For reasons of our own: self sufficiency, controlling our food quality by raising animals in a humane way, we have decided to raise chickens in our own backyard. Instead of doing the research usually required we instead dove right in and ordered a dozen chicks-unsexed- and set up a lovely home for them in our dining room for the magic day when they arrived.
I mentioned “unsexed” …..meaning a gamble is taken on how many of each sex one gets when the order comes. Roosters of course being the males will have no ability to lay an egg, so if it’s layers you want, it would be better to order sexed…all pullets (girls). We chose the unsexed and ended up with about half and half. Unsexed is cheaper. Again with our “diving right in there” mentality we figured we would try and eat some of our furry little friends if we could find it in our hearts to “process” them.
The magic day arrived when the Canada post truck pulled up to the post office with a loaded truck of parcels, one of which was full of anxious peepers. The delivery guy was more than happy to get rid of them. About the size of a shoebox and full of breathing holes, the chickens temporary home was on the last leg of its journey, finally ending up in our dining room in the “home” we had put together for them.
To keep them warm in their first while on the planet we used a 250 watt infrared light bulb suspended over their heads…high enough to allow the temperature to stay around 90-95 degrees which apparently they prefer. Of utmost importance is clean water available to them and a supply of chick starter food in a container that they can easily get at without tipping it over.
When they arrive they will have eaten and drank nothing, relying on their yolk sac for essential life giving nutrients that can last them for up to 3 days. Not knowing what the heck water is or what it is good for they have to be introduced to it when they arrive by dipping each birds beak into the supply of clean, cold water and they will remember from then on and supply themselves. We placed stones in the trough of the water container as it was a bit oversized for the tiny chicks for the first week. The stones prevented the chicks from standing in the water and getting their little feet wet. They seemed to enjoy being up high more and more so we introduced a small branch off a tree to their domain which they could perch on and they immediately swarmed the new foreign object in their enclosure and took turns attaining the highest perch. The males mostly are the ones competing and being more aggressive in their attempts and the hens stay behind and do the housekeeping…………..NOT. By now their poops are rather significant and need to be attended to every couple of days. There is no smell though as the bed of wood chips on the floor of the enclosure is about 2 inches deep and all moisture is absorbed.
At two weeks of age the chicks have doubled in size. They eat more, drink more, squawk louder and make a whole lot more mess! They are still dependent on an artificial heat, so we have to keep the heat lamp on 24/7
Easter weekend proved to be a bit of a challenge. A big windstorm blew up and put our power out, just as we were throwing the turkey in the oven that was to feed 15. Not to mention our poor little chicks were now sitting in the cold and dark! The power stayed out for many hours so we had to get creative on how to keep the chicks warm.
We filled hot water bottles and jugs with warm water, and they did quite well huddling up against them. Lots of work though, as they had to be refilled every so often. …the turkey, well we were lucky to have a barbeque. Note to self: the next time we order baby chicks we will have them arrive later in the spring when the weather is much warmer!
Now at three weeks the chicks are more aggressive and far more capable of flying out of their present confines. To keep them from escaping we had to put a covering of stucco wire over the top of the pen which is about 20 inches high. We thought chickens couldn’t fly?
It’s amazing, after one month how large the chicks had gotten! Earlier in this post we had commented at how the chicks didn’t smell at all as they were still in the house……well things have changed! It’s time to take them outside to their coup.
We picked a nice warm day for their graduation to the great outdoors. The big plastic tub that has been their home was gently picked up and moved to just outside the door of the chicken coup. Slowly, one by one, each chick was placed carefully into their new domain. The weather is still on the cool side, especially at night so we will keep the infrared light suspended over an area so they can find warmth if they need it. A cardboard ‘brooderboard’ is put in a half circle in the middle of the coup to keep them cozy until they get used to their new ‘large’ space.
It didn’t take those little fellows long before they were running around and flying up onto the roosts. They definitely seem happier with a bit more room. The now adolescent roosters are beginning to squabble some, running at each other with their chests puffed out. Very funny to watch.
After a few days of getting used to the new coup, we thought we should introduce some real outside adventures. We opened up the little door, and set up the gang plank and….nothing. They were too ‘chicken’ to come out? We waited most of the day. Finally one brave soul ventured down the gang plank and it wasn’t long before the rest came out for a peek, then scurried back up to safety. It wasn’t until we threw some chicken scratch down on the dirt outside, that they all came out at once in a frenzy! That stuff is like treats for chickens I guess? Wonder what’s in it?
