By Cassie Johnston
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Back when we were considering getting chickens, my dear friend (and chicken/human mama sensei) Melissa told me to just pull the plug and do it. She swore that once we had the chickens, it really wouldn’t feel like that big of a deal. And my gosh, was she ever right.
Here we are, a year into our chickenkeeping journey, and let me tell you, caring for a flock of chickens is easier than any dog or cat I’ve ever had. And waaaayyy easier than caring for a baby. And dogs, cats, and babies don’t give you delicious eggs to eat as a thank you. Having backyard chickens is awesome. For the most part, our first year of having chickens has been a huge success—we’ve had some heartbreak and struggle, but that’s part of the process.
One thing is for sure, keeping chickens is a huge learning process. We’ve learned so much about animal husbandry, animal care, and ourselves over the past year. I’m always amazed at how homesteading tasks always seem to teach me lessons that can apply to life as a whole, and chickenkeeping is no exception.
I was asked by the nice folks at Purina to talk a little bit about my experience with being a chicken mama, and considering we just passed the one year anniversary of our flock, I thought now would be a great time to talk to you about what I learned. Here we go!
Like I mentioned above, I think this is the biggest thing that I’ve learned. There are a million websites and books and resources about chickenkeeping, and it’s all great knowledge to have—but from the outside, all those resources make it seem like having backyard chickens is difficult. It isn’t. We spend less than five minutes per day tending to our chickens. They’re pretty self-sustaining.
Until they’re not. Until one gets hurt or one goes broody. When something goes wrong, you have to be on top of things—you really want those resources. But the truth is, you can prepare ’til you’re blue in the face, but won’t know until you’re in the situation. My recommendation is to consume a moderate level of basic chicken know-how, get your flock, then learn as you go. Don’t wait for years and years like we did because we didn’t feel “ready.” Can you carve out five minutes of your life each day? Then you’re ready for chickens.
A dozen high-quality, free-range, farm fresh eggs costs what…$6? $7? You’d think it runs $700 based on how excited people get when we gift them a dozen from our flock. Our girls lay between 7-8 eggs for us per day, which gives us enough to give away a couple dozen per week, and people are always so grateful. The combo of a dozen eggs plus a jar of homemade jam really knocks folks socks off.
And of course, it’s better to give than receive, because it’s SO much fun to give eggs and see how excited people get. I almost want to get more chickens just so I can give away more eggs. Is that weird?
When we first got our batch of chicks, we set up a special heater for them to replicate their mama hen. We showed them how to drink from a waterer like their mama hen would do. We slowly introduced them to the outside like a mama hen would do. It all worked out well, but we soon realized that we spent a lot of time, energy, and money trying to replicate something nature had already perfected—a mother hen.
So when one of our hens went broody back in the Fall (broody is where a hormonal switch flips in a chicken and she wants to hatch eggs) we let her hatch some fertilized eggs. You know we had to do? Absolutely nothing. She hatched the eggs (no incubator needed). She kept the chicks warm (no special heater needed). She showed them how to eat and drink (we didn’t have to). She protected them from her flockmates and predators (no needing protection from us). We let nature do it’s thing, and it was easier for us and it worked better for us. And we were able to add two new chickens to our flock.
We had these big dreams of a flock of roving chickens following us around the farm while we skipped through fields of daisies. It was sweet and idyllic and, unfortunately, not possible.
We free-ranged our chickens for the first eight months of their life. We understood that by free ranging, we were opening our chickens up to predators. But we figured that was part of the price to pay for giving the chickens a happy, natural life. Even though we did lots to protect the chickens (having a rooster, giving them lots of natural cover, etc.), we were still expecting to lose a few chickens to hawks or coyotes or even a raccoon.
But we never lost a chicken to one of those natural predators. We did lose four chickens to neighbors’ dogs over the course of two months. Another hen was severely injured—we nursed her back to health in our basement, and she just started laying again last week (yay!)
Soon we realized that there was nothing we could do to protect our flock from random dogs that would wander onto our property looking for a fun game (they didn’t even eat the chickens—just killed them for sport). Except a fence. And our dreams of a free ranging flock went out the window.
We could never pinpoint exactly which dogs were picking off our chickens—we saw a few different ones hanging around and only witnessed a kill once from a distance—so we didn’t feel comfortable pinning our chicken deaths on any of our neighbors. So our solution was to fix the problem by putting in a fence.
In an ideal world, we’d have a bajillionity dollars and be able to fence in the entire property, but this isn’t the ideal world. Instead, we fenced in about a half-acre pen for the chickens. Now they can go to pasture in their pen, and we don’t have to worry about dogs. And we don’t have to go off on our neighbors.
