Have you ever thought of raising chickens as a way to supplement your family food? It’s a good idea for frugal living and it can work well for you in the country as well as the city.
If you like chicken meat, you’ll be able to raise some of the biggest and best you have ever had.
If you like chicken eggs, then you’ll be even more pleased at the potential outcome of raising your own flock of hens.
Let me describe my experiences with chickens and shed a little light on the subject. I think chickens are easy to care for, and they tend to be very hardy.
Just use common sense and make the necessary preparations, and you’ll do fine.
Raising Chickens for Meat and Eggs
Before you jump into raising these birds, let’s look at the basics:
- chicken breeds
- buying chickens
- chicken feed and water
- space requirements
- nest boxes
- chicken characteristics
- handling chickens
- trimming wings
Okay, let’s start learning about raising chickens for meat and eggs, and a bit of fun too.
There are basically three types of chicken breeds; meat birds, layers, dual purpose birds, and show birds. There are many different breeds that fall into each of these categories.
The breeds available through hatcheries are astounding. You’d go broke just ordering one of each.
One of the keys to success in raising chickens is knowing what you want to do with them. Are you raising chickens for meat, chicken eggs, or just some entertaining animal that scratches up the ground around the yard?
If you’re interested in meat production, you’ll likely find yourself raising chickens like the Cornish X (cross). If you want egg laying chickens for year round egg production, you’ll be interested in raising chickens like Black Australorps because of their ability to produce nice large eggs, even in the winter.
The Black Australorp is also a good dual purpose bird.
For a show bird, you’ll probably be raising chickens like Sultans, Bantams and Polish.
What you expect out of your chickens will define in part how you raise them and what you feed them. Here is a detailed discussion about chicken breeds for just about every purpose under the sun.
I have always purchased my chickens at the local farm and ranch store. They usually have a good selection, and I don’t have to concern myself with being “Johnny-on-the-spot” to pick up chickens that are mailed to me from a hatchery.
Typically, the farm and ranch store will have most any variety that you would care to have if you’re raising chickens for meat and eggs.
You can often put in a special order with the farm and ranch store, and it will come in with their regular order.
I’ve done that when ordering Guineas, a bird that isn’t typically on everyone’s list of fowl to purchase.
Another way to buy your birds is to pick them up from a hatchery. I did that once with ducks.
While traveling back from an assignment in Michigan, I took a detour through Chicago to visit friends, then pointed myself towards Minnesota and stopped by a small hatchery to buy some ducks.
This isn’t the best approach to buying any bird since I had to drive 880 miles home with the ducks constantly peeping all the way home.
Also, you have to be prepared to give the little buggers some water on the way, so sometimes it’s better to just get your stuff locally.
Nearly one thousand miles with peeping ducks was challenging.
Another advantage of the farm and ranch store is they will likely have everything you’ll need for raising chickens.
It can be a one stop shop for getting your chicks and helping you along with resources necessary for raising chickens.
Another place you can get chickens is from your friends and neighbors. We have a few too many chickens now, and I would be glad to give them to friends that are interested in raising chickens for eggs.
Several times during the year, people put ads in the local trading paper because they have chickens to give away. I suppose this means that some people get tired of raising chickens.
So, if you want to get started with some sort of fowl, and you want to save a little money while doing it, just keep your eyes peeled in the local trading paper.
Perhaps the least desirable way to obtain chickens is through the mail.
Hatcheries will mail you day-old baby chicks.
You have to order a certain number because it takes quite a few to keep themselves warm in the shipping container in early spring.
You also have to pick them up right away at the post office and get them food and water.
If you’re raising chickens of a specific type, mail order may be the only way to get the types of chickens you want.
Raising Chickens – from Baby Chicks
No article on raising chickens would be complete without discussing something about day-old chicks.
So, let’s touch on this a little bit here, and leave the rest of the details for a page by itself.
Day-old chicks are mailed to you or the farm store in relatively small packages so the chicks can keep one another warm.
The chicks don’t need food right away, so they usually can survive the day or two in transit without a problem.
