Hello and welcome to The Vernacular Life Podcast where we talk about anything and everything that goes on in our 1906 Vernacular Farmhouse. I am Paige, your host as usual. And today, we’re talking about chickens. Oh, I love my chickens. So, I got my first batch of chickens in March of 2020 and sadly, those chickens are not here anymore. But I currently have 27 chickens, which in my opinion is about 145, too few. But I wanted to talk to you about what the heck goes into getting chickens because I was very, very, very, worried before I had chickens. I looked at people who had chickens as like the elite. Like you have clearly, clearly excelled at adulting in your life because you can take care of these birds. I could never do that, that’s way too hard. And now that I have chickens, I’m like, “Oh, these are fun.”
So, going to kind of walk through the different kinds of chickens you can get, where you get them, what to feed them, how you keep them, and all the things related to chickening that I have learned in my year and a half of keeping chickens. So, here we go. The first question we have to ask is what to get. Because, did you know that not all chickens are created equal? Of course, there are other kinds of birds. There are turkeys, there are guineas, there are pheasants, there are all sorts of other things we can get. I’m specifically talking about chickens because that’s what I know. And within chickens, there are two broad categories. There are layers and there are meat birds. Now, you can start with either. I have a very good friend who actually started with meat birds because she figured, “Well, if I don’t like having chickens, they’re only around for eight weeks and then we process them and then there are no more chickens.”
Turns out though she loved having chickens, which is just kind of what happens. We’ll talk about chicken math later. But meat birds are kind of dumb, kind of slow, they are very, very fast growing. They eat a lot because they have been specifically bred for their meat. Layers, on the other hand, are typically a lot leaner. They don’t typically have quite as much muscle mass because they have been bred for egg laying. Now, there are some birds that are dual purpose, that do technically lay eggs and then you can also have them as meat birds. Those will be smaller than a lot of your chickens that you will get at the grocery store just because what’s at the grocery store is a very specific kind of bred chicken to be that size. So, you can figure out what you want to start with.
I would recommend if you were going to start with layers, get a variety. Because there are a lot of different kinds of birds and they lay a lot of different colors of eggs. The first chickens that I got, I got 12 of the same, which I didn’t even think of it as a thing to consider until I had all 12 of them and I was like, “Well, you guys are kind of boring.” So, there are white egg layers, typically those are very high production volume. I have a Brown Leghorn and a White Leghorn and they lay all the time. I get almost an egg a day from them, very high production. Then there are a whole bunch of brown egg layers which come in variety of different colors. You have your Marans who lay really, really dark chocolate brown eggs. You have just kind of your standard Rhode Island Reds and, which I think they lay, I don’t have a Rhode Island Red so why would I say that?
I think they lay brown eggs, but I don’t remember. Quite a lot of chickens lay a medium amount of light brown eggs. And then you have your olive eggers which are basically across between a blue egg layer and a brown egg layer and you end up with green eggs. And then you have blue egg layers which are your Easter Eggers, your Ameraucanas. It’s really, really fun to have a variety of egg. They don’t taste any different. The eggs too I find taste eggier than eggs bought from the store because ours are on grass most of the time. But the different colors don’t taste any different and it’s really just extremely fun to have this pretty colorful egg basket in your kitchen. And while we’re on the topic of eggs, if you have freshly laid eggs from your chickens and you don’t wash them, you can leave them out on the counter. You can wash them and put them in the fridge if you want to but you can also leave them out on your counter and they’ll be fine.
So, when you’re getting your first birds, you have to decide if you want to get the meat birds because you want meat chickens or if you want to get layers to give yourself the eggs which is usually what people go for. If you happen to get a rooster, that’s okay, you can still eat fertilized eggs, it just sometimes in some places it causes issues with selling them. I know in this state, you have to check to make sure that they haven’t been, that they’re not growing into little baby chickens. If you have a rooster, and then of course, roosters are also loud and they sometimes fight you. So, roosters are not the end of the world if you get one and you don’t want it. Sometimes you can sell them on Craigslist or wherever or sometimes you have to get rid of them.
