Am I a chicken pro? Maybe. But you can be, too!
About the Episode:
I used to think that people who had chickens were REAL farmers. Like whoa, you must have made it as a homesteader if you can keep your own chickens! Now that I’ve had a hen house of my own, I’ve realized how much easier it was to raise a brood than I thought. If you’ve ever dreamed of collecting a little clutch of farm fresh eggs every morning, then this episode will help you demystify the ins-and-outs of keeping chickens!
In this episode, you’ll hear:
- The difference between a straight run and pullets (ooh, technical bird words!)
- What food and equipment you really need to protect and raise healthy birds
- The sometimes hard truth about loss in your flock
And so much more!
Follow me on Instagram @FarmhouseVernacular!
Hello, and welcome to the Vernacular Life Podcast, where we can talk about anything and everything that goes on in or around our turn of the century, vernacular farmhouse. I am your host, Paige, and I cannot believe that we have not discussed what we’re about to discuss today. So we moved to this house about five years ago and it had a pretty good amount of land with it.
And I always thought, okay, someday in the future, I’ll be one of those people that has farm animals. Someday in the future. I don’t know when, I don’t know how, I don’t know what I’ll have, but ever since I was little, I wanted a horse. And so I figured, well, cows, sheep, goats, chickens, whatever goes along with that, I would love. And I just love the idea of having this like bustling busy barnyard that I can kind of tend and I can meet all the animals and learn all their personalities.
But anyway, that is a very long ramble into today’s topic, which is chickening 101. So let’s kind of back up to before I had chickens. Okay. I was convinced that people who had chickens, we were serious farm people, like these people had their life figured out because how on earth could you possibly take care of chickens? Like that’s terrifying. I figured it would be really, really difficult. I figured it would be a lot of work and a lot of like knowhow and like chicken owners were the elite, right?
Like you guys are awesome. You guys figured out how to have chickens. Okay. And I figured that I would have to be like really knowledgeable and I would have to be really studious. And I was going to like crash and burn the first time I tried it, like, I was kind of scared because this was my, we have dogs and cats and stuff, but chickens, like chickens are different.
Well, now I have chickens and I have no idea what I was so scared of because not only are they fine, they are hilarious. And they’re 150% the gateway animal. I started with chickens and then we ended up with pigs and cows like a year later. So just be warned. If you’re thinking about getting chickens, it’s going to result in some other stuff. In fact, one of my lovely employees who is absolutely fantastic, she has chickens and then also wound up with goats, okay, in like a suburban setting. So if you get chickens, you’re probably going to want other stuff. And I will just warn you in advance about chicken math, which is basically where you go to buy four chickens. And then you see that there are only $3 a piece.
So you might as well buy 15. And then suddenly you have like four to five to six times number of chickens that you thought you should have and you don’t really know how it happened. These are all things that are unfortunately side effects of having chickens. But before you get started, I just want to tell you that you can learn the overview of the chickens, you can learn just kind of generally what you need to know, but don’t get bogged down in the details because chickens, as much as I love them, they are extremely stupid and they are extremely fragile.
And so this is a terrible phrase, but where there’s livestock, there’s dead stock. Things happen to chickens. It just, it’s inevitable. You’re going to have predators. You’re going to have stuff. Stuff is going to happen to the chickens, but I don’t want that to scare you off of the absolute giggling joy that comes from owning chickens.
So it’s good to understand the basics. It’s good to kind of know what you’re getting into and know that chickens need water and chickens need food. And here’s a chicken feeder and here’s a coop, but I don’t want you to dive into every single rabbit hole of every single thing that could possibly go wrong with your chickens. Because I mean, I’ve had them for two years and we’ve had our share of tragedy, but I would do it a 100 times over again because they’re just so fun and nothing, nothing beats having eggs all the time.
I had to buy eggs for the first time, about four months ago in maybe two years. And I was grumpy. Going out there and getting eggs is absolutely a wonderful experience. So let’s start with the type of chickens that you can get, because there’s kind of two general varieties. The first one is a little bit less common unless you are kind of in the hardcore homesteading community. And that is meat birds.
Now, meat birds are birds that have been bred to grow quickly with a lot of flesh for the purposes of eating. Like you grow meat birds because you want to eat them. Most people don’t start with them because most people who are getting into chickens have not quite wrapped their head around the idea of processing them and doing all of that. So most people don’t start with meat birds.
However, I have a very good friend who started with meat birds and her rationalization was well, if I start with them and I hate them, then they only are around for a few weeks. And that’s true because meat birds grow so quickly that at about eight to 12 weeks, you’re going to start thinking about processing them. And that’s really not very long when you consider how little they are and then how they grow up.
