Friday, April 27, 2012

Growing the Girls - My First Year with Backyard Chickens

by Sarah Renfro, Business Manager at Renee's Garden
The last year has seen 4 new additions to the family – my flock of backyard chickens. We decided to get chickens last winter after hearing so much about how delicious (and nutritious) home grown eggs are and admiring a friend’s large flock.
Last March the baby chicks arrived at our local feed store. We selected 4 different breeds of 3 day old chicks so we would have a variety of colors and egg shapes to enjoy. It has been interesting and fun to watch the baby chicks grow and mature into beautiful hens with distinct personalities and a definite pecking order! 
Our flock includes:
Speck (Speckled Sussex) – multi-colored, the most vocal and fearless. The leader of the pack.
Buffy (Buff Orpington) – yellow and fluffy. Gentle and friendly, a follower.
Rhoda (Rhode Island Red) – reddish brown. Very curious, she sometimes challenges Speck for the lead.
Blackie (Astrolorpe) – iridescent black. A bit aloof and always at the back of the pack.

We kept our chicks inside in a large cardboard box with heat lamps until the weather warmed up outside and the coop was ready. Each day we made sure to visit the chicks, picking them up and allowing our dog to see and sniff them so the chickens would be comfortable with us and the dog learned that these fluff balls were not for eating!

Although there are numerous chicken coop designs available online, we decided to buy a premade coop kit and modify it slightly to add on a larger chicken run. This was a do-able weekend project for my husband with the “help” of my toddler son.

After the girls moved into their new home we waited several weeks before allowing them to roam free around the backyard. I was nervous the first time the dog and the chickens were together in the same space but Rex seemed to know not to chase them - he happily trots along with the hens, sniffing the scratched up ground.

The chickens have access to their organic layer feed and fresh water at all times. We also supplement their diet with a daily bowl of food scraps - everything from carrot peels to bread crusts to greens. Basically any food scraps that can be composted, plus food that can't such as meat and dairy, can be fed to the chickens. There are certain things that they do not eat and we end up raking up and adding to the compost pile when cleaning the coop: onion/garlic skins and avocado or melon rinds and tough, woody stems. We do not feed them egg shells or leftover eggs.

Our girls began laying eggs reliably after about 6 months. It really is true that the eggs are tastier! The yolks are firm and are an amazing bright yellow color. It is always exciting to open up the coop and collect the fresh, still warm eggs. My son loves to know which chicken’s eggs are in his omelet (a regular menu item for breakfast, lunch and dinner)!

Now there are a few things that no one told us about keeping chickens:

Chickens are messy! Our freshly applied bark mulch stayed neatly on top of our flower beds for about one hour. As soon as the chickens got across the yard, the mulch started flying as they scratched it into the grass. So much for a tidy yard!

Dogs (at least my dog) love to eat chicken poop. Yes, this is very gross and it does cause intestinal distress. Yuck is all I can say about this.

Chickens can be loud (even hens). We always know when one of the girls is laying an egg due to the loud squawking coming from the nesting boxes.

Chickens can be pushy. My son has learned to hold any food high above his head when the chickens are around because they will try to take it out of his hand! Speck has walked right through the open door into the house in search of food. And watch out when carrying the bowl of food scraps – my girls will try to fly up to the bowl to start digging in.

Keeping chickens has been a very rewarding experience. I appreciate their beauty, intelligence and the daily gift of eggs. They are fun to watch and relatively simple to care for. Now we are searching for a bigger coop so we can add more hens to the flock!


Unknown said...

I love this. I plan on raising chicken when I live in a larger space. Aren't those eggs amazing!!!! I'm wondering if you can grind the shells to a fine powder and add it to their scratch for calcium? I've read about it. Good luck and happy egg eating. :)

Diana said...

Hello, Sarah,

We got our first 4 chicks and 2 hens about 2 months ago and we love them. Interesting that the ones we chose, Buff Orpington, Rhode Island Red, Speckled Sussex... are similar to your selection. Love the eggs but the entertainment alone is worth it.
PS: from the PNW, hi to Renee

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Lisa said...

Ha ha, if I had known your site before I could have warned you about the...ahem..."other joys" of chickens. They will also molt, usually not laying eggs during this time, and gaining new feathers. You will have less bugs: though the bad as well as some good ones - as long as they taste good they don't care. That's what they are doing when scratching. The good things is you shouldn't have to worry about your seeds being invaded. And you have fresh manure to help them along. Wouldn't leave seeds about though; they will eat even freshly sown seeds, so better to fence them out. If their eggs become frail or fragile you can feed them calcium. I believe feed mills carry oyster shells that helps with that. My "Peeps" like to catch the dribble from my calves chins! If you think Chickens are messy try getting Muscovey Ducks!!! Do your chickens "sit" on command? said...

I am 70 years old raised on a farm in Arkansas. I had many chickens, geese, Guineas etc. I just wanted to let you know that feeding chickens egg shells is good, you just have to toast them in an oven or on top of the stove, I usually place them in an oven after baking on a cookie sheet, the oven is hot enough to toast them without using extra energy. then you can crumble them up fine, If the chickens have a shortage of calcium their shells become thine to non existent, this will prevent this from happening.
Guineas are a great addition to chickens because they warn us of predators with their loud cackles.

Anonymous said...

Do your girls help you keep the bug population down?

Pastor Kathy said...

I am a city girl so don't know a lot about chickens. But when I boarded my horse at a farm where there were chickens, I learned the dark side of farm life. One by one, all the chickens disappeared. A fox got some of them (including the ten baby chicks that were born when one hen hid her eggs) and a hawk got the rest. All we would find of their deaths would be a few feathers here and there in the grass. Letting your chickens trust the dog might not have been a good idea. Just wanted to warn you to protect them as best you can.

Everyday-Vegetables said...

I Love my chickens and my dog agrees with yours. Raising chicks are a joy.

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