If you ranked the worst impulse buys ever, livestock would be up there. But after you’ve been stuck at home for weeks, eggs are hard to find, the kids need something to do and those fluffy chicks look pretty cute …
What could go wrong?
Not all that much, actually. Chickens aren’t rocket science. Humans have been keeping them for literally thousands of years, since way before we had endless chicken forums and detailed coop plans a mouse click away.
As the coronavirus pandemic drives more of us to take our food system into our own hands, a steady supply of eggs, coupled with a home-based, kid-friendly project, has a lot of appeal. If you have the space — and it doesn’t take all that much — go for it! It’s not hard.
I’ve learned a few lessons from a decade’s worth of experience raising chickens that you might find helpful; here are seven of them.
Choose your breed wisely
Two characteristics matter most: cold-hardiness and broodiness. Chickens that thrive in the cold can be very unhappy in the heat and vice versa, so let your climate be your guide.
“Going broody” is what a hen does when it’s time to hatch some eggs. She’ll sit on eggs, regardless of whether there are eggs to sit on, and she won’t eat or drink regularly. If you plan to keep a rooster (I would get the OK from neighbors first) and raise chicks, this is necessary. If you don’t (which — biology lesson here — you don’t need to for eggs), it’s undesirable.
If you involve your children in these decisions, you will find they have very different priorities, and will want the froufrou chickens with the funny feathers that lay the pastel-colored eggs. This will be a negotiation.
If you want cuddly, get a docile, friendly breed like the Buff Orpington. (Also, handling the chicks early and often can accustom them to human contact.) If you want a no-nonsense laying machine, go for Rhode Island Reds or a hybrid thereof.
The best resource for this decision, hands down, is Henderson’s Handy Dandy Chicken Chart. It’s a must-read for chicken keepers.
Be sure to protect them from predators
Once you get your chicks home, they’ll spend about six weeks in a brooder, which is just a box with food and water (and a heat lamp, when they’re little). That means you’ve got six weeks to get your coop set up.
As you do that, keep in mind that chickens taste like, well, you know, and every predator in town will be after your flock. In my neck of the woods, that’s raccoons, coyotes, opossums, fishers, hawks and foxes. Your coop will have to keep them out.
You’ll need varmint-proof walls (framing spanned by 1-inch chicken wire is just fine), but the rookie mistake is ignoring the floor. Given an impervious wall, any fox worthy of the name will dig under. The easiest way to prevent this isn’t to extend the walls downward, it’s to give the coop a floor of some kind of sturdy wire mesh, like fencing or hardware cloth. Then the fox digs under but is in for a rude shock just when it thinks it’s about to break through.
Remember, they work for you
When you build a coop, you’re doing it for your convenience as much as their protection. You want to make it easy to refill the feeder and collect the eggs. Make your nest boxes accessible from outside the coop. Make it tall enough that you won’t hit your head on the ceiling every single time. If you live in a place with freezing weather, think about locating the coop close enough to a source for electricity that you can use a water heater in the winter. Lugging water out there a couple times a day is no fun (have you seen “Jean de Florette”?).
Budget matters here, too. Chickens will live perfectly happily in an abandoned car, so you don’t need the granite countertops or crown molding. Scrap wood can go a long way. But do spring for galvanized wire, because rust really does never sleep.
Don’t clean the coop
Chicken poop breaks down easily, and if you have plenty of litter (wood shavings or wood chips work great) the poop — and the smell that goes with it — disappears via the miracle that is composting. Putting in plenty of litter is way easier than cleaning the coop.
Once a year, shovel it out, use it on your garden. Or not: A deep-litter coop can go a very long time without cleaning.
Give them elbow room
Take those cute fluffballs, fast forward six months, and you have ruthless, beady-eyed little dinosaurs. They will use any underhanded tactic to compete for food and pick on any weaker bird. Chickens are the birds that gave us the term “pecking order.”
The solution to the persecution is dilution; give ’em plenty of space. Don’t crowd your chickens and they won’t feel threatened. We have an 8-by-16-foot run with an 8-by-4-foot coop upstairs, and we’ve had few problems with up to a dozen birds. There was one trio of Rhode Island Reds that was so bent on control that we named them the Beaky Blinders, but the other birds just stayed out of their way.
Have an exit strategy
The biggest problem with chickens is that they lay eggs for two-ish years, but they can live for 10. Once a hen stops paying the rent, she becomes one of two things: pet or coq au vin. If you’re doing this mainly for the eggs, coq au vin is the choice that makes the enterprise cost-effective.
A laying hen in her prime will lay a dozen eggs in about two weeks. In that time, she’ll eat about three pounds — 80 cents’ worth — of feed. That dozen eggs is worth at least twice what the feed will cost, and much more than that in, say, Brooklyn.
Of course there’s the cost of the chicks, and the coop and the gas to go back to the feed store because you forgot the cracked corn, but chickens are basically a financial win — if you kill them and eat them when their laying days are over. If they become pets, the feed bill reverses the equation.
A note about killing chickens (or killing anything). It is a serious job, and you owe it to your birds to do it carefully and with as little stress and pain as possible. We use a cone with the tip lopped off, attached to a board, pointy side down. The bird goes in head first, and one quick swipe with a very sharp knife cuts the blood vessels in her neck (without cutting the trachea or esophagus). She bleeds out in about 30 seconds.
Opting for killing your birds when their laying days are over has a couple other advantages. First, it makes it easier to re-flock. Introducing new chickens into an existing flock is a thankless job; they’re not kind to newcomers. We did it with our first flock, but subsequent ones went to the Cone of Silence and from there to the stew pot.
It also gives you the opportunity to make a chicken-plucker out of an old washing machine. When we did that, we accidentally threw out the wiring diagram and had to use the console. To pluck a chicken you had to turn the knob to “spin,” which worked fine until it caught fire.
Don’t expect your eggs to taste better
Nothing I’ve ever written has made people angrier than the report of the blind taste test that pitted my backyard eggs against a variety of store-bought ones. Nobody could tell the difference. This is the result of every blind taste test because, although your backyard eggs will look different, with a more vibrant yolk and more viscous whites, they will taste like other eggs.
Don’t raise chickens for tastier eggs. Do it for eggs that come from hens who have a good life. Do it for the pleasure of going out in your bathrobe in the morning and coming back with breakfast. Do it so your kids can have a responsible, fulfilling job. Do it as a reminder that food has to come from somewhere, and spare a thought for the whole food chain — from farmer to grocery store worker — that has been making sure that, pandemic or no pandemic, we all get to eat.