Chicken is one the country’s most popular foods; we fry it, bake, form it into nuggets and of course who doesn’t like wings. But chickens are also one of the most popular forms of livestock for most people. Almost every farm has chickens and many homeowners in not so rural areas have a few hens as well (no roosters allowed in the city). Why you ask? Because they are easy to raise and are entertaining – some breeds are quite striking in their appearance – and of course fresh eggs. Farm eggs are the best hands down especially if you like your yolks runny (like I do) due to the yolks dark, rich color and flavor.
To get started raising chickens you either buy newly hatched chicks from a hatchery, or you get some fertile eggs from a neighbor who has chickens (and we have a neighbor who has a LOT of chickens). And the basics of biology indicate you need to have a rooster to get fertilized eggs. Did you know the eggs you buy in a store are typically not fertilized? That’s because hens will poop out eggs almost daily regardless of a rooster or not. And yes the eggs come out the same opening as the poop – even the eggs in the store contrary to some reports on the internet. When we first started out years ago we got chicks from a hatchery. One advantage to a hatchery is if you only want eggs you can get just females and not bother with a rooster. The other is that you don’t need any equipment to incubate the eggs.
Now we have a couple of incubators and hatch our own. Small incubators are not expensive and will hold about 30 chicken eggs and has a rack that tips the eggs back and forth at intervals. You have to move the eggs regularly or they won’t hatch properly and turning them over manually is a chore. The incubator has a fan and temperature control and just needs a bit or water from time to time to keep the humidity up. This setup is less than a $100.
Since that first batch years ago we have hatched eggs we collected, bought more chicks from hatcheries and even raised some ducks, geese and turkeys. We have even gone a while without chickens but last year we got a batch going and have enjoyed eggs from them as well as the antics of the roosters who we keep in the yard except at night and they have personalities all their own. The most interesting is when they get all macho and go at each other neck feathers expanded and everything. You can see how they are descended from dinosaurs.
Our current ducks
These are our current hens trying to stay cool on a warm day
This spring Janice put a couple dozen eggs in the incubator from our neighbor who has chickens of all breeds. We had a real good hatch with all but a few eggs hatching. The eggs take about 21 days to hatch and there is always an early bird (groan) who starts pipping first. A little crack in the eggs is visible and then it gets larger until you can see the beak poking out. Over an 8-12 hour period the chick is furiously pecking away and eventually cracks through the shell to greet the world. During this time it is cheeping away and as more start hatching the chorus builds.
They can survive a day or so without food and water while they dry out and then they get moved into a brooder. We use a large tote in the back room with pine shavings, a waterer and a feeder. These are essential and need attention frequently as chicks have just four activities for this period in their life – eat, drink, poop and sleep – repeated several times a day. Their chirping is fun to listen to and they grow so fast you could swear you see it happen before your eyes.
They start to feather out in just a few days starting at the wings and once they have gotten most of their first feathering in they can survive outdoors unless it is the middle of winter. They get moved to a small pen we built just for this phase which has a heat lamp for cool nights and a larger feeder because they still eat like pigs. It has chicken wire around three sides with plastic we can pull down at night to keep the predators at bay. When we first built this pen we just had a wire bottom to let the poop fall through but the predators (mostly raccoons and skunks) would reach through it and pull their victim down through the wire. Now we have a wooden board underneath which has stopped these nefarious attacks.
After about 10-14 weeks they are too big for the small pen and get moved to a regular coop with a box for getting out of the rain and roosting and night safe from predators. During the day they roam around the larger caged in area digging in the dirt and eating any bugs that fly in along with the feed we give them. The hens won’t lay eggs for a few months yet and by next year the older hens we get eggs from now will start dropping off in production. The roosters are another story. They are starting to be noticeably larger and getting their wattles and crown as well trying to crow. At first it sounds more like a strangle than a crow but each day it gets a little better. So far only one is crowing but the others will start soon. It is hard to tell how many roosters we will get but so far we seem to have a lot more hens which is good since the roosters are good for entertainment value only.
The new batch picking around for food
Of course crowing is not the only thing a young rooster starts to do, the natural urge starts and soon the hens will start sporting bare spots on their back where the rooster mounts. Once it gets too annoying, we will put the roosters out of the coop and they can fend for themselves in the yard. They will not like that at first, in fact they will walk all around the outside of the pen trying to get in but eventually they will realize that is not going to happen and they will start to wander. At night we put them in the cage but the coop door is closed to keep them away from the hens. We will keep one rooster with the hens to get fertilized eggs so we can hatch another batch when ready.
Now you know more than ever wanted to know or need to about chickens.