This won’t be a totally organized guide to raising chickens, but I hope to provide some insight as a first-year chicken grower in New England, over a few posts that I plan to put up approximately once a month. I won’t remotely call myself an expert, but I think first-year insights do have value. If you’ve been doing this for five or ten years (as I’ve discovered in other fields of endeavor) you tend to forget what you learned to tell others in your beginner steps and mis-steps.)
I knew I’d like raising chickens, but did not realize I’d come to LOVE it. This despite the fact that my egg layers are just beginning to step to the breakfast plate. As it were. (Oh, note, I found my first eggs on November 20th! Matter of time before everyone kicks in… EDIT, I was writing this up earlier; to date as posting in the morning, I have 28 eggs, and it seems to be 2-3 eggs a day now.)
First off, though, before you even get your birds, be sure your zoning allows you to HAVE chickens. How many? What size coops?
Here, I can have a bundle o’ chickens, even roosters, but I am decidedly rural. I am allowed to build a structure on this property 10 x 20 feet without having to go through permitting. Your milage may well, and probably WILL, differ. Check your town ordinances, and note that some areas of your town may have more leeway than other areas. So if your friend on one side of town tells you how she’s raising up 20 hens, don’t assume that applies to your zone, too. The acreage you have will also determine how much you will be allowed.
Decide on your short AND your likely long term goals. Short term should pretty much to be try things out, but note that it is cheaper to overbuild (if you CAN) and grow into it, than just build to your short term goals and add on later. All this will depend on personal economics.
What do you want to do with chickens?
In my case, I wanted to try both meat birds (hybrids to get a feel for it) and laying hens (heritage in this case since that tends to be the best way to go for layers). Long term: heritage dual purpose birds that will lay, sometimes go broody, and hopefully make future generations of heritage birds that I’ll learn to breed up myself. In this first year, my goal was 1) to discover what the process is for rearing meat birds (and the necessary unpleasant realities their last day entails), and 2) which heritage breeds may be most satisfactory on several levels for birds that are good laying hens in my region of this planet. Long term: I want to raise chickens here. I mean, from parents to offspring, and then again, so a good dual purpose bird will be appropriate.
MEAT BIRDS: For hybrid birds specifically bred for meat, there are a few choices. Cornish Cross – I wanted to get away from the overabundance of the less-tasty white meat, I wanted more leeway for butchering time, and I wanted them to have a good and healthy life without bone fractures and heart problems.
I KNOW that many homesteaders raise Cornish Cross with no problems, but when I was talking to one person (who was to show me how he did it, but had to beg out because he had to process them a week early due to intensive heat — he mentioned that even a week early, his birds were showing signs of blood clotting around their hearts). Many of his would not likely have survived a heat wave.
There are red rangers/freedom rangers, who get an extra month of leeway in life, generally speaking. I didn’t happen into them, but into red broilers/black broilers which I found through my local mom and pop farm store (sort of an independent Tractor Supply/Agway). They can live out longer even, say to 16 weeks or so, optimally. (They will LIVE and thrive past that, but they won’t be so tender, if you want them for meat.) They do mature faster than dual purpose heritage birds.
As for dual purpose heritage meat birds… I didn’t add those to the menu this year (this was my trial year) but I have two breeds in mind for next year. Those intended for meat will probably be harvested at 20 weeks or so, since they mature more slowly. Hybrid birds discussed in the paragraphs above will not breed true if you want to raise chicken self-sufficiently on your plot of land (in my case, my eventual goal).
How many to raise? Eventually, you want to figure out how much chicken you eat in a year (and any town restrictions on flock size), but seriously folks, the first year you want to see how doing this works out. For YOU. I ordered 9 birds from the local mom & pop farm store, one died in transit, and of the eight another was totally too sweet a bird to send on to the mealworm bin in the sky. Note that often for these birds you might not be able to specify gender. That’s called “straight run”… you’ll have cockerels (male) and pullets (female) in your mixed bag. I ended up with 6 cockerels and 2 pullets, and it was one of the latter that won my heart. TBH, Celeste is my sweetest bird to date! (In a future post, I’ll indicate why I think this happened.)
Many of my readers who are indeed interested in raising chickens will find it impossible after they’ve raised these birds up, to butcher them. There’s no shame in hiring out that task, AND / OR there’s no shame in deciding to give those birds away (often mostly roosters, which can be hard to re-home…) and not doing meat birds again in your future. Simply… don’t overestimate your desires before you are faced with knowing what you really ultimately wish to do. (I was able to do it, aiming to provide the last moments as peaceful as possible. And indeed I can be a softy, as I put that friendly hen in with my laying birds.)
I’ll note that most chickens intended for meat are harvested before cockerels become true crowing neighbor-annoying roosters. So you could have them where roosters are prohibited. Mine lived longer due to harvesting logistics, but my neighbors (here where I can have roosters anyway) loved hearing them, and were saddened when the crowing… essentially vanished. Yes, there’s one remaining rooster, read below!
