It's getting easier for people outside the backyard poultry community to understand why so many of us choose to dedicate a portion of our lives to raising and caring for chickens. I don't get the same reaction I used to from suburbanites when they find out I raise chickens through casual conversation. Instead most people end up telling me about someone in their neighborhood that is raising a few chickens. In fact, it has become quite easy to influence outsiders to take part in this "unusual" hobby simply by telling a story or two about our beloved chickens and their unforgettable antics. Let's face it, stories about dogs and cats are about as interesting as a glass of warm water and dry toast for dinner. Who hasn't heard the one about the dog that chased its tail? It's not that it wasn't funny but I suspect your audience has seen this behavior before. Now tell the story about the rooster that chased your screaming mother-in-law around the backyard, suddenly people become very interested in what you are saying. You'll still have plenty of opportunity to talk about your dog when you raise chickens as the two can produce some entertaining and crowd pleasing stories, provided the story doesn't end with the dog eating the chicken. I remember sitting on he back porch with my wife enjoying an ice cold drink when my 85-pound dog came running across the backyard with his tail between his legs and a Buff Orpington roosting on its back while a Barred Rock chased behind. The chicken on his back quickly jumped off as Farley (my dog) crawled underneath my chair for protection and some comforting. I'm not sure how that all got started but since then we have replaced our "beware of dog" sign with an "Area Patrolled by Attack Chicken" sign.
A good story doesn't always have to involve the chicken but rather the chicken coop. I love to tell the story about my 2-year-old son getting his head stuck inside our chicken tractor yelling "No! No!" as the chickens pecked and pulled at his curly blonde hair. Trust me; you don't have to make this stuff up! Raise chickens long enough (a few weeks will do) and you won't have to look very hard to find a hilarious story to share.
But it's not just the stories we share that make people from the small land owner to the urban adventurer commit to sharing their yard with a few chickens. It's not just the fact that more people realize the health benefits of eggs from backyard hens, not to mention the more humane lifestyle they are exposed to. Could it then be they are looking for the blood pressure lowering effects associated with "pet" ownership that we keep reading about? Or could it be a way for people to escape back to the good old days by incorporating some of the sights and sounds we experienced during visits to Grandma and Grandpa's farm? The real answer is most—or all—of the above.
Most people end up raising chickens after one of three occurrences: 1) Intensive research suggested the positive aspects of raising chickens outweighed any possible negatives, 2) Dad has trouble saying no to his kids and came home from a recent trip to the feed store with six chickens, a toy horse collection, and two bags of candy but forgot the new shovel he went there for, or 3) Drinking beer while looking at poultry-related websites.
Conversely, I think the reasons many people don't raise chickens is because they believe chickens are strictly farm animals that require a lot of space, feel they don't have access to the types of supplies required, or stay completely sober when surfing the internet. In reality you don't need any more room in your backyard for a few chickens than you do for a dog and you can order a chicken coop, chicken feed, and most other poultry supplies online 24 hours a day.
But before you wake up with a hangover and an online order of Barred Rock chicks, let me at least bring forth some answers to the questions that most people ask before jumping into the backyard poultry arena. Keep in mind there are experts in the world of poultry like Gail Damerow, who have written books like The Chicken Health Handbook and Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens that can serve as guides into your new endeavor. However, although I am not qualified to be considered an expert, I did manage to read both books and have raised, or at least eaten, chickens most of my life, and spent the last 17 years in the poultry supply business, so I should be able to provide some unique insight into the world of backyard chickens.
To help do so, I have polled the operators at Randall Burkey Company who sell poultry equipment and live chicks on a daily basis and asked them to help me come up with the top 10 questions asked by people who are either planning to raise chickens or are new to raising chickens. Hopefully these turn out to be some of the same questions you might need answers to. Remember, no question is a dumb question if you don't know the answer. I remind myself of that whenever I talk to a mechanic. "The battery's dead! Doesn't my car run off gasoline?"
So here are the top 10 questions:
#1. Do I need a rooster for my hens to lay eggs?
Okay, stop laughing! You didn't always know the answer to this question. I will tell you that this is the most commonly asked question we get, so no one should be embarrassed. The answer is no, unless you want chicks. If you're just looking for eggs to eat and/or some nice yard pets, hens minus the rooster can provide you with plenty of farm fresh eggs without a single crow to wake you up in the morning.
#2. How long do chickens live?
The life expectancy of most standard chicken breeds shielded from predators and deep fryers can range from 8 to 15 years. There are many reports of pet chickens living as long as 20 years! With the increasing popularity of raising chickens as pets, I imagine someone will develop a new line of chicken coops such as nursing coops or assisted living coops for the growing population of elderly chickens. All joking aside, chickens are very hardy animals that rarely need a trip to a veterinarian, no matter how long they live.
#3. What do I need when my chicks arrive?
