|See also the Chickens category.|
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There are three basic types of chickens: Layers (egg producers), Meat birds (they grow quickly), and heritage breed chickens. Heritage breeds have been mostly unchanged through the decades; meat birds and layers are usually specially hybridized to create outstanding production. This can lead to trouble: exhaustion due to overproduction of eggs and bent/broken legs from supporting the weight of a well-fed meat bird are not uncommon. These can be avoided by taking good care of your flock.
Layers produce an egg very regularly though can slow down production during winter due to low light. The best hybrid layers produce an egg about every 25 hours. Layers are not good eating.
Meat birds gain weight very rapidly, usually reaching full bodyweight before sexual maturity. This can be as quick as 6-8 weeks from egg to slaughter. Meat birds are not usually good egg-layers, may not breed true, and are not good parents.
Heritage breed chickens combine egg production with the tastyness of a meat bird; they are not as productive as hybrid layers nor as meaty as special meat hybrids but are excellent for normal home use. Egg production usually comes in between one egg every 2-4 days. They are usually excellent mothers/protector cockerels. These birds usually are allowed a few years as layers and then when production drops off are slaughtered for a long-cooked dish.
Chickens are hogs with feathers - they will eat just about anything. Garden waste is a veritable banquet, table scraps are high cuisine. Lawn clippings, bad fruit and moldy bread will all dissapear instantly. Onions, citrus peals and meat are not usually good ideas.
Commercial feed is an option. I will buy two bags of Laying Pellets and mix them with one bag of Scratch Grains. I store my feed in a metal 50 gallon trash can stored inside the barn. The metal keeps out varmints, rain and bugs. 50 gallons will feed fifty birds for two weeks or more, depending on how much supplemental food they receive.
Chickens if left on their own will eat a diet that is at least 20% protein, usually more like 50% including bugs and mice. This kind of diet creates a much richer-tasting egg with better nutrient ratios, and is usually attainable only by pasturing the flock.
Chickens may become sick or die if they are fed:
- Raw green potato peels
- Salted food
- Citrus (disputed)
- Banana skins
- Dried or undercooked Beans
- Avocado Skin or Pip
Additionally, they should not be fed raw eggs. This may give them a taste for eggs, and YOU want their eggs!
Egg nutrients and taste vary depending on the hen's diet. The diet depends on the hen's surroundings. The "gold standard" of raising chickens in excellent surroundings is the method of Pasture Raised. According to [Mother Earth News], Pastured eggs are much better than CAFO raised eggs:
• 1/3 less cholesterol • 1/4 less saturated fat • 2/3 more vitamin A • 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids • 3 times more vitamin E • 7 times more beta carotene
Easily the largest headache in raising chickens is the wide array of predators that will attack and kill your chickens. Larger preditors include bobcats, foxes, coyotes, stray dogs, the neighbors' dogs and even your own dogs. A four foot chain-link fence will not keep out anything, six is OK, eight has not failed me yet. A single dog can easily kill twenty birds in half an hour, and once a dog gets a taste for chicken, they will keep coming back for more.
Smaller predators include opossums, skunks, weasels, hawks and raccoons. Chain link fences only slow them down, they will always find a way through. The raccoons are the smartest, and most difficult to catch. I have had a raccoon snatch a bird, run forty feet and climb an eight foot chain-link fence before I could cross twenty-feet at a run. Skunks are the most infuriating... They will chew the heads off, sometimes eating out the chest cavity, and often leave the rest of the carcas, or cache it in a corner for later snacks. Don't let a possum fool you, although they will grab eggs if they are available, they can bite clean through the neck of a bird in a snap.
Usually, the smaller predator gets a bird the first evening, and I would use the remains to bait the live trap on the next evening. Use a trap about 12" tall by 10" wide by 26" long. If the trap is too small, the animal will not enter it. Keep your scent off the trap as much as possible, and bait it with a sardine or two if you do not have chicken parts.
 Slaughtering Chickens
Slaughtering chickens can be a rewarding enterprise. Just like eggs, well-nourished chickens are better for you than CAFO raised.
A typical slaughtering operation requires a big clean table, fresh flowing water, knives and a Killing Cone. The chicken goes into the Killing Cone (like a Traffic Cone with the tip cut off) and its head is pulled through. The confining helps keep the chicken calm. Then its jugulars are slashed. After the blood drains, it is plucked or skinned and eviscerated, head and feet removed, then cooled and packed for storage or cooked.
Chickens are an excellent source of revenue. Their eggs, manure, flesh and feet can all be sold, and the eggs are a very renewable resource.
 See also
Profitable Poultry: Raising Birds on Pasture - Download this book as an HTML or PDF file.
"Profitable Poultry: Raising Birds on Pasture" features farmer experiences plus the latest research in a guide to raising chickens and turkeys using pens, movable fencing and pastures. A Kentucky family nets between 90 cents and $1.50 per pound from Louisville customers for birds raised on pasture. A New Mexico producer who rotates birds across his property year-round has seen dramatic improvements to his desert soil. And a Wyoming producer was able to quit a full-time, off-the-farm job to stay home and raise pastured poultry with help from her school-age kids. With those examples and more from around the country, the bulletin touches on the system's many opportunities to improve profits, environment and rural family life. With original ideas for marketing poultry products and a page of additional, expert resources, the 16-page bulletin offers a jumping-off point for new producers.
- A breed selector tool: http://www.mypetchicken.com/breedQuestions.aspx
- An online chicken care guide: http://www.mypetchicken.com/ebook.aspx
- Sustainable Living with Chickens: http://www.mypetchicken.com/sustainable_living_with_chickens.aspx
- raising chickens 2.0: no more coop and run
- Mother Earth News: Healthier Eggs
- Mother Earth News; main page for Chickens and Eggs