The chicken is becoming the new dog with more home owners keeping a few chickens in their backyard and enjoying their fresh eggs. With keeping poultry comes a steep learning curve of how to keep them safe from predators and maintaining a management style that is efficient and productive. Having chickens in my life for nearly quarter of a century (Oh man, now I feel old!) I have constructed and experimented with a variety of coops and pens, fences and equipment. I will share with you what I currently use to manage my small flock of layer hens and grow meat birds & turkeys. There are some things I would still like to change, of course, since it could always be better!
Starting with the layer hens, I currently have just 5 Golden Comet hens that lay 4 or 5 eggs a day on organic layer pellet, and that is more than enough for my family and then some! So last winter I got tired of lugging water out to their coop behind the barn thru 2+ foot of snow and ice in 20 degree below 0 winds and decided the hens would be moved into the husband’s work shop (attached to the goat barn/garage). I designed this indoor pen with my goals in mind: Cleanliness, convenience and comfort. Traditionally, the chickens’ water supply is in the pen or coop with them whether you use a fountain style or bowl. Well my chickens had a knack for pooping in their water and that’s just gross. I knew I wanted the water on the OUTSIDE of their pen with only access for their heads, and what a difference it has made! Next, I want to keep my feet clean, so eliminate the need to enter the pen to open and close their door was the next goal. Rig up a guillotine style door just big enough for chickens to pass thru, a pulley and a rope strewn thru to the outside and there you go! To top it off I needed nest boxes that were accessible from outside the pen, and low enough for my kids to collect eggs. I chose to construct 3 nest boxes that will be sufficient for 5-10 hens. Most hens will favor the same 1 or 2 boxes anyway so no need to over do it. On the feed, I already had a hanging tube feeder that holds roughly a 2 week supply of pellets so I chose to utilize that on the access door end of the pen for easy refilling. If I did not already own this tube feeder I probably would’ve built a gravity flow feeder out of wood right into the side of the pen next to the water so it could be filled from the outside. Lastly: Comfort. Of course your birds need to be happy and healthy to be productive so that must be one of your goals in building the perfect coop/pen. I used 1/4″ hardware clothe to sheath the frame, providing ample air flow but also protection from small predators such as weasels. The 5 hens have about 8 linear feet of roosting space which is more than ample. Their water is always clean, free of manure and shavings, and they have natural sun light to maintain their internal clocks. In the winter months I plan to use a 40 watt bulb to provide artificial light to maintain roughly 14 hours of daylight and ample egg production. All in all I love my new hen house and the convenience it offers to care providers!
I like raising meat birds because they are so short-term and the meat is unlike anything you’ll ever buy at the grocery store! In just 8 to 9 weeks I have a 5 to 8 pound dressed bird with plump, juicy meat. I’ve heard people say they don’t like the white birds because they turn brown (with manure) and aren’t pleasant to look at… in my opinion this should NOT happen! My birds stay clean with constant access to fresh ground and more than ample space. They don’t do well in a small shed, or a chicken coop with a ramp. They don’t roost because they are heavy birds, they will stay on the ground their entire lives. When weather permits I prefer to put chicks right outdoors using Premier’s No Shock chicken fence (smaller holes prevent baby chicks from sneaking thru) inside of the electrified Poultry Net, surrounding their provided shelter. This trains the chicks to their new home where they can seek safety from air predators and shelter from the elements. Between the age of 3 and 4 weeks they are big enough to remove the no shock fence and be introduced to the electric netting. I prefer Premier’s 164′ netting; this fits 50-60 birds comfortably and allows about 2 weeks of clean ground with shelter movement as needed, and they get plenty of exercise. A Parmak 50 mile fence charger puts good juice through the netting to ward off predators… just be sure to turn it off before trying to hop the fence! A complete diet of high protein feed and granite grit is fed twice a day using range feeders. These feeders have adjustable legs and neck rails so they grow with the birds and are a GREAT investment! In my opinion meat birds should not be free-fed using a tube feeder of sorts. For one, they will over eat and develop health issues and two, there is not enough “bunk space” per bird. Because these birds eat so much and grow so fast they consume LOTS of water! I utilize the 5 gallon founts, but would prefer a water bowl with a float to maintain constant water level and save labor time… but I have not had good luck thus far with that mission. I would love to have a lighter weight shelter to drag around for these birds. The awkward and heavy steel bin rings aren’t ideal, but they have done their job for years now and haven’t blown away in any storms!
As always I practice good bio security as much as possible and wash my boots with a disinfectant after exiting any chicken pen, and always wash hands after or wear gloves when handling the equipment or eggs. This is especially important with children who can’t keep their fingers out of their mouths!
