As you may know, I embarked on my journey to a full-on backyard homestead with the purchase of six baby chicks last Spring. Six months later I have learned a lot, and thought I’d share some of it in case you ever think of getting a few chicken-little’s. Based on my personal experience I opted to deviate from the standard top ten best practices because upon reflection I definitely learned more about what not to do than vice-versa.
Looking back, the chicks were actually the relatively easy part. I kept them in a cardboard box in the barn with a heat lamp until they were big enough (and it was warm enough) for them to sleep in the coop without freezing. Between 2- and 3-months I started letting them free range during the day. That’s when the lessons in what NOT to do started…
1. Don’t forget to provide a place to hide during the day.
I’m sure you can imagine how bummed I was when I came home and saw no chickens in my yard. Eventually we found three had backed themselves into the holes in a stack of cinder blocks. By the time I put them to bed (which literally consisted of closing the coop door) two more had returned. We decided the predator was likely a hawk so made some wire frames from leftover fencing and set them near some bushes for cover. Five left, hoping there are a couple hens.
2. Don’t set the coop on a penetrable surface.
I bought a pre-built coop kit from my local Tractor Supply. It was not bad quality, but at a reasonable price was understandably made of fir. Since it was sitting in grass I thought it best (my Dad concurred, I did get at least one second opinion) to set it on bricks to help keep the wood from rotting in the rainy season. I maintain this was a legitimately good idea, except foxes and coons are danged smart and bricks just aren’t that heavy. About a week after the first casualty I put five chickens to bed and woke up with four. There was a brick turned sideways, but I assumed I must have kicked it and one escaped since they were still so small. Down to four, 50% chance of two hens.
3. Don’t leave them out overnight, DUH.
This time I just flat out screwed up. After the second casualty, the chickens stopped putting themselves in the coop at night; I’d have to grab them off the grapevine above my fence and place them inside. One evening I stayed out late and just forgot to put them up when I came home after dark. I might as well have left a big neon “Eat Here” sign over their heads. This time I saw the evidence and it was pretty sad. Down to three, here’s hoping one is a hen.
4. Don’t ignore what your chickens behavior is telling you.
Turns out not wanting to go in the coop is not a result of growing chickens needing space. I made this genius discovery when I woke up the very next morning to find only one freaked out chicken in the coop, two bricks turned aside under the base of it, and the decapitated bodies of two more chickens. Ugh! Down to 1… ROOSTER. Wasn’t the point to get eggs? A weak-hearted BBH (Beginner Backyard Homesteader…yes, i just made that up) would give up after what was now a failed experiment by any definition; but I am more of the stubborn type. Roosters can be good pets, right?
5. Don’t feed them scraps when you eat outside.
After moving the coop into a cinder block shed impermeable to (most) predators, the rooster became more a part of the family. Turns out not just dogs learn to beg when fed scraps from the picnic table. A rooster, though, doesn’t give you the satisfaction of sulking if you reprimand him after he grabs your child’s sandwich off the plate (more like the belligerent idiot look).
6. Don’t get just one…rooster.
Apparently roosters, and maybe all chickens, take on other family-dog-ish traits when they are the only one of their species around. It was neat to hear the rooster crow until he decided the top front porch step and under the open kitchen window were his favorite spots to do so. It was funny that he followed me everywhere until he followed me into the kitchen. Seriously, who likes a steaming pile of you-know-what on the porch every morning?
7. Don’t try to pet them just because they follow you like a dog.
Gimme a break, when an animal follows you around like a dog you can’t help but convince yourself it wants to be pet, right? No, no, no don’t fall for it! He’s still a dumb chickens who will take a nice chunk out of your arm if you reach for him. Oh, and those back claws that look like thumbs? They’re called spurs for a reason. It was endearing to watch “Buzz Lightyear” (named Buzz Lightyear for their similar flight aptitudes) waddle around after my son right up until he tried to spur him.
8. Don’t get chicks from the hardware store…or maybe do?
I am undecided here. The chicks were healthy, although unsexed means you will inevitably face the same dilemma we did with any rooster(s). The minimum of six was a lot to start with if they all survived, and the cost of feeding and bedding for 5 months before getting any eggs means at least that long to break even (don’t count the coop, it’ll be years to recoup (pun intended) that cost. That said, even our crazy Buzz was more friendly than the hens I eventually replaced him with and it may be because it was because he’d been handled a lot as a chick.
9. Don’t mail-order pullets from a hatchery.
Our solution to try and fix the rowdy rooster issue was to get him some hens. I researched some options on the internet, being impatient, and almost went the mail order route for some hens almost old enough to lay ( called pullets). $30 each was a lot but the $100+ shipping slowed my urge to make the final click. I am really glad I didn’t go that route. Instead the next weekend we headed off in search of a local Amish market with a neighbors directions. After driving around for almost 2 hours we spotted activity at the county fairgrounds (the fair was the following week). We parked between the stalls where folks were getting their livestock tagged for entry and what a stroke of luck! Being the timid flower that I am (not) I walked up to the table and told the man I was on a wild chicken chase, determined to find some of pullets for my lonely rooster, and asked where I could buy some. Just behind him were three men, each holding a different type of bird by the feet, who all started rattling off ideas. When one asked how many I wanted and I answered, “just three” all three men say almost in unison “that roosters gonna tear them up!”. I’ll let you guess what they meant but that made up my mind. My next question was “do you want a rooster?”, and I left with a phone number. Two days later Buzz had a new home and I had four hens just about ready to lay for $6 each.
10. Don’t let non-free-range chickens out until they know where the coop is.
My clown act doesn’t end there, of course. Having just dropped off a rooster who could barely fly to sit on the garden bench I was shocked when not only did it take two adults to catch these hens who darted right into the woods when we let them out of the car, but one flew straight off! Luckily she settled under a bush on the porch when it got dark. I am so glad the neighbors aren’t too close because they’d have thought I was an ax murdered if they’d heard her squawking when I carried her to the coop! They wouldn’t even leave the coop for a week, but now all four chickens free range every day, making a point of digging up every bulb I plant and making dust holes in my gardens.
11. Don’t get salmonella.
No, I’m not speaking from experience, but I feel obligated to remind you of the risk. Like all birds, chickens poop everywhere, even in the nesting area. I read somewhere if you don’t wash your eggs they last longer but fat chance I’m not washing them before they come in my kitchen. Great article on this at Backyard Chickens.com. Always wash your hands thoroughly after handling anything chicken and remember your shoes will have poop on them if you walk anywhere the chickens have. We just leave our shoes on the porch now to avoid bringing it in the house.
Some other interesting tidbits I’ve learned along the way are:
- Sometimes other breeds will pull out the feathers of silkie breeds
- A turkin is not half turkey…it’s all chicken, just of the Transylvanian naked neck breed (seriously, I Googled it)
- When starting to lay you might get some eggs without shells that look pretty gross
- They put themselves to bed, and really wont run away once they know where it’s safe
- Some can fly, but none well.
A couple of things I recommend:
- Find a network; 4H, fairgrounds, local enthusiast groups
- Free range
- Supplement in winter
- Get long leather gloves (welding) if you don’t want to get scratched.
At long last, the hens are laying almost daily and the farmer I got them from told me Buzz was “playing soccer” with his son. Got a good story about your own BBH experience? We’d love to hear about it in the comments section!