And then, by the time that they’re full grown, ready for processing, like you’ve only had them a couple months. So if you’re not sure if you like chickens, that is a possibility that you can do as long as you can figure out how you’re going to process them. But I also have seen the meat birds and they were delicious. We ate one. They were absolutely amazing, but they are very different kind of chicken then layers.
So that is the other kind of chicken to talk about. We’ve got the meat bird and then we have your laying birds. Now by laying birds we mean birds that will lay eggs. That’s their purpose. And those are different breeds. Meat chickens, as we said are kind of big and beefy and they’re supposed to get that way so that you have good meat on them.
Layers are typically smaller and they are much more bred for egg production. So they don’t really bulk up all that much. They are really designed to lay eggs. You do have a few breeds that are considered dual purpose, where you can have them lay for a couple years and then you can process them as meat birds. I don’t know that I have a whole lot of interest in that because I’ve heard that the meat’s kind of tough after a while, but for laying birds, this is what I started with. And the first batch I ever got, I got 12 of the same chicken. I got golden comets. I think they were called or cinnamon Queens, I think is another name for them. But I would not recommend getting 12 of the same because why would you have 12 of the same when you can have a variety?
And then you can have a very colorful egg basket with all the different colors of eggs that they’re going to lay. So now I have quite a few different chickens. I have an Americana who lays blue eggs. I have some Marans who lay very dark eggs. I have some bantams, which are hysterical if you’ve ever seen them because they’re tiny chickens and they lay eggs that are like a third, the size of normal chicken eggs. And they’re itty bitty. I have some, what are those called?
Speckled Sussex I think, a couple of those. I have, wow, I’m not remembering what I have. Brahmas, I have buff Brahmas. So once you get into chickening, you can see that there are a whole assortment of different colored chickens and a lot of them lay different eggs. And just as someone who really, really enjoys variety, I would highly recommend getting a lot of different chickens because it’s just fun to have a pretty flock.
Now, when you get layers, they will take about four to six months to actually start laying if you buy them as chicks. So you’re going to have to keep that in mind. If you buy little baby chicks, you’re probably not going to have eggs for another four to six months. And most chickens also take the winter off. So in the dead of winter, in December, and January, and February, when it’s very cold and there’s not a lot of light, the chickens don’t lay.
You can extend their laying season by artificially putting light in their coop. But I kind of like to give them a break, I guess. And I preserve my eggs in the summer when they’re laying a ton with water glassing. So I don’t usually need, well, in theory, I don’t need the eggs in the winter. I haven’t had a successful water glass or really needed it until this year. So we’ll see how that turns out.
Now, when you’re buying birds, you can buy two different versions. You can buy what’s called a straight run or you can buy pullets. A straight run is basically you get what you get. And that means you could get roosters. You could get hens, you could get all roosters, you get all hens. You really have no idea because it’s just kind of a crapshoot. That is not a problem if you are going with meat birds, because you’re going to process them at eight to 12 weeks anyway.
It’s not really a big deal if they’re roosters or hens. They’re not going to be laying eggs. So it doesn’t really matter. You want to get a pullet mix if you’re going for layers. And that is because pullets are specifically all females. And if you want layers and you want eggs, then you need females.
Now you don’t need a rooster in order to have the females lay eggs, they will still lay eggs if you have no rooster. If you have a rooster, some of those eggs might be fertilized and you can still eat them. There’s nothing wrong with them. If you have a rooster and they fertilize some eggs, you may have a hen that goes, what’s called broody. And I’ve had hens go broody when they weren’t around a rooster, but broody is basically just the chicken really, really, really wants to hatch an egg.
And so she’ll sit in her nesting box and she’ll sit on eggs and she might get frustrated and start pecking them when they aren’t hatching or aren’t doing anything. And that’s just something to know about chicken. Sometimes they go broody. And when mine went broody, I had to like lock her out of the nesting boxes for a couple days.
And then it kind of broke her of the broodiness and then we were fine. But if you want all females, then you need to get pullets. And if you want, or don’t care about pullets, because they’re typically a little bit more expensive, you can get a straight run. I got a straight run when I bought bantams last year, I bought little bantams for my birthday and I thought they were hilarious.
And I ended up with one rooster out of that and he thinks he is the big man on campus I will say. There’s another rooster in there with him and everybody listens to the bantam rooster because he’s in charge clearly. Those are kind of the two types of chickens. You can have meat birds, and you can have layers. And then within that, you can get either a straight run or you can get pullets.
