Prepping isn’t just buying stuff from the store and hoarding it in the basement. It is so much more than that. Because all of that stuff you’re keeping in the basement or wherever isn’t going to last forever. It expires, it goes bad, it is consumed. Whatever the case may be, we all need a food resupply plan because nothing lasts forever. In this series, I’m going to talk about raising animals for food. We’re going to talk about a fairly easy and readily accessible one today, chickens.
Chickens are a great animal for a few reasons. One, they just taste good. Chicken is a really easy protein to cook, and you can do a million and one things to it to for variation in flavors and it can fit into so many different meals. Second, they lay eggs. Eggs are used in many recipes. Try cooking or baking without eggs for a week. See just how many recipes require eggs. Plus, the taste of farm fresh eggs is simply amazing. It really is different than store bought eggs. The egg shells can also be composted or used as a natural fertilizer, as well as being used to provide the chickens with added calcium.
You’ll want to check your own local zoning regulations to see if you are permitted to raise poultry. Which if you are, they can easily be housed in your backyard. I’ve known a decent number of people who live in suburban or residential neighborhoods and raise chickens. They don’t take up a large amount of room, but they do require daily care and maintenance. They need to be fed and watered twice a day, plus picking up the eggs they’ve laid. If you are planning a vacation or being gone more than a day, you’ll want to have someone who is not only reliable, but knowledgeable to check on your chickens for you to make sure they’re ok while you are gone. That would be the one big drawback to raising chickens if you are gone a lot.
You’ll want to think about a couple of things before making the choice to raise chickens… What do you want to accomplish? It is unlikely you will raise a chicken for less than what you would buy from the store. Although you can supplement their food with leftover scraps from your home, which is a great way to reduce waste, they still need feed. Next, do you have the necessary equipment to raise chickens? Please do not just jump all in and buy chickens before having all the necessary equipment for them. Chickens can be somewhat difficult to raise, especially meat chickens, but with knowledge, they can be amazing. Just don’t jump in without all the tools and knowledge. These aren’t a learn through experience kind of animal.
So let’s talk about the housing needs for chickens…
Housing: Chickens need a clean, dry, draft-free habitat that provides at least 1-2 sq. ft. of space per bird. The more space, the happier and healthier the chickens will be; overcrowding contributes to disease and feather picking.
Heat source: Chickens require a reliable heat source, such as a heat lamp. Even in the summer months, sometimes chicks will need a heat source for at least 3 weeks after they have hatched. Chickens like warmth, and for egg-laying chickens, it encourages them to lay more. You’ll likely notice that their production/laying decreases in the winter months, and this can happen no matter what if they don’t have the proper heating. Happy and warm chickens lay the most eggs.
Waterers: Chickens need clean water at all times. make sure you have a big enough waterer for the amount of birds you are raising to get them through at least a day without having to go out multiple times to fill it up. You’ll want to check it each time you go out to collect eggs or feed, but you don’t want to be going out every two hours just to get them water. Size does matter in this case.
Feeders: Simple chick feeders can be used when birds are young, but a larger feeder will be necessary as chicks grow. Keep in mind that chicks double their size in only a couple of days and will continue to grow rapidly. The round feeders can be hung from the ceiling, and they are adjustable, so you can raise them as the birds grow, making it cleaner for them and less feed waste, saving you money. I love clean and money saving, so this would be the best way to go, in my opinion.
Bedding: chickens will need a type of bedding material to absorb the moisture. Pine shavings are a great material, in this case. It is easy to clean. Change the litter weekly, depending on the dampness of the bedding. Never place chicks on slippery surfaces such as cardboard, plastic, or newspaper. The smooth surface may result in leg problems, such as splay leg. when they are just chicks. You can use paper towels for them to get a good grip, then introduce shavings after they are a week old. Think of it like a baby learning to walk. Baby chickens are still developing as they grow, and not having the proper surfaces for them will inhibit that growth and cause them problems.
Now that you know everything they require, you’ll want to think about a couple of things. Where to buy them, and how many do you want to buy or have room for? Only you can answer that question for yourself. Next is, are you buying meat chickens or egg laying chickens, or both? Their needs are exactly the same, however you will want to keep them in separate housing. Meat chickens tend to be messy and egg laying chickens prefer a cleaner and tidy environment. Another thing to think about is, if you’re buying egg layers, they won’t lay eggs forever. They do get old. Just like human females, we can’t get pregnant and have kids all our lives. Our bodies do quit that after a while. So the question is, are you prepared to let them live out their lives and keep feeding them, or do you have someone who is willing to take them? Egg laying chickens aren’t great for meat because they are smaller, as well as being different breeds. That is something to think about. Many people think egg laying chickens will make for great meat once their egg laying days are over. It isn’t the case.
