So I'm no expert or chicken vet, but after having chickens for several years I'm here to tell you some of my experiences. If you have other questions or follow-ups just post away in the comments
How much space do you need and what's the set-up?
Well you don't need a ton of space but they need to roam and if they don't have enough space/find what they need they will fly/hop to find it. If you've got some yard with dirt areas to peck and scratch and such you'll probably be fine. They will leave you nuggets of fertilizer all over so if you have a tiny space that is all patio this is probably not the best idea. You don't have to have grass or a lawn but dirt is good - weeds and greenery are good. The more bugs and greens they eat, the better. (This is why "vegetarian fed" chickens are not really that fantastic. It's the bugs that make the eggs so good. Ok that sounded weird...but you get it right?)
You'll need a coop with about 1 square foot per chicken inside space. The coop will need a roosting bar and laying boxes for eggs. We've also got a small run attached to put food/water and so they can move some without being let out. However, they are roaming foraging creatures and if we were going to keep them all cooped up, well then we'd buy our eggs at the store. They have full run of the yard almost every day.
Can't I just keep them cooped up with a run?
You could, I guess, but it would need to be a pretty big run. Personally, we have the chickens so they can happily run, eat yard stuff and make yummy eggs. In the Spring and Fall because of the quality and availability of good stuff in the yard you can tell the eggs are better. Diet and exercise make a huge difference.
How many eggs do you get?
This varies by breed, I recommend doing your research if you want a specific color of egg or a prolific egg layer. On average, we get about 1 egg per day per chicken. We have an Ameraucana and Barred Rock. I've also had Rhode Island Reds and they are pretty good layers. I try to always have an Ameraucana because they lay the blue/green eggs! But chickens need a certain number of hours of sunlight to lay, so in the winter production drops. Of course you could put a light in the coop to add time. I figure if they push an egg out of their bodies almost every day, they can have a few days or weeks off in the winter. (I've had a child, and I certainly couldn't do it every day.) Temperature-wise, this will depend on your climate. You may need a heater if it gets really cold, or a well insulated coop. When it gets "cold" here we toss blankets over the coops for extra insulation.
What do they eat and what can't they eat?
We feed them organic chicken crumble and it's always available to them in the coop. They also scrounge around the yard nibbling on grass, weeds, plants, flowers, and bugs. We also give them compost. Pretty much anything except meat, citrus, and oils. Really the best is raw fruit and vegetable discards. If they don't eat it after a day, toss it before it rots. They also love cracked corn and we give it as a treat. Or if we want them back in the coop before sundown, we bribe them and toss it in the coop and they run in to eat it.
It's also best to make sure your girls have calcium, they use up a lot laying those eggs every day. We toss oyster shells into their food. Just a sprinkling. You can also crunch up their own egg shells and give them to them. Oyster shells aren't that expensive and normally available at the feed store.
Does it matter what kind of chicken I get? Which chickens lay the best eggs?
Yes it does. Do you want a friendly type, pretty, prolific layer, resilient, or cold hearty? Depending on your space, family, needs, and location you will want to choose your breed. For example Bantams are small chickens and take up and require less space. Rhode Island Reds are good layers but can get agressive. There really isn't a chicken that lays the best eggs -- that will be dependent on diet and exercise. Different breeds in the same environment etc. will produce equal quality of eggs.
Why get adult chickens vs. baby chicks?
I would love snuggly fluffy balls of baby. I threaten my hubs that when our baby is older and he goes out of town we're going to get some. Realistically however, it's hard to "sex" (boy or girl?) the chicks and you really really don't want a crowing bully rooster. Also, chicks are a bit fragile and a dead chick is never a situation you want to deal with. I think there is a pun in there somewhere... Anyway! We opted for "adult" chickens, meaning they are 4 months old. This is pretty hard to find and why we still have two instead of four.
What does it cost to raise chickens?
This is a great question. Our coop cost $500 (it was made locally from reclaimed barn wood and has a small run attached). This is probably mid-price. However if you are in this for the long haul, I really advise against a cheap coop, you will just have to buy another one in a few years. Here's a basic break down based on costs in Sonoma County, CA.
Coop: $200-$1000s (you can make your own too, plenty of resources for that!)
Adult Chicken: $30/per
Bag of Feed: $10 (lasts several months depending on number of chickens)
Corn: $5-10 (lasts several months/a year depending on number of chickens)
Food Dispenser: $10-$20
Oyster shells: $15 (lasts several months/a year depending on number of chickens)
Can you cuddle them?
Yes. But it could get messy...and you'll need to get them when they are little so they are trained to trust and like people. Also some breeds are more open to this. I've seen Silkies be very cuddly. We don't cuddle ours (but Becca tries to!).
How do I know the eggs are fresh or still good?
Put them in a container of water, if they float they aren't fresh anymore. Over time air gets inside the shell and once there is enough air in there the egg will float.
Hard boiling true fresh eggs, why won't they peel?
Here's a fact and tip that will have you realizing you may never have had a truly fresh fresh egg. If you hard boil a truly fresh egg, let's say 1 week old, it's almost impossible to peel. You lose most of the white trying to peel the darn thing. To solve this issue, when you boil the egg add some vinegar, maybe a tablespoon or two. This totally helps.
Why are the eggs "dirty"?
Well they are just animals! The eggs will have stuff on them, maybe some chicken poop, and other natural, potentially gross things. When the egg is laid, there is a natural protective antibiotic coat on the egg so you don't want to wash them. Well you can wash them immediately before using them but otherwise keep the gross on there because it's keeping that egg safe and tasty fresh for you.
Can I have other pets with chickens?
Probably. Not my dog though. He'd kill them. Actually he has accidentally gotten loose a few times and he immediately corners a chicken and tries to attack. I've seen a lovely gentle dog staring uninterested at roaming chickens for hours before finally moving in for the kill. Dogs are tricky to mix with chickens. Cats seem to be ok, and other animals like rabbits and ducks could be ok. You really have to know your pets and supervise. When in doubt, keep them separate. That's what we do.
What are some common issues with keeping chickens? I've heard about brooding and bullying.
Oh yes, drama in the hen house. Yikes it's never good! The saying pecking order has real merit. Chickens establish dominance by pecking each other. Remember how I said Lenore was mean and a bully? She's head chicken. When introducing new chickens to a flock you have to do it in pairs, so they have a buddy. Otherwise the chickens will gang up and hurt (possibly kill) the new chicken. We once had a sick chicken and found out too late (were out of town) and the others ganged up and killed her. I'm sorry, but it's important to know the facts. It's not all fluffy friends and delicious eggs. Watch your flock, separate them when there are problems and things could get out of hand.
Brooding, ugh! This is when a chicken lady decides she wants to hatch her eggs. No rooster? She doesn't care, who needs a man??? She will sit on her eggs and never leave except maybe to eat or drink a little. I had this happen once for over a month! Horrendous. They don't lay when brooding and it's hard to collect the eggs from other chickens! Sometimes there is nothing you can do but the following may work: Remove all eggs as promptly as possible. Try putting ice cubes in the nesting box which she won't want to sit on. Remove her from the coop and put her in a safe good place without a nesting box. Also, some breeds are more prone to brooding. Research your breeds. The poor girls just want to be mamas, it's hard to knock on that natural instinct. Hope they come around.
Thanks for peeking in the coop, this is a long post but I hope you found some useful information! Stay tuned for the series finale about eggs and why pastured eggs are so much better.
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