As a homesteader I am always looking for new ways to expand my homestead and what a better way than getting chickens! Having my very own mini farm in my backyard has been challenging and so rewarding! Here were some tips and tricks I have learned over the years to get you stared on your very own mini backyard chicken farm.
Fresh Chicken Eggs
First up was getting chickens, and let me just say there is nothing quite like holding a warm freshly laid egg. Eggs from the store are washed and coated to “keep them fresher longer’” but the fact that they wash them so well to start with causes issues. When a chicken lays an egg it is coated with a protective layer to keep bacteria out, this is why you can leave eggs out the counter for a few weeks and they will not go bad. Washing the eggs removes the protective layer letting bacteria into the egg. This was my first reason for wanting fresh eggs! I wanted to keep my body form having to work so hard and getting rid of the bacteria for the eggs, and my second reason was to have richer healthier eggs.
Chicken eggs should be collected at least twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening. If eggs sit in the nesting boxes to long chickens can become “Broody”, which just means they want to be a mom and will sit on the egg and try to hatch it. I won’t go into a whole lot of detail at this time about this but you should know that if you want a constant steam of eggs you do not want a broody hen, she will not lay eggs for a while after being broody. You can break the broody habit if you catch it in the first 24 to 48 hours by separating her in a a dog crate with good ventilation and no bedding, along with food and water. Your goal is to cool her belly down. If you are successful she will begin to lay eggs in a few days again.
Free Ranging/Chicken Feed
Chickens who are allowed to free range(to roam around in an environment with bugs, grass, and green plants) have the opportunity to be chickens and they get the chance to eat better nutrients. Chickens, just like humans, need fresh things to eat so that they can maintain healthy bodies needed to produce healthier eggs. Really healthy eggs with have orange yokes, yes orange, not yellow. Very pail yellow yokes are a sign of nutrient deficiencies in the chickens. Dark orange yokes are from chickens that are getting enough fresh vitamins and minerals.
Chicken’s can eat chicken feed. If they are hens and you want them to lay your going to want a layer feed. Layer feeds have more calcium and vitamins for the hens. If you have a mixed flock, roosters and hens, you can get an mixed flock feed and supplement the extra calcium needs with oyster shell or egg shells (See the next section for more information on calcium). You can also supplement the extra vitamins with yummies from your garden. Chickens are like mini garbage disposals, they will eat just about anything. Keep in mind they are animals and should not eat rotting or molding foods; a good rule is if you won’t eat it, you probably shouldn’t feed it to your chickens. Garlic is a really good thing for them to eat and so are all leafy greens, even dandelions!
Calcium is also very important to chickens health. Chickens need calcium to create the shell of the eggs. There are a few easy ways to give chickens calcium: one is to crush up there own egg shells after you are done with the eggs, or you can get them oyster shells. Keeping a container of either in the chicken run will allow the chickens to have access to as much calcium as they need, no need to worry about if they are getting enough if you have it around they will eat what they need. If you don’t they will deplete their bone’s calcium.
Chicken need a home of their very own, one with branch roosts to sleep on, nesting boxes to lay eggs, one that protects them from the elements and ventilates well without being drafty, and one that has enough space to prevent over crowding. This may seem overwhelming at first but building or buying a coop can be very easy.
When looking at building or buying a chicken coop you need to first decide on how many chickens you want to have, and yes chicken math is real, so plan for more chickens then you think you want. I started with 3 and said I would never go over 8, and we now have 12…chicken math it is hard to resist once you start! Now that you know how many chickens you want (or how many chickens you could end up with), now you need to look at square footage. A full sized chicken cooped-up all the time needs about 3 square feet of free space, that’s per chicken. A free range chicken only needs 1.5 square feet free space in the coop and as much ‘free range’ as possible. When chickens sleep they like to sleep higher off the ground on what is know as a roost. This places a buffer between them and potential threats and pests. Roosts should be made of tree branches, why tree branches you ask, well chickens can get what is know as bumble-foot, which is mainly like an infected blister from gripping the same spot on their foot night after night. Tree branches will cause the chickens to change up the grip every night making it harder to get bumble-foot and allow them to create an evenly distributed callus on their foot instead of a blister.
Other items that I have found to be very useful and to make life easier with chickens is to build/buy a coop that is easy to clean and has a good seals all around. Cleaning the chicken coop is one of my least favorite jobs but with our tiled floor and painted walls (we used very low VOC paint and we let it dry for before we let the chickens into the coop) clean up is a breeze!
Many coops now-a-days can come with built in chicken runs. either on the side or on the bottom. Both options are good as long as you have fallowed all the rules about space. We wanted our chickens to have even more space since we work 8 hour days and in the fall and winter we do don’t make it home before the sun goes down and we wanted them to have lots of free range time. We decided to build the chickens what we call “The Chicken Habitat”. It has things for them to roost on, places for them to dust bath, plants for them to eat, dirt for them to dig and scratch around in, shady places to get away from the sun, and of course a cute bench for us to sit on an watch them.
Safety is very important in your chicken run. Chicken runs need to be secure so that the chickens can not get out and nothing (wild birds, raccoons, and foxes to name a few) can get in. Keeping wild birds out of the run and your yard in general will keep away diseases. Wild birds can carry all kinds of diseases and your chickens can catch them. Right now the avian flu is running rampid because a group of wild birds have caught it and are passing it along to all other birds they come in contact with.
Keeping the chicken run clean and dry will reduce illnesses that chickens can catch. If you are like me, due to building code in my area, the whole run cannot be covered, so I use bio-sanitary precautions to reduce bacteria that can grow in the run with it gets wet. When Spring comes we turn all the dirt over and put diatomaceous earth in the dirt to kill bacteria and harmful insects on the dirt.
When choosing birds for your flock there are a few things you should keep in mind; egg production, climate toleraces, life expectancy, and adult weight of the birds.
If you eat a lot of eggs or want to sell eggs your going to want chickens who lay a lot of eggs. A few breeds that are great egg layers are Rhode Island Reds and Australorps to name a couple.
If you live in a hot place then Cochins are NOT for you. Chickens with feathers on their feet are good for colder climats. Here in Coloado my bantam cochins do great in the cold and we really monitor them in the summer as they can overheat and die. You want chickens that you will have time to care for in the manner they need.
There are many great sites and books out there if you want to learn more about the different chicken breeds and what would be best for your little backyard farm: Backyard Chickens, Fresh Daily Eggs, and The Chicken Chick are a few of my favorites!
Now that you have the basics you are ready to get started with chickens and enjoy the benefits of having your own backyard mini farm!