July 12, 2017
In April, we added 8 baby chicks to our homestead. I've literally waited YEARS for them. We couldn't have them at our old house, but they have been front and center in my vision of our self-sustainable lifestyle and I have spent these years learning all I could about them.
Not only will they feed us with plenty of eggs, which we LOVE and eat almost everyday, but they will supply us with compost for the garden and take care of most of my kitchen and garden scraps. By eating the nutritious food from our garden, they will supply us with super rich compost, which will make our garden even healthier, which will make their compost even healthier, which will make the next year's garden even healthier. It's a cycle that will keep improving with each year. In my eyes, they are an essential part of our homestead.
I'm going to share with you how we have taken care of them for the first three months, from our newbie perspective, in hopes that I can help you to avoid problems and learn a few tricks to help you with your own flock.
Originally, I had planned on getting my chicks from Murray McMurray Hatchery because I have heard so many good things about them from people I trust. Unfortunately, they have a minimum order of 15 chicks, and I wanted to start small. My goal through this new homesteading journey is to keep things manageable and to pace myself so I don't get overwhelmed, throw my hands up in the air, and scrap the whole homesteading idea. One thing at a time, keep it small and manageable, and once I've got it down, go on to the next thing.
I really only wanted 5 or 6 hens, but I've heard over and over again that you should expect to lose a few chicks to unforeseen circumstances. I bought 8 from our local Tractor Supply (and haven't lost one yet...knock on wood!). In my daydreams, I imagined all kinds of exotic breeds. I really wanted some Silkies and Polish birds. Unfortunately, the Tractor Supply only carried production Reds and Dixie Chicks. The reds were guaranteed females, and the Dixie Chicks were straight run, which means they could end up being either male or female.
Since I don't have to worry about any neighbors complaining about my loud rooster, I decided to get a couple of the Dixie Chicks, hoping to get a rooster, which I did. I want the rooster so I can fertilize my own eggs down the road, and so that my girls have someone to protect them from potential predators. Considering how I thought he might be the tough guy, it is pretty funny watching my girls push him around like they do. He bucks up when they ruffle his feathers, but they always seem to eat first.
Our Easy Brooder
I created my brooder out of nothing more than a huge cardboard box, some pine shavings, a heat light, and a few tupperware containers for food and water. It was a very inexpensive set up, and we kept it in the garage for easy access.
I had read charts about how hot to keep the brooder but the best advice I got came from an old-timer I had a conversation with at the Tractor Supply. He said to just watch the chicks' behavior. If they huddle together under the light, that means they are cold and you need to lower the light and keep it warmer. If they stay at the perimeter of the brooder, then they are too hot and I should raise the light up to lower the temp. They should be all over the brooder, some here, some there, and that's how you know it is the right temperature. That method worked like a charm, especially since one of the first things my chicks did was knock down the thermometer and poop all over it.
Monitoring Their Health
I was a nervous chicken mama at first, checking on them every hour or so to make sure they looked healthy and had enough to eat and drink. I had read about how pasting is a common way for them to get sick and die, so I checked their little butts everyday to make sure they weren't getting clogged up. Pasting is when poop cakes up on their little butts and they can't go to the bathroom. They will get sick and die really fast, so it is important to be aware of it.
The chicks came to me unvaccinated, and so I had to decide whether or not to vaccinate them against Marek's disease. It is a deadly disease and once it is in your coop, it stays there and will infect all other chickens who live there. It's no joke and I took time to weigh my options. There is a lady who works at the Tractor Supply who I refer to as my own personal Chicken Guru. She has raised chickens probably her entire life and is full of common sense wisdom that comes from her own life experience. She is the one who advised me against vaccinating. She told me that some birds are resistant and some aren't. The ones who aren't could still get Marek's even if they are vaccinated. Her preferred approach is to let the strong survive. I decided to take her route.
Training Our Dogs with the Chickens
I have three pit bulls, and one of my biggest concerns is my dogs killing my chickens. I decided to introduce my dogs to the chicks from early on to get them used to them and bring the chickens into our pack. My hope was that, by introducing the dogs to the chicks when they are cute little babies, that my dogs would become their protectors. I bring my dogs around the chickens every single day. I keep it very controlled, making the dogs sit and stay, never letting them run loose around them. I'm trying to teach them "chicken manners." I can see them fighting their prey instinct but I'm still not 100% sure if they would eat them or not. There have been two occasions when the dogs have busted into their run and so far there hasn't been one casualty. I take them in by leash occasionally, and the dogs just stand there and watch them. Thor will actually lie down and let the chicks walk around him. I don't fully trust them around the chickens yet, but their training gets better by the day. Let's just say I have a very cautious hope.