So, that’s the first thing, meat birds versus layers. I have entirely layers and when my second batch finally starts laying, I will probably be getting like 20 eggs a day. I don’t eat 20 eggs a day so I don’t know what the heck I’m going to do with all of them but that’s an issue for a future Paige. The next question is, where do you get chicken? They will range from 50 cents, a dollar if you get them on clearance, up to $20 or $30 a chick if you’re going for some very specific rare breeds. The ones that I usually get, I don’t spend more than $10, usually they’re about $4 to $5 a chick. Because I’m not really interested in the super rare breeds, I just want a bunch of chickens. I have bought them both at my local feed store when I can find ones that I like there and then I’ve also bought them through a local hatchery.
I’ve heard people who have had bad luck with ones from feed stores. I haven’t, I mean, it’s kind of a thing. I will go ahead and put this phrase in here now, where there’s livestock there’s deadstocks. You have to be prepared for the fact that some of your chickens will die. It’s just what they do. I have lost chicks from hatchery and I’ve lost chicks from the feed store. So, it really is kind of a crapshoot at least around here. But if you do go to the feed store and you have bad luck, then you can try a local hatchery. I did go with a local hatchery because you can ship chicks actually. After chicks are born, I believe they can survive 48 hours with everything that was in the egg with them. They don’t need additional water and food for 48 hours.
So, because of that, a lot of hatcheries will ship very, very young chicks to you and then you get a call from the post office and they say, “Hey, your chickens are here,” and then you go pick them up. I’ve never done that. The hatchery that I like is about an hour and 10 minutes away from me. And so, once a year I will just make a special trip up there, get them, bring them home on the heated seat and then put them immediately in their brooder, which we’ll talk about that. The reason that the hatchery is so nice is because you can get a much bigger variety than you can at the feed store. The feed store where we are tends to have three to four varieties at a time and they sell out extremely quickly.
So, if I know that I want blue eggs, and brown eggs, and green eggs, and white eggs and I want this specific breed, it’s a lot easier to go in through the hatchery and get what I want than to try to go to the feed store and time it just right and get exactly what I want. The feed store chickens that I have have been impulse purchases. I went in there around my birthday and they had bantams. And if you don’t know what bantams are, they are tiny chickens and they are tiny. They are about a third to a quarter of the size of a full-grown chicken. And they’re hysterical. I wanted some for my birthday and I went in one day and they had bantams chickens so I got some. Another time, I went in there and they had two Silver Laced Wyandotte left, which are this beautiful bird, absolutely beautiful.
Their feathers are white on the inside and then they have black around the edges. They’re just gorgeous. There were only two left but you had to buy a minimum of six so I ended up with six new chickens. And that’s pretty much how it’s been from the feed store is they’re just kind of impulse purchases and I’m not really there looking for a specific kind of bird. Now, there are two different kinds of chickens that you can get whatever you’re getting. You can get straight run or you can get pullets. Straight run is theoretically a 50/50 chance of male versus female. They have not been sexed, they have not been separated, they haven’t been, nothing like that, you don’t know what they are. Pullets are usually a little bit more expensive because they have been sexed to determine that they are female. And usually, that comes with some kind of percentage of accuracy.
The hatchery I use has a 90% accuracy with their sexing. So, you can be certain that all of your chicks are female with a 90% accuracy. Of course, that means you could get a rooster too and some people have really bad luck with certain hatcheries that even with that guarantee, they end up with three roosters out of 20 chickens or something like that. So, it is something that happens. That is an issue, but I haven’t experienced it. I’ve had pretty good luck. In fact, I think I have two roosters and one of them was in the bantams which were straight runs, so to get one rooster out of six bantams, I thought that was pretty good odds for me. And then, another one I sort of ended up with accidentally. So, when you’re going with this, you can get pullet. They cost usually a dollar to more a chick to get the pullets versus the straight runs and then you can just be guaranteed that you get the females, which if you’re after eggs, that’s what you want.