We were really excited when one of our little friends actually stepped out onto the grassed area, out in the sunshine for the first time. It’s quite entertaining watching them scratch and peck and wrestle with a big blade of grass knowing its all new to them.
They have grown quite a lot now and at about 3 months old are eating a whole lot more than when they first arrived. The day for them is spent outside and hopefully foraging for natural “stuff” like bugs and worms or anything green that they can get in their mouths. They aren’t laying yet but if they were the “bugs and stuff” is what will make the eggs have more colour and stand up in the pan prouder. It is all free as well and so will make the whole venture a little cheeeeper!
The chickens now recognize particular voices and will scurry over when they hear the voice of the one who usually feeds them and as well when they hear the familiar creeking of the door at about feeding time. At any prompts like these they come running in order not to miss any opportunity to be first at the trough. Quite tame now, they will allow you to pick them up with only a little hesitation, especially the roosters. This is probably not a real good idea if at some time you are planning on putting them on the dinner table. Just don’t name them or they are officially pets.
We learned in the next couple of weeks that chickens can actually fly fairly well for short distances….enough to clear our 4 foot fence and chow down on the neighbours “greener grass”. The fence had to be tended to, and fast if we were to avoid having to round them up from next door every day.
Split cedar slats were fashioned from scrounged beachwood and, fastened vertically to the existing fence provided adequate height quickly…..no more escapees.
Offing the roosters
The chickens have reached the point where they will be laying in the next couple of weeks so we have to whittle the flock down so that we have only hens and one rooster. Five roosters are going to have to go….somewhere……cold….like the freezer. Not ever having killed anything bigger than a bug before this presented a logistical challenge. Fortunately for us this did NOT present any concern for our very helpful neighbours who offered to walk us through the process of “processing” our six roosters. Second nature for them, they’d been doing in animals for years and had all the know-how and necessary paraphenalia to dispatch the works in short order.
The day we did the deed the neighbours showed up on time with a pick-up full of stuff for the event….stainless steel counter top, sharp knife, bucket, and a fully automated rubber tined chicken plucker. We supplied the cauldron of steaming hot water to be used for dunking the newly deceased chickens in order to loosen their feathers for plucking.
The actual killing is usually carried using “killing cones” which are simply metal funnels attached to a vertical surface. The chickens are put into the cones upside down and their carotid artery is severed quickly with a very sharp knife….very quick and seemingly painless. We, however did not employ the above method as there were only 6 birds to deal with so the time spent setting up all that stuff was deemed unnecessary. Manually pulling the head with a well timed twist at the end of the pull ended up doing the job just as fast (in the hands of a natural born killer). I am not a natural born killer and it took some uncomfortable manipulations before I was able to get the job done. It did work though but I think next time the more arms distance method utilizing the killing cones will be the way to go.
Egg Laying at Last!
It took about 4 months until they finally started to lay eggs. When they did it was rather sporadic and the eggs were not a consistent size by any means. As well for some reason there were a lot of double yolks in the mix. A couple of weeks of practice and they finally honed their skills and came up with mostly good sized regular yolked eggs and usually about one a day per hen. The eggs, once cracked, presented and very vivid orange colour and stood very proud in the pan…unlike their store bought cousins. The free ranging of the chickens is what creates the real difference in the eggs.
A small aside here…..”Free range” is a term applied to chickens and lends an added appeal to the informed customer who wants to eat as healthy as possible. This invokes an image of chickens running around in a green grassy pasture chasing bugs and eating succulent greens all day long.
If you are buying your eggs from the supermarket even though they are given the “free range” moniker they are most likely far from it. To qualify for the “free range” status one needs only provide a way for the chickens to get outside and the outside could be anything from a cement pad to a dirt field. If they happen to be meat chickens chances are they are so fat that they can’t walk far enough to make it outside on their own anyway so the access is irrelevant. Even the term “organic” which we generally hold sacred is not at all what you would think of when you purchase organic chicken or their eggs. “Organic” simply means that the feed has been organic.
