Start Your Own Backyard Flock
- Wednesday, August 01, 2007
If you've ever tasted farm-fresh eggs or read about the health benefits of using them, you can understand why more and more people are considering raising their own hens for eggs. Chickens don't require a lot of space and aren't very noisy (unless you have a rooster, that is!), so they are just as easily kept in the backyard as they are on the farm. By simply providing your hens with a few necessities like shelter, clean water, and quality feed, along with plenty of green grass and sunshine, you can enjoy their contented clucking, healthy eggs, and chemical-free fertilizer for your yard!
Chickens are a relatively small investment, costing about $2 each for a female and even less for the males. Many people order chicks through a mail-order hatchery such as McMurray Hatchery, but since ordering them through the mail often requires a minimum order of 25, some people opt to buy theirs at a local farm supply store or hatchery so that they can buy fewer.
When you order baby chicks, they are advertised with different prices for male, female, or straight run. Straight run simply means that they have not been sexed, so you won't know if they are male or female until they are older. Straight run chicks are always cheaper, but buying them that way usually means that you will end up with a bunch of roosters--not too helpful if you are trying to raise a laying flock! I prefer to pay a little more, because I want to be certain of what I'm getting.
The number of chickens needed is up to you. Generally you order one or two more than the number you actually desire. Baby chicks aren't very durable those first two weeks, and unfortunately you can lose them either because they get stepped on or they get too hot or too cold. For the average family, a flock of five is usually sufficient to provide the family with plenty of eggs and a few to spare. At their peak production, a hen will lay an egg a day, so use that as a guide when purchasing hens. Don't expect those eggs to start popping out too soon though. It takes most breeds 6-8 months to start laying, and for a while their laying will be somewhat irregular. And then you also have to consider that their egg production will slow down or halt altogether when the days get shorter and the temperatures are cooler. By the following spring, though, you should be able to count on your hens to start filling your egg cartons, and that's the really fun part!
Next you need to decide what breed of chickens that you want. Consider if you want brown or white eggs, the temperature where you live (if it's cold, you'll definitely want a heavy breed that tolerates the cold better), and breed characteristics. Some breeds are feisty, while others are more laid-back. Buff Orpingtons are some of the most popular chickens with a reputation for being gentle and good egg layers even in cold weather. Rhode Island Reds make a wonderful backyard bird as well. They have led the contests for brown egg layers time after time, but the roosters in particular can be feisty. Another breed that many people enjoy is the Araucana or Americana. They are often called the Easter Egg chicken since they lay pastel-colored eggs varying in color from turquoise to deep olive. It is so much fun when they start laying those colored eggs! Of course there are many other wonderful breeds and then the cute little Bantams, which are simply miniature versions of the larger breeds. Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens is a wonderful resource regarding various breeds, care, feeding, and housing, while requesting a catalog from the hatcheries will provide you with not only breed descriptions but also wonderful pictures. Be prepared to have the whole family soon making a list of what type of chickens they want!
Of course, you'll want to check your city regulations concerning keeping chickens. You can either try to find your city's laws online, or you may need to call Animal Control. Each city is different. Some have restrictions on the number of chickens you can have. Some have restrictions on roosters, and some have specifications regarding the chicken's housing. Speaking of roosters, many people wonder if they have to have a rooster in order for their hens to lay eggs. The answer is no. The hen's body creates the eggs and the rooster is needed only if you want fertilized eggs. We have kept chickens and had plenty of eggs without a rooster, but a rooster does provide the normal social structure of the flock, a fair amount of protection, and plenty of entertainment. I never knew that roosters had to learn how to crow. We loved listening to our young rooster's improving crow day by day!
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