Homesteading: Beginning with Chickens

The Do and Don't of laying hens

Personally, we have yet to raise a hen big enough to plow a field!

That said, having chickens running around the barnyard or even in a backyard coop makes one feel glad to be alive.  People often think of chickens as dumb or mean, but they is an over simplification of the chicken psyche.

As they scratch in the dirt, peck around in the grass and curiously come up to great us, hens are anything but mean. Anyone who has had to catch a chicken, knows that they can and will outsmart the average human.  Each has their own, unique personality. Some are friendly. Some are not.  Some are curious.  Others, just love to bath in the sun. They all add a bit of comic relief to our daily lives.

Chickens are one of the easiest animals to keep.  Fresh water, scratch or layer feed, leftover from the kitchen, shelter and a bit of grit.  If kept in a coop, it will need the occasional clean-out. Chickens don’t stink – as long as you keep the coop relatively clean. But even if not cleaned obsessively, things have to get pretty dirty for their litter to build up an odor.

Pasture kept chicken provide absolutely the best eggs.  The nutritional value of eggs from free ranged chickens is far superior, and the birds are altogether healthier and happier.

These days, there are many products on the market that make keeping chickens in small spaces a snap. Moveable chicken “tractors” allow for rotational “grazing” -otherwise known as pasture raised.

A chicken tractor is a good way to keep birds in suburban and even urban areas.  A chicken tractor is a small coop that is either on wheels, built on a trailer or built to be moved.  There is usually a small outside area, called a run.  These are great for the suburbs or cooperative gardening situations.

This tractor can be picked up by two people. Note that a small enclosure with a raised floor sits above. One side of the roof is hinged for egg collection

Both Jill and I have been keeping chickens for pretty much all of our lives. So, we have had many different coops, pasture situations and lifestyles. There are so many different ways to keep these birds.

Free ranging is the best but there are predation issues that must be addressed. The problem being that hawks, owls, raccoons, weasels, coyotes and foxes soon pick off the poultry when you live in the country or even in suburbia.  The simple fact is that when we free range, we have to put them up at night.  Of course, there is always that one bird who isn’t ready yet and leads us and the dogs on a bit of a herding trial. But generally getting them in at night works great, until it doesn’t. That is that one night when someone forgets to round up the chickens… It is creepy to think of the various animals watching for that one time that the chickens don’t get put away.  But it turns out, those predators are watching us and our chickens.  And they dine on chicken dinner – if given any option.

That dynamic changed with the invention of the automated chicken door.  Now, most people who free range their flock, use an automatic door to lock them in a coop at night and don’t have to worry about it.

If you wish to rotationally graze your chickens, an electric poultry fence is also an option. These require a fence charger and so the set-up is a bit more challenging.

Neither of these options will stop hawks from attacking a flock.  My experience with hawks is that one can go for years without attracting such a predator but once they get a taste for chicken dinner, it can be hard to dissuade them.  Although sometimes, it is just migratory birds – who will hit once and then be on their way. If you have a fenced run and have issues with hawks, there is aviary netting that isn’t too expensive that can cover the chicken area.

We recently had a migratory hawk picking off our guinea fowl. Luckily, she did move on – however, the guinea then changed their roosting habits and have joined the free range chickens, who sleep high up in the rafters of the barn. Which brings me to how our chickens are faring now.

The latest batch of chickens that we acquired are a breed called Whiting True Blues. They are a flighty bird and can fly fairly well. That means they soon discovered the rafters in the horse barn, so now our free range birds are roosting up high. Knock on wood – so far, so good.

The more chickens are handled as chicks, the friendlier they will be. In my opinion, a couple of hens make excellent pets for children. They not only teach empathy and responsibility, they also teach children that food is not to be taken for granted. That there is a reward for good management of a resource. That food, even meat is a resource that must be valued. Our boys grew up caring for chickens and I believe it made them better people.

This is our oldest son, now almost 40 years old when he was two. We were living in married student housing in La Jolla and this was our community garden plot – where we kept Henny and Penny. My first chicken as a child was named Penny also.

This is our grandson collecting eggs from one of our chicken’s hiding spots (they have many).

Simple Tips for Good Chicken Husbandry in a Small Space

  • Do not buy too many chickens.  That means 3-5 birds max.  Chickens are social animals and can be very unhappy alone, unless there is some extraordinary circumstance. So, buy at least two and probably a “spare.”
  • Do not get a rooster. That means don’t buy a “straight-run” chicks. A straight-run means that the chickens are both male and female. These are often what is sold in farm stores.  Getting “rid” of a young rooster is near next to impossible unless you want to eat it, particularly if you live in an area that isn’t rural.
  •  There are two ways to ensure hens.  One is to buy a crossbreed that is color sex-linked or a breed that is auto-sexed.  That means that when the chicks are born, the coloration of the hens is apparent at birth and different from that of the roosters.

  • A note: many hatcheries do offer babies that have been sexed but this is not always 100% fool proof.  My problem with sexed birds by the hatchery is that I have known too many people end up with a rooster.

    Some sex link chicken crossbreeds are: Golden Comets, Red Sex Link, Black Sex Link chickens, and Rhodebars. Click here for a list of autosex breeds.

    Personally, I think that Red Sex Links or black Sex links are great starter birds. Both are sweet, docile and lay huge eggs almost every day.

  • The second way is to buy pullets (hens that are about 20 weeks old and just about to start laying).
  • Roosters make noise, create fertilized eggs (the yuck factor comes in when eating and preparing such eggs – if they sit in the yard for too long and/or a hen settles on the eggs), A rooster can be very mean, particularly to children and also they can be obnoxious to the hens. Our current rooster likes to sneak up from behind and attack us.

