When I decided to convert our backyard into a micro farm, one of the requirements under our state’s agriculture law and USDA Regulations was to be recognized as a “farm” on both the state and federal levels. Qualifying criteria was to sell $2,500 of agriculture product and/or have livestock. As I was just starting out and didn’t yet have $2,500 of agriculture product sales, I needed to get some kind of livestock, which could include hooved animals, bees, chickens or rabbits.
Local zoning code requiring 2+ acres for hooved animals eliminated that option for me but, since I was in a “rural” zone, rabbits, chickens and bees were fine. I therefore decided on chickens because I could sell fresh eggs and then butcher the birds for meat when they stopped laying at around 2 years old. At least that was my reasoning when I presented my idea to my husband.
Fast forward 6 years later and they are still alive and even were given names “Henrietta 1 – 9” aka “The Girls”. One of them, a poor bird that was being brutally picked on by the brood was named “Sally” by my husband and became his pet. In addition, although I have lost several birds (which I will discuss later), not one of them has been eaten (by a human at least). All in all, the “Girls” truly have lived a charmed life.
If you are thinking about getting chickens, here are a few things I’ve learned over the years.
Spring is usually the time when hatcheries begin to sell chickens. If you are serious about getting chickens, make sure you purchase them from a good hatchery. Chickens carry a lot of diseases and federal law requires that chicks be vaccinated for a nasty viral disease call Marek’s Disease prior to sale. This is a virus that can kill off an entire flock and contaminate others. I was also surprised to learn that the vaccine wears off in 2 years, which is why most birds are butchered within 2 years.
The lesson here is that purchasing chicks from non-registered hatcheries can result in all kinds of flock failures so – “Buyer Beware”. According to University of Connecticut’s top poultry expert, genetics impact long term health and the Marek Virus is found in the genetic line of a particular bird family.
I recommend that you also check out a website called My Pet Chicken . I met the owner/creator, Traci Torres, while we were guests on the Colin McEnroe Show on WNPR CT Public Radio a few years ago and she is a wealth of knowledge on chickens. Her website offers great information and cool products for backyard chicken owners.
A recommended book is “Storey’s Guide to Chickens”.
Once you decide upon a breed of chicken, you’ll need some equipment to get them through the first weeks of life. Be forewarned that having chickens can be expensive in the beginning. As baby chicks need warmth and protection, a safe warm nursery will need to be created.
I picked my chicks up in early March when there was still snow on the ground and it was bitterly cold. Keeping them in the garage therefore clearly wasn’t an option so they ended up in my backroom where I could keep an eye on them. Then the circus began as EVERY critter in our household wanted to sniff, play or even eat our new babies!
Baby chicks make a lot of poop so be prepared to clean your box frequently. They need a box big enough for them, a warming light, a special size water container and baby chick feeder, all of which I purchased at my local farm supply store.
Moving into the Coop
Housing the chickens will depend on where you live. We have very cold snowy winters and thanks to the realities of Climate Change, we also experience extended days of hot/humid days of 90+ degrees. I wanted the coop to be predator proof so I decided to purchase one made by a local farmer, which cost me $600 (without roof shingles and unpainted). I added the shingles, stained the outside with weatherproof stain and, as we are now going on our 6th year, I’m so glad I did this.
The other consideration is not to overstuff your chicken coop with chickens. I had originally purchased 9 Rhode Island Reds and this coop was built for 6 chickens. It was a tight fit and I had to add another roost for them. Overcrowding a chicken coop is not healthy for the birds and can cause health problems.
Since we live in a wooded area we have all kinds of wildlife (i.e. – hawks, coyote, fox, fisher cat, raccoon, possum, an occasional black bear) plus local dogs and cats. As all are potential predators, we fenced in a large section of woods surrounding the coop to given the chickens plenty of room to roam while also protecting them from most of these critters.
My next blog posting will cover choice of bedding, general care and a few things my chickens taught us.