Homesteading has always been a fad and it seems the pandemic years brought out the wannabe homesteader in a lot of folks. Homesteading can be rewarding. Anyone who has ever grown their own tomatoes will tell you there is no better tasting tomato than one you grew yourself.
Apparently the next easiest step of homesteading after vegetable growing is raising chickens.
The idea of collecting eggs from the chickens you raise is very appealing. And yes, we know that feeling at the rescue. The truth is the eggs you collect from chickens you raise will be the most expensive free eggs ever. Properly raising chickens is not cheap and not as easy as most folks assume. We have encountered many first-time chicken owners this year and that came along with a lot of first-time owner problems.
Nutrition We often take in in chickens who have severe nutritional deficiencies. Chickens need a balanced diet which would include quality chicken feed suitable for the stage of life for your chickens. Additional nutrients such as calcium (we use crushed oyster shell available at most feed stores) and Vitamins, especially B Vitamins, are needed for egg production and overall health. Chicken scratch is a treat and should only be a very small part of a chicken’s diet. Extra protein is a bonus, especially during stress. We give mealworms as protein treats. Fresh fruits and vegetables are a great treat, too. Fresh, CLEAN water EVERYDAY is a must.
Biosecurity Keeping your chicken free of parasites, worms, and disease is just as important as proper nutrition. ALL chickens are susceptible to parasites, worms, and disease because even the cleanest coop or yard can harbor things you cannot see. It is recommended that you keep your coop clean, do not overpopulate your flock, and practice proper parasite control. This means you need to keep the poop scooped and regularly examine your flock, their roost, and nesting boxes for signs of parasites. A good rule of thumb, if you suspect one chicken has parasites, mites, or any cooties is to treat them all. Do not rely on holistic treatments for parasites. We watched many chickens die because the only treatments they ever got were “all natural.”
Medical Chickens get sick. Chickens get injured. It is your responsibility to have a vet or way to care for your flock. We keep an emergency first aid kit for chickens on hand because it is difficult to find vets who see any breed of fowl. A responsible chicken owner will never let a chicken suffer. Many chicken owners will not seek medical help because they do not want to pay a vet bill for a chicken they purchased for a few dollars. The moment you decided to raise chickens you became responsible for their care, no matter the cost. Make sure you have a local vet that will see chickens or pair up with your local Clemson Extension office/4H club to meet others with chicken care knowledge. If you have a chicken that gets sick or shows symptoms you cannot identify you should separate and quarantine the bird immediately. Seek help immediately. The wait and see method is often fatal.
Housing Coops should be large enough to house your population. There is a lot of debate about HOW much room each chicken needs, but most experienced chicken experts recommend 6 square feet per bird, enough nesting boxes to accommodate your flock, a secure place to roost, as well as feed and clean water areas. Do not house roosters and hens together unless you plan on collecting eggs daily. You only need one rooster for every five hens. Roosters should not be housed together. They are very territorial and will fight.
Free-Range Pros and Cons There are benefits to free ranging your chickens. Chickens will have a wider area to roam, they keep bug population down, chicken poop is an excellent fertilizer, and free-range chickens don’t get bored.
Cons to free-ranging are your chickens are more susceptible to injury and death. Eggs are laid in various places which makes egg collecting difficult. Chicken poop is everywhere. And of course, predators. Free range chickens are often a free meal for wildlife and other pets.
Raising Chicks Most people start out with chicks purchased from feed stores. Chicks need A LOT of attention. Proper temperature, proper lighting, diet, water, and housing are important to have in place before you bring chicks home. Then they will graduate to larger coops, etc and you must be prepared for their growth. If you plan to hatch and raise your own chicks, you need to do a lot of research about proper hatching conditions and egg care. And know what vaccines are needed for hatchlings if you plan to sell your birds. One very important thing about hatching your own chicks is this requires a rooster to fertilize the eggs. Some of you may be rolling your eyes at us right about now, but many people do not understand that a hen will lay eggs regardless of whether or not a rooster is present. Eggs must be fertilized by a rooster to be hatched.
Before You Buy If you are considering getting chickens ask yourself if you have the time each day/week to provide proper care. Can you afford to provide proper nutrition, housing, and medical care? Can you commit to the lifespan of a chicken? Chickens live 5+ years. Hens only lay eggs for about 3 years.
You also need to check on local laws and ordinances. Most cities and counties allow hens but prohibit roosters. Many Homeowner’s Associations prohibit livestock. If you are part of an HOA you need to check with them and see if they consider poultry livestock.
Most important, have a plan if you can no longer keep your chickens. Chicken rescues are very rare resources. Domestic pet and animal shelters do not have the accommodations to take in and care for chickens. And rescues of any kind rarely have room for roosters.