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Raising Chickens for Eggs or Meat: Basic Guide
Raising and Keeping Chickens
If you want to start raising chickens for eggs or meat, there are some basic things you’ll need to consider, and also some things you’ll need to learn.
Before we get started, take a moment to think about a couple of things:
1) Your time: Do you have the time to care for chickens? I would suggest that you give yourself at least two hours per day to care for your birds: One hour in the morning, and one in the evening. Some days you won’t need this much time; other days, you’ll need more.
2) Purpose: Do you want chickens for eggs, meat, or both?
3) Making money: Are you hoping to turn a profit raising chickens by selling eggs, meat, or both?
4) The law: Do you live somewhere that only allows hens (female chickens) to be kept? If there are no laws or ordinances preventing you from keeping roosters (male chickens), do you want to keep one or more?
5) Predation: What types of other animals live in your area? Are there foxes, coyotes, raccoons, or a lot of stray dogs and cats?
Raising chickens is a very rewarding use of your time. I would be pretty upset if I were to ever get myself into a situation where I couldn’t keep chickens anymore. Aside from almost always having the option of chicken for dinner, I haven’t had to buy eggs in two years.
I hope that this article will supply you with what you need to know to make the right choices about keeping chickens; and for those of you who haven’t yet considered keeping a few chickens for personal use, I hope I can inspire you to give it a try.
Where to Buy Chickens
Choosing the Right Breed of Chicken
The breed or breeds of chicken that you choose to keep should be determined by what you want chickens for in the first place.
CHICKENS FOR EGGS:
If you’re interested solely in eggs, then you want to select egg-laying chicken breeds. In brief, some of the best egg-layers are Leghorns, Rhode Island Reds, and Americaunas. And when I say “best,” I am considering how frequently the chickens lay, as well as how quickly they reach maturity and begin laying.
CHICKENS FOR MEAT:
If you want chickens solely for meat, you will want to select breeds that are known to grow large and meaty, and do it relatively quickly. Some of these breeds include the Cornish, the Orpington (including the “buff”), the Plymouth Rock, and the Delaware. The Cornish Cross, a hybrid version of the Cornish, is by far the fastest growing, largest chicken breed, but it is not necessarily a bird for beginners. Cornish Cross flocks see a higher percentage of losses before slaughter time, and the enormous growth rate of the birds actually makes it difficult for them to walk. I don’t personally keep Cornish Crosses, partly because they present challenges that I don’t have time to deal with, and partly because I feel bad for them.
What if you want to keep chickens for eggs and meat? There’s a bird for that, too, and it’s called dual-purpose. Basically, a dual-purpose chicken is pretty good at laying eggs and producing meat, but not spectacular at doing either. Despite their lack of perfection in one specific area, they are probably the best chickens for people who want backyard flocks for eggs and meat.
Some dual-purpose chicken breeds include the Barred Rock, the Rhode Island Red, the Auracana, and the Brahma. I also believe that Americaunas make good dual-purpose birds due to their large eggs and large size, though for some reason the breed hasn’t made it onto any list of dual-purpose chickens that I’ve seen.
THE MIXED FLOCK:
When it comes to livestock animals and farming in general (even backyard farming), I’m always going to recommend that you diversify. I think the best flock of chickens is a mixed one that includes excellent egg-layers, big meaty birds, and dual-purpose birds that are more likely to “go broody” and hatch eggs. If you live in an area where roosters are not allowed, then unfortunately you will not have the option of hatching eggs and replenishing your flock naturally; you also won’t have to worry about keeping the types of chickens that will sit eggs.
When will I get to harvest eggs or meat?
Depending on the breed of chicken, egg production can start anywhere between 3 months of age and 6 months of age. Heritage breeds and dual-purpose breeds generally take longer to mature in terms of laying than other breeds. Leghorns, for instance, begin to lay much sooner than Dominiques.
As far as meat harvesting goes, Cornish Cross chickens are ready in about 48 days (astounding, as far as I'm concerned!). Most other meat breeds will be up to weight in 3 months. Some birds won't be ready for 5 months.
It's best to do some research on the breeds of chicken you have chosen to keep for meat, and look specifically for information about what the mature weight of the bird should be. Young roosters (cockerels) that you don't intend to keep can be butchered basically anytime. The meat will still be tender and good for roasting and frying as long as the chicken is one-year-old or less. Old laying hens will make great stew and soup birds even after they're four-years-old.
Caring for Chicks
If you've purchased your baby chicks from a local hatchery, you just need to get them home and into the brooder.
