Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Chicken Keeping, Anyone?

The babies are here! Last Monday at 7am, the post office called to say our chicks had arrived! My youngest son and I quickly scrambled and got out the door. As soon as we opened the door to the post office we could hear the peeping. The postal worker handed us a small box crammed with 28 baby chicks (see pic). They were only a day old.

Now, I certainly don’t need 28 chicks. We have 10 laying hens. We like to have about 18 hens – that’s the  magic number to provide us and our neighbor-customers with eggs, and still leaves a few left over to give as gifts. Several of our older hens are not laying so much and some weeks we barely have enough eggs for us. Still, we don’t need 28 chicks.

Problem is, when you order chicks through the mail, the minimum order is 25 chicks. I’m guessing this is the baseline of body mass to ensure survival. When you cram 25 newborn chicks into a shoebox, they keep each other warm. Two of the extras happened because of the lengthy e-chat I had with a nice man at the hatchery in Iowa. He threw them in because I filled up an afternoon with my questions. Guess there's not much excitement at a hatchery in Iowa in the middle of February. The bonus chick was a surprise. “Look mom – they gave us an extra chick!” The identity and sex of the extra chicks is a mystery that will unfold this spring, but so help me, if that nice man gave me any roosters – it’ll be the last e-chat we ever have!

We brought the chicks home and set them up in a box in the garage with heat lamps, food, and water. It is very distracting, and in fact this post is late and of no practical use because of my frequent visits to the little darlings in the garage. They only stay cute for a very short while and then they become large, noisy, garden-wrecking mobs that make me crazy-mad, but in a good way.

Have you ever thought of keeping your own chickens? Here are some good reasons –

  1. They are excellent for pest control, eating the grubs and larvae all year long that would have become bothersome insects like Japanese beetles. Ticks are one of their very favorite delicacies. We’ve discovered that they also love stink bugs! We gather up the ones in the house with a shop vac and then empty the bag into the chicken pen. You should see those hens line up when they see my husband coming with the shop vac! I tell you if chickens could fly they would take care of our stink bug problem!
  2. A young laying hen will produce nearly one egg a day for you! As they get older, their laying slows, but you’ll still get plenty of eggs for nearly five years from a single hen! If you’ve never had fresh eggs – you may not be appreciating this fact as much as you should. There is a BIG taste difference between a fresh egg and one from the store (which is most likely a month or more old)
  3. Chickens make great pets. Really. They each have a personality. They provide endless hours of entertainment. If you handle them plenty when they are little, you can continue to handle them when they are older. My daughter has walked two of our chickens in parades (on a leash!). They become very attached to the person who feeds them (that would mostly be me). When I am outside, they follow me around as I do my chores. It always puts a smile on my face when I turn around to see 30 chickens racing down the hill after me.
  4. Chickens will eat all your table scraps. We stay away from meat, though, because we want to keep our girls vegetarians. They don’t like tropical fruit, but just about anything else, they’ll gobble up.
Here’s the answers to the most common protests that arise from reluctant spouses when you propose getting chickens:

  1. They’re noisy. Actually, no, they aren’t, unless you get a rooster and then, well, it’s a nice farmyard sound. You don’t need a rooster, though. Like most females they produce eggs, whether there’s anyone around to fertilize them or not. Our eggs are fertilized thanks to all the hanky panky going on in our yard, but roosters aren’t necessary to produce eggs. Occasionally a hen will make an announcement when she’s laid an egg she’s particularly proud of, but the noise isn’t any louder than your kids or dogs playing in the yard.
  2. They’re dirty. Unless your chicken yard is muddy (as ours can be), they’re actually pretty clean animals. Of course, after handling them you’ll want to wash your hands, just like you would after handling your cat or dog.
  3. They’re a lot of work. Really, there’s very little work, much less than there is with a cat or dog (or rodent in a smelly cage). You don’t have to clean up after them, except to sweep out the roosting house now and again and they put themselves to bed each night. Chicken waterers and feeders usually hold a few days worth of feed, so you don’t even need a petsitter when you go away.
  4. Our neighborhood/town/county won’t let us have them. This isn’t always the case. I know lots of people who keep them in their backyards in very swanky neighborhoods. As mentioned above, they aren’t noisy or messy, so most people won’t even know you have them. Check with the powers that be, though, before launching this endeavor.
  5. They’re expensive. Not really. Expense is relative. All you need to keep a few chickens is an enclosure like a dog kennel and a box/cabinet of some kind for them to roost in. My husband built ours mostly out of scrap lumber. We built a separate laying house because we have so many, but it’s not necessary. Baby peeps are inexpensive - $2-$4 each depending on the breed. A 50lb bag of chicken feed feeds my girls for nearly a month for about $13, so figure you’ll spend a lot less on yours, especially if you supplement with table scraps, stale cereal, and leftover lunch crusts.
Hope this inspires you to consider keeping a few chickens yourself. If your living arrangement won’t allow, maybe you have a friend or relative who would go in on it with you. There are so many rewards in chicken keeping – amazing eggs, stellar fertilizer (chicken poop is premium fertilizer for your gardens), endless entertainment, and surprising life lessons about society, animal instincts, responsibility, and the pecking order.

Here are a few resources to get you started:

Backyard Chickens
McMurray Hatchery

Past posts:
I’d write more, but I’m missing so much action out there in the peeps’ pen, so I gotta go. They grow up so fast. Only a week old and they’re already sprouting feathers on their wings!

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