Whether you decide to keep chickens for eggs, meat, show or just companionship, learning to care for them is easy and rewarding, providing that you know some basics.
Local laws, such as zoning and other ordinances, may end your chicken enterprise before it takes flight. The best way to avoid conflicts is to check with the county zoning board, your Extension agent or the state agricultural department. And after all the rules check out, consult your neighbors with your plan. Are they OK with the accompanying baggage associated with keeping chickens—noise, or an enticement for the dog to chase? Perhaps ruffled neighborhood feathers can be smoothed with the promise of fresh eggs and meat, or the reward of manure high in nitrogen for their garden.
Before acquiring birds, figure out what you want to accomplish. Chicken fever is hard to avoid when so many interesting and colorful breeds exist. In reality, each breed of chicken can differ in its specific requirements for food, water and shelter. A mixed flock may not necessarily do well together. The type of husbandry you have in mind will determine what breed of chicken you decide upon. Answering these questions beforehand will help you determine how chickens will become part of your plan.
• Will the birds be used as a source of eggs and meat for the homestead?
• Do you want to develop a small-scale commercial enterprise?
• Is it easier to market fresh eggs or meat near your farm?
• Are there poultry processing facilities near you? Or do you plan to butcher chickens yourself?
• Will they be confined to a poultry house? Or do you wish to raise them on pasture?
• Are you planning to raise purebred, show-quality poultry?
Breaking It Down
Generally speaking, most chicken-raising operations are for egg production, chick production to sell locally or to hatcheries, meat production, or a hobby (for show or companionship). As with other animals and plants, specific terms are used to describe chickens. Breed, class, variety and strain identify each of the different chickens.
Breed: Breeds of chickens are grouped together according to their size, shape, plumage, number of toes, color of their skin, etc. When mated together, individuals within a breed will produce chicks that share the same characteristics as their parents. Breed recognition can be different depending on which poultry organization you consult. For example, the Marans is a French breed that is not recognized by the APA (American Poultry Association), but it is recognized as a distinct breed by the Poultry Club of Great Britain (PCGB). On the website feathersite.com there are hundreds of breeds listed that occur worldwide. For the record, the APA only recognizes 53 large fowl breeds and 61 breeds of bantams.
Class: Breeds are subdivided into classes. In large breeds, classes indicate their origin: American, Asiatic, English, Mediterranean, Continental and Other (which includes Oriental). Bantam breeds are classified according to characteristics, like comb shape or presence of feathering on the legs.
Variety: Varieties describe breeds and are usually based on plumage color, but also on comb style or feathering. For example, the Leghorn, in the Mediterranean class, has 12 varieties of large breeds.
Strain: A strain is a term that refers to a line of birds that have been bred for specific characteristics. In the show arena, strains are developed from a single breed for characteristics that are thought of as typical, or “typy,” and are considered superior by the owner and fanciers of this same breed. There can be several different strains within the same breed.
Commercial strains are often hybrids. Sometimes the parents are of different breeds. These strains are developed for superior production of eggs or meat. A Cornish-Rock cross is a meat hybrid bred to grow heavy breast and thigh meat in a short amount of time. The Black Sex-Link is a laying hen that is crossed with a Barred Plymouth Rock and a Rhode Island Red.
Poultry literature will often refer to chickens as being either foundation or composite breeds. A composite poultry breed is somewhat akin to a crossbred dog such as the Labradoodle, created using a purebred Labrador Retriever (a dog known for its easygoing personality) and the Standard Poodle (a dog known for its brains). A foundation breed is a very old breed of chicken with distinct characteristics, such as the Dorking with its five toes. This breed, along with Houdans and Asiatic breeds, was used to develop the composite breed in northern France called the Faverolle.
