Starting your flock

Author: By Christine Heinrichs
Posted: Monday, October 26, 2009

Starting your flock

If you’re interested in keeping chickens on your property, any time is a good time, but spring is the traditional time to start, because hatched chicks have enough time to grow to full size and be fully feathered by the time cold weather comes. If you do acquire chicks in the winter, they can be started in the house or a heated room with a brooder, a heated container.

A traditional breed is best for backyard flocks. They are hardier and better foragers. When I started, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a chicken breed, and I was completely captivated by the assortment I got from the feed store in San Jose, California. Start where you live or contact poultry organiza-tions such as the Society for Preservation of Poultry Antiquities, or visit sites such as feathersite.com or www.poultrybookstore.com.

You can start with three or four chickens that lay eggs just for your  breakfast or, if you’re ambitious, you can house a larger amount. As with any agricultural enterprise in our complex world, raising chickens is subject to a variety of laws and regulations. Finding out what they are and abiding by them will save you headaches. Roosters are required for breeding more chickens, but urban and suburban dwellers, who typically only keep a few hens in the yard, don’t get involved with that. Roosters are often specifically prohibited. All that crowing can interfere with neighborly relationships.

Raising chickens is generally governed by local zoning and land-use laws and ordinances. With the advent of the National Animal Identification System, a modern, streamlined information system that helps producers and animal health officials respond quickly and effectively to animal disease events  and individual state systems, you may have to register your premises with the state and identify every chicken you own.

Chickens are regulated in a variety of ways, usually under livestock. Contact your local building department or town hall and find out what you need. If you live in a planned community, check your covenants, conditions and restrictions to see if chickens are allowed.

If keeping chickens is outlawed in your area, consider asking for the law to be changed. It has worked in other communities. Madison, Wisconsin responded to the Chicken Underground, local residents who kept chickens even though they weren’t legal, and clarified the ordinances in 2004.

Building a chicken coop

Chickens need a secure coop and a fenced yard. They are subject to predation and opportunistic wildlife, such as raccoons and coyotes, who attack chickens or, if you’re not interested in being handy, purchase an already-made coop like the Eglu for $665.

Dennis Harrison-Noonan of Madison, Wisconsin sells chicken coop plans for $35, and works with his purchasers to locate materials to build a coop for $200-$600. David Bissette offers plans for a chicken ark, or tractor, for $19.99 (catawbacoops.com). Your local Craigslist (craigslist.com) and Habitat ReStores (habitat.org/env/ restores.aspx) offer free or low-cost used materials.

The coop needs to be lined with some kind of litter, such as straw, wood shavings or another absorbent material and with chickens, nothing is wasted, including their manure. Compostable litter combined with their manure makes rich fertilizer.

Feeding the chicks

Chickens are omnivores that will consume all bugs, snails and other pests, but they also eat commercially prepared feeds formulated to provide complete nutrition. Go easy on prepared food, but all greens and fruits are appreciated. They enjoy foraging on their own and will happily take your garden apart, so either fence them in or fence in the garden. They appreciate kitchen scraps. There’s nothing like a tasty watermelon seed to brighten a hen’s day.

Half-a-dozen chickens might cost $10 to $20 a month to feed, but a litter might cost only $2 to $5 a month. Don’t forget the offset of those eggs. Make sure you keep the feed securely contained in metal or sturdy plastic containers. Chicken feed can attract rats, and spoiled feed will sicken your chickens. The chickens need fresh food and water every day. Clean the coop twice a month, to collect that valuable fertilizer. Contrary to popular opinion, clean chickens don’t smell.

Those concerned about the terrible stench of commercial chickens can be reassured. That stench is a result of uncollected manure from thousands of chickens, not something that will happen if you tend your chickens with the same care you do the rest of your home.Give yourself a few minutes each day to collect the eggs. Owners find themselves irresistibly drawn to spending time with their girls and their engaging personalities.

Finding out more

For more information, find an online chicken discussion listserv,
or start your own. Madison, Wisconsin’s listserv has grown to 140 participants since 2005. Like all Internet searching, misinformation travels as far and as fast as facts. Check sources and make sure you are relying on solid information. Libraries have books, including my How to Raise Chickens, which includes husbandry basics and an overview of traditional breeds. Feed stores often have
book sections. Ask around for recommendations.

You can also call around to local feed stores and ask whether they will have chicks available. That gives you the advantage of a local contact to ask any questions you may have. You can also ask local breeders whether they can sell you chicks. Try attending a poultry show and ask the chicken owners how they got started.

Christine Heinrichs is the author of How to Raise Chickens and How to Raise Poultry, both published by Voyageur Press. She moved to Cambria, California last year and hasn’t replaced her chickens yet, but looks forward to Dorkings in her future.                                                                             

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