When you first get them, be sure to offer them five things right away:
- warmth of about 100 degrees
- suitable floor covering
- cool, fresh water
- protection from predators
Baby chicks aren’t too demanding. They just need a little care.
I use large cardboard boxes or stock tanks.
The flooring can be paper, cardboard or wood shavings, and water and food should be dispensed from suitable containers.
Spread some food on the ground so the chicks can see it. Dip their beaks in the water so they know it’s there, and keep them warm with heat lamps.
Measure the temperature inside their enclosure at their shoulder level.
If they regularly huddle together, they are not warm enough.
If they regularly avoid getting under the heat lamp, you have them too warm.
If they regularly mill about and generally use the entire area, the temperature is just right.
You can lower the temperature after a couple of weeks by about 5 degrees each week. This should get the chicks used to a lower temperature gradually.
Even after you transfer them into a holding pen or coop, keep the heat lamp on them until they are fully feathered and it’s clear that they no longer desire external heat.
Photo above shows how I was raising chickens in a shallow stock tank on the left, and ducks, geese and turkeys in the larger stock tank on the right.
Cardboard and sheets were used to retain some of the heat inside the tanks until the birds were fully feathered and transferred to the larger pen in the corner of the building.
(This structure was later converted into greenhouse #1 greenhouse #1.)
Indoors is a good place for raising chicks for the first few weeks. The mess and smell might persuade you to move them outdoors after a while, but they should always be inside an enclosure to prevent drafts and keep predators at bay.
Predators include foxes, birds of prey and even mice and rats. Rodents will chew off a leg of a chick if they can get at the little buggers.
Allow plenty of room for the chicks as they will grow fast. You can almost see a difference each day in the chicks’ development.
Photo below shows a chick a few days old on the left, and one week old on the right. Notice how quickly the wings have developed.
Keep an eye on the food and water. Refill food before it gets too low. Replace water when it gets dirty.
The chicks will crap in their own water just to get you to change it.
Who said chickens were stupid?
Take care with heat lamps and flammable materials. Make certain the lamps are secure so they don’t droop or drop down and heat up flammable things like cardboard, newspaper and chickens with feathers. Raising the chickens is what you do first – cooking them is something for later, after they have matured.
At some point you’ll want to transfer the young chickens to a larger area – a pen or a coop, or just an outbuilding of some sort.
Be sure to keep the area warm enough for their comfort, and make certain they aren’t exposed to predators.
Remember, you’re raising chickens for you, not Mr. Wily Coyote.
Photo to the right shows the holding pen inside the coop that keeps the chickens close to sources of food and water as they grow to a size where they can be released outdoors.
Notice that there is still a heat lamp available to keep them warm if they so desire.
Food is also elevated for easier reach by the older and taller birds.
As your flock grows, so will it’s need for food and water. Larger dispensers will be necessary as will a larger area for the flock to mingle.
Sufficient room will keep them from pecking on one another.
When your flock is capable of being on it’s own, you can consider allowing them outdoors. The key here is to let them go outdoors.
Don’t take them outside or they won’t be able to find their way back inside. Just open a door and let them explore on their own.
If you let them go outside on their own, they’ll be familiar with how to get back inside when it gets dark.
They will return to the coop naturally when it gets dark as long as they wandered away from it on their own.
If you take them outside, you’ll have to wait until they hunker down before you can collect them and take them back inside.
It’s a pain, so just let them do it on their own.
Once outside, the chickens will discover grass, bugs, loose dirt and lots of other things that need to be investigated, pecked at and scratched at.
Chickens love to scratch up the soil, especially if it is freshly disturbed. Of course, they are looking for bugs, worms and other goodies.
A dust bath is another one of the behavior patterns you will see from chickens.
They’ll scratch themselves a depression in the soil and then fluff up the dust and dirt all over themselves, then shake it off a bit like a dog would shake off water.
Photo left shows a young chicken shaking off after a dust bath. Supposedly the dust bath offers protection from mites.
I’m not certain, but in any event the dust baths are just fine with me so long as I’m not involved in the activity.
