Thursday, July 25, 2013

Backyard Chickens, Making The Decision To Get Them

Ugh, so I have wanted to tackle this to explain why and how we came about having chickens added to our urban farming experience. I know from reading through a TON of blogs that my views are slightly different than others out there doing the same thing. I considered "falling in line" with the whole "movement" of cute little chickens living freely out there... Instead, I'm just going to share why and how we came about doing chickens and what we have found to work for us. How's that?

The decision
Having chickens is a lifelong dream come true for me. My mom used to tease me that I was a farmer in some past life due to my odd love of farms and growing plants. I actually would get teased for admiring and commenting on freshly plowed and planted fields (they are gorgeous), or the fact that I was comfortable being out on a farm helping, working hard and feeling great at the end of the day. I grew up VERY urban, my meat came in a package, from the store, eggs in a carton in the dairy section urban. But I wanted the farm too... 

This brings me to my Sister-in-law and Brother-in-law's decision to move to a hobby farm to raise farm animals and have a big garden. Before they did she bought some chicks and had them in her back yard in a development with a HOA. In AZ, most housing developments have one and some are VERY strict. I thought, well if she can do that there I should check here. My friend Mary then told me that she had been seriously considering getting chickens but wasn't sure. Long story short on that one, she got hers and I watched to see how it went. I checked out her set up, researched chicken breeds to see which one worked best for us, looked into coops and tried to convince my husband that chickens would be a good investment (yeah, he was dead set against having chickens right then). I did quite a bit of research trying to get ready. Since hubby said no to chickens, and in this house he is the head and I work hard to be a strong supportive help mate, I went to work building the new addition to our back yard growing area. I built my planters and waited... Then actually built the coop, had it set with herbs and all, and waited... Filled my planters and planted plants and, yup, I waited. THEN chickens? Nope... Hubby took a trip to Vegas, then bought a gun and guess what? Baby and I were off to get our chickens!!! 

