Raising Backyard Chickens

Joe and I talked for a while about the possibility of getting chickens but it was almost an accident that we got them when we did.  Friends of ours (who are never in short supply of any type of bird) offered us two laying hens in the fall of 2014 and before I knew it, Joe had built a coop out of logs from our property and scrap wood in the workshop.

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We welcomed Red (a Rhode Island Red) and Blondie (a Buff Orpington) and they were quick to pick back up laying eggs within a week.  Stress/new environments can cause a dramatic drop in egg production so we were surprised and happy to begin collecting eggs so soon.  They have continued to be excellent layers, even in winter when most hens stop laying eggs altogether due to fewer daylight hours.  Most books will tell you chickens need at least 14 hours of daylight to produce an egg.  Some people put heating lamps in their coops during the winter months not only to warm their chickens but also in an attempt to pick up egg production.  While temperatures drop below freezing during winter months in Georgia, heating lamps aren’t necessary.  Chickens can tolerate cold weather (some better than others, as evidenced by their egg production) as long as they have a warm, well ventilated henhouse.  I also believe in giving the hens a break — if there is natural break in egg production in the winter, let them have it.  Also, I hear too many stories each year of fires started by heating lamps.  To me, it’s not worth the risk!

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Rhode Islands Reds and Buff Orpingtons both lay large to extra large brown eggs.

The size is classified by the weight of the egg:

Small            1.5 oz
Medium       1.75 oz
Large            2 oz
X-Large       2.25 oz
Jumbo          2.5 oz

We’ve found that our hens actually lay jumbo sized eggs and I believe that has to do with their diet.  They have layer feed we buy for them, a large chicken run to scratch in all day and then in the evenings we let them out of the run to forage in the woods before sundown.  Hens know where to come home to roost, so like clock work they work their way back in to the run and up on their roost in the henhouse before night fall.  We follow behind to close the gate to keep predators out.

If  I ever give you a carton of eggs, I can tell you exactly who laid each one.  While all of our hens lay brown eggs, there is a slight difference in the shade and even the shape that gives it a trademark.

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This photo from FreshEggsDaily.com shows you several common egg colors you can expect by breed of chicken and will link you to an excellent article.

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There are many breeds of chickens and it’s important to research the breeds to find out what color/size/average amount of eggs they lay if egg production is your primary reason for raising hens.  Hens usually begin laying between 5-7 months old and there are several factors that determine their egg production.  A hens first year of laying will always be their most productive and most reading material on the subject tells you to expect a noticeable decrease each year after.

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We enjoyed the hens so much we decided we needed more.  I cannot explain to you exactly why you can never have enough chickens but it’s the truth.

We added two more pullets (chickens less than a year old) the following year; two “mutts” that were not even laying eggs yet, and named them Henny and Penny.  This is when Joe added the chicken run and we added food and water pipes.

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We installed a 4 inch PVC pipe with a 90 degree elbow next to the coop at an angle to hold their food.  The five foot pipe we have holds about two weeks worth of layer feed for four hens.  Each hen will eat about 1/2 cup of layer feed a day; more in the winter to help warm their body.  They will also snack on bugs and kitchen scraps throughout the day.  Hens will eat pretty much anything you have leftover in the kitchen:  overripe fruits, vegetables, lettuce and berries.  They can also eat cooked fish, beef, turkey, pork or (gasp!) chicken.  The only foods you should avoid giving your hens are uncooked beans and rice, dairy/yogurt products, onions and potatoes.

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A 1 1/2 inch PVC pipe runs from a five gallon bucket with lid outside the coop to inside next to the food pipe with poultry watering nipples attached.  The hens tap the metal nipples with their beaks to drink.  Each hen drinks about 1/2 liter of water every day.  In the summer months when temperatures rise well above 80 degrees, we add blocks of ice to their water to keep it a nice temperature.  In the winter, we check each morning that their water hasn’t frozen.

Keeping chickens is incredibly low maintenance once you have your coop set up.  The most important thing you have to do for your chickens is make sure they have cold clean drinking water at all times.  Chickens do not have sweat glands so they use their combs and wattles (the red flaps on their head and under their beak) to release body heat and drinking water keeps them hydrated and their body temperature regulated.  If their drinking water gets much warmer than 80 degrees, they will stop drinking it completely, which can cause a drastic drop in their egg production that will take weeks to recover from.  Eggs are made up of 65%-75% water so keeping hens hydrated is of the highest importance for not only egg production but also their health.

