Chicken Keeping for Beginners

I always get a lot of questions this time of year regarding people wanting to get chicks or ready to lay pullets (Pullet is a name for a chicken over 3 weeks of age and under a year). I love these questions and welcome them as I believe chickens are a great start to self sufficiency. A couple of years ago I started giving local workshops for people interested in keeping chickens. With the uncertainty in our food supply due to Covid-19, I have been getting a surge in questions about chickens, as people wonder ” Should I get chickens?”

Let me take you through some of the main points of chicken keeping, as I have experienced. I have had chickens my whole life, and while I have experienced first hand the complexities and joys of owning chickens, I certainly have not experienced all there is to know.

Chickens are, for lack of a better word, “persnickety”. But oh so worth it!

The chicken or the egg? I prefer the COOP first.

Space usually is the big question and can make or break chicken behavior. Less is more as they use body heat to stay warm, however you can usually bank on roughly 2-3 ft per chicken.

Ventilation but Draft Free ? What does that even mean? Simply, it means the chickens should have some sort of air ventilation up high but no drafts on their legs.

I try to have a surface that’s easy to wipe down (Vinyl, glossy paint or panelling) which makes cleaning the coop much easier. Paint needs to be safe for animals, but trust me I’ve watched chickens eat a whole styrofoam piece and not get ill. It’s just good to do what you can from the onset. They find trouble enough on their own.

Security is the 100% most important feature because you will get no eggs from dead chickens, and you will be heartbroken, because the little buggers get into your hearts. Raccoons, weasels, minks, rats, owls, hawks, foxes etc are all predators of chickens. and not just free range chickens, if they can get in your coop, they will kill them there. Unfortunately , some will just kill for the sport of killing , and leave the bodies behind.

The number one predator of chickens? Neighborhood dogs.

CLOSE THEM UP EVERY NIGHT! I cannot stress this enough. Close them up , and I leave a window covered in 1/4 in Hardware cloth, open slightly.

The ¼ hardware cloth is available at your local hardware store and should cover your outdoor run for your chickens as well. To protect from overhead predators , you will need netting over the top of your outdoor run. Some people put a plastic owl out as well.

Nesting Boxes are where your chickens will lay their eggs. You should put 1 per 6 chickens but I have found they all will lay in one anyway. Spoiled !

A chick run to the feed store means straight there and back.

Curtains are not just pretty decoration on your boxes (although I adore that part of it, and constantly find cute fabric at thrift stores to use). Chickens cannot see well in the dark so with curtains on the nestboxes the chickens won’t peck at the eggs as they are laid, which sometimes can be a problem.

Herbs add nice aroma and can deter flies and bugs, so putting them in the nest boxes is a great idea. I usually freeze lots in the summer when I have extra for the winter months.

Good clean bedding in the coop is a necessary part of keeping healthy animals.

PINE SHAVINGS, STRAW  👍👍

HAY 👎 (can contain mites)

Sand ⚠

I clean my coop weekly and my nest boxes every 2-3 days. In the winter, it may run every two weeks, however I will keep adding fresh bedding until a good fine day. I compost the dropping, straw and shavings in a pile for 6-8 months to use in my garden, but you should check on the rules where you live. Unmanaged chicken waste can attract pests.

I also keep food and water outside for less mess, but try to put away at night to prevent attracting rodents and pests which can carry disease

I add lots of roosts (flat is best), mirrors, ladders, stumps, swings (outside too) which all combat boredom and decrease behaviors. Especially through the winter months, when I often throw a whole cabbage in the coop for them to peck away at.

A little winter TLC

Homemade Coop Cleaner ( adapted from Fresh Eggs Daily by Lisa Steele)

2 -500 ml mason jars

1L White Vinegar

4 Orange peels

2 Tsp of vanilla

4 Cinnamon Sticks

Fill each of the jars with peels from oranges, cinnamon sticks, and tsp of vanilla. Fill each jar with vinegar and let set one month. Drain and put in an empty spray bottle. Use weekly for coop cleaning.

Also Food grade White Diatomaceous Earth can be purchased at Spencers or Co-op for sprinkling around the coop after it has been cleaned and before putting down fresh bedding. It is just an extra prevention against mites, flies, lice, and bugs.

*Although a natural product, please read the warnings on DE before using.

Water

A great immunity Builder is a splash of Apple Cider vinegar in 4 gallons of water (not in metal waterer because it is caustic for metal.)

There are so many different waterers: Buckets, Nipple Waterers, fountains and heated. I just use a simple bucket water found at the coop. I am simple like that, rather oldschool really.

