DIY: The Low-Down on Raising Chickens
Many farmers profess that the key to successful animal husbandry is to never, ever think of livestock as pets. When my husband, Tim, and I finally took the plunge and adopted a flock of chicks, we told ourselves our chickens were simply egg-laying, fertilizer-making machines.
That was our plan. Knowing what suckers we are for animals of all kinds, our friends were rightfully dubious about our intentions.
And so it goes that Tim and I have eight feathered friends who have (wait for it) cooed their way right into our hearts. As it turns out, falling in love wasn’t the only surprise our hens had in store for us. Since becoming poultry parents, we’ve learned some unexpected tidbits about chickens that might be of interest to others considering a flock of their own.
Breeds Have Personalities.
Similar to dogs, chickens have personality traits specific to different breeds. You might think, “Good grief, how much personality can a chicken have?” “Lots,” is the answer. True to breed, Buffy, our Buff Orpington, loves to be near us and easily gets jealous of the other birds who vie for our affection. Princess Patty Pompom, a Polish variety with a silly burst of feathers protruding from the top of her head, is wacky to the point of having imaginary friends. A little online research will help you figure out which breeds might be the best fit for you.
Twice I’ve attended Jody Main’s Chicken Raising class sponsored by Common Ground in Palo Alto. Jody is an organic gardening consultant and local chicken guru. She suggests adopting very young chicks versus grown chickens. She believes the younger your birds are at adoption, the more likely they’ll bond with one another, bond with you, be comfortable being held and generally think of you as their Mama Hen.
Starting at around 5–6 months of age, most laying hens begin producing an egg a day, only to be interrupted during the darkest days of winter or in reaction to illness or a lack of water or food. Most chickens are good layers for about 2–3 years and then become less productive with age. Surprising to many folks, daily egg laying doesn’t require a rooster. Roosters are only necessary if you prefer fertilized eggs.
Eggshells come in white, light brown, brown, chocolate brown, blue, blue-green and a number of speckled varieties, all determined by breed. For example, Elvis Blue Shoes, our Ameraucana, lays blue-green eggs. What’s even more curious, her feet provide a clue to her shell color. They’re also blue-green! This characteristic is true of many varieties of hens that lay bluish eggs.
Chickens are dynamite little trash compactors. We feed our girls all kinds of kitchen scraps. They eat just about anything and especially love dark, leafy greens. Through a little online research, I discovered what’s best NOT to feed my chickens: avocado skins, banana peels, bones, chocolate, coffee grinds, onions, raw potatoes and fried foods. I also don’t feed the hens meat. In addition to scraps, chickens need crumble, crushed oyster shells (for strong eggshells) and daily treats, like scratch and dried mealworms. All can be found at your local feed store. Buying organic feed is recommended.
Getting a fair amount of chicken manure for fertilizer meant getting a decent-sized flock. Getting a decent-sized flock meant ending up with more eggs than the two of us would ever need. So, we asked around and found several friends who now help us tend our flock in return for eggs. All of us on “Team Chicken” are responsible for one day of chicken care each week, making tending to the girls super doable for all our busy schedules. Daily care—which includes keeping water and food fresh and in constant supply—takes less than 10 minutes, not counting the time we spend simply being entertained by the ladies.
If you’d like to learn more about chickens and the endless amusement (and eggs) they can provide, check out chicken raising classes offered by the following resources.
- COMMON GROUND, Palo Alto - Organic gardening supply and springtime chicken raising classes. CommonGroundInPaloAlto.org
- JODY MAIN, Woodside - Organic gardening consultant and private chicken raising instruction. Jodymain@gmail.com
- FULL CIRCLE FARM, Sunnyvale -- FullCircleSunnyvale.org
- LOVE APPLE FARMS, Santa Cruz -- Organic farming and chicken-raising classes available throughout the year. GrowBetterVeggies.com