|Buff Orpington rooster|
Posted by: Curtis Utley, Jefferson County Extension
Spring is not quite in the air but this is the time of year that I begin planning my vegetable garden and placing my baby chick order. Chicks are available every week of the year from most mail-order hatcheries but there is something nostalgic and anticipatory about new life in the spring. From a practical standpoint it is much easier to brood chicks in the warming months of spring. Chickens may be a great addition to your yard and garden but keeping chickens is not for everyone. The following is my dissertation on the pitfalls and challenges often overlooked by the impulse buyer.
First off, Chickens need suitable housing. Buying or building a chicken coop should be step 1. The coop should be weather and predator proof. Choose a coop layout that is easy to clean; chickens are messy birds. I strongly recommend a slick finished concrete coop floor for the ease of cleaning and to dissuade tunneling vermin.
|Baby chicks in fire proof steel horse tank|
In nature a mother hen hatches her chicks and broods them herself, keeping them close to her body for the first 6-8 weeks of life. With hatchery chicks, you are the brooder and many buildings have burned to the ground accidentally as a result of a brooder lamp or other heat source causing a fire. Both my cousin and I have had brooder lamp mishaps resulting in property damage so this should not be taken lightly.
|Chickens eating prize winning Jack O' Lantern|
Free Ranging Considerations:
|last blades of grass in chicken yard|
Chickens poop everywhere, all the time, everywhere. Unfortunately, chicken poop does not smell like roses, if it did I would not mind stepping in it so much. Chickens can fly, they are birds after all. This feat, temporarily defying gravity, gives chickens access to your outdoor furniture, (did I mention chickens poop everywhere) the roof of your house, your neighbor’s yard, the roof of your car, shade trees, swing sets, etc.
|Blue Andalusian rooster in the now plant-less chicken yard|
Chickens are omnivores eating anything that moves and your prize winning vegetables that don’t. Chickens scratch the ground looking for worms, insects, seeds, pebbles, grass roots, anything. When you keep chickens in the same location they will eventually denude the ground of every living plant leaving dust holes and mud in their wake.
Predators and Vermin:
Chickens beget mice if you did not have a mouse problem before, you will once you begin keeping chickens. This has more to do with storing chicken feed than the chickens themselves but chickens are messy and if you allow them access to free feed they will spill some on the ground and not bother picking it up since there is more in the feeder. This spilled feed is nutritionally balanced for breeding mice and if you’re really unlucky, rats. Interestingly, chickens love killing and eating mice, unfortunately chickens have terrible night vision when mice are actively out and about.
The deficit in night vision also makes chickens easy prey for predators including but not limited to: skunks, raccoons, foxes, coyotes, owls, mountain lions, bears, dogs, etc. So you have to be sure to close the coop door at night or you may risk losing some birds.
|Hens eyeing a tasty garter snake|
Chickens can easily live for 10-15 years if they don’t get eaten by something first, and chickens, unlike dogs and children are not easily taken with you during your family vacation. Each time you plan to be away you must find someone you trust to come by your coop twice per day to collect the eggs, feed and water the birds, open the coop in the morning and close the coop door after dusk.
Sexing Baby Chicks
Many municipalities have relaxed their code rules to allow residents to keep a few backyard birds and this is fantastic. Within most of these new provisions cockerels and roosters (male birds) are still prohibited. If you are buying baby chicks you will have to buy pullets only, and if you accidentally end up with a cockerel you will have to find a new home for the bird or potentially suffer the consequences of being out of compliance. I have taught myself to sex chicks and I'm correct 50% of the time.
Most people are interested in keeping chickens because of the prospect of fresh eggs produced in your own backyard; admittedly this is why I began keeping chickens 15 years ago. Baby chicks will not produce their first egg until they are 6-8 months old. Waiting for your first fresh eggs from your first flock of chicks feels like waiting for your 16th birthday to roll around and you finally gain the freedom of your driver’s license. Interminable. Chickens need 16 hours of light before they begin egg production so they do not lay well in the winter when it’s dark. Chickens molt all of their feathers once per year and stop producing eggs, often for 2 months, during this time. Most hens are only productive for their first 4 years but live 10-15 years.
As spring nears and you are pondering adding a flock of chickens to your yard I hope you find this information useful. I love raising chickens; they add humility and a degree of complexity to my otherwise hectic life.