To eat an egg or a chicken that has been running around in the open on grass and eating bugs as they would normally do, left to their own devices, is to eat something very healthy. The high omega3 levels in real free range chickens like this is many times that of even the organically fed hens. Organic refers to what they DON’T have in them (pesticides, hormones etc). You can still expect to find them in the same squalid conditions with very little room to run around as their non organic cousins.
If you want a healthy, honest to goodness free range bird go to your local farmer and have a look for yourself. In the supermarket unless it says something like “these eggs are from chickens that run around all day in a green pasture eating bugs and grass” then I would be loathe to pay the extra for their “free range” designation.
Another aside………while we are on the subject the food sustainability is worth looking at as well.
Most chickens of todays farms have been bred to lay as many eggs as possible or in the case of meat birds to gain as much weight in as little time as possible with the least amount of expense. As a result the chickens end up being real good at their one purpose but real bad for everything else. The egg layers will commonly lay voraciously for about 2 years and then slow right down to the point that they are no longer feasible to keep and are then done in and a new batch is brought into the works and the whole process starts over. Food security is thrown right out the window with these birds as well as because of their breeding they have mostly lost the ability to sit on their eggs and do normal mothering. Their foraging abilities in many cases have been limited as well making them totally dependent on commercial feed instead of their natural foraged food. What happens if “the big one” comes along and we have to depend on local resources…..if we have electricity we can incubate I suppose.
The meat birds are a real prize. They grow so fast that they can hardly stand by the time they are due to be slaughtered-around six weeks or so in some cases…nice life. They just roll around in their own crap and eat organic feed. It is often deemed an injustice to allow the birds to live to much longer than the six week window as because they have grown so fast their internal organs have not had a chance to catch up with their rapid meat growth and they have a hard time just breathing. As well their skeletal system has not had a chance to adapt to the rapid growth resulting in their inability to walk around….too much weight to bear….they just fall over. To call a meat bird free range seems rather preposterous -citing those examples. There do exist however, heritage breeds that can still do their own mothering and are large enough to be used as meat birds as well as lay fairly well (for a longer period of time than the cross breeds)
Just about any animal can be considered a predator from dogs to bears. In our area we have bears, raccoons, coyotes,cougars,weasels,dogs and what ever flying friends in search of eggs. These animals are smart and can be very daring and persistent if they are hungry. Neighbours on both sides of us have recently lost a number of chickens to bears. Our coop is very close to our house so may be a bit more intimidating than the more “rural” coops. Still, with some ingenuity even the “rural” chicken’s safety should be able to be assured. I think the answer..at least for bears is an electric fence…cheap and effective. Coupled with a good high wire livestock fence the electric should keep most everything out of the run. I am experimenting with a “live” fence of a thick spiny shrub grown together in a hedge to hopefully create an impenetrable barrier….cheap but its going to take some years before it is effective. Osage Orange,honey locust and pyracantha are some nasty shrubs that may well fit the ticket.
It seems to me that the success of a backyard chicken farm depends on having protection for them and then they can free range and do everything that a chicken would normally do like foraging and mothering and having dust baths. This keeps the chickens happy and healthy with no need at all for medication. As a matter of fact chickens, left to their own devices, and given ample choice of foragable food in their pasture will satisfy all their own nutritional needs innately by themselves. The less we interfere the better and life will go on just fine. After all chickens weren’t just invented and they have been doing just fine for thousands of years without commercial feed somehow. Logic tells us that they can probably do it again.
Depending of course on the number of chickens you have, different sizes of coops can be utilized. Suggested amounts of space per chicken go anywhere from 1square foot to 5 square feet. Four for me works well. Its not overcrowded and the poop is manageable. If the birds are on a plywood or other non dirt surface some people advocate cleaning the coop every week and maintaining a spotless environment..(a lot of involvement) while others are more lax and leave the stuff in the coop to rot a little before removing it. For me it makes sense to keep adding dry grass/hay/wood chips on top as necessary….especially in the winter. In our coop we have an outdoor section that is enclosed with a roof over it that we have filled with a 2 foot layer of “compost”…the idea being for the pile to gradually break down in the winter and supply a source of worms and bugs as well as some heat as the birds, while foraging, aerate the pile and add nitrogen in the form of chicken poo in their search for their bounty……not so much involvement for us and probably not as much dependence on commercial food.