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Chickens are medium-large ground-dwelling omnivorous birds that have been domesticated for meat and egg production for millennia. They scratch the ground with their clawed feet looking for food, can be harvested for meat and eggs, and produce a nitrogen rich manure. Along with rabbits, chickens are among the easiest farm animals to raise. They need a covered shed or coop that can be closed on all sides, nesting boxes and a small or large yard to forage through.
Requirements for chicken care
- Fresh water - to be provided regularly and checked daily
- Food - chickens can supplement human feed by foraging, provided they are able to roam freely. They can take advantage of elements or built structures that naturally accumulate their food, such as compost piles. Forage crops include: Greens of all sorts, lambs quarters, amaranth, comfrey, grasses, shoots of grain crops and sprouts. With sufficient grit, chickens can digest whole grain.[verification needed] Supplemental food improves weight gain, egg production and health.
- Moderated micro-climates- protection from wind, rain, cold, heat
- Company - chickens are flock birds and like company.
- Nesting locations - chickens like to lay their eggs in a dark, quiet and protected location.
- Medicine - To prevent certain diseases and infections, chickens may require medicines. Some herbal assistance may be gained from tansy, rue, feverfew, wormwood, comfrey and diatomaceous earth.[verification needed]
- Dust bath
- Grit - oyster shell, granite grit, etc.
- Predator protection - read about chicken yards or chicken coops to provide safe housing for chickens.
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 disappear 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, chickens should not be fed raw eggs. This may give them a taste for eggs, and you want their eggs!
Outputs from chickens
- Meat - Chickens are edible. Some breeds can go from chick to table in 8-10 weeks. The meat becomes tougher as they age (the quality declines after 6 months, when hens start laying).
- Eggs - Well fed chickens can produce 2-5 eggs a week in their prime. Egg laying rate decreases in winter due to low light and perhaps increased use of energy for metabolism. Different breeds and individuals are more prolific producers of eggs.
- Companionship - Some people keep chickens purely as companion animals.
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
Behavior and diet
Chickens graze, browse, scratch, create dust baths, establish social hierarchies, and produce manure.
If they have sufficient grit they can eat whole grain.
Sufficient protein is necessary for egg laying.
There are two main components of a chicken environment:
- chicken coops - roosting and nesting location safe from predators
- chicken yards - an area in which to forage.
Both coops and yards can be fixed or mobile. Fixed yards can be arranged in paddocks so that chickens can be rotated between forage areas so they have access to fresh forage and reduced exposure to parasites. The degree to which chickens need protection from weather and predation and the goals of their keeper define the character of a coop and yard system.
Hungry chickens will devour tender greens and will over time denude their yard [what is the density of chickens necessary to accomplish this in different ecoregions?], particularly in proximity to their coop.
Other creatures like to harvest chickens too: Dogs, foxes, coyote, raccoons and raptors. Predator protection is necessary depending on the nature of the predator and how hungry for chickens they are. Protection can be incorporated into either the yard or the coop, or both.
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 tastiness 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.
Easily the largest headache in raising chickens is the wide array of predators that will attack and kill your chickens. Larger predators 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 carcass, 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 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.
- trap nests are used to identify the chickens that are laying
- chicken yards are areas for chickens to exercise and forage
- chicken coops are used to provide shelter for chickens
- slaughtering workstations are places used to process meat
- chicken tractors are mobile yards or combination yard/coops used to put chickens to work
- brooders are contraptions used to keep chicks warm when hatched in an incubator
- worm bins can produce worms that can be fed to chickens.
- vines can be grown on chicken coop fences.
- annual gardens outside the yard can be harvested and thrown over the fence.
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
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