Homesteading | Raising Chickens 101


** UPDATE: 9.24.14: Since this post, I have learned a lot more about the life of chicken farming. Check back in November for more information and details!**

I'm not going to lie, when my husband finally gave into the "let's get chickens" plea from me, I was so excited I almost jumped out of the moving vehicle to do a fancy jig.

But I digressed.

We started our chicken adventure last year, and that very evening when husband said "yes", was the very evening I started devouring every piece of knowledge I could about raising chickens.

I wanted to do this thing the right way, the healthy way....



I wanted to understand everything I needed to understand about chickens, because this wasn't just going to be a "feed the dog once a day and you're fine" type of deal. This was a lifestyle change. I would now be an egg collector, chicken doctor, hay and poo slinger, beginning homesteader, and everything else that came along with the gateway farm animal.

Before starting your chicken adventure, make sure you are up to date on any poultry restrictions that your county or town may have. If you live in a subdivision with an HOA, you may want to check with them first as well.


The Pros and Cons of Raising Chickens

Let me first start by saying that I could not imagine my life without chickens right now. Seriously, it's ridiculous. They bring me so much joy, and have opened my world up to a new appreciation of egg laying and all natural living.

But while there is joy, there can also be tears and heartache. One of the things you  must consider when choosing to take on the art of keeping chickens, be it in your backyard or on your farm, is that at some point, you're going to lose one...two...maybe ever six or more at a time. And when I say "lose" I mean, chicken heaven.

We chose to get chickens for their eggs and meat. Yes, meat, as in the kind you get from a grocery store. Except this is ten times better tasting and better for you.

Because we are on the journey to becoming more (and hopefully, completely) self-sufficient, the sad reality is that we must kill and process these chickens ourselves. And even if you don't want chickens for meat, you will most likely lose several chickens each year due to predators or illness.

Remember when I said you had to be a chicken doctor? I wasn't kidding.


The other con is that chickens can be expensive if you choose not to allow them to free range. And if you do allow them to free range, your feed bill will go up substantially in the winter snowy months. However, if you choose to sell eggs or broiler's to offset these costs, you can break even (and possibly even earn a small income with broilers). And if you choose to free range, which I would highly suggest, then this will also offset your costs during the warm months.

One of the greatest pro's to keeping chickens is the benefits that come along with their eggs and meat. Again, if you choose to allow your chickens to free range -- meaning they are outside on the ground ranging your fields or yard all day long -- you'll reap greater benefits all around. Not only will it help you offset your feed cost, it will also help your chicken produce the best possible egg for your family.

Here are a few health benefits of free-range (especially organic and non-gmo) eggs:
  • Better fat and less cholesterol. Yes, there are such things as good fat and less cholesterol. In fact, free range eggs can help lower cholesterol! Free range eggs have 1/3 less cholesterol than commercial eggs, and a 1/4 less saturated fat. They also have 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids. Yum!
  • Higher protein and amino acid levels. Wondering why protein and amino acids are good for you? They both promote muscle growth, and protein helps breakdown sugars and carbs that you put into your body during the day. Amino acid can help enhance the immune system, combat fat build up, and promote antioxidant activity. Amino acid also helps the growth and development of a child's brain and nervous system when in utero. So, eat up, pregnant mama's!
  • Higher Vitamin A & Vitamin E. Vitamin A is key for eye health and better vision, a healthy immune system and cell growth; while Vitamin E helps protect Vitamin A from being destroyed by damaging oxidation reactions in your body. Vitamin A is needed for healthy skin and mucus membranes as well. Vitamin E has amazing antioxidant qualities and combines with oxygen to destroy free radicals. It also helps prevent certain types of cancer, heart disease, strokes, cataracts, and protects artery walls from bad cholesterol (which your store bought eggs are full of, by the way).
  • Seven times more beta carotene. I, myself, am trying to learn more about beta carotene. But from much research have learned that it can help aide many things, such as reduce exercised induced asthma symptoms. It can prevent certain cancers, heart disease, cataracts, Alzheimer's, depression, epilepsy, arthritis, high blood pressure, infertility, and skin disorders such as psoriasis.
  • They taste better. Yes, it's just that simple. Because of all the vitamins and things that are jam packed into that dark orange free-range yolk, they are so much more rich and flavorful than the tasteless store bought eggs.
  • They come in some pretty awesome colors. Whether you free-range or not. There are certain breeds of chickens that lay eggs with tinted shells -- blue eggs, brown eggs, dark chocolate colored eggs, speckled eggs, green/olive eggs, and yes, even white eggs.

How much work goes into keeping chickens?

That really depends on who you ask and your purpose of raising and keeping chickens.

We raise and keep chickens for eggs, meat, and to sell. You can make a small profit on hatching purebred chicks and by selling them at just a few days old. Or, you can raise them until egg laying age and get between $15-$75 for one hen, depending on the breed.

If you're simply wanting to raise chickens for eggs and companionship, then you're in for an easy work experience. It might take 10 minutes a day to tend to your chickens. You simply need to let them out in the morning (I tend to wait until it's light enough for me to see to walk outside), make sure they have plenty of water, and that's about it. I tend to feed my chickens in the morning and evening, however, not nearly as much in the warm months as I do the winter months.

