You ask, why do I recommend to start with chickens? The answer is simple. Chickens are the quickest in return, the easiest to maintain, and gives you a sense of fulfillment that will inspire you to continue down the journey of self sufficiency. No other farm creature is so quick to produce, so easy to raise, and very inexpensive to purchase.
We have been on our farm for over 5 years now (not our first farm mind you) and we have probably started the wrong way to many times and have, a time or two become discouraged in our dream of our farm. You need to know the best and the most rewarding place to start.
You may think to just order a batch of chicks and your brooder, and that is all you need to know… Nothing can be the furthest from the truth. There is a good deal to know before you start.
So allow me to take the guess work out of starting your own flock of chickens.
Timing, you need to know when to start. You can buy chicks and other varieties of poultry throughout the year. The best time to purchase your chicks will be in the spring. Chicks grow very, very fast. And if you start them too soon, you might not have a warm place for them when they outgrow the brooder.
There are many online hatcheries to purchase your chicks from. I strongly recommend buying from your local farm feed/tractor store if this is your first time. They will start carrying them at the right time of the spring and will carry the correct breeds for your climate. At the same time you can purchase all your chick supplies.
Breeds? Yes, there are many breeds of chicks to choose from. To cover the basics there are strictly egg layer breeds, meat breeds and what is called dual purpose breeds, which provides both eggs and meat. Egg breeds (like the Isa Brown) will be smaller, eat less feed and produce large eggs. The meat breeds are very large breeds like the Cornish Rock breed, but eat much more feed.
Dual purpose breeds like the Rhode Island Reds and Barred Rocks will be medium sized and will eat a medium amount of feed in comparison to the other types.
What is the right breed for you? That is determined on which chicken product you are after, meat, eggs, or both.
I prefer dual breeds, as you can get both. I have yet to use both, just eggs, but the potential is still there for meat.
Once you determine which type of bird you want, you have to take into consideration your climate. For our farm, located in Michigan, we chose a breed that was cold hardy and would still lay in the winter months. That breed for us was the Barred Rock.
The Barred Rock breed is a northern breed and does well in the cold and snow. Ours lay year round and produce well. The main key for us are not requiring us to use a heat lamp in the winter, unless it gets below zero. So we have a hardy breed that needs little pampering and produces year round. This was an ideal breed for us here in the north.
A good source of information on breeds (and reviews) is the Murray McMurray Hatchery out of Iowa. (http://www.mcmurrayhatchery.com/bar_baby_chicks.html)
To fence or not to fence? That is a question one must answer. If you live in the country and have the room to free range your chickens, I would still recommend keeping them fenced in until a month after they start laying. This will allow them to know where their home is, their feed, and where they are to lay. Yes, you will still get the occasional offender and find an egg under a bush somewhere, for the most part they will use their nest box to lay.
In the winter months use you will want to supplement their lighting with a 60 watt bulb, on a timer. You want your chickens to have light 12-14 hours per day, otherwise their laying will reduce.
Typically, we have found that we can get almost an egg a day per chicken. However, breeds, climate and lighting will cause variations in the quantity produced.
When you finally choose the type and breed of chicken to raise, you will need a Brooder Starter Kit. The kits includes (or buy them separately), heating lamb and bulb, waterer, feeders, brooder guard (to keep them in) and ideally a brooder thermometer.
However, your chicks will tell you if they are to hot or cold.
When we received our first chicks, I was not only anxious but afraid I would not be able to raise them properly without sickness or fatalities.
Those fears were quickly laid to rest after our first batch of chicks. Keep them with water, feed and adjust your temperature and they do all the work. The only intervention was we had to dip their beaks gently into the waterer so they knew where to find their water.
We were amazed at how fast they grow, they will double and triple in size in just a couple weeks.
Our chickens are our yard pets and come when called, and are such a joy to watch.
When you purchase your chicks, you have three options, males, females or a straight run, which includes about 50/50 of each. Sexing a chick is no easy task, so even when ordering females, you might get one or two males and visa versa.
Another question, do you need a rooster to produce eggs? No, you do not. Rooster are required to fertilize the eggs to incubate and hatch chicks. Roosters do add character to your homestead, they are almost always more colorful and you get your morning chime.
Whether you realize it or not, chickens have personalities, and they know who feeds them. They will follow their caregiver all over the farm, let you pet them and hold them. They give a certain charm to your yard, and are like yard ornaments when looking out your favorite window.
You will find that chickens give back to your farm in many ways. They provide eggs, meat, when free ranged provide pest control against grasshoppers, fleas, ticks, ants and more…
Now to mention the health benefits of free range chicken eggs vs store bought eggs. Mother Earth News (www.motherearthnews.com) completed a study in 2007 and compared to U.S. Department of Agriculture (U.S.D.A.) study on caged chickens, that free range produced eggs are healthier.
The reports shows, that hens raised on pasture (free ranged) are:
1/3 less cholesterol
¼ less saturated fat
2/3 more vitamin A
2 times more omega-3 fatty acids
3 times more vitamin E
7 times more beta carotene
I think that logic would stand, to say caged chickens themselves are less healthy than well exercised, well fed free range chickens.
Chickens are the first choice when homesteading or raising on your hobby farm. They produce quickly, constantly and require little maintenance, and keeps the pests under control. Of the years we have been raising chickens, we have found no downside to raising chickens on our farm.
A word to the wise, don’t get a previously owned flock, start from scratch. People that want to get rid of their flocks are the ones usually not to care for them. So you do not know what you are getting yourself into. Trust me, this is how we started. Remember, I said that I have started out the wrong way a few times? This was one of them. We got an adult flock, we soon realized they were unhealthy, uncared for and were caged raised, so they did not produce well. We soon culled this flock and started over. This is always the preferred way of starting a flock, herd, passel, team and etc…
In the morning when you are sitting out on your patio, enjoying your favorite cup of java, listening to the roosters chime and see the chickens peck for food, you realize in yourself the serenity it brings, and say job well done.
Also, Mother Earth News released a “Pickin Chicken” app for the iPhone, iPad and iPod touch that helps you choose the right chicken breed to suit your needs. This app released through iTunes.