-There are special waterers for chicks to prevent drowning, and chilled legs, which can be deadly.

It’s important to scrub weekly especially in the summer when an algae will form and can put the chickens off their water, leading to death.

Feeding The Darlings

Chickens will not overeat. Its important to offer free choice feed. That said, in order to prevent them wasting feed, if you fill the feeder three-fourths full twice a day , they will eat more efficiently and waste less feed stepping in the feeders or tipping them over. There are scientists who study these things, and I tend to listen to them.

Our Rhode Island Reds pecking away at goodies hidden in the straw .

Basic Feed ration, here in Nova Scotia, is approximately $20 for a 50lb bag. You can buy organic and it will cost you much more. But that is a decision you will need to make for your economic and ethical position. I feed Layena Chicken Pellets from Purina for my layers and find they get very good nutrition from it, as evidenced by their good health and egg production.

The average layer will consume ¼ lb of feed per day (approx $0.10 a day ).

Chicks start on Chick Starter for the first three weeks of their life and it can be Medicated or non. I use medicated and it is 20-24% protein.

After three weeks they receive Grower, and it has 16-20% . Sometimes referred to as meat builder as well, however meat builder has more protein for better growing efficiency. If you are growing meat hens or broilers, you will leave them on Grower or Meat Builder until processing .

Broilers at roughly 4-5 weeks of age

Layer Ration is next up , 16% plus calcium, and this is for after 5 months of age or the pullets lay their first egg.

Grit are small stones which to chickens are necessary for digestion. If your chickens free range, like mine, you may not need them.

I also feed meal scraps daily. Scratch can be used for treats; oyster shells free choice for added calcium (thin egg shells are a sign). Cracked corn is a lovely winter treat, as it can help them stay warm. I give it with their evening meal.

Feeders should be keep clean, and scrubbed weekly to watch for moldy food. I do this more regularly in the summer I must admit then the winter. I find they eat all their feed in the winter to help with their molt (annually losing feathers and growing new which happens in birds over one year old) but in the summer have much more choice from the summer buffet of bugs.Yummy:)

Breeds

Our first Silkie Princess . Silkies lay a very small egg so this is more for a therapy chicken than production !

There are so many to choose from, but here are a few of my favorites.

Do you want: 

Eggs?

Dekalb  300+ eggs/yr Rhode Island Red 260 + Lohmans 260 +

Red & Black Sex Links 220+ Isa Browns 300+ Orpingtons 260+

Leghorns 250+

Meat? 

Cornish X are the most popular here for their feed efficiency.

Dual Purpose?

Orpingtons /Red & Black Sex Links /Barred Rock

Pets?

Bantams /Buff Orpingtons /Silkies

Cold Hardy?

Rhode Island Reds /Red &Black Sex Link /Orpingtons /Wydonettes

Proceessing (or killing the chicken in order to prepare it for eating)

Some people like to cut down on their economics and process their own chickens for eating. I grew up processing our own chickens and it is a dirty, messy, sweaty affair. To each his/her own. I enjoy having my chickens processed and inspected and because we are a registered farm, we can sell to the public. And I just like not having to take a whole day, as my husband and I both work off farm, to process birds. No love affair with that process over here.

Department of Agriculture approved Processors :

Thousand Hill Farms, Hebron, Yarmouth -Kevin Hamilton, 749-7989

Retirement: Please think about your long term plan for birds as they age and egg production declines or you hatch eggs and have lots of roosters. It is a hard but necessary part of chicken keeping!

EGGs-xcellent EGGS!!

The Science-https://youtu.be/PedajVADLGw is truly amazing .

Chicken ALWAYS lay the same color egg, just not the same shape

Washing is a contraversial thing. I am pro wash. When you wash eggs, you wash the bloom off, so the freshness goes away faster then if you left the bloom intact. The eggs never ever last more than a few days in our house.

Pro-Tip=Norwex Fruit Cleaner cloth ! Best $5 you will spend. Also the cleaner the nesting boxes, the cleaner the eggs.

Storage: Counter/room temperature before washing and always in the refrigerator after washing.

Cartons: I use clean cartons from friends and family or order new ones online or through co-op, if you are planning on selling your eggs.

Can I sell my eggs?

In NS, you can sell your backyard chicken eggs :

👍👍Farm gate

        Farmers/Open air market

👎👎Restaurants 

Stores

We sell our excess eggs at our local farmers market and at farm gate.

How much should I charge?

It depends on how much it costs you to raise your chickens. I sell mine for $4/doz which means each egg is worth $0.33

It costs me $0.08 to feed each chicken. I have 66 chickens but 4 are roosters= $4.96/day feed costs

The month of January I got an average of 25 eggs a day ( 0.40 eggs per chicken/day…ugh hate Jan!)