In this regard, chickens are a lot like little boys, they love to get into the dirt.
Raising chickens should be much easier than raising little boys – you don’t have to wash behind their ears.
Enjoy raising chickens from hatchlings. The joy doesn’t last very long. Soon you’ll have scrawny looking young chickens that will need feed and care for quite a while before they start to give you eggs or can be considered a source of meat.
Chicken Feed and Water
One of the keys to success when raising chickens is water. Ideally, it should be clean and cool. It doesn’t have to be deep water, just make certain it’s present when the chickens want to have a drink.
Chickens love running water. Watch what they do when you turn on a hose and let it run over the ground.
It doesn’t matter what is in or under the water, they start pecking and scratching away at it with sheer delight.
I use standard metal water founts that hold 8 or 9 gallons and let it out as the chickens drink it. These have to be protected from freezing in the winter with heated bases.
Pressurized watering systems also work well, but I find that their small valves often get plugged up with sediment, and you have to make certain the whole setup is chicken-proof.
When raising chickens, you’ll notice that if there is anything that can be stood on, pecked at, crapped on or scratched to pieces, the chickens will find a way to do it.
My inventive mind will be devising a way to have an abundant clean water supply year round that doesn’t require regular attention.
Once I have it built, you’ll find it right here. My thoughts right now are to use ground source heating to keep it from freezing, and a pump and timer to make it available to the chickens many times during the day.
Chickens are omnivorous to a point. They will eat just about anything that is appealing to them – grain, gravel, grass, greens and garden surplus.
Bugs, blood, bones and small creatures like mice are also on the menu.
This makes raising chickens a bit easier than other animals.
Commercial feed is a good way to start raising chickens. It has a good supply of nutrients and it gets you off to a good start.
Fowl can have leg and knee problems if they don’t get proper nutrients, so I always have commercial feed available to them, no matter what else is available for them to eat.
Bulk feed is the way to go if you can find a supplier nearby and have the ability to haul and store it.
A good portion of the cost of feed is separating the tons of feed into 50 pound increments and packaging it up.
My objective is to get my chickens mainly on a diet of natural grass and bugs, supplemented by my own worm farm, kitchen scraps and commercial feed.
I let my chickens free range, and they certainly enjoy that.
The problem is the neighborhood fox enjoys it too. He or she grabbed four of my chickens one afternoon. Foxes hunt during the day.
Therefore, I am constructing a large “chicken tractor” that will allow me to move the chickens about the pasture while offering them chain link fencing for protection.
To be effective, the entire unit will need to be self-contained – water, food and nest boxes. I’ll keep you posted on this.
Kitchen scraps are often good for chickens, and they readily accept them.
You’ll soon find out what your chickens will eat and what they would rather not eat.
This suggests what goes into the compost pile and what goes into the chicken pen.
Remember, what you put into your chickens comes back as eggs. When raising chickens, better feed equals better eggs.
Chickens can exist in a relatively small space. You can raise 6 chickens in a 10 foot by 10 foot area for recreation, and about one quarter of that space for shelter and nesting.
If you’re raising chickens for eggs, 6 chickens is enough for 4 people to have 2 eggs every other day.
When you think of it in those terms, that is a goodly amount of food from a small space.
The problem with raising chickens in a small space like that is they will denude the ground in a matter of a few days, and you’ll have to supplement them for all of the food that they would naturally find on their own.
Photo right shows bare ground where the young chickens frequent, and grassy areas beyond where they haven’t yet ventured.
To eliminate this problem, it would be nice if you had a 10 foot by 10 foot area (or slightly more) for each chicken.
I have 14 chickens, and my pen is about 30 feet by 60 feet. That’s about 11 feet by 11 feet for each chicken.
Even more space would be better, it all depends on your soil, the natural covering and your climate.
Here in Wyoming, the climate is dry and the soil is not rich, so our grass is sparse.
It isn’t like what you would find in Michigan or Virginia.