Well, I finally completed my chicken hoop house project I’ve been talking about for a couple years now! My growing pullets were becoming increasingly agitated by each other indoors with shrinking space, so when the never-ending winter weather finally… ended, I had plenty of encouragement to create a portable hoop house using scrap 2x4s, 2″ rigid pipe and a tarp. The dimensions are roughly 6′ x 10′ and it’s lightweight enough to drag easily along the ground. I drilled 6 holes (slightly too large for pipe, oh well) in the long 2x4s for the 3 hoops. Luckily my husband offered his two cents and suggested shoving 6″ length saplings into the pipe ends that way I could secure them using long screws and a thin plywood-like board from the underside. This did in fact stiffen it up enough to withstand the wind. The only flaw in my plan I see at this point is the tarp makes a little too much noise in the wind for the chickens’ comfort. They are getting used to it now, but I’d suggest considering investing in a canvas tarp that will cut down on the noise factor.
Introducing the now 156 pullets (a bunch have already found forever homes!) to the great outdoors was more stressful for me than it was for them I think. Moving meat birds is one thing; they don’t fly very high and catching any escapees is not a hard task. These girls can fly! I transported about 22 at a time in a cardboard box on a sleigh from the shop to the hoop house. For the first 12 hours they stayed confined to the hoop house so that they could become acclimated to their new “home base”. Even adult chickens need a chance to become familiar with a new home and hen house so that they know where to return to for shelter from the elements, predators and night fall.
The next morning the chicks came out of their house with little encouragement. I thought all was calm and well so went to work for the day only to return home to about 30 escaped chicks roaming around outside the fence and in the shop where their journey began! I guess I’ll never know what happened to cause so many to “fly the coop” that day but since then they seem to stay put behind the electrified Premier poultry netting and our journey continues peacefully.
One of the benefits of having 200 growing pullets in the shop is the opportunity to conduct our own feed trials! Lucky for me I have an in with the local feed company, Morrison’s Custom Feeds. After showing my husband Earl how much wasted starter mash was mixed in with the shavings I convinced him to bring me a bag of organic starter crumbles from a batch he had mixed for a commercial poultry farm. As it turns out, “my girls” loved it! That’s all it took- organic starter-grower crumbles were suddenly being produced and bagged at the mill and our store had a ton delivered for my customers to try.
So why did the chickens strongly prefer the crumbles over the mash? This question intrigues Earl as he is constantly trying to learn more about animal nutrition and improve the efficiency of the feed he manufactures. We did a little research on-line and scanned through some poultry books. As it turns out chickens have a very weak sense of taste and smell. Just like wild birds, they find food sources with their incredible eyes! Apparently the sight and texture of the crumble is more appealing than a powdery mash. These two products should taste and smell similar as they contain the same ingredients, just processed differently. A couple benefits I forsee is that if my pullets are eating twice as much feed now (yes, I have to spend more $$ now too!) they will be getting the protein and energy they need to GROW properly, resulting in a more desireable maturity weight and eventually higher egg production! So despite the slight increase in expense of the increased feed intake and the cost of crumbles, my birds will return that in production down the road.
Needless to say my 200 ladies are very happy with their new organic poultry cumble and this now opens a new door for Morrison’s Custom Feeds in the poultry feed market!
Feeding Frenzy: Picture 1 shows heavy bird traffic around crumble feeder in foreground, mash in background. Picture 2 shows what is left 12 hours later, crumble in foreground again.
Obvious preferance for crumbles
Results are in 12 hours later, crumble in foreground
So our baby chicks arrived on Thursday February 28th via air mail from Mt. Healthy Hatchery. I was happy to find all 200 of them made the trip and they were in wonderful condition when I unboxed them. After scrambling that morning to get our shop in the garage warmed up with propane heaters and the pellet stove the chicks seemed content under their heat lamps and I was finally able to relax. My son, Luke, was super excited for his first close encounter with the little fluff balls, petting gently with one finger as I showed him and saying “buck-buck” (cluck cluck). Kids love baby animals, but precaution must be taken as chicks break VERY easily!
It’s finally warmed up enough in the last week and I was able to get the hen house mucked out today. I resisted scraping down to bare floor, just taking the top layers off. This “pack” of manure (or do we call it “litter”?) actually generates heat as it goes through the decomposition process. Although it may not look so appealing building up under your perches it is beneficial to leave it for the bulk of the winter and keep your hens warm. Adding the occasional shavings will help keep things clean. I hear of people using heat lamps to keep their chickens warm in the winter; I don’t find it necessary with the Golden Comets. I even keep the window open a crack through the coldest days to keep air flow, preventing respiratory problems. Despite a little frostbite on their combs my hens are healthy, happy and lay an egg a day! Keeping chickens isn’t rocket science, it just takes a little common sense and creativity to find what works best for you and your flock!
