This June will mark the one year anniversary of our life with chickens.
It has been such a rewarding experience that in two weeks we will be receiving our second batch of day old chicks including a young roo.
If I have learned anything about chickens in this past year it is this: chickens are not complicated. They are the easy-to-grow perennials of farm animals. Give them what they need, set them out, and they will flourish for months and years to come.
In my initial research a few years ago however, I would repeatedly come across a series of terms, tips, and suggestions that came from sources assuming I knew what they were. I didn’t.
I also had questions about some of the very basics about raising chickens. Basics like, what should they eat? and how do I get them into the coop?
All of this info was so elementary, but to someone who had never seen a chicken up close and personal, it was info about which I had no idea. And I was too embarrassed, too afraid to speak up and ask.
So, if you are in the same boat and considering chickens for the very first time, here are just a few of those very basic things I would have found helpful to know:
I saw this term frequently in books, magazines, catalogs, blogs and websites. This one is simple: A pullet is a young female chicken. Some sources say she is less than a year old, some say a young female who has yet to go through her first molting phase. The important thing to remember though is young and female.
This was a term I saw a lot when looking at hatcheries online. A straight run is a mix of male and female hatched birds. Unless you are an expert at sexing chickens, there is no way to tell which is which until the birds begin to feather out and the roosters start to crow. If you have no preference as to hens or roosters a straight run should suit just fine. If you just want to start with female birds, order or ask for “pullets”.
I thought a chicken was a chicken. I quickly learned that there are laying breeds, meat breeds, and dual-purpose breeds that can be used for meat after they have slowed down in laying.
The meat birds however are typically a hybrid bred specifically for the purpose of eating. We are just trying our first batch this spring so I cannot speak directly from experience but from what I understand: the hybrid meat bird is a different breed altogether. They don’t roost, they don’t really scratch and peck; they eat. And when they are done eating, they’ll eat some more. They fatten up quickly and are processed at eight weeks.
If you choose to raise a dual purpose breed, don’t think that you can butcher a hen in the morning and enjoy a tender roast bird for dinner. While she may be nice and fat, the older the bird, the tougher the meat. We have yet to cull our hens but from what I have learned in visiting with other homesteaders, these are the birds you want to prepare in a pressure cooker and serve in a pie or as a stew.
Young chicks, like human infants, cannot process “adult” bird food. I use Scratch and Peck products that I purchase through Azure Standard. For about the first eight weeks we use a starter feed, then graduate them to a grower feed formulated for birds at that age. When they get to be about twenty weeks old(ish) and approach laying, they can be switched to a layer feed. I will also only offer snacks such as scratch and meal worms in moderation.
The “when” was pretty obvious. At four weeks they had feathered out and outgrown their brooder; but I wasn’t sure how to do it. After reading, deliberating, agonizing, and visiting with my chicken keeping friends it was simple. We just took them out to the coop one evening and popped them in. They were fine. They didn’t seem to want to roost right away, but they stayed in the coop and learned that it was home.
Until I was comfortable allowing the girls to completely free-range, we housed them in a tractor outside or in the protection of a fenced in chicken yard. At “bedtime” I would frantically try to round them up or retrieve them and physically put them in the coop. One night, while they were ranging in their yard, I didn’t have the time to get them right at “bedtime”. When I went out, I discovered they had marched in at sundown completely on their own. They know on their own when the day is over and it is time to head for home.
Do you have chickens? What advice would you give to a newbie?