Becoming a Backyard Chicken Keeper

Today my thoughts turn to ordering baby chicks for March or April this year.    It makes me think of all the first timers who are thinking about starting their own backyard flock.   I have had a backyard flock of chickens for eight years now, I’ve become an experienced backyard chicken wrangler if you will.   It has been full of fun and challenges.   Backyard chickens have become a national phenomenon and when I think it may be waning I see a new book come out for the backyard flock, and realize at least to some degree small flocks are here to stay. If you are thinking about a backyard flock here are some things you may want to consider.

1.  You will need a coop.  Nonnegotiable. Like all animals chickens  need shelter.  What that shelter looks like depends on where you live and what other things they may have access to like runs or other outdoor space.   You can read as much as you want about coops but the reality is when you finish your coop you will have to make adjustments for your local weather, flock size and how much space they need vs. what you view as “right.”   I am on my second coop and I am still tweaking with it based on how many birds I overwinter and how harsh my winters end up being.    Coops are trial and error.   There is no magic single one answer.

Our First Coop

Our First Coop

2.  You need to decide what you want from your chickens.   Do you want a pet, something fun to look at, dinner or eggs?   There really is no one breed that does it all. I have tried all sorts of breeds over the years.   I wanted cute, good egg layers that could eventually go into the pot.   I also wanted Montana winter hearty birds.    I can tell you that there is no single breed that does that based on my trial and error.   I have settled on some breeds deciding that they are the best I can do and are successful enough for my desired qualities.   You need to be prepared to make mistakes and figure out how to right them.

Norwegian Jaerhon our most exotic breed.

Norwegian Jaerhon our most exotic breed.

3.  Getting started in chickens costs more than you estimate it will.   It isn’t just the purchase of chickens at $3 a pop, there is the cost of the coop, food, feeders, water sources, bedding, and things you will not imagine you need until the time comes you need it.   You can figure out what you think you need and easily double or triple it.   A great example of this exponential costs is my revolving issues with  water sources.   I started out with fount but it seemed my birds were always somehow knocking them out of balance and my birds would be without water.    I then got them rubber water dishes that worked good in the summer, but once freezing temperatures came I discovered I needed heated water dishes. I opted for the dog style as they were the least expensive.    Oh did I mention that I eventually ran electricity to my shed to make this whole setup easier for me?   Can you see the money bleeding for the search of a good year-round water source.

Despite these being used for years, they didn’t really work for me in my situation.

4.  Time commitment from someone.  Chickens are sort of like  the worst qualities of a cat and a dog.   They need someone around to open and close the doors like a dog.    They need someone to clean up after them like a cat, even if you free range because at night they poop in the coop.   Then you can also add the problem of predators.    Chickens are  very near the bottom of the food chain and there are predators from both the ground and air, domestic and wild,  that would love to eat them.

The chickens need to have some one open the coop door.

5.  You need an exit plan.   Most backyard chicken keepers don’t think about what will happen when they tire of their chickens or then end up with an unwanted rooster.   You need to know what you will do when you no longer want your birds.   I will go on record saying taking them to the local rescue Is a selfish option because you have just made your chickens a drain on a overtaxed system rescue system because or your poor planning.  When I lived in Michigan you could take your chickens to the local Amish and they would butcher and dress them for a small fee, or you could give them to them, assuming that they would end up on their dinner table.   I have heard of people taking them to their local vet to put down.  Some of us rotate our flock regularly and last year’s birds turn into this year’s dinner.   I am not advocating any one method over the other.   I am saying you should have a plan that makes you responsible to the very end.

I go with the dinner option when a chicken is ready to be culled from the flock.   It isn't for everyone, but you need to have a plan.

I go with the dinner option when a chicken is ready to be culled from the flock. It isn’t for everyone, but you need to have a plan.

So this year as you make resolutions to know your food, eat food that is raised in a healthier environment, or get back to nature, I hope you will think twice and then twice again before starting your backyard chicken flock.   It is rewarding, and I can’t imagine not having chickens, but it is more than gathering eggs.

There is something that brightens the day having chickens around.

There is something that brightens the day having chickens around.

