One reason poultry make ideal livestock is that their housing needs can be met simply. All domesticated poultry are hardy and just need protection from predators and weather extremes. Housing that protects your birds from wind, rain and snow will be sufficient for your flock. It’s also important to provide shade on the hottest summer days. A minimum of 3 square feet of shade per adult bird is needed, although 4 or 5 square feet would be even better.
If possible, I urge against the conventional homestead flock, in which the birds are confined to a coop and a small, static chicken run. In a short time, the birds quickly consume or trample all available vegetation, and droppings accumulate. It’s ideal to allow the birds to be on a healthy, green pasture where they can benefit from the sunshine, fresh air and exercise, and forage a substantial portion of their diet.
Buying bagged feed for a flock is convenient, and we’d like to believe that “scientifically formulated” feeds are the best diet we can offer. But think about this: What would the chicken eat on her own in a completely natural setting? Chickens are actually grazers, and eat a fair amount of grasses, clovers and broadleaf weeds. They love wild seeds and live foods such as earthworms, insects, slugs and snails. All of these options (plants, seeds, small animals) are alive and unprocessed. Commercial feeds are not alive or unprocessed; they are produced from highly processed ingredients.
There are many ways your flock can help you achieve key homestead goals. At one time, free-ranging poultry flocks helped to control excess insects in orchards. You can use a flock in much the same way, confining them to a specific area if necessary with electric net fencing. Another way the flock is useful is by cleaning up dropped fruit in the orchard, which can harbor disease or overwintering insects.
If your flock doesn’t include an adult male (a cock, frequently called a “rooster”), the eggs being laid by hens won’t hatch. If you want eggs to hatch from your chickens, you will need one cock for about every 12 to 15 hens.
I recommend moving the hen with her clutch directly to the pasture where the hardworking mother hen forages natural foods for her babies.
A brooder is a warm and draft-free environment designed to replicate a mother hen’s body heat. You can purchase a commercial brooder, but it is inexpensive and simple to construct a homemade brooder from materials you have (a large cardboard box will do for a few chicks).
The first order of business to teach your chicks is how to drink. As you take each one out of the shipping carton, dip its beak into the water. Then set it onto the floor of the brooder. Do not leave open water sources in the brooder. Chicks splashing in water could become cold and die. Use a waterer with a controlled “lip” so the chicks can drink but cannot wade.
In addition to feed, provide your brood free-choice “grit,” tiny bits of rock they swallow to grind their feed in their gizzards. You can purchase commercial granite grit (which is offered in various sizes appropriate to different ages and species of fowl), or you may locate chick-size grit, approximately the size of radish seeds, around your home.
Adequate sanitation in the brooder is essential to avoid disease and distress. But do not assume that absolute sterility is possible or desirable. You want to prevent the “caking” of manure in the brooder, produced by overcrowding or improper litter materials (those that are not absorbent and do not fluff up easily). While brooding successive batches, I recommend topping off the old litter with fresh material (instead of removing it completely and sterilizing the brooder). The litter becomes biologically active as decomposition continues (as in an active compost heap), resulting in microbial metabolites that actually toughen the immune systems of the growing chicks. An earth floor is ideal for this system. Raising purchased chicks is simple, but don’t forget that they rely on you for their every need.