The hustle and bustle of the holidays are past. As the new year unfolds, I like to take some time to reflect on the previous twelve months and to do some proper planning for the next.
Proper planning begins with paper and pencil. I envision the days, weeks and months as an empty calendar and begin charting planting dates, doctors’ appointments, meetings, birthdays and other special events. Using my garden journal as a reference, and the lovely seed catalogs that have been arriving in the daily mail, I jot down new cultivars that I wish to try, and mentally expand my gardens. The catalogs from hatcheries arrive, and I begin to list the chickens I’ll order; I dream of little peeps, baskets of fresh eggs. Maybe I’ll try some meat birds this year…
Please note: this is all under the heading “Proper Planning”, and what I’ve written is all true. I do begin with paper and pencil; I leaf through every catalog and mentally expand gardens and coops. The thing is—proper planning also requires retreats into reality. There are budgets to consider, as well as space, time, and climate.
Before jumping into chicken keeping for the first time, here are some things for you to think about:
Where will my chickens live? You’ll need to provide shelter, to keep predators away and to screen your birds from climate changes. There are all sorts of coop plans, fancy houses, recycled-pallet homes and sheds that could work—as long as it has a roof, provides access to fresh air and light, a way for the chickens to get out (and in) and security so that predators cannot get in. You’ll want a roost or two, feeders and a water source. Think about space, too—you will need to be able to easily clean the coop and gather eggs. Do you live where winters are cold? You’ll need more space than if you live in a milder climate. A rule of thumb is 2 to 10 square feet of room per chicken—depending on the size of your birds (are they bantams or one of the heavy breeds?)
Think, too, about how and where your chickens will exercise: will you have a covered run, or do you have pasture where they can free range during the day?
The next question to ask yourself:
What kind of chickens do I want? Do you want to raise meat birds—perhaps using organic practices? Or, do you want to raise some laying hens that will produce eggs for your breakfast—and maybe a few for the neighbors as well? Do you want to raise rare, heritage breeds and exhibit them?
Meat birds, for instance, are often not kept through winters, so your housing considerations would be different than for layers.
Laying hens require nest boxes–
—do you want brown eggs? White eggs? Green eggs? Check your catalog for specifics for each breed of chicken. Some are good winter layers, while others thrive in hot weather.
If you plan to raise chicks, it is important to know if the breed you are considering is marked as “broody”–if they are likely to make good mothers. You’ll need a rooster, too—which you don’t need if you just want eggs.
Do you want big, friendly chickens? Would you like smaller, fluffy chickens with crazy hairdos or sleek, shiny birds?
What will I feed my chickens? And, along with this, where will you keep your feed that is out of the elements and away from rodents and wild birds? (Yet another consideration when coming up with a coop plan.) If you start with day old chicks, you’ll want “starter” feed, and you will have to decide if you want medicated or unmedicated. Will you buy your feed at a large supply company, a local feed mill, or somewhere else? Our small town hardware store carries animal feeds, for example. Read up on feeds –there are specific feeds for rapidly growing meat birds, high protein feeds, scratch grains and treats. There are organic feeds, too, that come from fields of grain not treated with pesticides.
Chickens don’t have teeth, so you will have to start providing grit to help digestion of feed. Grit, like oyster shell for strong eggshells, can be provided in a self-serve dispenser. Chickens will know when they need it.
Are there laws about keeping chickens where I live? If you live inside a town or village, you’ll need to check zoning regulations. Some places let you keep as many chickens as you want; others limit numbers. There are villages that don’t allow free-ranging chickens, and there are many places that don’t let you keep a rooster.
Where will I find my chickens? Will you purchase them locally-through a feed store, perhaps, or from a person you know? Will you order them through the mail? Will you try hatching them yourself –purchasing fertile eggs and using an incubator? Or are you thinking of taking in some adult chickens? However you decide to start your flock, there are considerations—from making sure you don’t schedule your annual two week vacation the same time you schedule new chicks, to making sure your chickens aren’t bringing pathogens onto your homestead.
Who can I talk to if I run into trouble? You might want to talk to your veterinarian before you become a chicken keeper. Some vets handle poultry problems, others don’t. There are on-line communities, though, that can help you with simple questions, (think www.communitychickens.com!), and can direct you to reputable sources if you have an emergency. If you have ordered chicks from a hatchery, there should be a customer service number to call—I’ve had good luck with quick answers and friendly people when calling.
My best advice—as an experienced chicken keeper? Read. Talk. Listen.
Read everything you can get your hands on before you make the decision to keep chickens. A couple of my favorite resources are Jay Rossier’s “Living With Chickens” and Harvey Ussery’s “The Small-Scale Poultry Flock”. Agricultural supply stores and feed stores often have racks of books and magazines with essays and articles about chicken keeping, chickens and coops.
Talk to other chicken keepers. Do you buy eggs from a local farmer? Talk to her. Start a conversation with the guy at the feed store.
Listen to what they say, and (here’s where the paper and pencil come in handy) take notes. Take notes on your reading. The more you know about what to expect– the more you properly plan before jumping right into poultry farming, the more prepared you will be for any eventuality.