You can also expect your hens to molt once a year.  Molting is defined as the shedding of old, broken, dirty feathers to grow new ones.  Molting will look different on every hen; some will lose most of their feathers all at once and be practically bald (a pitiful sight), others will appear to have a simple bad hair/feather day.  Some hens will complete a molt within a matter of weeks, others will take months.  Many hens will stop laying eggs during their molt because all their energy and nutrients go to producing new feathers.
A molt works its way down from the head and neck to the back, breast, wings and finally the tail.  We usually don’t even notice our hens molt until its made its way down to the tail because their tails will lose their usual fluff.

Obviously hens are not the cleanest animals to have hanging around your back yard.  You have to understand wherever you place their coop, the grass will be gone within a matter of a week and it’s not going to come back as long as your hens are there – this means a nice layer of mud when it rains.  The smell of chicken manure is going to hang in the air if you’re not cleaning it up regularly and that also means you’ll have flies hanging around, too.  We collect the manure in a pile at the edge of our property to use in our compost.  Chicken manure is the best garden fertilizer I know of!

Once you’ve spent some time around chickens, you’ll find that they are surprisingly entertaining and have their own unique personalities.  Like any animal, some hens are gentle and docile and others can be spunky and even a little snippy.  The more time you spend around or handling your hens, the less stressed they’ll be having you around, which always makes for a gentle hen…

…Unless you’re giving them a bath.  Ever heard the saying “madder than a wet hen”?

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There is always the potential for mites and/or lice in back yard chickens.  We pick up our hens regularly to check for parasites (which can definitely effect their laying!) and to check for other signs of health issues.  We bathe them once a year as a preventative measure against lice and mites, although you will know by their appearance and egg production if you have any type of infestation.

Catching them is the fun part as you can see here!DSC_5155

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While we spent a lot of time researching chickens (there is seriously so much interesting information!) we didn’t anticipate the drama created by adding Henny and Penny to the flock.  Red became a bully and her primary target was Henny.  I had noticed Red run Henny off from the food pipe on occasion and even back her in to corners to show dominance.

Two or three weeks after Henny and Penny joined the flock, Joe found Henny bloodied and huddled in the back of the nester boxes.  Red had literally pecked a gaping hole in Henny’s side under the wing area.  That was the day we found out that the sight of blood literally sends chickens into a frenzy and once they see red, they won’t stop until the worst happens.
Luckily, Henny survived.  We immediately cleaned her up and separated her from the other three hens by creating a sectioned off area in the run and added a roost to an old dog house for her to sleep in.  She was able to heal while still “socializing” with the other hens during the day.  Within a week Henny was completely healed up and we cautiously added her back to the flock.
I assume Red felt threatened by the addition and wanted to prove her alpha role but she hasn’t bothered Henny since that incident and in fact they roost next to each other every night now.

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Raising hens has been an incredible learning experience.  We enjoy all the benefits they provide:

  • fresh, healthy eggs for our family to eat – antibiotic/hormone free!
  • eggshells (we can crush the shells to feed back to them for calcium which in turn helps them create even more eggs or we can use them in our garden to improve the growth of both vegetables and flowers)
  • the chicken manure which makes an excellent addition to compost (helping us grow more of our our own food)
  • they eat bugs we don’t want hanging around our yard and also food leftovers we’d otherwise toss in the garbage.

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Here are some chicken facts to leave you with (some I’ve already covered) if you’re considering raising backyard chickens:

  • Hens do not need a rooster to produce an egg, only to fertilize the eggs
  • Hens will starting laying around 20 weeks old
  • Hens need at least 14 hours of daylight to produce an egg
  • Eggs are made of 65% – 75% water, so keep your hens hydrated!
  • You can tell if an egg is fresh by placing it in a bowl of water:
    If it sinks, it’s fresh.  If it floats, don’t eat it.
  • The breed of a hen determines the color of eggs they will lay
  • Your coop will need at least 4 square feet per bird – the more you can give them, the better!
  • You should have at least one nester box (where the hens will lay) for every four hens.

I’ll have additional information on raising backyard chickens in a future post since there is so much to cover!  If you have questions you’d like answered, please feel free to leave a comment or fill out the form under the Contact tab!

 

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