I must not be the only one in the NEK that is getting wore down with this winter weather- customers are asking for chick order forms and garden seeds… and it’s only mid February! I, for one, am happy to THINK SPRING!
What better way to rush spring than baby chicks? I’m expecting 200 pullet chicks in the mail beginning of March which I intend to refresh my flock with and sell the balance to other hobbyists and egg producers.
I still remember going with my mother to buy our first flock of hens. They were a bunch of “mutts”; a hodge-podge of this and that but a colorful bunch at that. We drove home with about 40 hens in the back of our Suburban and our chicken adventure commenced. That was more than 20 years ago now and I’ve had chickens in my life in one form or another since! Chickens are a fun, relatively inexpensive project for both adults and children. Part of the fun is selecting your first flock and since there are literally hundreds of breeds to choose from often a little guidance is needed.
At Morrison’s we have offered a small variety of laying birds each year for customers to order from and it’s obvious to see that the Golden Comet is the most popular year to year. I finally tried these birds out for myself and quickly learned why they are such a hit! First off, they are a beautiful golden red color, a blend of Rhode Island Red and White Leghorn giving this bird a smaller, more feed efficient body. They are quiet natured, easy to pick up once they get to know you and don’t seem to cause drama like some other breeds do. The best feature of the Golden Comet, in my opinion however, is their early maturity at 16 weeks. Most other breeds will mature closer to 20 weeks of age so that’s 4 weeks longer you need to wait for fresh eggs! If large brown eggs are to your liking then the Golden Comet is a solid choice!
My experience with White Leghorns unfortunately was short lived since a member of the weasel family made himself at home in our hen house one summer and slaughtered all our hens 🙁 This breed of chicken is by far the best layer I’ve seen of white eggs. They are lighter boned, consume less feed and have an impressive lay rate. The biggest downfall to Leghorns is they are excellent fliers making them difficult to keep fenced in.
Dr. Seuss must have owned some Araucana hens when he wrote his famous Green Eggs & Ham book. These birds lay a medium sized egg that come in shades of blues and greens which children seem rather amused by. On the inside however, the egg looks just like any other. This breed of chicken comes in a variety of colors and patterns making a colorful, unique flock. From my experience the Araucanas are more flighty and not so eager to become your buddy.
No matter what breeds you choose to represent in your flock I know you’ll agree there’s nothing like having fresh eggs right from your own yard!
Winter 2012/2013 has been a roller coaster thus far with extreme heat waves and temperature plummets. One thing that has remained somewhat consistent are all the hungry birds outside my window, whom my cat, “Fuzzbucket” salivates over all day. My son has also enjoyed the “free”entertainment at the breakfast table, watching the Chickadees dart in for a quick seed in their established hierarchy order. For anyone who has taken the plunge and put out a feeder you know that it’s an addicting hobby. I find myself buying another feeder every winter in anticipation of bringing more color, new species, more entertainment to our yard. The only thing I haven’t splurged on yet is a bird bath deicer, despite knowing this is solid way to keep birds coming back to my yard.
I am a strong believer in using the products I sell, so I’ve experimented with a variety of feeders and seed mixes and learned some important factors along the way. For instance, most tube feeders don’t appeal to larger birds who prefer to perch and snack a while. While the Chickadees don’t seem to mind a quick pit stop at the tube feeder for a select seed then fly off into the trees again, the Cardinals are looking for a hopper style feeder where they can belly up the bar and dine. The Juncos and Mourning Doves however, prefer to stay close to the ground, so now you have to add the platform feeder to the mix and provide them with a mix higher in cracked corn and millet seeds. If you don’t wish to purchase multiple mixes however, the Aspen Song Premium blend in the blue bag is a well suited multi-specie blend. A little bit of everything for everyone. Often I’ll see these “ground feeders” milling around under my tube feeder picking up what the Chickadees and Blue Jays discard. The Nuthatches are thoroughly enjoying the “NO/NO” feeder I put out this winter as they can cling to the wire mesh and feed at every angle. These are the kinds of points we aim to share with our customers when they come in looking at feeders and seed blends. Once a year we also host a free wild bird seminar- bring in the experts and let them teach us all what they’ve discovered working with birds day in, day out.
One of my most enjoyable things to do is check off each species of bird I spot in our yard using Aspen Song’s wild bird checklist http://www.aspensong.com/go/get/page/bird-profiles. Visit this site for more information on the Aspen Song seeds and feeding tips!
Now to look forward to spring! The best sighting is the Robin hopping around the yard pulling up unsuspecting earthworms. That’s when you really know spring has sprung.