Gardening with Chickens
- Self-Sufficiency and Sustainable Living
- Free fertilizer
- Heritage Chickens
- Ordinance Requirements
- Resources: online, books, local sites
The coop … Basically, as far as a chicken is concerned, the coop is a place to find shelter, lay an egg and roost at night. A typical minimal requirement in size is 3 to 5 square feet per bird inside the coop. As for nesting boxes, one per 4-5 birds is all that’s required (they seem to like having all their eggs in one box).
The roosting bar needs to allow 12 inches of space per bird. Adequate ventilation is also essential to the health of the birds, either in the way of a ventilation fan system, or an adequate amount of windows that can be opened or closed depending on the outside temperature. I don’t heat the coop for two reasons: one is that I specifically chose winter-hardy heritage chickens that can withstand our Missouri winters and secondly, the Ozarks are famous for crazy ice storms that can take out the electric power for long stretches … If the hens aren’t acclimated to the cold, the sudden lack of heat could prove fatal to the flock. The last requirement of the coop is safety. If you allow the chickens to free range during the day, they will need to be enclosed each evening in a secure predator-proof coop to protect them from our sly and cunning raccoon, foxes and such …
The Run … Chickens are constantly busy foraging and scratching. If you choose not to let the birds free-range on your property, then they need a secure outside run with a minimal size requirement of 10 square feet per bird. This run also needs to be secure from predators reaching into the run, digging under or attacks from above. I added a 3-foot skirt of chicken wire on the ground around the outside perimeter of the run. The top and sides of my run are covered with 1/2 inch mesh hardware cloth.
Chicks: Expect to devote quite a bit of time caring for your new chicks for the first 4-8 weeks, but after a couple of months they’re pretty much care-free! They need a warm environment during these first few weeks, so plan on having them in a heated garage or laundry room. Before you purchase the chicks have on hand a container to house them in (I used a plastic storage box). You will also want to cover the top of their housing to keep them contained and to keep predators (such as curious cats) from getting to the young birds.
For the first week, the air temperature needs to be at a constant 95 degrees, then each week decrease the temperature by 5 degrees. Most sources recommend suspending a 250-watt infrared heat lamp above the container. The correct temperature is achieved by raising or lower the light. What worked for me was purchasing the chicks in the heat of summer. I was able to keep them in the (unheated) mud room and achieve the correct temperature by simply using a 100-watt light bulb. Purchasing the chicks in the summer (when the night temps are above 80 degrees) also meant that I could move them out to the coop/run earlier.
The young chicks are susceptible to a few illnesses at this young age, but keeping their water, food and bedding as clean as possible will prevent most problems. I used a thick layer of pine shavings for their bedding and elevated their waterer and feeder on bricks, but they still managed to knock over the water and poop in their food … Be prepared to be a mother hen! Fortunately, once they do move out to the coop, checking on them a couple times a day is usually sufficient …
Heritage Chickens: Once the decision has been made to purchase chicks or chickens, there are a lot of options: breed, color, temperament, size, egg color, dual purpose, winter hardiness … even fluffiness! I wanted a family-friendly, winter-hardy breed that was also a good egg-layer. There are several online sites that will help you determine the best chicken based on your needs.
Heritage Chickens by definition are breeds that were recognized by the American Poultry Association before the mid-20th century. They are naturally mating and have a long, productive outdoor lifespan. They are also slower to reach maturity than industrial chickens; 16 weeks vs. 6 weeks. This slow growth rate allows for a stronger skeletal structure as compared to commercialized chickens bred for fast growth and market weight.
This seems like the perfect opportunity to show off my attractive breeds …
Golden Laced Wyandotte
Wyandottes are large (7-8 pounds) birds that include several varieties (in addition to the Golden Laced): Silver Laced, White, Black, Buff, Partridge, Silver Penciled, Columbian, Blue. They’re winter hardy, easy-going (calm and docile) and lay large brown eggs.
• You can have up to six hens, no rooster.
• You cannot breed the chickens or produce fertilizer for commercial purposes.
• You can slaughter your chickens, but it must be sanitary and not seen or heard by nearby properties.
• Coops must be kept clean, neat, sanitary and odor-free.
• Coops need to have adequate ventilation and light, as well as be a safe place from predators and the elements.
• Up to three cubic feet of manure can be stored at a time in a fully enclosed structure.
That’s the basic “hows” of chicken keeping in a nutshell. In two weeks, I’ll cover the next topic in my outline: Gardening with Chickens
To see what else is happening on our Southwest Missouri property, visit …the garden-roof coop.