Preparing for your chickens to arrive:
Clean and disinfect the poultry house, the feeders, and the waterers at least two weeks before the baby chicks arrive. Wash down their house with soap and water. Then spray a commercial disinfectant labeled for use in poultry houses. This can be found in any feed and supply type of store. Be prepared for the chicks two days in advance. Put at least 4 inches of litter on the floor of the cleaned and disinfected house.
Turn on the heat source to warm up the brooding area before chicks arrive. Infrared lamps are a convenient, easy-to-use heat source. Use porcelain sockets approved for these lamps and hang them with a chain or wire. Make certain that lamps are secured so they cannot fall to the litter and create a fire hazard. You may want to consult an electrician if you need help with this, or even a chicken breeder for some tips. Fire hazards are a big deal. Please be safe here and keep your chickens safe too, and ask an expert if you need to. The lamps should hang so that the bottoms are 18 to 24 in. from the litter. Lamps can be raised or lowered depending on temperature conditions. Heating lamps should not be hung with the electric cord. The use of more than one heat lamp is often recommended, especially during cold weather. That way chicks will not be without heat if a bulb burns out. This is actually a great reminder about prepping right here. Having a backup! There are two-bulb units that come with a thermostat, which may make it easier to control the temperature in the space. It is important to remember that you are heating the chicks and not the air, so air temperature measurements may not be the best guide when using infrared lamps. When chicks arrive, monitor the temperature at their level and observe their behavior to determine whether the temperature is appropriate (more information below).
Feed and water should be ready in the chick pen before the chicks arrive. The bottom half of egg cartons make good feeders for the first two to three days. After that, switch to metal or plastic feeders.
Caring for Chicks
The first thing that chicks need when the arrive, especially if they were shipped through the mail, is water. Think of it like a long car trip without a break, you want water when you finally stop and get out. Dip the beak of each chick into the water to teach them where the water is. This will prevent the chicks from getting dehydrated. Dehydration is actually a very big problem with chicks, so you want to teach them right away and avoid this happening.
Young chicks are not able to adequately regulate their body temperature, so they need a source of heat for the first few weeks (referred to as the brooding period). It is important that the chicks have enough room to move toward or away from the heat source to find their individual comfort zones. For the first week, the chicks’ environment needs to be in the range of 90°F to 95°F. Reduce the temperature gradually, five degrees each week, until they are three to four weeks old or until the pen temperature is 70°F. Place waterers a good distance from the lamps to prevent splashing water from cracking the hot bulbs.
When using a heat lamp, you can change the brooding temperature by adjusting the height of the heat lamp above the floor. The temperature should be monitored with a thermometer at chick level and by observation of the chicks’ response to the heat source. Cold chicks will huddle together under the heat source; hot chicks will move to the outer limits of the brooder guard; comfortable chicks will stay in a semicircle around the heat zone.
Construct a cardboard brooder guard (brooder circle) to keep chicks near heat, water, and feed during the first week. When the chicks are seven days old, the brooder guard can be removed to provide the chicks freedom to move around all of the pen. Distribute the feeders and waterers around the pen.
Light should be provided 24 hours a day for broilers (meat chickens). Twenty-four hour light (natural or artificial) increases feeding time and weight gain and improves feathering in broilers. One 40-watt bulb, hung about 6 ft. above the chicks, is needed for each 200 sq. ft. of pen space. It is a common practice to expose the chicks to short periods (10 to 15 minutes) of darkness once or twice early in the project. This will prevent panic or piling if the electricity goes off during the project.
Broilers (meat chickens) must have adequate space to grow to their maximum potential, and the amount of required feeder and waterer space increases as the broilers get bigger. There should to be enough feeder space for all the chicks to eat at one time. For chickens, feeding is a social activity, and they tend to eat as a group whenever possible. For the first two weeks, about 2 inches of feeder space is required for each chick (remember to count both sides of a long, straight feeder). After two weeks the chicks will need double this amount (4 inches per chick). To prevent feed spillage, fill the feeders only halfway. To prevent litter and chicken manure from getting into the feeders, raise the feeders off the floor as the chicks grow. A good rule of thumb is that the height of the feeders should be at the height of the chicks’ backs. When switching to a new type of feeder or waterer, leave the old ones in the pen for a few days to allow the chicks to adjust to the new feeder or waterer.
Chicks also need access to fresh, clean water at all times. Since chickens do not eat as much if they cannot drink, it is important to have adequate waterer space. The waterers need to be cleaned and filled daily with fresh water. As with the feeders, the height of the waterers needs to be raised as the chicks grow. The lip of the waterer should be level with the height of the chicks’ backs.