I wish we would have put a fence in from the start, and then maybe we wouldn’t have lost so many of our girls, but then again, I wish folks would keep their dogs on their own property. The fence solves the problem, so I gotta move on and let it go.
We have a bumper sticker on our car that says this, and we get asked all the time what it means. And it’s simple: if you’re eating animals or animal products, what and how that animal eats is important. And that’s why it was important for us to make sure our flock was getting good quality food.
When they were free ranging, we barely had to supplement their diet—they found plenty of bugs and worms and other goodies to keep them full and happy, but now that they are in a pen, it’s super vital that we provide a good quality feed for them in addition to the grazing they do.
Living as far out in the country as we do, we’ve actually struggled to find good organic chicken feed—it’s just not the kind of thing feed stores around here usually carry. For a while, we were ordering it online, but then I’d forget to place an order, and we’d find ourselves running to the feed store to pick up whatever they had on hand. Not ideal.
And then Purina put out a line of organic chicken feed, and my gosh guys, it has made my life so much easier. It’s widely distributed, meaning I can pick it up at my local Tractor Supply or the local hardware store or feed store. I can feel good about feeding my chickens organic feed and not have to worry about special ordering it. It’s affordable, the girls (and boys) love it, and the eggs have never been better. Hallelujah!
As someone who lives in rural America, let me tell you, tracking down organic, natural options is not an easy task. So whenever a big company puts their distribution weight behind a good organic product, I’m dancing the happy dance!
This is true for adults and kids alike. Juni is mostly uninterested in the TV or the iPad or the computer. But give her a handful of mealworms (our flock’s favorite treat), and she’ll stand there and play with those chickens for hours.
We had originally planned on putting the chicken coop down by our barn, but at the last minute, decided to put it up near the house—and I’m so glad we did! We can watch the chickens out of our living room window, and my gosh, it’s so entertaining. They have their own little culture, and it’s fascinating to watch them.
We started off our flock with one rooster—Richard (pictured above). And he’s done exactly what we wanted him to. He’s kept his girls as safe as he could (I can’t imagine how me we would have lost if we didn’t have Richard). And he’s done his secondary role of fertilizing our eggs so we can hatch the next generation.
Because we’ve wanted Richard to be a guard rooster, we’ve never done any of the things some flock owners do to “break” their rooster into submission. We want him to be his manly, testosterone-y self!
When we hatched our second generation of chicks in the fall, one of those turned out to also be a rooster (Little Richard, of course, pictured below). Big Richard and Little Richard tolerate each other. Barely. Time will tell if we can continue on with having two roosters. But having roosters has been such an interesting look at how animals work. Roosters are no joke, and I have quite a few scars on my right leg from Richard, Sr. Their job is to protect their women, and they’re going to do it no matter the cost. On that front, having the fence has been really nice—no more worries about keeping Juni away from the boys.
I’ve turned into an unapologetic egg snob. Once you have the bright orange yolked, super flavorful eggs of your own flock, you just can’t go back. In the winter, when the girls weren’t laying much, we had to buy two dozen eggs (that’s all we’ve had to buy all year). Even though I got the highest quality eggs I could find, they just weren’t the same.
They eggs from our hens taste better. They bake up better. They add the most beautiful golden-brown shine to bread. They make the best hard-boiled eggs on the planet. Good quality eggs will make you a better cook. Period.
I’m about to get really weird on you here, but having laying hens and a fridge full of eggs gives me such peace of mind. There’s always eggs. If the zombie apocalypse starts tomorrow, I can feed my family a dinner of scrambled eggs and lettuce (which is all that’s coming off in the garden now) for the foreseeable future and we’ll be decently healthy. I’m not a doomsday-er, but I have to admit there is something really appealing about knowing you could take care of your family if something did happen.
On a less apocalyptic note, it’s also just nice to know we always have eggs for everyday catastrophes. Didn’t get to the grocery store? Poached eggs for dinner! Gotta figure out something to take to a party last minute? Deviled eggs! Need a hostess gift? A dozen eggs! It’s amazing how many of life’s little hiccups can be made easier by having a fridge stocked with eggs.
I think the biggest take away from the post should be: if you want to get chickens, JUST DO IT. Yes there will be hiccups. Yes things may go wrong. But it’s more important to just jump! You don’t have to go as big as we did. Go to the feed store, pick out two chicks (might I recommend Speckled Sussex or Light Brahma – so pretty, so gentle, and so sweet), set them up in a box, and then go build a coop. If we can do it, I know you guys can.
This post has been sponsored by Purina Animal Nutrition, as such I received free product from Purina to share my opinion with my readers. However, my opinions are based on my individual and unique experience. Based on my experience in 2016 I believe this line of feed has been amazing for my flock and I encourage you to try it too!
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