Now, what to feed your chickens. Chickens, they eat just about anything. But if you’re not going to have enough of a daily supply of table scraps and you’re not going to let them free range, they need different things at different stages in life. So, when they’re tiny, when they’re little, you’re going to get a chick starter which is usually a little crumble and it has a higher protein percentage, it’s usually like 18% or 19%. The protein percentage is higher than a full-grown chicken feed. And that’s just because they’re growing and they need it. With baby chickens, I tend to feed them as much as they want until they start laying. And I usually use that chick starter until they start laying. So, my second batch right now that I have is still on the chick starter even though they’re three or four months old because they haven’t started laying yet.
Once they start laying, I will switch them to an adult chicken food which is a little bit cheaper and has a little bit of a lower protein percentage. But with the babies, I give them as much as they want and as much as they can eat until they start laying. Now, for the meat birds, actually, there is a different kind of food that is even higher in protein. And that’s because your whole goal with the meat birds is to get them to grow as fast as possible, as big as possible for eight weeks before you process. I have fed the chickens different things in a pinch. Like if I’m out of real chicken food, I will feed them the baby chicken food. If I’m out of the baby chicken food, I’ll feed them the real chicken food for a day or two until I get more. That’s just, I haven’t lost any chicks from feeding them anything like that.
I also don’t tend to buy the medicated chick food. I really have no reason for not doing it other than the first food that I bought wasn’t medicated and so now I don’t buy medicated chick food. I think the stuff that I like the best is Layena. It’s around here, it’s like $17 or $18 for a 50-pound bag. Not too bad. And I’ve had pretty good success and my chickens like it. Now, that’s when their babies. When they grow up, essentially, what I do is, like I said, feed them as much as they want until they start laying. And then, I feed them different amounts and see if I get an egg strike out of it. We have a chicken tractor and we’ll talk about housing in just a second, which moves every day so they get fresh grass every day.
And so, I figured, “Okay, you guys can forge around. You can find bugs and find stuff in the grass to eat and then that means I won’t have to feed you quite as much.” But when I started dropping down the feed, I got a drastic drop in egg production. My girls went on strike. They weren’t interested in this whole not having as much food thing. So, then what I’d started doing as I started ramping it back up until I got the amount of eggs that I was used to from them. And from I have 16 chickens who are laying right now, I’ll get anywhere from seven to 12 eggs a day from them. So, when I was feeding them enough to reliably get between seven and 12 eggs, then I was like, “Okay, that’s enough,” which in our case, it’s three of the scoop that we have. If they get three of those in the morning, then they’ll lay enough eggs. But if I drop below that, they will not do it.
Now, you could free range chickens. We don’t because there are a lot of dogs around here, and I know we have foxes, I know we have weasels, and I know we have coyotes. Chickens are really good at dying. I have lost a lot of chickens since I started chickening. They have no natural way to defend themselves. They can’t really fly. I mean, other than getting up off the ground into a tree or something, they really don’t have any way to defend themselves. So, they’re kind of just sitting there waiting to be attacked. I’ve lost them to foxes, I’ve lost them to dogs, previous owners lost them to weasels, all sorts of stuff. They just don’t stay alive. So, I would love to free-range them just because it would be easier and they could get ticks and the bugs and everything. But I just don’t think that they would last very long.
Something I would like to do in the future is get electric poultry netting and set up a pretty large space for them and move that around so that maybe they can have a little bit more freedom, a little bit more fun around here instead of just sitting in their little chicken tractor every so often. But free ranging is an option if you want to especially if there’s a lot of hover, if there’s an area that they can get away from predators, that’s awesome. I just don’t trust our dogs in particular who, that they wouldn’t go over there and all the chickens would be gone. So, that is a method of feeding them if you wanted to. As far as scraps, they will eat pretty much anything. People freak out whenever you see this but if you bake a chicken and you give the chickens the chicken carcass, they will eat it. They will eat the entire thing.
