For years, I have wanted to have my own backyard flock of chickens. I even petitioned my old neighborhood’s HOA rules which forbid livestock or poultry of any sort. (True story!) I was dismissed by the board members, as their mental image of a chicken coop looked something like an old decrepit shack with ripped tarps and a cesspool of fecal matter and flies. Also, they imagined noises that would disturb the peace of the neighborhood ie: roosters crowing. I get it. Most people just aren’t quite educated enough to know that chickens can be kept in a clean smelling and pleasant looking environment. Actually, a clean run and coop is detrimental to their health and well being. Also, roosters are not required for egg production. Hens (females) naturally lay unfertilized eggs with or without a rooster around. Consider it their “cycle”, if you will. Roosters are required to fertilize eggs, allowing them to one day become baby chicks. So, no rooster= virtually no noise. Honestly though, the noises from obsessively barking dogs, screaming kids and little Honda hatchbacks with a Walmart subwoofer are far more obnoxious than the cluck of a hen or crow of a rooster. Maybe that’s just my opinion!
Anywho… fast forward a couple of years and behold, we moved to the country! Well, not technically the country, as in fields of tobacco and hunting off your back porch country. We live in a subdivision with relatively large lots and best of all.. No HOA! Enter, our backyard homestead.
I grew up in the country. A little bitty town named Maysville, NC. I think you can Google it now. They have 1 stop light, a Piggly Wiggly and acres upon acres of farm land. On the street where I grew up, we were surrounded by family. My cousins lived next door and my grand parents lived across the street.. and that was it! We had our own little family community. We would have to get creative during play time, as most of you older than 29 years old know, there weren’t electronics to sit around and play all day and the 10 channels on t.v. weren’t all that engaging either! But hey, I’m not complaining! My love for the outdoors was rooted early. As soon as we finished school and chores for the day, it was dirt, sweat and bug bites until as late as our parents would allow us to stay out!
My Pappy was one of the most tender loving men that God ever placed on this earth. He had a love for his church, his family and his animals! He had everything from chickens to goats and bees to cows. I can recall how kind he was to his animals and how they used to make him laugh. Proudly, I’d like to think that I inherited his love for animals. In search of things to do while spending the day outdoors, I would venture over to the chicken coop and goat pasture and just sit and stare at them. I remember waking up and hearing the roosters crow in the morning and still to this day, that sound evokes a feeling of home.
As a Mother’s Day gift this past year, Robert decided to make me a mother again. A chicken mother! After years of helping tend to my mother’s flock, reading countless library books and pinning random tips and tricks on Pinterest, I was finally able to put my research to work! We went to our first flock swap. A flock swap, if you’re unfamiliar, is somewhat of a vendor event. Local farms and businesses that cater to farms bring an assortment of products, livestock and poultry for trade or sale. We came ready with our pink cat carrier in hand. The goal was to find 6 baby chicks, preferably 5 females and 1 male. We ended up leaving with (what we thought were) 2 Orpingtons, 2 Silkies, 2 Copper Marans and 1 Black Sexlink, that’s 7 total. I think the man realized one of the little Silkie chicks that Raygan had admirably picked out didn’t look so hot, so he went ahead and “threw one in” for safe measure. And sadly, the first night at home, that little Silkie chick died.
So back to the 6 count nuggets that we had originally intended on. We made them a brooder out of a large Tupperware bin and lid. A brooder is a home for the baby chicks that keeps them safe and warm, if they aren’t brooded or sat on by a momma hen. Finger’s crossed, in the future we will get to hatch our own eggs and let one of our girls raise them naturally! We cut the interior portion of our Tupperware lid out and replaced it with some hardwire cloth to keep our chickies well ventilated. (Think about how you feel trying to use a port o potty on a hot day, bleh!) Though we usually left the lid off because we couldn’t keep our hands out, the lid is an important feature. Not only does it prevent your chickies from flying out (which starts happening around week 3 or 4, depending on the breed) but also keeps other critters from getting in ie: a hungry dog or curious cat! Also, the lid can help to hold the heat inside of the brooder which is vital to baby chickens in the first several weeks.
When baby chicks are first born, their environment must stay at a constant 90-95 degrees tapering down 5-10 degrees each week until about 5 weeks old when they are more regulated. When purchasing your brooder set up, a heat lamp is crucial and a thermometer isn’t a bad idea! A good rule of thumb for lamp placement is about 20″ from the bottom of your brooder. We chose a super fashionable ladder and shovel set up to hold ours in place, (see picture above). Though somewhat of an eye sore, it was perfect for adjusting the height of the lamp. As mentioned before, it was the middle of May in North Carolina, so our weather hadn’t quite figured out what season it was yet. Purina has a great chart illustrating how to know when your lamp is too close, too far or just right.
Supposedly, a red light bulb will help prevent your chickies from pecking at each other while in such tight quarters. I used a red bulb and still had an issue with my Silkie runt getting pecked on. (See what I did there?) Her poor little preening gland was the object of affection, as her baby fine white fluff would part just so, exposing the gland for all to see. Preening glands are important for chickens as they secrete an oil that helps to protect their feathers from becoming water logged causing the chicken to freeze or get sick. They can live without the gland, but the owner would then have to take extra precautions to keep the chicken clean and dry. Thankfully our glandular issue was nothing a few days of confinement and Bag Balm couldn’t fix.
As far as the litter goes, we chose to go with pine shavings, which is a pretty standard choice. It was great cushioning for our little peeps and provided great insulation on those chilly nights. Now that our chickens are older and living their best life outdoors, I’m considering changing their coop’s litter material to something slightly cooler and less likely to stay wet. If you keep chickens and have found a litter that you love, please comment and let me know the deets!
We’ve been feeding our girls (and guy) Nutrena’s Naturewise Chick Starter Grower. It’s chock full of protein and probiotics which help them grow strong on the outside and the inside. My plan is to venture into more homegrown options for them to help save a little bit of money and to produce even healthier eggs. Stay tuned for our attempts at meal worm farming! Also, another important thing to provide for your chickens is some type of grit. We’ve been giving ours a store bought blend of shells and such, but they seem to prefer sand instead. As you may (or not) know, chickens don’t have teeth. Their food goes straight from beak to gizzard. The gizzard is a muscular organ, found in the chickens chest, that along with digestive enzymes it squeezes and compresses the food to prepare it for digestion. Providing grit allows the food to then be “chewed” in the gizzard, think of it as the chicken’s garbage disposal! We have a small bowl with the grit next to their food but as I mentioned before, they tend to enjoy the sand from the make shift wadding pool that we made them to help keep cool this summer.
We started introducing our chickies to the outdoors pretty early, as our days were already reaching 85+ degrees and hotter in the sunshine. We moved our flock outdoors when they were about 4 weeks old, which was the middle of June. We waited until it was regularly about 75 degrees at night time. After the hurdle of getting them to go inside their coop at night time, which simply required me to “walk” them up the ramp a couple of nights in a row, they have been pretty low maintenance ever since! Our coop is pretty well secured, including netting over the top of the run, so when I let them out in the mornings, unless I just feel like visiting with them in 150 degree weather, I don’t usually worry about them until it’s time to tuck them in and close the door at night.
So far, so good on this journey into chickenhood. There have been the occasional obstacles, like the frequent pasty butt in the beginning, the fact that one of our she’s might actually be another he, and my unorthodox means of fly control that have taken me to a whole new level of crazy… but these are all posts for another day!