Five points if you got the Spaceballs reference!
Chickens. Should you or shouldn’t you?
Several friends have approached me lately, thinking of getting chickens, but nervous about the unknown. I thought I’d share our limited experience and ideas to address some of the issues holding people back. We’ve been chicken folk for less than a year, but I hope through our fresh eyes, to either help them decide to take the plunge, wait or walk away.
For years Jamie and I have talked about raising chickens, but time restraints and insecurity kept us from taking the plunge. Neither one of us had ever raised chickens and I had been raised by a father whose career largely centered around rodent and avian borne diseases, so the thought of salmonella, or worse, histoplasmosis terrified me. We dreamed of daily fresh eggs, but had nightmares of illness and failure.
Last spring, when my beautiful nephew was born, my youngest son, Andrew, and I took a trip to Colorado to meet the little guy. I stayed with my sister, her husband, her ethereally gorgeous daughter and the new guy, and was once again reminded of my brother-in-law’s incredible skills as a gardener and a chicken whisperer.
They live on a smaller lot than we do, but you can’t throw a stick without hitting a chicken (I did not try this, btw. Purely speculation). Jamie and I had planned to have me bring some of their chicks back home, but he was going to be headed out to a new platform and so our chicken coop build plans were put on hold. We had nowhere to keep them, which was an even better excuse than “we are scared senseless,” so we shelved the idea and I came home chickless.
Because he followed his uncle around asking countless questions, Andrew came home a bit of an expert on all things poultry. I think this impressed Jamie enough to motivate him and I came outside to find him building the coop one Saturday morning. We burned up the internet looking for tips and tricks for everything from coop ideas to feed recommendations (thank you, backyardchickens.com) and felt a little less insecure as we gained knowledge.
Finally, the day came. We were fortunate enough to have one of Jamie’s friends give us 8 hens, plus a rooster, to start out and we were excited, but still nervous. I honestly still thought it was a crazy idea; money, time, fear of illness to us, fear of illness in the birds, blah, blah, blah (apparently, I am a “fretter” in my old age), but we dove into our new life as chicken farmers anyway.
Surprisingly, it was so much easier than I expected it to be (of course, I was comparing the acquisition of 9 birds to my brother-in-law’s poultry army). We soon found ourselves sitting out in the yard in the evenings, having dragged the porch swing out to the chicken area, sipping wine and watching the birds for hours…until the mosquitoes drove us into the house. We often laughed at ourselves for finding chickens so mesmerizing, but they really are.
Watching a chicken chase a bug is hilarious, and I’ve heard people say that seeing them drop down for a dust bath or to sun themselves is terrifying, but I have 2 Corgis, which means I’m used to this. My dogs will fall or dive to the ground to roll in something exceptionally foul or just because they are happy, giving the appearance of being in the throws of a grand mal seizure. My little Bess will fall over onto her back directly in your path (I’m fairly certain my eventual death will be from tripping over a Corgi), an episode only cured by belly rubs. Oh, look. She’s having one now.
Anyway, the males in this house can eat eggs like they are going out of style, so not having to buy them anymore has been wonderful. We have worked our way up to 3-6 eggs a day and that is perfect for us. Sometimes we have enough to give to neighbors and sometimes we don’t, but we never run out.
As for my fears about expense, they have proven to be unfounded. For less than $30, we can feed the chickens for almost 3 months, which is less than what the 12-18 eggs a week I was buying at the grocery store were costing. Using the outer wall of our existing shed for part of the coop helped keep costs way down as well, so the wallet wasn’t too wounded. Additionally, Jamie built the ladders and roost out of branches from a tree I’d trimmed, which the birds seem to like and they didn’t cost a penny.
His brilliant nesting box design has made wearing our “poop shoes” necessary only on coop cleaning day and even the cleaning isn’t bad, especially with 2 strapping young sons to do it for us. I bought the dish pans we use for $1 each at the Dollar Tree and they fit perfectly into the boxes. Jamie is 6’1″ and just told me to make sure you all know that bigger is indeed better when it comes to a chicken coop. No stooping or head-hitting for this guy.
We had heard from several people that their hens stopped laying during the winter months, so we put a light on a timer in the coop. It goes on just before dusk and goes off at about 8:30 pm. Other than the first week and one day when it was in the 30’s, we’ve never gone without an egg, so the light seems to be doing the trick.
Initially, we put a watering dish out there, but the mess was crazy. I had purchased
some chicken nipples (my boys find the name hysterical) on Amazon for about $1, so Jamie drilled some PVC pipe and placed them at the bottom. The nipples (tee-hee) are on the horizontal pipe and the vertical pipe has a removable cap to fill the L-shaped contraption. Again, this is so much cleaner and easier than a bowl and the birds started using them right away, abandoning the bowl almost immediately.
I had also heard many horror stories about evil roosters, and had in fact been rather terrified of one of my brother-in-law’s, but luckily, Cogburn has proven to be rather mellow. He crows a lot and at the oddest times; morning, noon, night, seemingly just because he can, but since the neighbors haven’t complained yet and he hasn’t ended up in someone’s stock pot, we don’t mind.
One thing I really love about chickens is that they are ravenous insect eaters. Since I live in an entomologist’s paradise, it’s fabulous to be able to release the flock and have them sweep the yard and garden, devouring all they can. Yes, they scratch and can tear up the grass, but the dogs and I move them around before they can switch from ants in the yard to plants in the garden or dig to China. This little army of bad a$$es even eats fire ants, so that right there makes it all worthwhile.
Because we have so many live oaks on the property, we are constantly battling leaves, as they basically drop them all year (oak leaves are to Jamie, as gophers were to Bill Murray’s character in Caddy Shack). Knowing their skills for scratching and hunting down insects, J started dumping leaves into the chicken area. They seem to love it, digging for insects and tossing leaves all day long.
Lastly, we love leftovers around here, but on the third or fourth night in a row, even my best chili or gumbo isn’t terribly attractive. Nowadays, I am free to toss food without guilt because chickens will eat anything. In fact, some of our best laying days have been when I had a healthy amount of food to clean out of the fridge. I love to watch them get excited when I come out carrying Tupperware, but I’m not as devoted as Jamie, who will actually make them hot oatmeal on cold mornings. Yeah, it’s kinda cute.
I almost wish we hadn’t waited, but I think the stress of having chicks would have been a bit much for we novices. I’ve actually been begging him to get more, but we need to save to fence the rest of the yard. We live on a large lot, but it’s on a corner and people sometimes shortcut down our road, driving way too fast.
I don’t profess to being an expert and I’m sure it won’t all be smooth sailing, but if you are thinking about raising chickens, go for it. I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as we do and if you think I’m crazy for saying we enjoy “chicken gazing,” well, I’m crazy for many reasons. I have children, after all.