It will take 2.48 days to get an egg from every chicken =$12.30 to get 62 eggs

62 eggs/ 12 eggs=5.17 doz or roughly 4 dozen as we will eat some:

$4 * 4 doz= $16 from selling 4 doz – $12.30 feed costs to get those eggs= eggs for the family FREE and $3.60 profit for other expenses 

Although sometimes it is a labor of love , not economics !

AHHHHH LOOK…BABY CHICKS!

Check your local feed store for ordering day old chicks or ready to lay Pullets. “Straight run” are chicks that have not been sexed. So you could end up with roosters. You most likely want sexed chicks.

 Some local sources:

OceanBreeze Feed and Farm Supplies, Overton 742-3530

Spencers, Shelburne

Island Traps & Feed, Cape Sable Island

BowTruckle Farm, Clyde River Dave and Katherine Adams

Ashlee Swim, Borrowed Acres Farm

Get the chicks home as soon as you can after you pick them up, however they will live off the yolk in the egg they hatched from for a few days.

As soon as you can, set up their waterer in their brooder and dip their little beak in the water gently so they know where to find it. I do this with each chick.

You can put marbles or bigger pebbles in their waterer so they won’t drown or make a mess (but they will make a mess:)

Your chicks will need a home called a brooder with a heat source just like a mamma hen , until they can go in the big coop. I prefer it to be round preferably -you can find tons of homemade ones on Pinterest but I prefer my small kiddie pool with chicken wire over the top for the first little bit. I have also used a rabbit cage too.

The brooder will need bedding: Newspaper, puppypads to start then shavings.

Heat Lamp or Heat pad (Oceanbreeze sells them)-They will need for approx 3 weeks or until feathered out. A heat source is not optional, it is a necessity. Please observe safety guidelines of operating a heat lamp .

If Chicks are :

Crowding all together under lamp- too far away 

Out to the corners -heat source is too close . 

(Themometer can be used but really just look at your chicks )

*Make sure lamp cannot fall on them.

Keep lifting lamp up a little ways after 1 week, 2 weeks a little further. Week three- Turn lamp off for part of the day, longer and longer until end of week and no lamp at all.

Be on the lookout for : dull and lethargic looking chickens , they may need to be separated and given a stress aid to perk up; pasty butt (soak the chicks butt and pat dry ).

Please ensure children and adults do not kiss the chicks (seriously) and wash their hands after handling the chicks.

What could possibly go wrong???

Not all vets will see chickens. The only vets who will see chickens locally is in Weymouth and South Shore Animal Hospital.

Medicated feed will protect from Coccidious as chicks and there are vaccines to protect from other diseases.

****Free ranging birds will pick up things from crows, and other wild birds.

Fowl pox, Cholera, Respiratory, Mareks, Avian Flu, Newcastle, Botulism are just a few of the internal diseases chickens can contact.

External parasites common are Poultry Lice, Scaly Leg mites, Mites.

*Blood:For the love of God, remove your chicken from the flock if it is bleeding until you can treat it. The others will perform self preservation of the flock and try to kill it to draw predators away from the rest of the flock.

Frostbite: Vaseline on the comb and wattles will help

Rooster wattles are prone to frost bite

Deworming your flock if necessary:

I use pumpkin as a natural dewormer in the fall. All they can eat!

In the spring, I watch their poop and their mood. I use Piperazine, following the directions on the package

Piperazine is an anti-nematodal agent effective against the intestinal nematodes ASCARIS LUMBRICOIDES (roundworm) and ENTEROBIUS VERMICULARIS (pinworm, threadworm). It produces a neuromuscular block leading to flaccid muscle paralysis in susceptible worms, which are then dislodged from the gut and expelled in feces.

FIRST AID KIT:

Blu Kote (oceanbreeze, spencers $10.00 approx)-warning

Ivemectin

Stress Aid

Needles for injecting

Dropper

A spare crate for isolating a sick bird ( trust me, no family member likes hauling back the shower curtain to find a chicken.)

Be prepared to have a sick bird or two, and have :

  1. A cull (killing a chicken to end its’ suffering) plan
  2. A bird disposal plan

We hope you enjoy your chickens for many, many years and this gives you an idea of preparation for your new flock. It can be overwhelming and there is alot of information out there, so keep researching from credible sources and responsible chicken owners.

We consider our flock a necessary part of our farm family!

I often do school visits to the farm. Visiting the chickens and collecting the eggs are very popular activities. I will miss them this year !
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