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Five Things You Should Know Before Raising Chickens.
1. The coop doesn't have to cost a ton to get the job done.
There are plenty of pre-fabricated coops online or at your local livestock/feed store. You're also bound to find them littered all over craigslist. My brother-in-law has a beautiful coop that he bought, and if you want to throw down the money for it that's fine. I'm more of a do-it-yourselfer. Tons of things (often things people are giving away for free) are able to be reclaimed into wonderful coops! We ended up taking an old play structure that a neighbor's kids had outgrown. He was happy to be rid of it, and we had the perfect framework for a coop. Large doghouse can also work for making small coops and chicken tractors.
2. Hold the chicks.
Chickens aren't naturally friendly; they're naturally dumb, but not necessarily friendly. They eat, poop, sleep and eventually lay eggs (they've even been known to sleep in apple trees and refuse to come into the coop at night, preferring instead to be eaten by raccoons.)
But in all seriousness we can make a chicken friendly, or at least less horrible. With a little extra work on the front end you will make the world of difference to your flock and greatly increase the joy you receive from them. Now if you're planning on raising meat birds you can skip this, as I don't see much of a reason for bonding with something you're just going to kill, but if you're like us and are raising them for the eggs (and the experience) then the first 4-6 weeks you have new chicks there is one crucial piece of advice I can give you. HOLD THEM EVERY DAY. Yes, every day. Hold each chick, at least once a day, preferably twice. There are tons of sites out there giving directions on how to hold chicks, so I won't waste your time, just remember it will cause them less stress if you are calm, and if you do not come down from above them (like a predator would). My Uncle has chickens and when he wants to catch one he has to corner them and use a net which seems terrifying for the poor bird. When I want to pick up one of my chickens I simply walk over to it and pick it up. Holding a chick is fun, holding them all every day can be time consuming, but well worth it, especially if you have young kids.
3. Plan your flock size and buy chicks accordingly!
Perhaps one of the most difficult things in the world, is not going hog-wild at the feed store when you're buying your chicks. However, before you head to the store take a good look at your coop, run, and most importantly your roost-space and determine how many chickens you can house in a safe and healthy way. As tempting as it may be, don't buy more chicks just because you don't have one that color yet, or because your five year old really wants one (like I did) and stick to the plan. Do your research beforehand and know what breeds you want before you leave the house. This is not a time for window shopping. We were looking for docile egg layers and came back with some wonderful Plymouth Barred Rocks, Rhode Island Reds, and my favorite, the Amaraucana (aka Easter Egger) which laid green eggs. On impulse we also came home with a Silver Laced Wyandotte, who was a beautiful, but ornery chicken, and a few straight-run Silkie chicks who are horrible egg layers, but crazy adorable, and also turned out to be roosters and thus ended up on the dinner table. Bottom line: just get what you came for and get them all at the same time. Introducing chicks is easy, but adult chicken introduction is not. (If you do end up with a crow in the wee hours of the morning, here is a humane way to take care of the problem.)
4. If it's off the ground, partially enclosed, and you put straw in it, it's a nest box.
Pretty much enough said. I wish I'd known the first point when building our coop as I put our nest boxes on the ground level, making it easier for dirty chicken feet to soil the nest box. When the nest boxes are higher, and preferably with a perch in front for them to hop onto before entering most of the dirt will get knocked off of them before they lay.
Also, nest boxes do not have to be fancy, check out this blogger's photos and see the random array of nest boxes he uses!
5. Automate as much as you can.
Save yourself tons of time by installing low-maintenance feeding and watering systems to fit your coop design. PVC pipe watering systems can be a great way to get water inside the coop with little to no mess. We installed a gravity feeder and refill it weekly. I have children to collect eggs, so I don't have to worry there. Now if I can just make the coop lock itself up at night and open again in the morning I'll be happy.
Here are my favorite to books on raising chickens, one for facts and one for fun.
This book is hands down, the best thing you can have if you're wanting to raise chickens. I've referenced this book so many times in the last year it isn't even funny. It covers coops, breeds, diseases, even how to show chickens. It's thorough and well worth the money.
I was given The Egg and I by my Father-in-law when I started the adventure of raising chickens, and it is a humorous real-life story of a woman who lives on a chicken farm. It takes place in the beautiful Olympic Peninsula of Washington state, a few hours from my humble side yard flock.