So, if you have rich land, a 10 feet by 10 feet for each bird will probably be sufficient to keep grass under their feet, and it certainly is plenty to keep them from picking on one another.
When raising chickens, you’ll notice that they are a lot like people; crowd them up, and you’ll have aggressive chickens trying to kill one another.
When raising chickens, if you don’t give them some room, they’ll naturally thin themselves out, so give ’em a little space to spread their wings.
With respect to shelter, chickens really aren’t all that demanding. They need a place to get out of the weather, and a place to roost. They are challenged by hot weather, but are rather cold hardy, even well below zero.
The key is to allow them to get out of the sun and wind. They’ll figure out how to stay cool and warm on their own if you give them shelter that is wind resistant and affords them shade.
My first bunch of meat bird chickens enjoyed the shelter of stalls in my barn. The stalls also protected my ducks, geese and turkeys.
It was overkill with respect to shelter and protection, but it worked very well, and made good use of stalls that I wasn’t using anyway.
Raising chickens in many areas requires that their shelter not only protect them from weather, but from predators as well.
My chickens enjoy a homemade wooden pickup truck topper. That is their home. Nothing fancy, but it works.
Remember when raising chickens that chicken wire is only for birds. It only keeps out other birds, and keeps chickens in.
Any canine predator can chew through chicken wire relatively easily.
Even welded wire isn’t a challenge to a dog.
Protection from predators requires materials like horse fencing or chain link fencing.
Remember, you’re not raising chickens for the neighborhood predators, you’re raising chickens for you and your family, so protect them with strong fencing.
Predators include domestic dogs too.
Roosts can be made of just about anything. Metal pipe, wooden fence rails, dowel rods and other arrangements work just fine.
My experience with raising chickens shows that they will roost up on a 4 foot high piece of chicken wire that is intended to separate one group of fowl from the rest.
The best roost are ones that they can easily grip with comfort.
Think of something about the curvature of a toilet paper roll, and that should be just about ideal.
Nest boxes are also a requirement when raising chickens for eggs. Buckets and boxes can be used as nests. It is best to build a nest that provides about one square foot or more of room – enough for the chicken to turn around.
The bottom and top of the entrance should be blocked a few inches across the opening to give the feeling of being in a den or cubbyhole of sorts.
When raising chickens for eggs, provide one nest box for every 4 or 5 hens. Don’t try to give each hen her own nest box because they won’t use them.
It is better to have too few nests rather than too many.
Hens don’t mind taking turns laying eggs in the same nest as other hens. In fact, they prefer it.
Here are some interesting characteristics of chickens that you’ll need to know about before you dive in and start raising chickens.
This is all based on my happy experience with these fine feathered and tasty friends of mine.
Chickens and the places they live are dusty. It is something that you can’t get away from.
Don’t ask me where the dust comes from, because I can’t tell you.
Perhaps it is the dust baths that chickens enjoy taking.
Perhaps chickens are the origin of dust on this planet. Start raising chickens, and I think you’ll agree.
If you need ground scratchers, chickens are your best bet.
They do very little all day except scratch the ground in the hope of turning up a worm, a bug, a tasty piece of gravel or something else that they can eat.
As they scratch at the ground, they will uncover things that otherwise would have stayed buried for many years. Belt buckles, glass, toys, and even a starting pistol have been turned up by my chickens.
You don’t even have to ask them to find things – it’s in their nature.
If I didn’t know better, I’d swear that these items simply rise up from beneath the soil because my chickens have this magical ability to attract all things buried.
If you’re looking for things that are buried about 6 inches below the surface of your yard, just start raising chickens – they are natural archeologists.
Don’t worry too much about not having food for your flock because chickens are omnivorous. Be it animal, vegetable or mineral, chickens will try to eat it.
You’ll never see a faster mouse catcher and eater than a chicken. Three steps and three seconds, and the little field mouse is on its way down the hatch.
Weeds, extra produce from the garden, kitchen scraps, and any type of grain will appeal to chickens.
Toss it in with the flock and watch them as they do a good job of picking it clean.