If you're raising chickens for breeding, eggs and meat, then there is a bit more work that goes into it. You'll need to research the best way, for you yourself, to process your chickens when that time comes. You have the option of raising heritage breed or cross breed chicks for meat. With cross breeds (aka, hybrids), such as the Cornish X, you can generally process them between 6-12 weeks for best results. With large fowl heritage breeds, you'll have to wait a bit longer, which can cost more, but it's all in what you prefer. Heritage breeds typically don't get processed until 6+ months old. We just recently processed a medium size rooster, and after everything was processed, he may have weighed 5 or so pounds.

If processing meat and selling eggs, you're going to need to do your research on selling restrictions in your area. Typically, meat is fine when sold to neighbors, family and friends. But if you plan on going to farmer's markets etc., you will need to see about licensing and permits.

If you're raising chickens to sell, then you're going to need to put a lot of love and care into this. On top of caring for your regular chickens, you'll need to have separate pens for each breed. You'll also be confined to your home quite often during hatching season. It takes 21 days from start to finish to hatch a batch of eggs. Eggs need to be flipped by hand twice a day, or you can purchase an egg turner along with your incubator. Chicks need to be tended to at least twice a day (morning and evening), and should have a constant supply of water. But we'll touch on raising chicks another day....

Basically, if your chicken keeping starts out simple, just raising chickens and eating eggs, it really is as easy as remembering to feed and water the dog. It might take 20 minutes per day, unless you like to sit with your chickens and admire them like I do.
My husband during the beginning stages of our very first coop, built from his own design plans.
How much is the investment?

This really is an investment into your life. The benefits of free range eggs and meat are priceless.

Here are a few things you'll need to take into consideration:
  • You need a coop and most likely a chicken run. And the size of it will completely depend upon how many chickens you wish to raise. We have started with a large 8ft x 8ft coop that houses two ladder roost area's and 6 nesting boxes. This can easily fit 40 chickens with the way we've built it. We were able to build this ourselves for a fraction of what it would cost to buy a pre-built one. In Virginia, this cost us about $600, including paint, etc.  We also have a "mini coop" that houses our chicks, and will soon be turned into our duck house, as we have a new area for our chicks. It is your choice as to whether you want a chicken run or not, but I would suggest building one even if you don't think you'll use it. It comes in handy when trying to separate chickens, if that time ever comes, and pinning them up should you need to seed your lawn, etc. You can start out with a very small coop and run, but cost will depend on the style of coop and run that you would like to purchase or build. 
  • Feed costs. We purchase non-gmo layer mash from our local co-op that is grown from local crops. The price continues to go down recently, so as of this month, we've only bought two 50 lb bags of feed for $15 each ($30 for the entire month). In the winter months, we probably purchase 200 lbs rather than the regular 100 lbs, sometimes more, depending on the weather. There have been some months that we've probably gone through almost 300 lbs of feed in a month due to snow and wet ground conditions. We currently have 30 chickens, 16 of which are adults, the rest are younger or chicks. If you prefer to buy a brand like Purina, then your costs can certainly go up. There is also a non-gmo/organic feed store in Virginia, Countryside Organics, that specializes in non-gmo/organic feed for chickens and all of your other farm animals. *side note -- our ducks also eat our layer mash, so we never have to purchase two different types of feed for our chickens and ducks.
  • Wormer and other medical bills. It is a personal choice as to weather you worm your chickens each year or not. I, personally, have seen great results from mixing in Diatomaceous Earth with their feed every few days. You can purchase DE at your local Tractor Supply or co-op. You can also order it online. I have wormed one of my hens with medical wormer, and I will never do it again unless absolutely necessary. One container of DE should last you several months, if not the entire year, and only costs $10+ at your local farm store. You may, however, run into other issues with your chickens, such as respiratory infections and other disesases. In these cases, you need to outweigh your pros and cons. You can either medicate your chicken (by injection or pour-on), take them to a farm vet, or you may choose to cull. We, personally, try all natural methods of helping our chickens out, first. However, if they have a very infectious disease that can be spread to our flock or could hurt our flock even years from now, we typically decide to cull.
  • Treats and other random bills. Yes, when you first get chickens, you're going to splurge on meal worms. But honestly, don't. It's not worth your time. My chickens love meal worms, but in order to cut costs, they love leftover roasts, chicken, and food scraps just as well! No extra cost on treats for us here!

The life of a chicken farmer

You're quickly going to find out, that along with raising chickens comes fellow crazy chicken loving friends. 

You'll meet new people that only understand your chicken love and language. And along with new chicken crazy friends come more chickens.

Beware...
chickens.are.addicting.

It's like Lays chips, you can't just have one! And one turns into 20, and 20 turns into 200.

Or not...but it could if you don't keep your addiction under control. 

Yeah....I haven't gotten that far in my self control journey yet.

They say that chickens are the gateway animal to every other farm animal, and quite honestly, I believe it. Soon after we got chickens, we got meat rabbits. After the meat rabbits, we got ducks. After the ducks, we started looking for more land. And I am so excited for the possiblities that have yet to come. 

My husband and I both long for the day when we really can have that big barn, lots of land, and lots of farm animals to roam it. The simple life really is the good life, and hard work brings more joy than you could ever imagine. 

This year, because of the chickens, we have decided to do raised garden beds with chicken wire around them. I hope to blog on that more in the coming weeks. 

Stay tuned!!

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