Keeping Chickens in a Backyard Flock, by Nightshade

Wednesday, Jan 18, 2012

In a SHTF scenario, already having a small flock of laying chickens will be of great benefit for everyone from an urban backyard to a rural, backwoods bunker setting. They are easy to care for, provide eggs and eventually, can grace your stewpot once they have stopped laying. Given the opportunity, they are also resourceful, and will scavenge for insects, grubs, and their favorite greenery. Be warned, they absolutely adore strawberries and kale, and will eat it right out of your garden!

A laying hen reaches maturity and begins laying eggs at around 4-6 months of age. She will lay an average of two eggs every three days for the next 3-5 years. After that, you may wish to consider adding the girl to the stewpot. Laying hens are not as tender as young meat birds (which are typically slaughtered at eight weeks of age) but their meat is still salvageable if boiled or tenderized with some vinegar prior to cooking.

Laying Hens or Meat Birds?

The first decision you need to make is whether to have laying hens or meat birds. Chickens have been cultivated for a long time, and while some breeds make excellent laying hens, and lay large eggs for a long period of time, other breeds are definitely cultivated to grow quickly and be consumed in short order.
We have twelve Araucanas and one Rhode Island Red – all laying hens. The Araucanas lay a pale blue-green egg, that is considered a medium sized egg. The Rhode Island Red lays an extra-large brown egg. Rhode Island Reds are known for their large, high production egg capacity.
At this point, we have no meat birds. However, from my past interactions with them I have to say that they are very different from their egg-laying counterparts. Meat birds have one goal – to consume as much food as possible. That is why in eight weeks, a meat bird will average about 6-8 pounds, whereas my delicate Araucanas weigh in at a total of five pounds each full grown. Meat birds can also be rather aggressive, pecking and drawing blood on each other and more importantly, you. Take care if you have small children and meat birds, it could be traumatizing.

Benefits That Chickens Give

Will Eat Leftovers - Besides the obvious benefit of providing eggs and meat, chickens are one of nature’s garbage disposals. An omnivore, a chicken will consume nearly anything – meat, fish, vegetables, fruits, grains, rice. Not a single thing goes to waste in our house between the chickens, dogs and cats. Chickens will eat anything smaller than themselves – this means mice, if they can catch them. A few months ago, we caught two marauding mice in the house. We fed them both to the chickens who fought over the little carcasses – waste not, want not.
We also feed them their own eggshells, which are high in calcium, negating the need to buy crushed oyster shells as a calcium supplement.
If you have carnivores (dogs and cats) than you will probably feed them most of your meat scraps, but save a little for the birds. I’ve given them leftover soup, rice, quinoa, carrot peelings, the bases of broccoli, cauliflower leaves, tomatoes, and so much more. For a special treat, feed them some grapes, they go crazy for them and it is also a good source of water for them as well.

Will Process Paper
– There’s no need to burn paper, and please don’t throw it away. Instead, shred it (I actually use a high-capacity shredder and shred everything (phone books, newspapers, magazines, envelopes, you name it) and then place it in the chicken house. On the floor and in the roosts it absorbs the chicken waste, which is high in nitrogen. From there, simply sweep it out the door onto the ground of the enclosed chicken coop. This makes the ground less muddy. During the summer we also add grass clippings and encourage our neighbor to bring over his grass clippings to us as well. During the warm months, every 1-2 months we will rake up all of the gunk from the ground and throw it into the compost. A month or two later and it is compost, full of nutrients and ready to be spread onto our raised beds and worked into the dirt.
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Pest Control
– In the warm months we open the door to the coop during the day and allow the hens to roam free, scratching and digging in the grass and raised beds. They search for and find plenty of insects, grubs, and even will go after mice and small birds. This provides them with some extra protein which they need for egg production. Later in summer, feed them any tomato hornworms you may find. They adore them, and it saves your tomato plants from being denuded of the sheltering green leaves tomatoes need for protection from the sun.