Boil some water and grab some clean towels! Isn't this what we heard on television when the mother went into labor? However, with newborn chickens, we only need to boil water if we plan on cooking them. What you do need is a way to keep your chicks warm without cooking them. Depending on the number of chicks and your budget there are several options. Most commonly used and most economical is a single lamp infrared brooder with a 250-watt red glass infrared bulb. Of course you will need a perimeter to contain the chicks inside the heated area —something as simple as an 18" high corrugated paper chick corral will get the job done. Place a small thermometer inside to ensure the correct temperature of 95° F is maintained, dropping 5° each week thereafter. A proper chick feeder and waterer is also necessary and you should provide ample space for the number of chicks inside. Pine shavings will work well as bedding and although there are many other options, you want to avoid using material such as newspaper that does not provide stable footing.
#4. At what age do hens start laying and how many eggs will they lay?
Typically hens will start to lay when they are around 5- 6 months of age and will lay approximately 200 to 300 eggs annually, based on the breed type. Breeds like Rhode Island Reds, Golden Sex Links, and White Leghorns are considered some of the most prolific egg layers. Peak production generally occurs at two years of age and slowly declines thereafter.
#5. How much feed do chickens eat?
The amount of feed a chicken will consume varies dramatically based on breed type, feed quality, climate, and other variables that make it difficult to provide one good answer. However, a typical laying hen will consume around 4 to 6 ounces of feed each day with an increase during cold months and a decrease during warm months. Many types of feeders available today are designed to prevent feed from being scratched out to reduce wasted feed and lower your overall feed bill. Depending on where you are located, your chickens can nearly survive strictly by foraging for their food on a good size piece of property. Foraging for food is really the chickens' preferred method of eating because it makes life much more interesting for them as opposed to standing around the all-you-can-eat food trough. Even during the leaner times you can promote natural foraging behavior by hanging a "Free Range" feeder in your yard. With a timer that can be set to release varying amounts of pelletized feed, you can provide your chickens the sustenance they require while still allowing them the opportunity to act upon their natural instincts.
#6. How big does my chicken coop need to be?
Because chickens spend most of their active time outside of the chicken coop, generally 2 - 3 square feet per chicken is sufficient space. Remember, you will need to provide space to roost at night and space for the nesting boxes. If you plan on keeping them cooped up full-time then 8 - 10 square feet per chicken would do, counting the outside run. In this case, more is always better. If you are planning on buying or building a mobile chicken coop, space requirement is minimized because it offers you the ability to frequently move the coop and chickens onto fresh ground.
#7. How many nest boxes will I need for my hens?
If you asked a slick nest box salesman, he would probably tell you the answer is one box for every hen and then tell you how much he likes you and how he is willing to give you a great deal if you buy today. Fortunately, I don't think there are many "nest box salesmen," especially slick ones. However, there are plenty of poultry supply companies that sell nest boxes and the answer they should give you is approximately one nest box for every 5 - 6 hens. Now this can, and does, vary somewhat but the point is this, if you have 25 hens you don't need to purchase 25 individual nest boxes. In fact, one six-hole nest box would probably be sufficient for 25 laying hens, or 6 extremely pampered laying hens.
#8. What is the best way to deal with internal and external parasites?
Because we are dealing with an animal that we may eat or eat the eggs from, I prefer to recommend the more natural alternatives for treatment opposed to chemical use. "Food grade" diatomaceous earth (DE) is the fossilized remains of microscopic shells created by one-celled plants called diatoms and is the most popular natural product for controlling internal and external parasites. Chickens can be dusted with DE to treat lice and mites, and it can be mixed with their feed to control worms. Another alternative all-natural product is Poultry Protector, used to control external parasites such as mites, lice, and fleas. Poultry Protector uses natural enzymes to control parasites and can be sprayed in all areas of the chickens' living quarters and safely on the birds as well.
#9. What is the best way to protect my chickens from predators?
Obviously, a well-built chicken coop is your first and best defense against predators. The coop should be designed to prevent predators from crawling through small openings or from tunneling under. Most troublesome predators come at night so it may be a good idea to place a few NiteGuards around your coop. NiteGuard Solar emits a flashing red light at night that makes predators think they're being watched by something more terrifying than they are, forcing them to leave the area, and preventing predators from ever approaching your coop.
#10. How do I get my chickens to go in the coop at night?
Chickens instinctively move into their coop when the sun goes down. It may take a little coaxing for grown chickens to move into a newly built coop but once they realize it's home, they generally go right in at night. Your job is to close the door behind them once they enter, and then to open it back up in the morning. If this sounds like something you don't care to constantly deal with, you can buy an automatic chicken coop door such as the new Poultry Butler Automatic Poultry Door.
Whatever reasons made you decide to start raising chickens, personally I think you made a great decision, even if it happened to be alcohol induced. I guarantee you're going to have some great stories to tell about your life with chickens, and I wish I could hear every one of them.
To those of you who already have chickens, don't forget to pet the dog every once in a while. If you're like me, you still love your dog but wish it were eggs he was laying all over the backyard. Now that would be a great story!