The Meatie Experiment Isn’t Going So Well

CourtneysDigiscrappin_YourLife_WA11Last night when we went out to close up the chickens in the shed we had an unpleasant surprise.    We lost a meatie chicken.   We had two females left, and now we are down to one.   We had planned to butcher her on Saturday, but it seems we had missed the deadline of life.

At this point after trying five Freedom Rangers I would have to say it was an experiment that gave me results I won’t need to verify a second time.   I no longer wonder if it would be worth it to do meat birds instead of heavy dual-purpose egg layers.   At 6,000 feet it isn’t worth it.

The roosters matured very quickly and became territorial worse than any other rooster we have ever had.   We butchered them early for safety’s sake.   They were smaller than we had planned or expected based on the internet.   The females initially grew quickly and then plateaued.   They reached what we wanted for finishing weigh much slower.   At 15 weeks one of the females was found dead in the coop one evening.   We have to assume that it is from heart failure.   Heart failure is common in Cornish Rock Cross, so much so that they are not recommended for altitudes at 5,000 and above.   Freedom Rangers are supposed to be less prone to this, but I suspect that 6,000 feet puts even the heartier Freedom Ranger at risk.

Meaties were suppose to be a quick easy way to put some meat in the freezer but it didn’t work out that way.  I have not butchered the last female meatie.   I plan to do that this weekend.  We will weigh her once we have dressed her.   I am sure she will weigh in heavier than our heavy dual-purpose birds when we butcher them.   But based on what has happened so far the little extra in weight doesn’t justify all that went into raising these meaties.      I plan to stick to what has worked for me so far heritage heavy dual-purpose layers.   Those same birds the could make breakfast for Grandma and then be Sunday dinner.

Picking Your Chicks

The most important thing you can do is pick the right chickens for you.   There is lots that goes into this and a  a bad choice on any one of them can make for a disaster.   Here are some of the most important elements to think about when picking you breeds.

  1. 2011-08-23 001 (1024x683)Why are you doing this? Do you want a few eggs?  Are you part of that backyard flock movement?   Do you want to fill your freezer filled with chickens?   Do you see yourself selling eggs and or chickens?
  2. Where do you live?  City, country, or in some subdivision with its own rules.   There are laws that may impact how many and what types of chickens you may have.   You many not be able to have roosters or more than three, six or some other legal arbitrary number.
  3. Where will you keep them?   They need space and the more chickens you have the more space you need. They need shelter from the elements and predators.   You for sure need coop space and preferably some outdoor space as well.
  4. How much time do you plan to put into this? Animals take time, chickens are no different.   They need full food dishes, clean water and a clean coop.   Like everything else they poop.   Don’t kid yourself they poop plenty. So just like a horse stall or a kitty box they need to be cleaned up regularly not  once a week or month.
  5. Can you afford chickens?   Chickens have ongoing costs for feed and bedding.   The start up costs can be huge if you need to build coop and pen space.   If you plan to butcher there are costs associated with setting that up as well.   Imagine what you think it will cost and double it for sure, triple it if you want to be safe.
  6. What is your climate?   Some breeds don’t do well in the heat, others can be prone to frost bite.     Do your research and learn what traits work well in your neck of the woods.2011 02 10_0474 (1024x768)
  7. What are your emotional desires?   We are human after all and there is some emotion that goes into picking your dog, cat, horse and even your chicken.   Do you want them to  be friendly?  Do you care if you can pick them up easily or not?  Do you want “cool looking” or pretty chickens?

There is no perfect breed for anyone but knowing the answers to these questions can help to set you up for success.

I will share will share some insights in to my answers and hopefully that may help you as you muddle through trying to find the best breed of chicken for you.

  1. I am mostly an egg person, who has few qualms about eating poor layers, older birds that need to be rotated out, roosters and when I end up with too many birds in the fall
  2. I live in the country, in a rural subdivision with covenants long since ignored.  I am not near anyone and in Montana generally speaking property owner rights are pretty strong.
  3. My chickens live in a shed with a coop within it.   They have a fenced run and get lots of daylight free range time.
  4. I use my chickens as an excuse to get up out of the home office, so gather eggs often.   I check water in the AM and PM and use self feeders.   I scrap their poop board at least every other day.   In the summer every day.
  5. My initial investment was such that they will never pay for themselves. I soon decided I wanted more chickens than my initial coop would support and found myself building a second larger coop, and giving them access to my shed in the winter.   I get my feed and bedding at the local feed store.   In the summer they eat very little because they free range forage so much.   In the winter they eat much more.
  6. My climate is windy, windy, windy.   In the winter you can add cold, sometimes bitter cold to that.
  7. I want cute, pretty birds.   Plain white or brown birds have no place in my coop.

