How To Raise A Flock of Chickens-Part One

We are so cute we are burning a hole in your brain. Mwahahaha!

We got new baby chicks this week. This is our second batch of baby chicks. Our hens are about five years old now and they're not laying as much any more. The farmer's approach is to slaughter the old for stew and make way for the new, but I'm not much of a farmer and I can't eat my friends, even the feathered kind. They don't usually live past six years old, so what's one year more? I figure if they've served me for five long years going through the arduous process of laying a delicious egg every 1.5 days or so, the least I can do is to take care of them in their golden years. I'll get my free range chicken from the market, thank you.

Yes, I might be a snarky panties sometimes, but underneath I'm just a big ol' softee.

I really like our chickens, and like our pigs, I've named them, gotten to know them and grown rather fond of them.

Alright, who let the owl in here? Everyone look away and pretend you don't see it.

A lot of people are getting into raising chickens these days. It's tres chic or tres chick, if you will. You can have a small flock of hens in many of the major cities in the US as long as you keep them in a caged run and you don't get a rooster. Roosters crow constantly, not just at the break of dawn. I didn't realize that until I got one. It can get old fairly quickly, but we keep our windows closed and our walls are made of stone, so he doesn't bother me. My Amish neighbor claims to love listening to him crow, so that works out for us. You don't need a rooster to have eggs, you just need a rooster to have fertilized eggs, which you need if you want to incubate or brood new baby chicks. Fertilized eggs will not turn into baby chicks unless a hen sits on them and activates them by keeping them warm for a specific number of days in the process known as incubation. We've given our eggs to a few folks who've brooded them into chicks. We wanted all Ameracaunas this time, so we're starting from day old peepers delivered via mail. This hybrid breed of chickens, is by far my favorite. They're docile, friendly, hearty and they lay well. Plus who doesn't like having blue and green chicken eggs? It's fun!

Peepo, I don't think we're in Missouri anymore...

There is a lot to do to prepare for our new little pullets. We have to set up a bin for roosting (we use the top half of a large dog crate) and a chick friendly heat lamp. We have to get special baby chick food and break out the chick waterers and feeders. We're going to brood them until they're older in my husband's office, then we'll move them out to the pig house and when they're big enough we'll sneak them in to the hen house at night. The next morning the other chickens will accept them into the flock. Weird, but true. There will be a little adjusting of the 'pecking order', but that usually takes care of itself fairly quickly.

Look! Look! We can peep, we can peck, we can poo and we can drink water! For our next amazing trick...watch us sleep!

They just arrived this morning after two days travel from Cackle Hatchery in Missouri. We got a call at 6am from our post office and my hubby and daughter hurried down there to pick them up. We weren't quite fully prepared, but a quick trip to our local feed store and we were ready to rock and roll. I was worried all night about them and worried that they might not all arrive alive and I had a most disturbing dream about that, but lo and behold there was a box filled with happy little chicks and not a sad one in the batch. We even got an extra chick they sent just in case, we've named her Bonus. Our dog Mrs. Fellerbee was all kerfuffled until we showed her what all the peeping was about. She's seen baby chicks before so it was anticlimactic at best.

I'm ready for my close up, Mr. Chickmille

Romantic as it all seems, baby chicks aren't always sweet little peepers. In fact, they can be downright cruel. There are theories that chickens are descended from feathered dinosaurs, which might explain their propensity for cannibalism. Yup. They will, if bored or cold or simply wired that way, start pecking at each others hind quarters. If they draw blood, they'll peck until they seriously injure or even kill the wounded bird. You can help prevent this if you get them as day old chicks, use a red heat light and the right combination of food, heat and space. Our first batch of chicks were a few week's of age and came from a hardware store. There were two chicks in the batch who already had it out for the others and acted as ring leaders in picking on a few of the chicks. It took three bins to end the situation. A bin for the regular chicks, a bin for the injured chicks and a bin for the two bullies we named Jeffrey Dahmer and Hannibal Lecter. After several weeks of this circus of multiple baby chick bins, a relentless flea infestation we were battling on first moving into our little school house, unpacking and working on my second book...I had a little bit of a breakdown. Okay I had a major meltdown. I'm wired a little tight, in case you haven't noticed.

So we fitted the two demon chicks with some tiny backpacks and we sent them on their way. Metaphorically speaking, of course. Two bad chicks really can spoil the whole batch. Methinks they were roosters. The sexing of baby chickens is not 100% accurate, so even when you think you're buying pullets (baby hens) you may have a cockerel (baby roosters) or two in the mix. So if you do order chicks, be prepared to face that problem and have a solution worked out in advance. No matter how cute and cuddly your little cockerel may seem when he's a baby, once that testosterone kicks in, he's gonna be mean. It's the design. His job is to protect those hens at all costs from anything. The only person our rooster won't attack is my husband. Roosters have big spurs on their legs and will leap up and try to slash you with them. Seriously! I carry a big stick when I go into the coop. If you do decide to get a rooster, don't get more than one. They'll fight each other, sometimes until death.

Green Acres is the place to be!