The Chicken Rules

Chickens are easy to keep as long as you follow the basic rules of good chicken ownership. So here are some quick tips to keep in mind.
Easy to Doctor – They are quite easy to doctor. You will need: Q-tip cotton swabs, triple antibiotic cream, pine tar, and if you like a general poultry antibiotic. Basically the first three ingredients are to treat your bird if they get in a tussle with another bird. This happens more when they are younger and the pecking order (yes, it’s real) has not been established. A chicken will rise within the flock by pecking a foe until she bleeds, and since chickens are naturally attracted to the color red (blood, red-painted toenails, red grapes, etc) that bird will then be pecked and pecked repeatedly, and chickens can and will kill one of the flock if not stopped. We bring in the hurt bird, wash off the blood, sometimes apply baby powder to help with the clotting, spread some antibiotic cream on the wound and then paint it with pine tar.
It smells bad and tastes worse. An attacking bird gets a mouthful of that and decides to pick on someone else!
As for the general poultry antibiotic…chickens sometimes get colds. If you see one that is lethargic and has not moved, has drainage around the beak or eyes, she may benefit from a regimen of antibiotics. They are available in most feed stores and you simply add them to the water. In one hen’s case, we had to force feed the antibiotics to her with a dropper. After three days she got better and she is now doing great.

Excessive Heat Will Kill Them – I suggest letting them loose during excessive heat waves and allowing your hens to search out the shaded, cool areas of your yard. Provide plenty of water, throw in some chunks of ice if you can to cool it down. We installed a fan in the chicken house last summer and placed it in front of a hunk of ice. The girls clustered around that or dug into the dark, shaded areas of our yard and into the cool dirt. I would not advise trying to eat a bird who dies of heat stroke unless  you see it die and know there wasn’t any other reason for it to be deceased (sickness, etc).

Cold Doesn’t Affect Laying, Light Does – I hear it over and over, “My chickens stopped laying because it has been so cold.” No, they could care less about that. Instead, it has to do with light exposure. Chickens need approximately 12-14 hours of exposure to direct light, in order to release an egg. Cloudy, overcast days have the same effect. Beginning in October, or earlier if you live in the more extreme climes, install a 40 watt bulb in your chicken house on a 12-14 hour timer. We have ours set to turn on at 6am in the morning and turn off at 8pm at night.
We had watched our production rates fall to around 3-5 eggs per day from our thirteen hens. After installing the light, production spiked and has stayed steady at 8-10 eggs per day. Our record is 11 eggs in one day – keep making those eggs, girls! (Or it is the stewpot for you)

Keep a Rooster (if you can get away with it) – Roosters can be noisy and are often aggressive. And most of us live in urban and suburban settings that prohibit us from having one. However, if you can get away with it, I do suggest having a rooster. For one, roosters provide an enzyme that turns the ‘bad’ cholesterol in eggs to ‘good’ cholesterol. Most importantly though is the ability to renew your flock. If push comes to shove, you want the ability to make more birds and in a SHTF scenario, you won’t much care if they are meat birds or laying birds – they are FOOD, plain and simple. Portable, easy to maintain, FOOD. Having a rooster there to propagate more of the food opportunities just makes good common sense.

Protect Them From Predators – I would think this would go without saying, but there are plenty of creatures out there besides us who think chickens, and their eggs, are tasty treats. If you let your birds free range during the day, be aware that hawks and eagles find them to be a yummy main dish. Raccoons and possum will also happily hunt and kill your birds in the dark of night. I recommend a chicken house that you can lock them in at night in, and an enclosed chicken yard (covered which chicken wire on all sides) as a sort of double protection. Occasionally dogs or even cats have been known to hunt chickens. Our dogs know not to hunt them, but one of the cats found the practice to be fun and entertaining – until the entire flock of chickens chased after him and ‘pinned’ him under a forsythia bush for a good twenty minutes. After that he wasn’t too interested! Snakes, rats and mice are also a concern. Snakes love eggs, and the rats and mice tend to go after the chicken feed.
We have found keeping chickens to be easy, entertaining, and…delicious. For more tips on chicken care, recipes for pickled eggs, and more, click on the link below.
Chickens, Recipes and More


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