When ordering chicks over the internet, you'll need to take care of a couple of things before they arrive. Typically, the hatchery will notify you of the expected shipping date. You should contact your post office and let them know that you are expecting an order of baby chicks. Some postal workers have experience with this sort of thing, and others don't. If the post office will bring the chicks to your house, you should make sure you are there when they arrive. If the post office can hold them for you and let you come pick them up, this is even better. Expect the chicks within 1 to 2 days after the shipping date, and don't leave them waiting in the post office or on your door step.
The baby chicks get enough nutrients and hydration from the yolk that they consumed while still in the egg. They are fine for up to 72 hours after hatching, but the sooner you get them started on feed and water, the better.
When you finally get your baby chicks, you’ll soon find that you have a lot of work ahead of you before you can harvest either eggs or meat.
Brooder for Chicks
You will need a brooder, which is basically just a small space for the baby chicks to live in that will be kept warm with the use of a lamp. The temperature should be around 90 degrees. Some websites will recommend that you employ very strategical temperature control techniques, including lowering the temperature by five degrees every week, down to 80 for some number of weeks, etc. I am here to tell you that the baby chicks themselves will let you know whether they are too hot or too cold. Cold chicks will huddle together; you should warm the brooder up for them. Chicks that are too hot will appear stressed and won’t want to go anywhere near one another; you should lower the temperature.
The brooder can be anything that will contain the chicks and hold heat to some degree. I’ve used wooden boxes, shoe boxes lined with paper towels, and plastic containers lined with paper towels. Save yourself the trouble and money, and don’t go purchasing something that is billed as a chicken brooder. If you use a shoe box, you’ll have to change the paper towels out every couple of days, but the good news is that shoe boxes are pretty much free.
The surface of the brooder (what the chicks stand on) should not be slippery, or be allowed to get slippery. A slippery surface can cause the chicks to develop splay-leggedness, which is a difficult condition to correct and to look at.
Feed for Chicks
Chicks should be offered free-choice medicated chick starter or chick grower. Using a medicated feed during the first 4 to 6 weeks of life is actually pretty important, as baby chickens are particularly prone to an infection called coccidiosis. Most chick starters will include a coccidiostat (a medicine that prevents coccidiosis), but you should make sure.
Adult chickens usually will not be susceptible to coccidiosis unless they are otherwise unhealthy, so you can discontinue the medicated feed once the young birds feather out (lose their fluff and grow some feathers), or after 6 weeks.
Little chicken waterers are a must for baby chicks. You really can’t just use a bowl, as the birds will either drown in it or die because they’ll get themselves wet and cold. Feed stores and chicken hatcheries sell dozens of different types of water dispensers designed specifically for chicks. The birds should be able to get their little beaks in there, and not much else. Once the babies feather out you can switch to a larger waterer – and you’ll probably want to, as it gets tiresome refilling those little waterers three times a day.
Weak Eggshell Problems
If you experience problems with weak egg shells, try offering some oyster shell to the birds. Oyster shell, which is high in calcium, can generally be purchased from feed supply stores, or ordered over the internet.
If you continue to have a problem with cracked egg shells in your chicken coop or egg boxes, try putting straw or old newspaper in the areas where the chickens have decided to lay. At times I have thought I had an egg shell weakness problem, but really I had a wooden egg box hardness problem.
Shelter for Chickens
Unfortunately, chickens don’t have much in the way of natual defense against predators, so if you live in an area that has foxes, raccoons, skunks, weasels, opossoms, coyotes, or stray dogs and cats running around, you’re going to have to provide a shelter for the birds to roost in at night, and a fence to keep them safe during the day.
A good rule of thumb for the size of the shelter is that each chicken should have two square feet. Now, if you're going to be pasturing or free-ranging your birds, you can go down to one square foot of space per chicken - just use your better judgement and don't overcrowd them.
If you have a lot of hawks or other birds of prey in your area, you may need to employ some techniques for keeping them away, too. You can hang netting over your chicken fence, or use chicken wire to cover it.
For protecting your chickens from birds of prey, you can also use what I call the I Don’t Need This CD or DVD Anymore Technique: Take your old CDs or DVDs (we all have some) and hang them right around the area where your chickens live. Sunlight will reflect off of the discs and discourage flying predators from coming near enough to steal your birds.
If you feel that electric fence is in order, the most affordable option is to forego a traditional fence and instead run one or two charged wires around the area where your chickens will be kept. Keep the height of the chickens in mind, but don't forget about keeping predators out. Imagine the average height of a dog's or a fox's nose, and set the wire(s) there. Animals generally inspect things with their noses first, and if they run into a charged wire they're not likely to come snooping around again.
Chicken Feed and General Chicken Care
What type of feed you offer your chickens will be somewhat affected by what type of chicken you're raising, and what the conditions you're raising them in.
Chickens kept for egg production should be fed a free-choice layer pellet or layer mash. These feeds are formulated specifically for egg-laying chickens, and should provide complete nutrition.