If left to mingle with my turkeys, the chickens will pluck broken tail feathers out of the larger birds and eat them.
I can’t think of anything less appealing than the thick stubby quills that come out of the south end of a north bound turkey, but the chickens like them.
When raising chickens, never have string laying around where they can get at it. String comes off of the feed bags.
Always put the string somewhere chickens can’t get at it. Chickens will get tangled up in string and they’ll try to eat it.
Once there was a string attached to a pop top pull ring from a food can. Soon, I found the pull ring lodge in the mouth of the chicken, with the string completely swallowed. I had no alternative except to pull the pull ring out as far as I could, and then cut the string.
Other string problems that occur when raising chickens includes string wrapped up in their wings, and string tied around their feet. They will embed the string plenty deep into their tissue before you know it, so attention is needed to keep string away from the birds.
It is very important that you recognize that chickens are blood thirsty like no pirate you are ever going to read about or have the misfortune to meet.
If it’s a wound, a sore, or just dripping blood, chickens are going to be there to make it a larger wound, a larger sore, and a more serious flow of blood.
Keep an eye on your chickens to make certain there isn’t one being pecked to death. One chicken will eat another chicken alive.
I know it doesn’t sound characteristic of nice fluffy egg layers, but they most certainly are natural cannibals – many animals are.
Recognize too that chickens have a pecking order that they establish and maintain.
It might not be easy to recognize, but there is a hierarchy when raising chickens.
You don’t have to recognize it, just be aware of it.
If you have a rooster, you might notice the hierarchy one day as the rooster gets aggressive with you.
It makes no difference if you are 4 to 5 feet taller and 25 times his weight, he knows that he is at the top of the hierarchy, and he’s going to show you that you’re not!
Raising chickens sometimes means the rooster is going to raise hell with you. Just relax. If the rooster gets too bossy, just eat ’em.
At some point when you’re raising chickens, you’ll need to handle them. Chicks are easy to handle – just be gentle. It’s the older birds that take a little more attention.
As a general rule, my friend Ed will tell you for any animal, “The more you mess with them, the less they mess with you.” A translation of this for chickens is simply to get your birds used to you being around them doing things in their “air space”.
After a while, you’ll be part of their norm, and they won’t be quite so alarmed as you go about your chicken chores.
First, if you have a rooster, he will try to show you who is boss.
What he really wants is a fight.
You have three choices – ignore him, show him who is boss, or give him a close encounter with kindness.
Ignoring a rooster will sometimes work just fine, especially if the rooster is more interested in other roosters and the hens, rather than you.
When a rooster gets aggressive, you might have to bat him out of the way. Sometimes he gets the message and sometimes he comes back for more.
I swatted an aggressive goose once with my briefcase, and he kept his distance from then on. I’ve grabbed over-curious turkeys by the neck and they sometimes get the message to stay away.
For exceptionally aggressive roosters, I simply make a meal of them. It puts a stop to their “bite the hand that feeds them” activities.
And, what’s wrong with making a meal out of your antagonist?
If you don’t want to go quite that far with taming an aggressive rooster, then you can “kill them with kindness”. Simply catch them and give them lots of attention by petting them.
At the very least this confuses them, perhaps even embarrasses them. After a couple of applications, they leave you alone.
It’s best, unless you want fertile eggs, to leave the roosters to someone else, and just stick with hens.
To pick up a chicken, it’s best to wait until dark when they roost. Once they are on their roosts, you can walk right up to any chicken and take it off the roost.
It generally won’t try to take flight.
No matter where chickens roost – on a roof, on a rock, or on a limb – they generally are very vulnerable to being snatched by predators and therefore are easily picked up by you.
Just grasp their wings and sides with your wide open hands.
Gently, but firmly press the wings into the body so they can’t flap about, and then quickly transfer them to a cradled position between a forearm and part of your rib cage.
This cradled position will provide them with a place to “squat” where their legs and most of the body will be supported.
They will feel much more secure in this position. If they feel secure, they’re less likely to make a fuss.
The photo below was taken during a time when I was giving tours of my chicken operation to grade school kids.