PS, don’t name your chickens intended for the dinner table. Celeste only got named after she got put in the laying coop.
LAYING BIRDS: For these, I wanted heritage birds, and since I live in New England (Zone 5B), and this would be a year round commitment, I had several requirements:
- Winter hardy. Even if the coop is heated, they need to be able to get out of the coop, even if only into the run. If their combs and wattles freeze off, they’re neither happy nor healthy. Chickens originally bred in northern climates are best for northerners. Winter hardy chickens tend not to be bantams, and tend to have smaller wattles and combs. Historically, they’ll come from colder regions of the planet. If you live in a locale where it is seldom or never going to snow, you may want to concern yourself with heat-hardy chickens.
- Good eggers. I wanted prolific to reasonably prolific.
- Docile AND friendly. I learned that docile means good with each other, and friendly means they’ll probably be friendly to you, too. More on this in a future post.
- A variety. I wanted to have two or three of a few varieties that are suitable here in New England, just to see which ones I really appreciate. I have not (yet) tried all varieties I’d like to try.
- No feathered legs. They’re beautiful, but not all that practical for first-timers. Stuff gets caught in those feathers. Maybe down the road. (Most, with an exception or three, aren’t winter-hardy, either.)
- The day old chicks should be reasonably priced. $2-3 dollars or such apiece. You can get some fancy colorations dropping $20, $35 or more for a day old chick. That’s fine down the road when you are getting into breeding, showing, or trying to preserve a “new” coloration of an “old” heritage, but in your first year or so… that’s not a concern… or IMHO should not be!
I ordered 10 future laying birds from 4 different heritage varieties (day old chicks), and one unexpected plus is that is easier to count them if you don’t have to count 10 birds of the same color pattern, but two or three of each chosen pattern… More about ordering day old chicks in the next post.
(And yes, you do want to count them early and often, if you ever let them free range, electric fencing or not!)
In addition, since I don’t have restrictions on this, I ordered them a future rooster. My feller doesn’t care much for me, but he’s very generous to his ladies. No, you do not need a rooster to have your hens lay eggs! Turns out Wyandottes, though beautiful birds, aren’t very friendly to humans, at least in my current level of experience. But he’s my Fabio eye candy. Roosters are able to protect and keep their flock together, but you don’t want to have more than one rooster per, say, 8 hens. And you need more space if you have more than one roo. They tend to be territorial. You’ll notice in the above photo he’s the one closest to me. Protective instinct, not the being-friendly instinct. That’s how he rolls.
Once these birds start really laying… I will be selling off the excess eggs. I’ve identified one market, and right now, that’s all I need. No, I don’t begin to presume that my egg laying hens will make my homestead self-supporting! If you luck into a homestead with an old fashioned hen house already there, you might have a chance. Maybe. But at any rate, this ultimately wasn’t the case in my circumstance.
Best resource for heritage breed decision-making: The Livestock Conservancy. Resource, bar none!!!
SHOW BIRDS: While I have no intent in doing show birds, this is a good way for preservation of various heritage breeds. Note that when you bring your poultry to show, you do stand the risk of disease from other birds, although there are measures at place at country fairs and other breed showing facilities to minimize this risk. You’ll be wanting to set up space for breeding birds, and incubating eggs especially if you don’t want to rely on your hens going broody to raise new generations. (Certainly, you can breed chickens for meat and/or egg laying and/or heritage preservation purposes, too, without showing — something seriously to consider even if you are “just” going the homesteading route.
I love going to country fairs, and certainly if you see chickens on display, talk to the exhibitors. You may get leads on breeds, or just general chicken-y information, even if you have no intention of ever showing birds yourself.
PETS: Any of the above (except planned meat chicken, if you want to keep that plan going forward) can become pets. There are farms out there that rescue chickens that have effectively finished laying, and would otherwise be destined for the stew pot. They live out their lives until, as with a cat or a dog, they come to a natural end, sometimes assisted along if in pain or in an end-of-life lack of quality of life. I did rescue Celeste from the freezer, but it is likely she will lay at least some eggs, anyways. And if she lags a lot behind… she’s still the sweetest of the entire lot, so she’s a pet…
My own long term goal is to raise up two or three most desired (in this locale, and for my needs) breeds of heritage birds, hatch them on site (hopefully a hen or two will step up to the brooding plate, but investing in an incubator is wise anyway), where most of the cockerels (immature males) will find their way to the freezer and most of the pullets (immature females) will find the will to become layers. It may take a year or two for me to decide which breeds I want to, ahem, breed.
Past Posts in this Series:
- Raising Chickens Part I: Intro & Overview
- Raising Chickens Part II: Welcoming Baby Chicks
- Raising Chickens Part III: Trekking to My Chickens in Zone 5 Winter
- Raising Chickens Part IV: My Chicken Run and Coop
- Raising Chickens Part V: The Bin, or Storage at Your Coop
- Raising Chickens Part V: Feeding Those Layers
- Medical supplies and treatments for your chickens.
- Broody or Not?
- Recommended book, magazine and online sources for chicken learning!
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