For food and water, baby chickens need slightly different food situation than adult chickens. So getting started with chickens, I mean they really, they just need food, water and a safe place to sleep. Like, most all of us, but with baby chickens, you can get these really awesome Mason jar feeders from the feed store. They have a feeder and a water and you fill up a Mason jar and you turn it upside down in this little plastic thing.
And it feeds and waters the chickens from the Mason jars. So I really like those. Now when you have water for your baby chickens, as you put them in the brooder for the first time, we’ll talk about a brooder in a second, you want to dip their little beaks in the water so that they know where it is. You take them out of the box, you dip their little beak, they kind of go and they say, okay, that’s water.
And then you set them down and they’ll know where it is. When they’re very, very young they’re not super strong and they’re not super smart. So they can drown in like half an inch of water. So what I have done is I’ve taken little round rocks or sometimes marbles, and I’ve just put them in the water so that they can still get to the water. But if they fall in, they’re probably not going to be stuck underwater.
And from my experience from my friend who had meat birds, she said that the meat birds are a lot less intelligent than the layers. The layers are very funny. Now once your little baby chickens are about a week old or so, you’re going to want to elevate the water and I’ve put it up on bricks. I found that that works really well because chickens are dirty. They will get everything in their water.
If you have the pine shavings down and the water’s sitting directly on top of it, you come back 20 minutes later that water’s going to be full of pine shavings. So once they get tall enough that they reach it, put some bricks on their side and put the water up on that to help keep it clean. And that just means you don’t have to change it every like two hours. Now for feed, chick feed is it comes in medicated and unmedicated. And quite frankly, I’ve never researched the difference between the two.
I’ve just always bought the unmedicated. And most of my chickens are like happy and fine. But if you want to do some research, you can figure out what’s in the medicated and see if that’s better for you. And that might be better if you’re looking at more of like a commercial egg situation. In my experience, they will find the food pretty well on their own, and they will kick a bunch of it all over the ground. So that’s to be expected.
But with the chick feed, you’re going to start with a high protein grower food. So I was very confused about this when I first went to buy chicken food. There is grower, there is finisher, there is layer, there are all these different kinds of foods and it just has to do with the protein count as far as I can tell. So starting with the young chickens, you will have a higher protein food to help them get up to their laying weight. And I keep them on that for that four to six months until they start laying. And then I will switch to laying pellets.
Now the chicken food, it’ll also come in a crumble, which is exactly what it sounds like. It looks like little dirt, or it will come in a pellet, which is a bigger piece of food. I typically give them pellets because I felt like I was wasting less when I threw it on the ground for them to eat. When I throw the crumbles on the ground, a lot of it just kind of gets kicked into the dirt and they can scratch and they can find it. But I just felt like I wasn’t getting as much benefit out of the chickens eating the food with the crumbles.
So once your adults have started laying and you’ve switched to this layer feed, it’s a little bit of a trial and error to figure out how much food they actually need, because chickens will just eat and eat, and eat, and eat, and eat. But what I did was I started with a pretty good amount of food and I just started reducing it a little bit each day until I stopped getting eggs. And then I held it at that level for a little bit to see if, did they just have a bad day or are they really not getting enough nutrition to put into eggs?
And once I figured out that they needed a little bit more, I just bumped it up a little bit. So I was trying to figure out the minimum amount of food I could give them while still getting plenty of eggs. Now I feed, I have two sets of chickens. I have one that lives in the barn and we call them the littles because they’re younger. And then I have another set that lives in the chicken tractor, which we’ll talk about in a second.
And we call them the bigs. The bigs get less food per chicken than the littles because their chicken tractor moves every day and they have access to fresh grass. So they can kind of scrape through the grass and eat the bugs and the worms and all that kind of stuff. And that will supplement their food situation.
So since we have brought up the chicken tractor, let’s go ahead and talk about the chicken accommodations. So for baby chicks, you need something called a brooder and a brooder, it’s doesn’t have to be fancy. Okay. I’ve used a dog crate. I’ve used like a deep tub. I’ve seen people who use plastic tubs, but it’s basically just a big, deep container that you can put pine shavings on the bottom and then put the little chickens in there. The biggest thing is that it has to have a heat source because usually little chickens who have hatched naturally stay under their mama and they stay nice and warm, but my little chickens didn’t have a mama with me. And so I had to artificially create that.