God loves to pull the reigns back on me and make me slow down. In the past I was good at blowing through that and pushing forward despite knowing that wasn't where God wanted me. Now,  I know to listen and follow God's lead on things. Slowing down worked great. Don't think I didnt have a hard time not pushing what I wanted, or going behind hubby's back, but neither one of those would fit into what I want to be as a wife and example to my children. I had plenty of time to do more research than I had done at first.  Backyard Chickens was an invaluable research tool for me to start out. Every question I had there was a forum post and still is! I wanted good layers, but also a chicken that, once done laying, could be eaten. Yes, I know, not popular but chickens for us are a food source, not traditional pets in the way that they stay with you and live out their lives. We have a dog for that. I don't mean to sound harsh, but for us that was our criteria. I am so thankful for the time I had while waiting to get geared up on resources and knowledge prior to going into this endeavor. Below I will share some of the key things we looked for in hopes to become responsible in our back yard flock choice. 
  • Choose the right coop to fit your needs and desired flock size - I looked at a lot of different coops and run additions prior to settling on the one I did. I needed enough room for 5-6 birds and found one that met that criteria and still looked good to fit in with the back yard. I knew I was getting chicks so I got one that I could double as a brooder with a light placed from the top of the roof. I placed a lizard thermometer in the coop so I could better regulate the temp. We got the chicks in early June which meant it was still a bit cooler in the evenings here for new chicks, but the day time temps kept the coop nice and warm and the kids were able to take them out and hold them during the day with no problems. I kept the light in there for quite a few weeks to ensure the chicks weren't getting too cold at night.
  • Figure out what kind of feed you want/need - There is organic feed, medicated feed, homemade feed recipes, fermented feed recipes... All of these meet the need of someone, you just have to figure out which one fits your needs. Find out ahead of time who has the best prices and where you plan to get your feed. If you belong to an organic buyers group check to see if they have feed in any of their suppliers because sometimes you can get it cheaper through that. The next thing that can get a bit confusing is what type of feed/food type products to get, there is starter, grower, layer, scratch, treats... It can get overwhelming trying to figure out where you are in the feed cycle if you don't have the corresponding ages that go with each or what it's used for, hopefully this helps. Starter feed, use from day 1 to 8 wks usually. This generally contains about 20% protein and is the highest percentage of protein you will ever feed you chicken. But you will see, these guys grow FAST. Starter feed comes in medicated and non medicated variety. The medicated variety protects the chicks from coccidiosis, a common and deadly intestinal disease that is spread in fecal matter. I didn't use medicated feed and really worked to keep the coop cleaned out daily since I chose that route. Being I have a pretty small flock that wasn't hard. They do also have some starter grower mixes out there, watch the protein amounts to make sure your chicks are getting the protein they need during the vital first weeks.  Grit, this can be actually bought and given in a seperate dish other than their regular feed for those chickens that don't have access to stones, pebbles and sand. Grit aids in digestion by pulverizing fibrous and large foods. Chickens foraging outside will naturally find this but if they don't have access it should be added in the seperate dish or hopper. Grower feed, 8 wks to 18 wks. This contains usually between 16-18% protein to help the chicks during their "adolescent" phase. It is important not to switch chickens that are not laying eggs over to layer, so plan to keep all the chickens on grower feed until the entire flock is laying. Layer feed has calcium to aid in shell production, while great for layers, for non laying chicks it can cause kidney and liver damage. If you have chickens that are laying and need the extra calcium put a bowl of crushed cleaned eggshells (not store bought eggs, these do need to be from a trusted source such as the chicken that's laying) or crushed oyster which can be bought at a feed store with the chicken feed. Layer feed, 18 wks and older. While layer feed says 18 wks most people who have chickens will tell you to just wait for this switch until your chickens are all laying. That way you aren't causing potential damage to the non layers and you don't have to try to do math in public as you figure out where your chicks are in age. Scratch, the ingredients vary by region and country but generally are cracked corn and any number of grains. It's a great source of energy in the colder winters when your chickens are expending more energy keeping warm, but should be used sparingly if at all. This is concidered a treat so make sure this isnt more than 10% of their total food intake. Remember treats are fun and there are plenty of ideas of what to give them out there but again, should not consist of more than 10% of a flocks daily diet. 
  • Free range or supervised foraging? I had this set long before we got the chickens. Being we don't have a farm we were not going to have free range chickens pooping all over the yard where the kids play and we eat when we do outside. Also, we have hawks, snakes, cats and other predators that have been know to get into yards.  Obviously this is a personal decision and mine are different than many others. This is something to consider though. If you are doing an urban farm and want to "free range" your chickens, have you ensured you don't have plants that are toxic or can make your chickens sick? Are there things that they will have available to eat could potentially harm them (they will eat trash that's in the yard)? Do you have the means to keep them in your yard and not able to "fly the coop" into a neighbor's yard or into the neighborhood? What predators are around that may harm your chickens if left out and unsupervised? Crazy how many things you need to think about just buying some cute fluffy chicks huh? 
  • What breed of chicken best fits your needs and coop? While I could potentially hit all the popular breeds here I am not going to do that. There are SO many. To start I would check with local feed stores and people that breed chickens for sale in your local area. This is to ensure that you know what's available and when, yes most feed stores get certain groups of breeds in at different times, to help you research if any will be what you are looking for. For us, Ace hardware didn't have the Barred Rocks I was hoping for but did have Rhode Island Reds (RIR), I checked around and no one at the time seemed to have any Barred Rocks either so I started researching RIR's to see if they met my criteria. Because we were planning on doing this in our back yard, with a small flock, a shorter fence separating our yard from our neighbor's and children that would want to interact with them I looked for the following;
    • Not broody, meaning a hen that is inclined to incubate her eggs. Being we can't have roosters I just needed a hen that would lay eggs and not feel the desire to sit on them for days afterward. 
    • Not flighty, I don't need birds that are going to be out in my yard and have a desire to jump the fence into neighbor's yards for me, or my neighbor, to have to go collect. 
    • Good chickens around children, I was looking for a breed that wasn't aggressive or hard to care for if the need arose, one with a good temperament. 
    • A cold/heat hardy bird, while we live in the desert it does get cold here in the winter and I wanted to ensure that I had a breed that would still lay and do well during the cold. 
    • Good layer, I wanted a breed that tends to lay an egg a day
    • A bantam sized bird, being I had a coop that was geared toward bantam size that's what I was looking for. 
    As I read, while I found some people that didn't care for the RIR's temperament there were plenty that loved theirs. They were listed as great layers, a cold hardy bird able to adapt to heat, bantam, not flighty or broody. Being that met all my criteria Baby and I set off and to get 4. I added an Americauna later more for the colored egg that it would lay, to give the kids a good fun egg to find amongst the beautiful RIR's brown eggs. Again, Americauna's fit all my criteria and added a little "fun" to the mix as the kids go to collect eggs in the morning. One great resource I used to find info on chickens was My Pet Chicken. Another great resource I used throughout my whole process was the Backyard Chickens forum posts. There is SO much good information and people's thoughts and feelings, experience and knowledge on different breeds and issues. 

