Farm Fresh Eggs Without The Farm!

Recently we made a trip to my neighborhood grocery store in search for organic eggs. To our surprise, the price of a carton of organic eggs was a whopping $4.99- and they had been shipped from another state. I had heard about raising your own chickens. A chicken coop the backyard? Of course! It can be easy and fun at the same time.

You think you can’t do it in the city? Wrong!

Choosing locally raised livestock can help to reduce air pollution related to the long-distance transportation of meat and poultry products.

City residents may not be able to offset their carbon use by growing a steer in the backyard. But in most suburbs and even some cities, it’s easy to raise chickens.

Understanding your own reasons for growing chickens will help you choose the right flock and get setup with the right equipment. The main reasons people grow their own chickens are:

•    to have a supply of fresh eggs,
•    pest and weed control,
•    and a supply of nitrogen-rich manure.

What you plan to do with your flock will determine (to some degree) what you will need to do to get set up. For example, if you want to let your chickens run through your garden once in a while to gobble up insects, you will need to set up some means for controlling their access to the garden so they can’t get in to eat tiny seedlings. If you want chickens for eggs, you will need to include nesting boxes in your hen house design.

The Brood

A good way to get started is to buy baby chicks. They are usually available from feed stores in early Spring. You can also start by getting fertilized eggs and keeping them in an incubator until they hatch. Either way, you will need to get a brooder and keep it in the house or put it out in the garage where cats and other predators can’t get at the chicks.

For heat, be aware that chicks need 95 degrees for the first week. You can drop this by 5 degrees every week until they’re 6 weeks old. Then they are fairly feathered out and unless you live in a very cold area, they are able to withstand normal temperatures.

If you don’t have a formal brooder, your heat source is usually a light bulb or heat-lamp. Be careful with these not to leave them low enough for the chicks to burn themselves. Also, especially with heat-lamps, be careful that the bedding can’t catch fire.

Fresh water should be available to the chicks at all times. As an energy supplement, I add one tablespoon of sugar per quart the first time I water newly hatched chicks.

A chick starter feed should be fed to all chicks until they are 6 weeks of age. You can get this at your local feed store. After this time, feed them a pullet grower feed until about 20 weeks. Then they can be switched to a laying feed.

Bedding For Chicks

Never start young chicks on a slippery surface such as newspaper. If you are using newspaper as bedding, for the first 4 days spread paper towels over it. Be careful using wood shavings on young chicks until they learn what their food is. They may start eating them which will block them up and kill them.

A great surfaces is wire! Take a piece of hardware cloth or an old window screen and cut it to the dimensions of the brooder. Then I put down a layer of newspaper and lay the wire on it. At cleaning time I just lift out the wire and hose it down, replacing a clean layer of newspaper beneath it. Be careful to make sure there are no sharp wires to hurt their feet. Either bend the edges under or tape them up.

Inside The Coop

As the chickens mature, you will need to provide them with a shelter that meets their basic needs. The ideal chicken coop will protect chickens from rain, wind, and temperature extremes. There should be perches adequately spaced and arranged so that the chickens can perch comfortably.

Chickens do better when they roost at night up off the ground. And they’re happier, also. It is the natural way for a bird to sleep. It helps prevent external parasites and keeps them from lying in their own droppings. You also don’t want them to start sleeping in the nest boxes.

Special Accommodations For Egg Layers

Hens for laying will be benefited by special nesting boxes. These should be constructed so that they don’t serve well as perches but will appeal to the natural instincts of a hen when she becomes “broody” especially if you want your hen to incubate a batch of fertilized eggs. The nesting boxes need to be somewhat enclosed and nest like.  Hens are known to lay eggs and establish a brood wherever they feel conditions are best. Sometimes they have to be coaxed into using the nesting boxes by using artificial eggs.

All chickens lay eggs in a series – never more than one or two per day. If the eggs are not collected, and a sufficient number of eggs are allowed to remain in the nest, the hen may stop laying eggs and start brooding. When the hen leaves the nest after laying an egg, it cools which suspends the development of the embryo inside. If the ambient temperature remains between 45F and 65F, the embryos will remain viable for as long as two weeks. When the hen becomes broody and sits on her eggs for three weeks, all of the eggs will hatch at about the same time.

The hen does not start to incubate the eggs until the whole clutch is laid.  The physiology of a hen changes after she’s laid her clutch. She will remain on them, with her wings slightly spread to help keep them warm, for 21 days. She will make muttering, growling sounds if disturbed, and may even peck or otherwise try to defend her nest. She will only leave the nest once a day to eat, drink and defecate. You should make sure the hen does do this at least every other day so she will not either starve or get the eggs dirty with her droppings. (Broody droppings usually come out in one large, very bad-smelling glob.)

Once the chicks start to hatch she will remain on the nest with them for 24-48 hours. Any eggs that have not hatched by then will be left behind when she takes the chicks for their first walk. At this time water and chick feed should be available for the chicks.

A hen is also called broody when she is raising her chicks, protecting them, teaching them to find food, and hovering over them to keep them warm.

“Breaking Up” A Broody Hen

When we remove the eggs, the hen supposes: “There are not yet enough,” and continues to lay.  We don’t always want to have our hens hatching eggs. When we want to stop one, this is called “breaking up” a broody.

Sometimes just putting her in a pen where she can’t see her old nest and keeping her there for 4 days will do the job. She should, of course, have feed and water. Some strong broodies will just continue to set even in a pen with no eggs. For the more stubborn hen, a wire-bottomed cage is necessary. The airflow up through the wire keeps her underside cool and after a few days she will usually give up.

Again, she should have feed and water available at all times. Some commercial people and old-time chicken raisers deprive a hen of feed and water when trying to break her up, but this is cruel and also not good for the bird. Lack of feed weakens an already weak bird (since they don’t eat much when broody anyway) and lack of water for several days can damage the liver.

The Yard

Various arrangements are possible for the poultry yard. The basic requirement is a good fence to keep predators (sometimes including family pets) from getting in. Sometimes a yard will be split into two halves with a gate connecting the two. The chickens are kept in the first half while a green cover crop grows in the second half. When the crop matures, the chickens are moved into the second half where they can nibble on the greens. In the mean time a new crop is started in the first half.

If you’re going to introduce chicks over 6 weeks old to an older flock of birds, here is a good way to make sure they can get enough feed. In your chicken yard or coop, construct an area that you can keep a supply of grower feed and water in. It should have entrance holes that are too small for the older birds to get in. Confine the young birds in there for a few days (at least during the day– you could return them to the brooder at night). They’ll learn where the food is and when you open the entrances they will soon start going out. The older birds will pick on them, but it should be fine as the chicks will have a safe refuge to retreat to.

Here are some great resources if you are considering your own chicken coop:

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