My favorite birds are dual purpose birds with cushion combs, who are active foragers.  I won’t shy away from the right bird if they have a single comb.  I tend to like gravitate toward the old fashion breeds because they were developed for the lifestyle they live on my place.  I am not opposed to stretching my limits for something new, but don’t hesitate to send something that doesn’t work out to freezer camp if it is best.   I have been known to be swayed by a pretty feather pattern a time or two.   Some of my favorite breeds are wyandottes, Brahmas and rocks.  They seem to work well for me.  Find what works well for you.

Six, ten, twelve?

Right now as I ponder this spring’s chick selection I am also debating how many to get.    I know that six is the best number to over winter, no questions on that number.   So the debate is how many do I want for the freezer?  How many do I want to butcher?  What chicken breeds do I want to work with?    The answers are still rolling around in my head, but they are all over the spectrum and the decision is not clear yet, but I need to have a single answer soon.

I would definitely like some chicken for the freezer.   Using my Mom’s old rule of thumb when we put up veggies from the garden, a chicken a week would be nice.   Reality sets in and there are just two of us with a half a steer and half a lamb already in our little freezer.  So I guess I will take what I can get, but the number in my freezer is not a big deal.

I really hate butchering.  It always sucks for me because I hate it for that moment when  I kill them.   After that deed is done, I really don’t mind the rest of preparing them for the freezer because I don’t pluck them.   None of the scalding.   None of the feathers. I have a system down where we strip the skin off and clean them out that is pretty quick.  It also works well when you only butcher one or two at a time because all you need is a method to kill the bird and a boning knife.    Occasionally I wish for a roaster, but the thought of plucking them stops me in my tracks. We do run into a problem if we do too many at a time, because we have a small refrigerator.   Chickens like beef need to be aged a few days before you cut them up and put them in the freezer.

The breed choice is somewhat hard for me.   If I get the breed considered the best meatie, Cornish Rock X, the bird will be in the freezer in 6 weeks.  It is the result of selective breeding to have big breasts and grow fast.  Sounds like an easy choice, but the CRX is plagued with health problems, legs that can not support its weight and high mortality due to congestive heart failure, because its heart can’t keep up with its size. Another issue for me is that the CRX has lost its native chicken survival skills.   They don’t forage; they are the couch potato of chickens.  They eat and poop over and over, and the idea of moving to even so they don’t sit in their own waste is too much effort. So what is the point of eating chicken to be healthy if they aren’t.    As I write all this down I come to realize that decision is really already made for me, I am going with old-fashioned dual purpose birds.  These birds that Grandma used to keep.  My chickens can lay eggs for breakfast and be dinner at night.  The downside of the dual-purpose birds are: they are not as meatie, the muscle tissue is firmer because the chicks have had exercise, and most significant they grow slower, much slower than CRX. The upside is that I can save what I think are the best egg layers for the winter and the following spring.

This review has cleared up lots for me I am thinking ten dual purpose birds will work well for me.    Of course 12 would make one a month.    I guess the day I get chicks will be when I determine the final number.

Chick Dilemma

I have already wait too long to order chicks.   Three of the breeds I was hoping for are sold out until May.   I wanted  to start new chicks the last of  March or first of April.   So I picked my breeds to make a minimum order, then  got to check out and choked.   It was going to be $16 extra for my small order.   Now the debate started, should I add enough chicks to make a standard quarter box?  It takes 25 chicks  to make a quarter box.If I order the extra chicks they will be destined for the dinner table.   Now the debate is on what kind of meaties to I get.  It sounds like the perfect solution, but I am not so sure.  Do I want to butcher that many this summer?   I should not wait too long to make up my mind what I am going to do as every day that goes by my options for really wonderful breeds gets smaller and smaller.