Meat chickens generally require a feed higher in protein than a layer feed. Feed for large meat birds should contain 16%-20% protein, depending somewhat on the variety of chicken and on how much grazing and foraging the chicken has access to.
Pasturing your chickens will produce eggs that have dark, almost orange yolks. The meat will be delicious and healthier than meat from chickens that are fed solely on grains. Chickens also love to eat worms and insects, which are a great source of protein. The more pasture you can give to your chickens, the healthier they will be and the better their "products" will taste.
Clean, fresh drinking water should be offered free-choice at all times, of course.
GENERAL CHICKEN CARE:
Chickens that don't get outdoors much should be offered free-choice grit, which is basically a bunch of small, ground-up stones. These little stones hang out in the chicken's crop (the chamber before the stomach) and help digest food. Chickens on pasture or free-range will generally take care of getting grit on their own.
If you have chickens that fly, it's never a bad idea to clip their wings. To do this well, simply use a pair of scissors and cut the wing feathers so that you remove the diagonal line that the feathers make and create a straight line instead.
The coop or shelter that the chickens live in should be scraped clean of manure before a thick layer of it can form on the floor. How often this needs to be done will depend on how large the structure is and how many birds you're keeping in it. My rule of thumb for cleaning the chicken coop is based on air quality - when I start to dislike being in there to feed, change water, and collect eggs, it's time to clean the coop.
Chicken Health Concerns
One easy way to measure the health of your chickens is to look at their combs (the crown-like appendage on their heads). These should be bright red. If the once-red comb on your chicken is suddenly dull, you can reasonably suspect that the chicken is either unwell or is lacking something in her diet. Make sure that the chicken feed is offered free-choice, that water is always available, and that the bird is not injured or ill in some way.
Sick chickens will often have nasal discharge or will sort of cough. You may even notice a very runny manure stuck to their behinds. A sick chicken won't likely be interested in eating or drinking, and may even have trouble standing up. Usually, by the time the chicken shows signs of illness, it's way too late to do anything about it.
Sick chickens should be removed from the rest of the flock. My honest advice is that sick chickens should be culled - and I mean humanely killed and disposed of promptly. I say this from experience: nine times out of ten, a chicken that appears ill is actually very ill, and despite your best intentions he or she will probably die. I've tried to quarantine and nurse sick chickens back to health, only to be disappointed when I found the chicken dead as a door nail 24 hours later. It's best not to further expose the rest of the flock. Do not butcher and eat a chicken that you suspect is sick.
I guess the "good news" about sick chickens is that they generally won't even show you that they're sick - you might just find a dead chicken in your coop in the morning, and never really know why the chicken died.
The USDA and the Sale of Chicken Meat
The USDA regulation on slaughtering chickens allows a person to butcher and sell 1,000 chickens per calendar year without a facility inspection by the USDA. This means that any person, you or I, using clean and sanitary equipment, can butcher and sell up to 1,000 chickens every year without the government being involved. Check out the USDA's website to find the full document governing the inspection of chicken processing facilities.
Selling Meat or Eggs
If you're interested in butchering and selling chickens, you should start by killing and cleaning birds for your own use first. Visit a local farmers' market to see what a real chicken actually looks like when it's ready for cooking. I know this may sound like silly advice, but the truth is that the fluffy, over-stuffed chickens packaged by big chicken companies and sold in grocery stores look different from what I call "real chickens." At the farmers' market, talk to people that are selling chicken. Share your experiences with them; they may be able to recommend better butchering methods, such as using a cut-up gallon milk jug or traffic cone to hold the birds upside down, and dipping the dead bird in boiling water to make feather-plucking easier.
If you want to sell meat, start with your family, friends, and neighbors first. Get their honest opinions about the chicken - and I don't necessarily mean their opinion about the quality and taste of the meat (it should be delicious). I mean that you should get some opinions about your plucking and cleaning skills, try to perfect your technique, then think about selling chicken directly to other types of customers.
Selling chicken meat isn't that difficult, and there's certainly some money to be made selling free-range, grassfed, and/or organic chicken, but it can be a lot of work if you're going to be butchering large numbers at a time. And of course, make sure the whole process is very, very clean and sanitary.
Selling eggs is a little less complicated than selling meat, but you still have to make sure everything is clean. The eggs should be washed and you shouldn't try to sell eggs that are stained. And by the way, those brown eggs that everyone loves so much? If you scrub them too vigorously while washing them, you'll start rubbing off that pretty brown color!
Again, if you really want to try to get into selling eggs or meat you should start with people who know and trust you first. It's not a bad thing to do, and it can help defray the costs of keeping chickens in the first place; however, you can't make a living at producing food if you're only doing it part-time - you can, however, defray your own costs.