I spoke to them about raising chickens and gathering eggs. The teacher in the photo is holding the chicken well. It feels secure and will be easier to control.
The kids aren’t doing a bad job either.
As you might guess, the children often had a chicken get loose from them because they didn’t want to hold the chicken firmly for fear of hurting the animal.
I think it was a great experience for everyone, even the chickens.
My favorite part of the grade school visits was when I met the bus at the top of the drive, hopped on board and hollered out to the kids “ARE YOU READY FOR CHICKENS????. Man, that got them going.
When handling chickens, it also helps if you “talk” to them a little bit. They’ll feel a bit more comfortable with you.
“Talk to them” much like you would a pet. Just don’t mention anything about chicken soup, Buffalo wings or cordon bleu. Those topics tend to get them a bit uneasy, as you can well imagine.
While raising chickens, it might be necessary to catch them during the day.
If you can, simply try to corner them and use a similar technique as you would if they were roosting.
They will be much less cooperative, so you’ll have to be fast, tricky and persistent.
One easy way to catch your chickens during the day is to use a landing net like you would for a fish.
I recommend a large landing net with a long handle. After you net the bird, pin it down to the ground with your hands and quickly remove it from the net.
If you allow the bird to squirm too much, it will be a job to untangle the critter.
Photo right shows me untangling an uncooperative rooster.
Cradle the bird as described above, unless the bird is going to be uncooperative. For the feisty ones, just get a hold of both feet and let it dangle.
Make certain you have both feet, or the bird could hurt itself as it struggles. When both feet are firmly held, most chickens will just hang there and not make a fuss.
Depending on what you need to do with the chicken once you catch it, you might have to reposition it. The best approach is to do the repositioning deliberately, quickly and firmly.
Anything less than that will allow the chicken to get the idea that flapping about is a possible method of escape.
It’s best to keep a grip on the feet of the chicken, lest they get the idea that it’s time to scratch their way free.
Sometimes when raising chickens, you’ll have to get eggs from under a hen that is in the nest. Move in slowly with you palm facing down and put your hand under the bird to get the eggs.
One or more of the following will happen:
- The hen will look at you curiously as you get the eggs from under her and then go about her business after you are done.
- You’ll be pecked several times as her way of telling you that you shouldn’t be messing with her eggs.
- There will be a mad dash to exit the nest, so don’t get your face right up to the nest unless you want an up close and personal look at her wings and feathers.
In any event, be brave, tolerate the minor pain of pecking, don’t panic when she does, and get those eggs. They’re yours, not hers.
If you have all hens, don’t be surprised if they demonstrate an interest in mating with you as you go about the business of gathering eggs and tending to their enclosure.
This interest is shown by them squatting down in front of you and sticking their folded wings out just a bit from their sides.
It looks odd, but it is just what they would do in the presence of a rooster.
I simply bend down and firmly stoke their back and few times and then massage their rump a bit with a firm grip of my thumb and middle finger.
They will naturally lift their tail high in the air as I massage the top sides of their rump.
Oh, the joy of raising chickens.
It seems to give them the satisfaction of having mated, but it does absolutely nothing for me. My only satisfaction is that they seem to be happy and I get to touch some members of the team that lay my eggs.
Trimming Flight Feathers
If you’re going to be raising chickens in a fenced in area, you’ll probably need to trim wings every now and then. The idea is to keep them from flying out of their area and into trouble.
If you’re raising chickens in an enclosed area, with a roof or netting overhead, you won’t have to trim their wings.
Learn more about clipping chicken wings to keep your birds safe and out of trouble.
More Advice About Raising Chickens
Here is a website that focuses on natural and healthy eating, and they feature an article on raising chickens. Take a look at raising chickens over at Healthy Eating Blog.
I dare say that raising chickens for food is popular, and there is good reason why. We’re talking meat and eggs from an animal that can be raised nearly self-sufficiently.
They have to be one of the best animals for those with an eye toward frugal living and fresh, natural food, the origins of which you know about by first hand experience.