Chickens are one of the easiest animals to start with on your homesteading venture! They are small, not expensive to purchase, require minimal room and provide eggs and lots of entertainment! If you are only interested in providing enough eggs for your family you can assume that you will average around one egg per day in a fairly young laying hen. Here are a few things to consider before buying your first chick.
What age chicken would you like to start with?
If you start with chicks you can get them quite a bit cheaper initially. I hatch out my own chicks at this point but in the past I have ordered them from a hatchery through the mail. Generally the way it works is that you will order your chicks and the hatchery will tell you the approximate day of delivery to the post office. Then at the time of delivery the post office will notify you when they arrive and you can go up there and pick up your chicks. Don’t be alarmed if a couple of them are DOA. They typically will give you a few extras in the event that some won’t make the trip. I will go into more depth of how to brood new chicks in a later post.
While you have a cheaper purchase price you will need to feed and take care of these chicks without much return for a good six months. Chickens will generally start laying about six months of age. However, the plus side of that is the fact that you will have your chickens from the “get go” and won’t be taking the chance of purchasing a full sized hen that could be past her laying peak.
Pick your breed.
You will need to determine exactly what you want your chickens to be used for. There are layers, meat birds and dual purpose birds. Layers are generally much smaller framed birds and vary in their degree of laying. A good breed will lay an egg a day.
Two of the top laying hens are the Rhode Island Red and the White Leghorn.
If you want to have birds strictly for meat you would probably want to look at the Cornish Cross or the Freedom Ranger. There are staunch supporters on both sides of these breeds. The Cornish Cross is bred strictly for meat. They are ready to process at about 8 weeks and grow at an unbelievable rate! They grow so quickly they can tend to have broken legs or possibly heart attacks. This was not my experience however, I grew a small flock of thirty last year and they seemed to be very healthy with no broken legs. They had a very nice meaty breast on them and weighed out at about 5 to 9 lbs at 12 weeks of age. They do eat large amounts of feed and don’t forage to well so you will have quite a feed bill, but they aren’t around to long so the cost doesn’t get to out of hand. The Freedom Ranger meat birds are much better foragers then the Crosses. They grow slower then the Cross so they won’t weigh out to be the same size at 8 to 12 weeks but they do eat grass and bugs if they have access so that will save a little on your feed bill. Their breasts are not quite as full when processed and they are harder to pluck if your doing that by hand. I love these birds. They are just like an egg layer to me, running around trying to catch bugs and curious about what is going on around them. The Crosses seem to be just eating machines and don’t really have that “chicken personality” as much as the Rangers. However, to be cost effective, you have to feed Rangers longer and because of their behavior they may be a bit harder to process for the soft hearted animal lover! I’ve kept two hens and a rooster out of my Freedom Ranger flock and they are still laying eggs after a year. A Cornish Cross probably wouldn’t survive long enough to lay eggs.
The next category would be a dual purpose bird that could be used for eggs and meat. These are just basically a heavier egg layer. They don’t really compare to an actual “bred for meat” bird but they will have more meat on them then the egg layers. The Buff Orpington and Brahma are nice heavier egg layers.
I will dive a little deeper into this in my next post, by showing the different types of housing for chickens. You will basically need a small coop, depending on your number of birds of course. You will need a place for the hens to nest when they are laying eggs and easy access for you to collect your eggs each day. Chickens also need a place to “roost” at night. They instinctively want to climb up higher when they bed down for the night because that’s when the predators come out. It will need to be some sort of a “shelf like” stick or board that they can get up on. The higher up in the pecking order a chicken is, the higher up they roost with the lower pecking order chickens closer to the ground. They will need to have ground to range on as well, such as a little fenced yard. The most important thing about this coop is that it has to be able to be tightly locked down at night because everything likes a chicken and they will be very vulnerable at night!
Also, you should probably check with your neighborhood/county restrictions and of course your neighbors to insure you don’t have unpleasant issues to deal with after you get your flock! Chickens can be a lot of fun to raise! I hope this has helped you to get a basic idea of what having a flock of chickens would be like. I will elaborate more on each aspect in future posts!
Off to go collect the eggs!