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An unpractical guide to raising chickens

Erica Louder for Progressive Forage Published on 08 January 2020
kids and eggs

Last spring, I purchased 25 mixed-breed chicks from a hatchery that shipped via USPS. Feeling like I should be economical with my purchase, I bought the cheapest option. A “scratch and dent” straight-run group. I call them scratch and dent because they were the leftovers from other orders. I wanted a variety of breeds, and this got me that selection at an excellent price.

Tip #1: It rarely pays to go cheap. Buy precisely what you need; if you want eggs, spend the extra money and buy a sexed group.

Exactly why I purchased these chicks is up for debate. The first debated reason is I had to justify the heck-of-a-deal, Craiglist chicken coop purchase I’d made the previous summer and the fantastic paint job I’d given it. The second reason is that I felt gathering eggs and feeding chickens to be an excellent chore for my little ones.

Tip #2: Don’t expect to pawn any of the chicken work off on other people, even if those people are your tiny people.

About a week after I placed my order, I got a call from the local post office. The postal worker informed me my chicks had arrived. She said they were noisy and a little smelly. She would not guarantee their safety on the truck or in her office. I’d better come into town and pick them up.

Tip #3: If you have your chicks shipped, don’t let the postal workers bully you. The U.S. Postal Service will transport your live chicks to your doorstep, and if they don’t honor a guarantee, your reputable hatchery will.

My chicks arrived with only one casualty, and the hatchery sent a spare. It all started nicely. I had them in a shallow water trough with a heat lamp. I changed their water daily and fed them grower pellets. My plans to employ the child workforce was ineffective with this task. Both girls were scared of the baby birds, and the toddler insisted on trying the pellets for himself.

Tip #4: Salmonella is unlikely, but it possible to acquire from backyard poultry, especially in combination with poor hygiene.

Once my chicks reached the pullet stage, we built a small run adjoining the coop. At first, I couldn’t believe my good luck. From my estimation, I only had five roosters out of the 22 surviving chicks.

Tip #5: At the juvenile stage, the outward characteristics that distinguish male chickens from female chickens are limited, particularly to the untrained eye.

When the chicks were 6 months old, I started watching for eggs. I slowed down my purchase of eggs at the grocery store, knowing that my egg production was shortly to take off.

Tip #6: Depending on the time of year, mature female chickens will start laying eggs anywhere from age 9 to 13 months. Don’t expect them sooner.

While I waited for eggs, I realized I had far more roosters than I’d planned on. I don’t know why this surprised me. When I again counted the hens and roosters, I realized I had 10 hens and 12 roosters.

Tip #7: If you do purchase straight-run chicks, plan on no better odds than 50/50. Hoping to be “lucky” is a poor management decision.

My hens weren’t laying, and my roosters were overcrowding my coop. We killed one rooster and ate it. It was okay, but a lot of work getting it to the pot. We butchered another the next Sunday. He was a different breed and was stringy. I decided I didn’t want to eat anymore.

Tip #8: If you plan on eating your roosters, consider your family’s pallet. They may not think your culinary plan so wise.

I started catching roosters when I could, and I’d throw them out of the coop. Each rooster hung around for a couple of days before being chased away by our miniature Australian Shepherd “Newt.” Most of these roosters were bigger than Newt, so he didn’t do them any harm. Before long, I had a bachelor group living in the haystack, hidden from Newt but not from the far more dangerous predator.

Tip #9: Raising roosters from chicks only to kick them out of the coop and draw in coyotes is not an economical decision. It’s expensive predator bait.

With the roosters gone and the hens the appropriate age, I finally had eggs. I can count on seven or eight beautifully colored eggs from my hens each day. The girls are still a little scared of the birds, but eagerly count the eggs and place them in the cartons. I just as eagerly snap photos of my eggs and smile every time I break open one of my hard-earned eggs for breakfast.

Tip #10: Find a reason other than economics to raise laying hens. Otherwise, save yourself the trouble and purchase a dozen for $1.50 from the grocery store.  end mark

Erica Louder is a freelance writer based in Idaho.

PHOTO: A collage of the Louder family chicken project – but before you hatch your own project, read tips one through 10. Photo by Erica Louder.

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