Raise Chickens: A How To

How raise chickens: selecting, and feeding hens for egg production. How to collect eggs and store them for home use.

Chickens are very easy to raise in a small amount of space and can provide you with a nice source of wholesome food as well. Their needs are few: shelter, room to scratch around, a nest box, and food and water. Before you acquire your first flock you need to prepare their quarters.

Housing for Chickens

If you expect to get eggs, you have to confine your chickens at night where you want them to lay. Otherwise, they will hide their eggs and you will never find them. A chicken house does not need to be fancy, only secure and dry with perches for night roosting and a few nest boxes. Hens will share nests, so plan on having one nest box for every three hens. Provide one foot of perch space for each hen. Always secure your hens at night or they might become the dinner of local raccoons or opossums.

An unused garden shed or corner of a garage can easily be converted into a chicken house. A space about eight feet by twelve feet will be very adequate for a few dozen birds. They will also need an outside enclosure about twice this size for exercise. Chickens like to scratch in the soil and catch bugs, so a pen with grass is preferred. Don't be distressed if the birds eat all the grass, it is good for them. Chickens can fly, so either make the sides of the pen at least eight feet high or make a cover with chicken wire. A covered pen will protect your flock from hawks.

Make sure there is power to the chicken house. During the winter it is a good idea to keep a light burning so that the hens get about 12 hours of light daily. Egg production will suffer otherwise. The light will also provide heat on very cold nights.

Food and Water

Special food and water dispensers are sold at feed stores. These are designed to keep the food and water clean. A hanging water container suspended above the floor, at a comfortable drinking height will also help keep the water clean longer. Feed containers come with barriers to prevent the birds from perching above their food and soiling it. Select one or more of a type that you can clean easily. The feed store people are usually knowledgeable about these items and will be able to make recommendations if you tell them what kind of hens you are getting.

Feed stores also sell different kinds of chicken food. For a small flock, it is simplest to buy a pre-mixed all-purpose laying mash. You can add some scratch feed to this or buy whole corn to supplement their diet. The corn will make the yolks very dark yellow and full of beta carotene. Chickens also appreciate kitchen scraps. Greens of any kind, fruit peelings, bread, pancakes, even cooked meat. Chickens will eat anything. You will want to provide them with crushed oyster shell for strong egg shells, buy this at the feed store. Chickens also need grit to help them digest their food. A little goes a long way and you can scatter it in their yard or keep it in a feeder, buy this at the feed store as well.

Selecting the Right Hens

There are several excellent breeds of chicken to choose from. If all you are interested in is eggs, decide if you want full size hens or bantams. Bantam eggs are much smaller, it takes three to equal one regular egg. Full size chickens are generally calmer than bantams. In some parts of the country certain breeds are favored. Ask around and find out what is available. It could be Rocks (black and white striped birds), Reds (reddish-brown birds), or Leghorns (usually white). Orpingtons are also a good choice. Some breeds, like Cochins and Bramans have heavily feathered feet. These are good choices for cold climates.

You can purchase newly hatched chicks in the spring and raise them yourself. This is fun to do, but it takes longer to get your first eggs. Try to buy year-old hens from someone nearby with lots of chickens. People who raise chickens for eggs to sell usually replace their hens every year. These older birds will still produce an egg every two to three days and will be easier for the novice to deal with. Expect to pay from two to five dollars for laying hens. Select plump, well-feathered birds with bright eyes. Buy at least five or more hens to start with. Each hen will lay an egg every two or three days, sometimes more often. Some hens produce an egg every day. As hens age, their egg production will decrease and eventually stop. However, it is not unheard of for hens to continue laying regularly for their entire life, about five years.

To Rooster or Not to Rooster

Roosters are not necessary to get eggs. Your hens will lay regularly whether you give them a "husband" or not. The only difference will be that the eggs will be fertile. Many breeds of chicken are not good sitters and will not brood, so, unless you really want the sound of a rooster crowing at dawn and during the day, don't get one. If you have nearby neighbors, a rooster can cause bad blood quickly with his constant noise. Some roosters are very aggressive and will attack you when you are in the hen house collecting eggs or feeding. A furious rooster flying in your face with his spurs at the ready is frightening and those spurs can cause nasty wounds right through jeans. Be sure you really want one before you carry home that beautiful strutter.

Collecting the Eggs

Ideally, you will want to collect your eggs daily while the hens are outside in their exercise pen. If a hen is in the nest she is probably getting ready to lay, is laying, or has just finished. Check the nests more than once daily and you will soon get a feel for the best time to gather your eggs. The hens are sometimes very possessive of these eggs and will not appreciate you taking them. If a hen is on the nest, talk to her soothingly and slip your hand under her gently to feel for the eggs. If she pecks at your hand, let her alone and come back after she leaves. Put your eggs into a basket or plastic bucket and handle them carefully. It is not necessary to wash eggs. Sometimes an egg will be soiled and these should be rinsed in hot water before putting in the refrigerator. If you keep clean bedding, straw or sawdust in your nest boxes your eggs should all be clean.

Eggs will keep for many weeks under refrigeration. However, when you see how nice freshly laid eggs look and cook, you will want to always use the freshest. Make sure to date and rotate your eggs so that you don't end up with stale ones. Don't worry if you don't use them up as fast you they accumulate, fresh eggs from home-raised chickens are a lovely gift for a friend and you can even sell your surplus.

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