Commercial feeds are available that provide the required nutrients for growing chickens. Typically a high protein diet is fed the first two weeks, and then feeds with less protein are fed thereafter. Check with your feed dealers to see what types of feeds they have available for purchase. A 22% to 24% percent protein starter mash is usually fed to poultry meat birds for the first four weeks. Many feeding programs then switch to a 20% protein finisher feed until they are ready to become our dinner. Meat birds grown on chick starter and developer feeds with lower protein and energy content will not gain weight as rapidly as those on a broiler feeding program. When switching from one type of a diet to another, it is a good practice to mix the two feeds for a few days to provide a slow transition from one feed to the other. Broilers typically consume 2 pounds of feed for each pound of weight they put on. Chicken feed usually comes in 50 pound bags. The price will vary depending on where you live, so I’m not even going to compare. How much you will need will depend on how many chickens you have. Feed stores specifically make feed for laying hens, called “layer” feed. You will want to make sure you are getting the right food for the chickens you have. Never be afraid to ask for help in the store.
Hens will lay through spring and summer and into the fall, as long as they have 12 to 14 hours of daylight. Expect to collect eggs daily, or even twice a day. If you want them to lay eggs through the shorter daylight months, add a light to the coop and put it on a timer. For example, set it to come on at 4:30 in the morning and goes off around 10 in the evening. They will continue to lay right through the winter.
Chickens are very sociable creatures, so plan to keep four to six birds at the very least for their optimum happiness, so to speak. The birds will need a place to spread their wings, so to speak. A nice chicken run built off the chicken coop will be enough. For example, if you have 20 laying hens, they would need a 14×14 foot coop, and their outside run to be 15×40. This can be made from chicken wire and wood posts for the surrounding area of their outside run area. Keep 2×6 boards on the bottom where the wire meets the ground so nothing gets out, and to discourage diggers like the fox and coyote from getting in. Predators are one of the biggest concerns when raising chickens. You can cover the run with removable deer netting for the top, so they cannot fly out over the fence (layers are good flyers) and to prevent the predators in flight from helping themselves to a good easy meal! Laying hens are great flyers and escape artists. Trying to heard them back into their run isn’t fun either. The reason that the removable deer netting is ideal is if/when it snows, you can lock the birds inside for the winter and take the netting down and save it for the following year. That is money saved and in your pocket!
A laying hen will also need a place to roost at night. A general perch is somewhere to sit, have a quick nap, watch what’s going on, keep out of the way, and just observe a bit. Think of it like a cat who likes to sit inside a paper bag and watch everything around them. Examples for chickens would be the top of a gate, fence, barn rail or similar. Roosting perches should be around 1.5–3 feet high depending on your flock. You can also put a small lower perch in also for the ‘old ladies’ so they don’t have to jump down too far, an important consideration arthritic hens.
Chickens need calcium. It’s important for their egg production. Hens without enough of it in their diets can lay soft or no shell eggs. Fortunately, it’s easy and inexpensive to add calcium to their diets. If you ever have the chance to compare the egg shells of a store bought egg to a farm fresh egg, you can easily see a difference in the shells. Store bought eggs have a thinner shell and are much easier to crack.
First, if you have laying hens, make sure you’re feeding them a layer feed. This will automatically contain higher levels of calcium. But that alone is usually not enough.
This is generally coarsely ground lime or oyster shell and comes in small bags that are perfect for the urban chicken owner. Placing small containers of calcium in the chicken run allows the chickens to eat as much calcium as they want, when they need it. Their bodies will tell them how much.
Another option is to use the hen’s egg shells. To do this, it’s important to bake the shells first. This will kill any lurking bacteria in the shells, change the flavor of the shells (so that your hens won’t get any ideas about pecking their own eggs after they’ve tasted the shells), and also softens them a bit. Baking shells are easy. Just place them on a cookie sheet and bake for around 30 minutes with an oven set to 225 degrees. When they’re done, place them in a large bag and crush with a rolling pin.
Chickens do have illness and diseases. I mean, they walk around in everything. Mud puddles, dirty litter, poop, you name it. They don’t exactly step around that stuff like we try to do. Illness in chickens will happen without the proper care. Thankfully, it is fairly easy to spot when there is something wrong with a chicken. As I said earlier, they are social creatures. If it is feeding time and everybody has gathered around except one sitting off in a corner, there could be a problem. If their eggs are an abnormal shape or they’ve stopped laying eggs all together, that can be a sign of an issue. Sometimes they will have abnormal poop, like runny stools, or sneezing/watery eyes. Also notice if they are walking funny. That is usually the big sign right there. Limping, standing on one foot, the inability to stand or walk (think drunk stumbling) and these can usually and easily be treated by a veterinarian, or they may be able to give you instructions on how to treat them at home. The biggest things in having a healthy flock are to keep their coop and/or space clean, and just watch for abnormalities.
Chickens really are pretty easy to raise. Getting started seems to be the biggest hurdle and making sure you know what you are doing, have everything ready for your new arrivals, and keeping them happy and healthy.
Huge thanks to my good friend Alyssa for her help in writing this article. I couldn’t have done it without you!