In an effort to become as self-sufficient a family as possible, one of the first decisions we made was to raise chickens for meat and eggs. In Alabama, one of the main producers of eggs and poultry in our country, we have had the opportunity to see the way chickens are raised in commercial poultry houses. It is a sad sight to see chickens that are so pumped with hormones and steroids that they can barely raise themselves to walk. We felt like we could raise healthier birds without a great deal of time or expense. After 10 years we find we were right.
Every one should raise a few chickens. You can provide your family with all the eggs that you need and do it for just chicken feed! We have had chickens for several years and have learned a lot from trial and error. We usually do study a lot before embarking on a new responsibility (Luke 14:28-30) but sometimes we get opinions from folks on details and learn through experience just what works. I suppose what I’m sharing on chickens will also be an opinion on some matters but here is also some wisdom on raising them.
Choose a good breed for what your intention is. We chose Buff Orphington because they are a good meat and egg bird. The hens are good mothers if you want to hatch more. The meat is wonderful and we were surprised at how different it is than chicken from the grocery store. I used to have some Barred Rock, but decided to not use them for meat any more. When I butcher, I skin the meat out. The Barred Rock has a tough clear layer between the meat and skin that seems to be made by the Goodyear Tire Company!
If you want a rooster, you’ll only need one for 15 to 20 hens. The rooster is great for keeping your flock producing chicks but is not necessary if you only want eggs. Unfertilized eggs have no taste difference. Some sources say that fertilized eggs are better for you. A rooster is also a good alarm clock if the pen is close to your bedroom. We used to keep one rooster loose and he always crowed under our window every morning. I sure miss him! He and a fox had an unhealthy meeting one day.
Our normal operation is to hatch out a couple dozen chicks in the incubator in the spring and raise them until we see how many roosters we have. I separate the roosters and raise them until they are about 5 to 6 months old. Then the roosters are butchered and the hens go into the pen with the rest for layers. The first year of egg laying is their most productive. When our layers are about a year old, I tag them with a plastic band around their leg. This way we can tell them apart from the new layers that are added. Some of you may point out that our family doesn’t believe in jewelry, but for the chickens, it’s ok for them to wear an anklet!
We chose a place to raise them based on two things. First, chickens need shelter from the elements. They need a coop (an area with walls) with proper roosting poles. You don’t need a large coop if you have an outer pen. Our original coop was 6 feet wide by 10 feet long. It kept 25 chickens for many years. In the coop were their roosting poles for night and their nest boxes.
Secondly, chickens need an outdoor area. Here is where they spend most of their day. Originally, we had a 20’x10’ concreted pen that the previous owner used for dogs. It was in three sections and had good fence. We’d studied and found some folks keeping chickens on concrete with regular doses of hay on the ground for them to scratch through. I cut the dividers out and made the area into a 6-foot section of coop and 12 foot of outside area. This area always needed to be cleaned out, so after a few years we built a new pen and coop with a dirt floor. They have not had to be cleaned out in over a year! The lesson here is that poultry does better on a dirt floor where they naturally scratch and turn the dirt.
Chickens can fly (in a manner), but you can keep them in with chicken wire or “poultry netting” on the top. If you want to keep chickens in an open topped fence, you’ll need to clip their wings. Chickens are easy to catch at night. Just walk in after dark and scoop one up with both hands from her perch. Sometimes you won’t even wake them! Take her outside and stretch a wing out. With a pair of scissors, trim the feathers on the backside of her wing. Do this on both wings. Be careful to not cut into her flesh. You only need to cut the feathers. With those feathers gone, she won’t be able to fly. Place her back on the perch and proceed to another.
Chickens need a nesting box but you don’t need many. They will share and 4 boxes can accommodate about 20 hens. We actually have 10 nests and only about 5 get used with 25 hens. Each hen will lay one egg a day and rarely you will get 2. Chickens need feed called layer pellets. This has enough calcium in it to help them form a hard egg. But if you notice the shells are weak you can add some Oyster Shell to their feed. You can just tear open a bag of Oyster Shell and keep it in their coop. They help themselves, as they need it. We learned that turkeys do better at egg laying with layer pellets also.
If you do decide to multiply your flock, there are two ways to do it. First, you can let the hen lay the eggs (fertilized by the rooster of course) and the hen can set on them. She’ll do a good job of keeping them turned and warm, just as God has put in her to do. Once she has about 10-12 eggs under her, she’ll go on the nest. She will come off for water and occasionally for food. She will brood nonstop for 21 days, the incubation time for chicken eggs. We have gotten to the point that we don’t allow our hens to set eggs because they won’t lay during that time and we can incubate the eggs ourselves in the incubator.
If you want to incubate the eggs yourself, you’ll need an incubator. We have a Hovabator but I would suggest that you look around and see what is available. The Hovabator is made out of Styrofoam and isn’t very durable. It is also expensive for what you get. The incubator will need a turner or else you’ll have to turn eggs twice a day for 3 weeks. The best thing about having an incubator is this; you can decide when to hatch out chicks right down to the day. For instance, if you wanted chicks to hatch on a day when lots of children will be there, you can start saving them up and put them in the incubator 21 days before you want them.
Isn’t God amazing? These eggs are fertilized but they stay dormant until they become heated either by the hen’s body temperature or an artificial incubator. You can save up a few eggs each day until you have enough. Keep them at a normal outside temperature. When you begin incubation you will need to keep them at a steady temp until hatch time. We will try to do a daily diary in the spring 2005 when we begin to incubate.
In the winter, chickens don’t lay eggs as much, as God has designed them to rest during that part of the year. Commercial poultry men provide extended days through artificial light in the chicken houses and force the hens to continue laying all year. You could do that too. We choose not to as we believe it more to the Lord’s plan to let the hens rest. After all, the Lord Himself rested after His work, didn’t He?
Truly, raising chickens is extremely simple and very rewarding. We highly encourage everyone that has some space to do so – give it a try. Please email us if you have any further questions