The Transition Outdoors
When the chicks had most of their feathers and started jumping up and perching on the side of the cardboard box, I realized they probably wanted more space to roam. I started by taking them outside for an hour or so at a time to let them acclimate to the temperature change, kind of like hardening off plants. I didn't want to stress their little bodies with too much too soon. We didn't have our coop and run set up yet, but I do have a fenced garden with a small greenhouse inside of the fenced area. I started taking the chicks out to the garden everyday. I would pile them up in a cardboard box and walk them out there, morning and night, for a few weeks until our coop was built. Nothing but onions were planted yet, so I figured they might do a little good in the garden while they were in there. They pooped everywhere and ate weeds. They also alerted me to slugs crawling on my onions a few times. They were already doing their job.
I loved watching their behavior in the garden. I learned quickly that chickens stick together. One never ventures far from the others. They also loved staying inside the greenhouse, only venturing out into the garden here and there when they wanted to munch on some weeds and scratch the dirt. They are the same way now that they are a bit older and have their coop. They spend most of their time in the coop and only go out to the run when they are hungry.
Building Our Coop and Run
When we moved here, there was an existing outbuilding next to the garden. It was probably used as a shed because there were shelves but it only had three walls. We decided to turn this building into our chicken coop by removing one of the shelves and adding a fourth wall, door, and window. I'd like to say I was able to do this myself, but I recruited the hubby for this job. He framed the front of the structure, covered it with plywood, and then cut the door and window right into the plywood. We fenced the run together, which was pretty comical. I painted the coop to match our house, since I like things to be pretty. Finishing the coop and run together gave us an amazing feeling of pride. That's one of the things I love most about homesteading. I love completing a project with my hands and then stepping back to look at the finished work of art. It is very fulfilling. And being able to do it together was a great bonding experience for us.
The Deep Litter Method
When it comes to cleaning their coop, I've decided to use the deep litter method. Many chicken owners will clean out the coop on a weekly basis. That's a lot of work. I prefer something easier. With the deep litter method, all you have to do is add a layer of browns, like pine shavings, to the floor when it starts to smell bad, and then at the end of the year you'll have a rich compost to use in your garden. Since I've yet to have success with a barrel composter, this kills two birds with one stone, so to speak. Ok, maybe not the best analogy. I've only had to add a layer of shavings once so far, and my coop smells good.
Putting the Chickens to Work in the Garden
There is a gate between the garden and the chicken run which came in handy for transitioning them over to the coop. They didn't want to leave the garden at first. They were pretty fond of running through my strawberry patch and eating the leaves, which is the main reason we had to put a rush on the coop. That gate is going to come in handy after harvest too, when I'll use the chickens to clean up the garden. They can go eat all the half dead plants, scratch and poop in the soil, and eat a bunch of bugs. The chickens will be my fall clean up crew, helping me get the garden beds ready to sleep for the winter.
What I Feed my Chickens
For feed, I've been using Purina non-medicated chick starter. I wanted to get the organic version, but the farm stores always seem to be out of it. I'm hoping they'll be able to keep the organic feed in stock better as they get older, since one of the main reasons I'm going through all of this work is to grow organic food in my organic garden. (My wallet isn't complaining though. The organic feed costs 3 times as much as the regular stuff!) I recently started adding grit to their food and run to help them digest their food. I probably should have started adding it sooner, but there were plenty of small rocks on the ground where they were so I didn't until now.
I learned quickly to get their food and water dishes up off the floor. If you don't, you're just asking for a daily mess that needs to be cleaned up because they love to scratch everything they can into their dishes. We hung the plastic feeder and placed the water on top of a step stool we had lying around.
I also throw weeds, garden and kitchen scraps into their run almost everyday. The strawberry patch is right next to their run, so every time I eat a strawberry in the garden they get the top. It is so funny to watch one pick it up and run with all of the other chicks chasing them! There is also a lot of plantain growing around their run, so every time I go visit them I'll feed them plantain leaves by hand and they LOVE it! I also give them mealy worms as a snack once in a while and those are a big hit. They run up to the fence whenever they see me coming because they know they are getting a snack! If I go inside the run to play with them and squat down while I feed them by hand, I'm sure to get chickens jumping up on my back and roosting on my shoulders. I've had 4 chickens at a time sitting on me--pretty funny!
Plans for the Future
Our chickens are a little bit older than three months now. They have proven to be a pretty low-maintenance addition to our homestead, but we still have some work left to do. They will be needing nesting boxes in the next couple of months. From what I've learned they don't usually start laying eggs until they are about 6-8 months old, so nesting boxes aren't necessary right away. They will be hitting egg-laying age just in time for winter, so we'll probably be adding a heat source and a light to the coop when we winterize it so that we get eggs this winter. Normally chickens don't lay eggs in the winter. Much like plants, the amount of light they receive triggers them to lay or not lay. By adding the light, you are essentially tricking their bodies into laying more eggs.
Their run was originally lush with grass, but they are slowly destroying it. I know chlorophyll is important in their diets, so I would like to build a chicken tractor so I can take them around the property to eat grass and bugs in new spots, while being protected from the hawks overhead.
And one final things I'd like to do is install an automatic door on their coop that opens and closes with the sun. I've become more of a morning person than I have ever been before while living here, but there are still days when I sleep late and I don't want my chickens to suffer for my beauty sleep. I'm still researching this so if anyone has any advice, it is welcome.