And people are like, “You’re forcing cannibalism on them.” It’s like, “Okay, firstly, it’s a chicken. Secondly, they don’t have the same issue that beef does where if you feed beef to beef you get mad cow disease and stuff. It’s not that kind of thing.” But also, especially if you have used the chicken’s carcass to make stock, the bones are basically just calcium. All the stuff has been boiled out of it, all the marrow has been boiled out of it. It’s essentially just calcium, which is good for them because it helps build up the strength of their shell. And they’ll eat it. I try not to do that. We have pigs so I give a lot of the stuff to the pigs. But they will eat table scraps, they will eat of cuts of vegetables, they will eat all sorts of things, which is really great because we have started throwing out so much less food now that we have farm animals. Because instead of throwing out food that’s bad, you just give it to the farm animals and then they eat it.
They’ll eat all sorts of things. And I’ve had days where I don’t give them regular food because they get a huge bowl of butternut squash scraps or something like that. So, it really just depends. That’s mostly the food side of things. On the water side of things, they need fresh water. Baby chickens are really stupid. Baby chickens will fall asleep in the water and drown in it. When they’re really, really little, there are these waterers. I got them at the feed store that take a Mason jar, so you can just put an upside down Mason jar in it and they will be able to use that instead or use that as their water supply. But when they’re really little, I fill the waterer with rocks so that they can still get water, but if they fall into it, they’ll probably be elevated and they won’t drown.
That only lasts for about a week because they grow ridiculously fast. And once they’re over a week, they start kicking stuff into their water and within a matter of 20 minutes, their water can be totally full of pine shavings. So, for that, what I do is I elevate the waterer on bricks. You put some bricks in there, you put the water on there and that keeps it mostly clean until you transfer them out of the brooder. For adult chickens, you will need some kind of hanging waterer. Some people have systems with buckets and these little nozzles to keep clean. I’ve had really good luck with the waterers but I’ve only had good luck with them when I hang them. I just have some wire hanging in the chicken coops that holds those waterers about six inches off the ground. And that keeps them pretty clean, keeps the chickens happy, keeps them watered. You just want to make sure that they don’t run out of fresh water especially if it’s hot outside.
Now, the last thing to talk about is where to keep them, what the heck do you do with your chicken? When you bring them home, you’re going to put them in something called a brooder. A brooder is a small space, you don’t want it too big because they will get lost, when they’re very small, they will get lost in too big of a brooder, and it’s very sad. A brooder, we’ve had really good luck with a dog crate. We have an old dog crate and we put shavings down on the bottom of it and then we put the chickens in there. The brooder also needs to be very, very warm because you’re mimicking the mama hen. You’re mimicking the mama hen sitting on them and keeping them warm. And I want to say it’s like 95 degrees for the first week and then you lower it by five degrees every week after that.
There are different ways to which this. There are some brooder plates that just stay warm and the chickens can go underneath it. We’ve used a heat lamp, which you just want to make sure is really well secured so it’s not going to fall down and catch anything on fire. We’ve had very good luck with the heat lamp. I will say though, if you can do, avoid it if you can avoid it, do not brood in the house. They smell and it’s just a thing that chickens do and then they are also extremely dusty. It is so weird that there is chicken dust that just comes out as their feathers come in and it gets over everything. So, I would say that don’t do that. Don’t do it in the house. Brood outside if you can, usually in the spring, sometimes in the fall. It’s warm enough outside that you can brood them until they get their feathers on and then they’re basically covered in the layer of down and then you don’t have the issue anymore.
A brooder is the first thing and to set it up, you need something like a dog crate or I’ve seen people use stock tanks and put mesh over top of it or something. That’s the container. Inside of the container, you’re going to put in pine shavings or wood shavings. Usually, you can get these at the store for seven or eight bucks for a pretty big bag. And then, you’ll put your food, you’ll put your water and you’ll put your heat source. They’ll be good for quite a while in the brooder. They’re really fun to watch, they’re so silly when they fall asleep and they lay down and they just look like they’re dead but it’s like, “Nope, you’re sleeping.” And they’ll stay like that. I usually leave them like that until they are pretty much fully feathered or it’s warm outside.