    In our situation, where the birds free range – a rooster will fight off predators. And ours is extremely protective of his hens, he constantly places himself between us and the girls. This is not an entirely bad thing – given that our birds are out and about everyday. So, to be clear.  Do not buy or get given a rooster, unless you absolutely know what you are in for.

  • Buy a breed of chicken meant for laying and research the breeds.  Some are more hardy in cold weather, some do better in hot weather. Some breeds are almost purely ormamental.

  • Do not buy or get given someone else’s flock.  Older hens stop producing as many eggs and then stop laying altogether.  Which is why many people give away or re-home their older girls. Getting “free” birds with some age on them is not an efficient way to start a flock.
  • Consider building or buy a suitable chicken tractor, particularly if you have limited space.  We like the kind that is easily moved and not too heavy.  I also like my tractor to sit directly on the grass (chicken wire underneath is good, if you have predators in the area), so they have fresh greens each day when the tractor is moved. The coops and chicken tractors that are up off the ground do not allow for the birds to forage for greens and bugs.   There are many design sites on the web, if you are inclined to build your own.  I also like a cage that is large enough that the chickens move around and forage.
  • When we used a chicken tractor, I would move it regularly onto a new stretch of grass.  By doing this, the bird’s run is kept clean, they compost old scraps fast and the grass underneath the cage rapidly recovers and then thrives with the addition of chicken manure.  Moving the cage also has the advantage of keeping pests such as lice, mites, bacterial and fungal infections, as well as internal parasites (such as worms) from building up within the bird population.  The flock stays much healthier.
  • If you have a coop, make sure it is big enough. Supply various nesting places, which do not have to be a commercial nest box.  Five-gallon buckets, rubber horse watering buckets, and homemade wooden boxes all work well. They also like a perch to sit on.
  • Do encourage children to make pets of the birds.  Both benefit from respectful interactions and attention.
  • The gross factor: rodents are a problem with keeping chickens.  Black snakes and cats are your friends in the fight against rodents. There are humane traps – that capture the rodents live. Then you have the joy <insert sarcasm> of releasing the rodents elsewhere or killing them yourself. Frankly, that routine get old fast.   If you are going to kill rodents, consider using a water trap. Snap traps don’t always kill the rodent and are a danger to other animals. Glue traps are inhumane. I like the water traps, which can be a DIY project to save money.  This can be one of the more humane methods to eradicate rodents.
  • Pine shavings are the best bedding for chickens. I do not like the deep bedding method, which is basically throw more shavings on top of the old, rather than stripping the coop. This is a recipe for breeding bacteria, including salmonella.
  • Feed your chicken a healthy diet, with no synthetic additives.  Remember to include a source of mineral/grit, if the chicken feed is not all-inclusive.  I like to buy organic, so avoid glyphosate and other herbicide and pesticide residues. Leftovers, including meat will make your chickens very happy and healthy. The eggs will be of higher quality too.
  • Chickens molt (shed a lot of their feathers) during the winter and egg production will cease or decline during this period. This usually occurs late fall and early winter.
  • A lot of the consumer grade chicken tractors and coops for sale at the local farm store, Walmart or Amazon are junk. Buyer beware and read the reviews!
  • Online shops, such as Jeffers Pet and even Amazon can be a great source of supplies.
  • Chickens are excellent at keeping the bugs down, including ticks and snails.
  • Consider joining a social media group or forum on keeping chickens.

Simple Tips for Egg Handling

  • To test for freshness.  Get a bowl of cold water filled so that it is approximately one inch above an egg placed in the bowl.  Immerse the eggs.  The eggs should remain at the bottom of the water.  It they float; they are bad and should be discarded.   If they partially float, they are good for dog food or maybe baking.  Of course, one can always crack an egg and take a sniff while it is still in the shell…
  • Freezing eggs. An easy way to freeze eggs is to put them in an ice cube tray. Once frozen, transfer them to a freezer container, a freezer bag and label. Freezing eggs in the fall is a good way to prepare for the seasonal molt.  That way, you can avoid buying eggs year-round.
  • Freezing whites separately is easy.  Just freeze in ice cube trays or baggies or freezer containers.
  • Freezing egg yolks by themselves requires that salt or sugar be added to stop the yolks from thickening or becoming so gelatinous that they are unusable.  For savory yolks, beat in 1/8 teaspoon of salt per ¼ cup yolk.  For sweet recipes, beat in 1 1/2 teaspoons of sugar per ¼ cup yolk.  Label appropriately.
  • If fresh eggs have not been put in a refrigerator, rinsed or washed, they can be kept at room temperature for at least two weeks. The CDC does not recommend this. Eggs left at room temperature should be washed just prior to use, as salmonella is mostly found on the eggshells. FYI- we always keep our eggs on the counter.

  • There are many other ways of preserving eggs, from pickling to water glassing (liming) or even dehydrating. Mineral Oil Preserved Eggs are other way to preserve eggs. Just coat them with food-grade mineral oil, put them into a cartoon, and let them sit. Check out this page on mineral preservation and a year-long experiment in this technique.

To conclude, chickens are easy and rewarding. They will enrich your life more than you could imagine.

Robert W Malone MD, MS is president of the Malone Institute whose mission is to bring back integrity to the biological sciences and medicine. The Malone Institute supports and conducts research, education, and informational activities. Contact: Read other articles by Robert, or visit Robert's website.