Starting Off Right With Chickens
If you plan to add chickens to your homestead, there are a few things to know before you order your chicks
By Alexis Griffee, New Mexico
As winter begins to draw to a close, our thoughts shift to spring and the new possibilities for our homestead. The seed and poultry magazines are beginning to arrive in our mailboxes, and farm stores are starting to fill up with the familiar chirp of chicks. Since spring is a time of new beginning, there is no better time to begin your flock. Poultry are a great addition to any homestead no matter the size. However, starting a new flock can be an overwhelming experience to those new to poultry. With so many different breeds, coop designs, and feeds to choose from, where do you start?
With hundreds of breeds of poultry and a wide variety of colorations, choosing a breed is no easy task! The first step in identifying the best breed, or combination of breeds, for your homestead is to identify your purpose for having chickens in the first place. For some, egg production is the main reason to raise poultry while others prefer to raise birds for meat alone. Even still, some people just want to enjoy watching and caring for chickens of all different breeds.
After you have identified your goal for your flock, you can begin to look at the different breeds. Each breed will carry different qualities for which it was originally bred. Different breeds were created to fill a niche. Some breeds like Leghorns are known mainly for their egg production. While they can be used for meat, they will not provide a quality carcass like a Cornish will. On the other hand, if you goal is both meat and egg production, then you need to research the dual-purpose breeds. Some examples of dual-purpose breeds include New Hampshire Reds, Wyandottes, Buckeyes and Rocks.
If you intend to show your poultry, either in 4-H or regular poultry shows, you will need to select breeds and colors that are approved by the American Poultry Association (APA). The APA currently recognizes over 100 different breeds. The role of the APA is to ensure that breeds remain true to their standards and purpose for which they were created. Organizations like this are vital to the future of poultry to ensure that the different breed qualities do not get lost through indiscriminate breeding. By utilizing the breed list of the APA, you can gather information regarding the different aspects of each breed. This will help to narrow down the choices so that you can select animals that will fit the needs of your homestead.
The style of coop that you choose for your birds will be greatly influenced by your climate and location. Shelter and protection from the elements is a main goal of any coop. In areas with a mild climate, a coop design can often be simple, providing shelter only from rain and direct sun. When you are in climates that are warmer, your main emphasis needs to be on keeping airflow in the coop while providing shelter from heat and rains. However, in areas where colder temperatures, winds or other inclement weather is common, your coop will need to be designed to withstand these elements and protect your flock. In areas like this, it is common to design a coop with doors and windows that can close in times of extreme weather.
Aside from shelter, another main goal of a coop is to provide protection for your flock. Where you live will greatly influence how predator-proof you need to make your coop. For example, a backyard poultry owner in the suburbs has less of a chance of dealing with coyotes than someone that lives out by a wooded area. By considering the main types of predators for your area, you can best determine how to fortify your coop against them. Common predators for suburban flocks are cats, dogs, racoons and opossums. In more remote or wooded areas, flocks can still fall prey to the same areas as suburban flocks. However, there are other added predators that homesteaders have to deal with in more remote or wooded areas. Other common predators include fox, coyote, snakes and birds of prey. Identifying the main threats to your flock will be vital in your efforts to protect them.
Clean water is essential to healthy poultry. There are numerous options for providing clean water for your flock. In warm or hot weather, birds will consume approximately 0.08 to 0.16 gallon of water per day, per bird. Cooler weather greatly diminishes the water needs, but it is still vital to have for the health of your birds. In cold climates, it is also important to make sure that your water does not freeze making it impossible for your birds to consumer. In times of colder weather, the average chicken will consume approximately 0.05 to 0.08 gallons per day.
The most common watering method is the fountain type drinker. These are often sold in sizes ranging from one to five gallons. While these are certainly the most popular, they are not necessary the best option. By having the exposed ring of water, this allows the birds to contaminate the water. Birds will not drink water that is not clean unless they have absolutely no other choice. Aside from not being healthy, this will lead to decreased water intake. Additionally, in areas with extreme temperatures, either hot or cold, this causes the water to be greatly affected by the outside temperatures.
Other watering options include nipple water systems and automatic cup waterers. There are several ways for these systems to be utilized. One way involves using a pressure reduction valve and connecting it to the nipples or water cups. The benefit of this is that there is less chance of contamination of the water source. Once a system like this is implemented, it will also reduce the water that is wasted as well as the time spent on the chore of watering your flock. Another way to setup this system is to connect them to some water catchment system. This can be something as simple as a five-gallon bucket, or even a rain barrel! One downside to these automatic watering systems is that if you need to medicate your flock’s water, then you will need to make adjustments to your current system in order to do so or temporarily implement a fountain drinker.
As a new chicken owner, it can be intimidating to choose the best feed for your flock. Aside from all of the different options and brands, people will always have their own personal thoughts and beliefs on feed. When choosing a poultry feed, always look for a commercial feed that is formulated for your bird’s specific stage in life. Chicks will obviously have different nutritional needs than adult birds hat are laying. By selecting a feed that is age specific, you will also automatically eliminate many potential problems that can affect your flock’s growth and later production.
It can also be tempting to try and mix your own feed. Some people have a desire to do this to avoid certain ingredients, or in an attempt to cut feed expenses. This should never be attempted unless you are experienced in the nutritional requirements of poultry. Every single item, and their amount, will greatly impact the vitamin content of the feed and even the ability for your bird to absorb the nutrients. Unless you have a working knowledge of how the vitamins, minerals and proteins interact with each other and can do the necessary calculations, this should be avoided for the health of your flock.
One thing to remember is that any complete poultry feed will be specially formulated for the needs of your birds. Often times, it is tempting to spoil your birds and give them treats, scratch, leftovers, or other food from the table. Every time that another food outside of their regular feed is offered, it upsets the balance of nutrients that are in their commercial feed. For example, if you feed your bird a food that is high in magnesium but low in calcium, it will take away the calcium that was provided through the feed to compensate for the imbalance.
After you have chosen the feed for your flock, you will need to decide the best method of feeding. The most common method of providing feed is a top fill hanging feeder. These often come in both plastic and galvanized options. These feeders are commonly available at most farm supply stores. Although these feeders can be simply placed on the ground, hanging is recommended. By hanging the feeder, you will eliminate a lot of feed waste from scratching and flinging feed out of the feeder.
If you are going to be housing your birds in a cage or a small chicken tractor, and only have a few birds, a cage cup may be a good option. Cage cups are easily clipped onto the wire of the cage to keep them secure, yet allow for easy removal and cleaning. One disadvantage of the open style of most cage cups is that birds can scratch in them and end up wasting a lot of feed. A larger option that is similar to cage cups are called wall troughs. Wall troughs range in size but most can hold a large amount of feed. These options are great for the farmer with a large flock.
Regardless of whether you are a suburban poultry keeper or a seasoned farmer, chickens are a wonderful addition to any homestead. A healthy and productive flock is directly related to the care that they receive. Due to the recent rise in poultry popularity, homesteaders now have a variety of care options and tools to make their flock even more successful and easy to manage. By choosing the proper tools for your flock, you can minimize the time spent caring for your birds and maximize your time enjoying them.