Once they have a coat of feathers out, as long as it’s not getting really, really cold at night, they should be okay outside. Because those feathers basically act like a down blanket over the entire chicken. Once they are ready to leave the brooder, then you have to think about what kind of coop you want, unless you are free-ranging. But even still, they’re going to need a coop to nest in at night. Chickens have the instinct to go up and to roost in a safe place off the ground at night. We have a couple different versions. We have a chicken tractor, which is hilarious when you say chicken tractor to someone who doesn’t know what a chicken tractor is, it’s just the funniest thing. They’re like, “What do you mean a chicken tractor?” A chicken tractor is basically a movable coop.
Ours has wheels on it, it has a coop part on it, it has nesting boxes, and we move it around every day so that they get fresh grass. This is really good because it offers the benefits of free ranging, of getting all of that grass. But they are more protected because it’s an actual coop. Thing with chicken coops is that you need to make these things so much more secure than you think you do. Because raccoons have grabby little paws, dogs will get into them, foxes, I mean, is ridiculous, determined, I’m sorry, to get into your chickens. Another benefit of the contractor is it moves every day so predators can’t stalk it out so easily. That just makes things a little better for them. And that when it comes to actually getting your chickens, you can do a chicken tractor.
I will leave a link to the plans for the one that we built. It’s okay, I think it’s a little overbuilt. Personally, it’s a little unnecessarily heavy. There’s some extra weight in it and I don’t really like the way the wheels are designed. But it’s fine. I’ll leave plans for that. There are a million out there. Just search chicken tractor and find one that you like. You can also have an actual chicken coop. Half of our chickens are in the tractor and then the other half are in a stall in the barn that was converted into a chicken coop. And that one, it has wire all the way around that’s buried so that predators can’t dig under the coop because I’ve lost chickens that way. It’s has all of the openings covered by hardware cloth. You generally want hardware cloth not chicken wire because chicken wire predators can tear through.
It’s good at keeping chickens in but not very good at keeping other stuff out. And they seem to be pretty okay in there. They’ve got roost, they’ve got water, they’ve got food, they’re happy. Now, the one thing you will need is to make sure that they have a spot to lay eggs. They want to go into a box and lay their eggs every day. And usually, they all use the same box. I have four boxes for 16 chickens and they literally all lay in the same box. But when you’re building your coop or your tractor, you just have to make sure that they have a good, safe, secure spot to lay their eggs for you. Because that’s the whole reason you’re getting chickens. So, you have your brooder, you have your coop, and that’s pretty much everything tactically you need to know about chickens. That’s pretty much it.
The last two things I want to talk about are more about the experience of owning chickens. And the first one is chicken math. People who have not experienced chicken math are like, “What? I don’t understand what this is.” Chicken math stems from the fact that it takes about as much energy to care for 40 chickens as does for 10 chickens. Chickens tend to be really cheap at the feed store. So, when you go in there intending to buy six more chickens, you come out with 24 more chickens because they were just so cute and it’s not really that much more work, so who cares? I have personally, I’ve been a victim of chicken math. That is how I ended up with all of these chickens and way more eggs than we need in a day. But just understand that if you try chickens and you like chickens, you will end up with a ton of them. Because that’s just what happens.
Because, this brings me to the second thing I want to talk about. They are so funny to watch. I heard it described once as chicken TV and that’s absolutely what it is. You sit there and you watch the chickens, and they have these little thoughts and you can just see them on their faces that they are thinking of things and they’re deciding what to do, and they’re looking at you and they’re deciding to peck this and to eat that. And it is hysterical. You can spend just so much time sitting and watching your chickens and learning their personalities and learning which ones are really crafty and wily and which ones are kind of dumb. And it’s just really, really fun. If you’re thinking about getting chickens and you’re nervous about it, take the plunge. Take the plunge, figure it out because they’re the gateway animal.
They’re the reason we have cows and pigs and we’ll eventually have other animals in the future, but they’re the best. They’re just so much fun, and they give you breakfast, and they’re incredible. So, that is kind of everything that I know and have learned about having and raising chickens in a year and a half of having them. I will leave any other resources, some other blog posts from other bloggers that have been really good about how to raise and have chickens. I’ll leave all that in the show notes. Thank you so much for hanging out and for listening and I really, really hope that this has inspired you to get chickens because you will not regret it. They are amazing. I will see you guys next time. Thanks for hanging out. Bye.