Our big chickens live in a converted out building we lovingly call 'the yard shack.' My husband used plywood to section off the back of the building. He built nesting boxes with hinged doors we can easily access from outside of the coop area. We keep the boxes filled with straw and the floor of the coop is scattered with a layer of wood shavings. The hens roost on wooden dowels (there is a specific thickness you need so their feet don't get injured, it's important to follow that rule.) We have a metal watering fountain with a heater underneath for the cold months (keeps the water from icing up) and a red light that we run in the winter months on a timer so they'll keep laying and they stay warm. Once the days get shorter, chickens will 'go on strike' if you don't provide them with light. Every chicken only has so many eggs, so it's either a matter of getting more up front, or getting them over a longer period of time. We have a run (fenced in area) outside where they can peck in the dirt and get some sun. Chickens like to roll around in the dust to remove mites from their feathers. The run has bird netting on top to keep them from flying out, but we've got a few hens that are persistent escape artists.

You lookin' at me? You lookin' at me? I didn't think so.

We let them out in the evenings for an hour or two to peck around the yard and they do stay on the property even without a fence, though it's important to be aware that chickens are quite tempting to a variety of predators. Once it starts to get dark, the chickens really do come home to roost. Then we close the door to the fence and the exit door to the coop and let them out again in the morning. We've been lucky to only have lost one chicken to a predator. We've had a few others die of natural causes. Chickens are susceptible to a variety of illnesses. It's important to get a good guidebook so you can be on the lookout for things that might go wrong. One of our hens was egg bound, but by the time I'd figured that out it was too late. That was a sad day. It's important that you feed them a good quality layer feed, provide them with fresh water, access to the outside or some grit in their food for their gullets and oyster shells for protein and keep the coop and nesting boxes clean.

Word of warning on backyard chicken eggs. They do not come out clean and perfect like the ones at the grocery store. They can be goopy and icky and covered with...well...for lack of a better word...poo. We had an amusing mother/daughter book club moment when we first moved here. We went to all of the fabulous houses one by one and I was hoping we'd get to skip ours since we'd not renovated yet, but alas our day arrived. Everything was going swimmingly until the other mothers' jaws hit the floor when their kids came racing into the house with icky chicken eggs in their hands! OH MY GOD! WASH YOUR HANDS! WASH YOUR HANDS!

Suffice it to say, that was our last mother/daughter book club meeting. We keep an egg cleaning scrubby and icky egg dedicated strainer under the kitchen sink. I wash my hands after handling the eggs and the chickens. Just so you know, backyard chickens are not for the squeamish. If you like pristine eggs, might I suggest the grocery store?

Chickens, pigs and tiaras...just a regular day at the Potter Homestead

All in all, having our own little flock has been a truly wonderful experience. Chickens may not be the smartest animals, but they are certainly some of the sweetest. Back in the Great Depression, women kept a small flock of chickens in their back yards and they fondly referred to them as "the ladies." I quite like being a part of the resurrection of that tradition. Nothing beats fresh from the hen house eggs.

I'll share more pics, stories and information as our little chicks grow. Until next time...peep on with your bad selves!

Love
Madge

10 comments:

Leslie Gidden said...

Love the information Margot! I read it outloud to my 5 year old....over and over and over again as they make a person do at this age.....and we LOVED it! She is going to retell her own version at show-n-tell (so she says)! By the way, we know that hatchery really well as Lebanon MO is where my husbands family is from and his brother worked there as a teen!

Hope you and your family enjoy this chick fun as much as we loved reading about it!

Warmly,
Leslie

Karen said...

i didn't know you had chicks, too! i grew up on a farm and raised chickens practically my whole life! :) i know way too much about chicken breeds. haha!

Margot Potter said...

Leslie

That makes me so happy I could just cry! How much do I love that?! Please tell your little one that the chicks say, "Hi!"

Love
Madge

Margot Potter said...

Karen

Really? How cool is that?!

Cheers,
Madge

Gabriela said...

Hello Margot,

Guess what? I lived in farm for a while when I was a girl...and my task was to take care of the chicken house.
I have so many stories about its habitants...Your photos are totally adorable! Love chicken!

P.S. Congrats on your new book!
Can't wait to see it.
Well deserved, you rock girl!

~ Gabriela ~

CraftCrave said...

Just a quick note to let you know that a link to this post will be placed on CraftCrave today [14 May 02:00pm GMT]. Thanks, Maria

Chedicorn said...

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It shows you how to make a chicken coop at a great cost.

Rosanne said...

Oh Margot, you are the best! I loved the pictures of all your critters and the captions you put with them had me rolling on the floor. I have always wanted chickens. One of these days I think I will succomb to the urge and get some. I have chicken stories to tell..ask Heather Powers about the hens in the stump...she might not want to tell you. Thanks for all the information on raising chickens, there were some things I didn't know. ;^)

Debra Quartermain said...

As always Margot a delightful telling of a part of your life. You wear your heart well captivating us all! Much love & JOY! Debra

Miss Loretta said...

My oldest daughter's first discernable drawing was of a chicken, something she had observed at Grandpa's.

When I was a small child we did free range chickens before free range chickens was cool. It was like Easter every day has I was allowed to find the eggs each morning. Nice memories coming from all this, Miss Madge.