sunshine gives them an energy and vigor that you do not see in the barn. We wait until about 4 to 6 weeks to move the chickens outdoors and up to eight for our turkey poults. Our laying hens go to the school buses and our turkeys and meat birds are raised in hoop houses with pastures. WE DO FENCE our birds – mostly to keep predators OUT – but to be effective the birds must stay in. Early on, we had a fox kill 50 birds one morning, and the wailing of our son Sam who was six at the time, along with the carnage in the hen house, convinced us to take care to fence our birds – we use T-Posts, hog and cattle panels that we then cover with chicken wire using zip ties. This gives us portable 16 foot long fence panels that work for all types of poultry protection.
Final Feather CUT
imageWe like to make sure our poultry are feathered out before we move them outdoors; however, feathers allow the birds to fly. As in over the fence and into the coyotes mouth!! Over the years we have perfected the art of wing clipping –and it really IS just like cutting hair. We give each bird a punk rock wing cut as we move them to the outdoors – we cut all the feathers on ONE WING nice and short while leaving the others as they were growing. Thus, the birds cannot fly over the fence – They flap their wings to take off and fall over. I must admit, it is kind of funny to watch.

Hopefully this helps as you consider whether or not birds are for your backyard. They are fun, they are easy, they do NOT need a heated house in the winter nor air conditioning in the summer. They do need shelter of some sort, water and food. All birds love greens (grass, lettuce, kale), bugs, worms. A final piece of advice is to consider them somewhat disposable. If you want a flock of 8 to be laying six months after you get them, order 12 chicks. If all goes well you will have 12, but chances are there will be some loss over time – whether to smothering, barn cats, neighborhood dogs or natural causes. 

Image(s) credit: Kim Denney and Nicole Lewis for Chestnut Farms 

Update (2pm): Here are the two books that Natalie Coughlin recommends on raising chickens. I’ve read Barbara Kingsolver’s book and also highly recommend it as a great read about trying to live a year on just food produced at home.

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Editor’s note: This post is part of Simple Lives ThursdayYour Green Resource, Fight Back Friday, Farmgirl Friday, Frugal Friday, Sunday School, Monday Mania, the Homestead Barn Hop, Homemaker Monday, Teach Me Tuesday, the Frugal Days, Sustainable Ways Blog Hop, and Real Food Wednesday