    I highly encourage people to have a good idea of what you want before you go. Know what they look like as chicks before you go in so that you can make sure you are indeed getting the right ones. DON'T go for the "cute ones", chickens change a lot even in the first few weeks and if "cute" was your criteria you may find yourself having buyers remorse. Not to mention if these are for eggs that you are hoping to get, you may end up with a cute chick that lays 2-3 times a week and can't keep up with what you had in mind. Know also, you may end up with a rooster, pullets are sexed but sometimes they may be sexed wrong, it happens, sucks but yup, it's happened to the best of buyers. I am currently still waiting to see if any of mine turn out to be.

    Make sure once you buy the chicks that you are using good hand washing techniques before touching areas that you eat or your mouth or face. Thankfully none of our chicks had anything when we bought them but in case they do you do not want to spread that to your family. My children and neighbor kiddos were great with knowing after they handle the birds that they were to wash their hands before going on playing or eating. 

  • Do you have enough spaces for your chickens to roost? As chicks get older they like to roost at night. Having plenty of space for each hen to roost is important. Mine actually have a platform that they all climb onto right at dusk. I have the platform, the roost you see in the picture and a big one in the coop, which they rarely go in right now. But each bird is able to go and roost without having to compete, not to say that just because one is up there 3 don't find that right where THEY need to be right then...

  • Are you willing to take time each day to clean and freshen? Chickens poop... A lot. Each morning when I let the girls out for foraging time I make sure to take a small rake and clean out their coop and run to ensure that all that waste doesn't build up, AND IT WILL if not cleaned on a regular basis. Being the coop has bedding in it I make sure to clean that out weekly (like I said currently they are rarely up there, when they were chicks I did a daily check and removed as much as I could and cleaned it out at least 2-3 times a week.). Fresh Eggs Daily has some great natural coop cleaner ideas that can help clean and freshen the coop along with bug deterrents to help keep them away. Ensuring that you have a clean coop helps to keep your flock healthy and happy, along with keeping unwanted smells from coming from there. 
  • Do you have plans for introducing your children to the flock and vice versa? This is difficult when you have several excited children that just want to hold and love and dress them(OMG YES, I had one in a tutu for a few minutes before I made them take it off). Again, every child, other than the 4 yr. old did great knowing the rules and why we needed them. They also were the best they have ever been making sure that the coop was closed and hands were washed when done handling the chickens. I will tell you now that I had my 4 yr. old stuff our first Americauna into a canning jar that I used as a waterer. I say first because upon looking at the damage that was done when he did that we were put in the position that killing her vs. making her suffer any longer was best. My cute 4 yr. old was part of that process so he understood that what he did cost that chicken it's life and he was completely banned from the chickens for a week. We then slowly started back with the rule (that was established but he had broken) that he was only allowed near the chickens when one of the older kids or an adult was with him. I thought I had good rules set up from the start but even the best laid plans fail. So now with a new Americauna, and rules that are being followed because that was an experience he didn't want to have again, we have all lived and learned from that experience. We have also been very honest with our children in telling them that naming them is fun, but these hens are here for eggs and then will become stew chickens when they are done laying and a new batch of chicks will be started to replace them. While at first my princess had the most issues, she has come to grips with this and understands that there is a difference in our family as to pets and food giving animals. We plan for all of them to be part of the process when that day comes. Hubby has the lead role at that point and it will be a good experience for them all, yes sad but vital to learn how this whole process works (Again that is how our family has chosen to do things). I encourage anyone getting chickens to discuss what your expectations are.  

  •   What plans do you have if your flock gets sick or needs medical attention/treatment? Having chickens means having to take care of them when issues arise. Are you set for something like bumblefoot? Do you know what it is? What if an egg gets stuck? Or even something as simple as an egg that has no shell... If you aren't set to treat things that come up, or don't know how to identify issues or even what issues are common you are going to have big problems. Again, Backyard chickens is a great resource when looking for answers or finding what issues commonly arise. I actually find Fresh Eggs Daily a great resource for learning what common issues are and how to easily treat them, usually without medication. There are plenty of blogs and Facebook sites that can be trusted sources of helping with issues that come up. As I said earlier, when baby did that with my chicken our first stop was to look online to see if there was anything we could do for the chicken. Sometimes, as in the case of our chicken, things just can't be done. You have to know if these are things you are prepared to deal with. Another thing to check is which vets in your area, if any, treat chickens. Not all vets will take a chicken in to be seen. Again, being prepared is your best defense when things happen.  

I have loved this adventure of becoming an urban farmer, I also truly believe the more you are willing to learn the better you will be. Homesteading is fun, it is challenging and who ever thought that having chickens "in town" would become this big of a hit. I have thoroughly enjoyed it and as I read more and more to ensure I am being responsible I have to laugh. Who else has googled "what is healthy chicken poop supposed to look like"? Don't laugh or judge, giggling is warranted, but I have and what I learned was definitely worth the fact that I couldn't believe my life has come to this point...

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