Behavioral traits among chickens vary widely. The American class contains breeds such as the Rhode Island Red, the Plymouth Rock and the Jersey Giant that are generally docile, cold tolerant and can produce eggs and meat on a small scale. Most of the breeds in the Mediterranean class, like the Leghorn and Minorca, are flighty, smaller bodied and less cold tolerant, but they are more efficient in converting feed to egg production. The Dorking and Java are both excellent meat breeds that are capable of foraging for themselves and require less grain, but they will mature more slowly than the Cornish-Rock hybrids that are almost entirely dependent on being fed high-quality mixed rations. Dual-purpose breeds refer to those birds that produce enough good-quality meat and sufficient numbers of eggs that they could fit into small-scale operations. It is important to evaluate the traits of each breed to determine which will be most suitable for your enterprise. Several hatcheries offer assortments of chicks, so you can experiment in your first year or two. You might also visit neighboring flocks to discuss the pros and cons of the breeds with their owners.
STARTING YOUR FLOCK:
Chicks can be hatched under a hen by saving eggs from your fertile flock (meaning there are roosters running freely with the hens). Fertile eggs can also be purchased and placed under a broody hen or in an incubator. Most commonly, chicks are purchased as day-olds that are mailed and delivered within 24 to 48 hours, but hatcheries usually require a minimum order to keep the chicks warm during shipping. Females that are close to beginning egg production, called started pullets, are probably most economical if you are interested in production as early as possible. In rural areas, local newspapers and agricultural magazines often advertise laying hens at a free or reduced cost. The American Standard of Perfection, published by the APA‚ should be consulted for specific characteristics for each breed recognized by the organization. Before introducing new stock to an existing flock, the birds should be quarantined and given a clean bill of health from a veterinarian or a knowledgeable poultry producer.
One of the most exciting processes to observe is that of a hen transforming her eggs to fluffy chicks just by sitting on them for 21 days. Tracking the development of the embryo by “candling” the egg as she keeps vigil on the nest provides a magical quality to raising your own flock.
Before you can hatch the eggs, however, you need a hen that still has the maternal urge to become broody. A broody hen is one that has laid a nest or clutch of eggs and has begun sitting on them (setting) with the intention of hatching. Once the hen becomes broody, she will cease to lay eggs and will not resume laying until her chicks have reached independence (the age of independence varies according to breed). A broody hen will readily accept eggs that are given to her even if they have been laid by other hens.
The maternal instincts that take over in hens that become broody are impossible to predict reliably. Some breeds still carry excellent broodiness genes, such as the Silkie, and heavy, docile breeds like the Cochin, Plymouth Rock, Orpington and Rhode Island Red. Many commercial breeds of layers have been carefully selected over several years to lay continuously without turning broody, and some of the lighter, more flighty breeds like Leghorns and Minorcas are not known for their broodiness. A broody hen needs to incubate her clutch of eggs for 21 days before they hatch.
USING AN INCUBATOR:
Incubators have some advantages over hatching chicks naturally. First, you can time the hatch; you don’t have to wait until a hen becomes broody. Second, you can hatch several more eggs at once with much less labor than it would take to hatch the eggs under broody hens that need individual attention, food and water. Whether the broody hen will set on the eggs until they hatch is also a concern. Last, incubators are a great way to bring the joy of raising chicks into the home. Modern incubators incorporate climate-controlled heat and humidity to simulate naturally occurring conditions. Eggs are mechanically turned, and hatches are normally at least 80-percent successful. Incubators for home use can be purchased for small- or large-scale hatches with built-in turning devices and thermostatic controls. I prefer incubators with automatic turners, which cut down the time needed to open the incubator, reducing the risk of unstable temperatures or humidity inside.
For anyone considering keeping chickens primarily as a laying flock, partially grown birds may be the best option. Although they don’t tend to be as tame as chicks that have grown up in your flock, they are more economical. Hens don’t typically begin laying eggs until at least 20 weeks of age, and some of the heritage or dual-purpose breeds may take six or seven months before laying. During this time the average chicken bred for commercial production of eggs will eat 15 pounds of feed, while the slower-maturing, heavier-bodied birds may eat as much as twice that amount. Mortality is not as high in started birds as it is in chicks you’ve hatched or purchased. Be sure to buy started birds from reputable breeders who know the importance of feeding young laying hens correctly and who maintain well-kept, disease-free flocks.
As enticing as they may seem, try to avoid offers for free chickens unless you know the person giving them up. Chickens are rarely just a year old if they are being given away. More important is the risk of introducing some sort of disease into your chicken yard. Otherwise healthy-looking chickens can harbor anything from lice to scaly leg mites.