I use a heat lamp. I haven’t had any problems with that. I know that there are some issues with fire with that, but I secure it very, very well in multiple places. So it’s not going to fall on the pine shavings and isn’t going to burn anything down, but there are also little plates that are warm, that the little chickens can go under and stay warm in that. So you just need some kind of a heat source that’s safe and is not going to catch on fire.
Now, a lot of places recommend that you put a thermometer in there and you keep that thermometer at an optimum temperature. I have never done that. I instead learned to kind of just read the baby chicks because if they’re all sitting directly under the heat source and they’re all piled on top of each other, that means that they’re too cold because they’re trying to huddle together for extra warmth. So the heat source needs to be a little bit closer to them so it’s a little bit warmer. If they are completely avoiding the center area where the heat source is, and they’re all kind of scattered around the periphery, that means it’s too hot.
And you have to raise that heat source up a little bit. I found that the optimum kind of chick distribution for the heat source is when they’re all kind of under the heat source, but they’re scattered and they’re maybe a couple inches apart and they’re kind of doing their little chick flop. When they sleep, they sort of just flop down. It’s really cute.
And then you look at them and you’re like, are you dead? Or are you okay? So if a thermometer would make you feel better, you can use one. But I just happen to not. I will also say if you can do it, don’t keep them in the house long. I raised two batches of chickens in the house and chicken dust is a thing. It gets everywhere, absolutely everywhere, and they just kick it up and then they start losing the little baby coat and then it just gets all fuzzy.
And it’s just, it’s a nightmare. So if you have a nice outbuilding that’s warm enough that you can keep them in, do that instead. They also smell. I mean, they’re birds, they’re chickens, and you have to keep the coop pretty darn clean in order to make sure that it doesn’t stink up your house. So if you can do it outside, that’s just a lot better.
Now, once they’re big enough, I think I moved mine at around eight to 12 weeks old. Once they’re about that big and they have all of their feathers in, they’ll look a little bit like tiny dinosaurs for a while, but once they have like a pretty good amount of their real feathers in, you can move them to a coop. And there are lots of options out there. If you search chicken coop build plans, you’ll find 1,001 different chicken coops that you can build, but we didn’t opt for that. We built a chicken tractor. And if you check the show notes, you can find a link for the exact chicken tractor that we built. They’re wonderful plans. We’ve been very happy with the chicken tractor and it comes in three different sizes, depending on how big of a flock you want.
So a chicken tractor is basically a mobile chicken coop. And this one is very nice because it has a large area for grass. It’s about a 10 foot by eight foot area of grass. And because it moves the chickens get fresh grass every single day. So at night they go up in their coop, you can kind of close them in there. And then in the morning you move the coop, you let them out and they have fresh grass, but what’s really nice about the chicken tractors is that we have not had an issue with predators stalking it because they don’t stay in the same spot. They move, the chicken tractor moves every single day. So a Fox or a raccoon or whatever, can’t stake out the chickens because they’re in a different spot every day.
So for that purpose, I really, really like the moveable chicken tractor. If you have the land, if you have the space, if you have the grass that you can sacrifice because they will tear it up, I really, really like having a chicken tractor. Now the chicken tractor we have only fits 20 chickens and I currently have 27, so that’s not going to work. And the rest of the chickens, I have 11 of them in a stationary coop in the barn.
Now, if you’re going to do a stationary coop, there’s really two things that you need to think about. One, is that chicken wire is not for chickens. It’s called chicken wire. That is a misnomer. It is not for chickens. It is too weak and most strong animals like raccoons or foxes can tear through it and get to your chickens. What you want instead is hardware cloth. It is much stronger. It is much more durable, and it will give you a much better chance of protection against predators.
Now in your stationary coop the biggest problem is that because it doesn’t move, predators can stake it out. And we have had issues in our coop with a Fox. We had a Fox that dug under one of the sides of the chicken coop and got a couple of my girls. I was very grumpy about that. So in order to combat this, you have to bury wire, bury hardware cloth about six to 12 inches under the outside of the coop.
And I did that and we have had, knock on wood, we haven’t had any issues with predators digging under there. And I check for signs of digging. I put rocks around, make sure they don’t get in there, but that’s really the biggest issue with a coop. Now you can look up online how big of a coop is needed for various numbers of chickens. The coop that we have is probably about 12 by 12 feet, and that holds 11 chickens.
So you will need more space if you have a fixed coop than if you have a chicken tractor. The other thing you can do that I’ve seen people do is have an electric fence. And I would really like to do this at some point, because I would like to integrate my two flocks together so that it’s just easier, but they set up poultry netting and usually that’s attached to a fixed coop so they can hang out during the day on the nice grass and then can go into their coop at night and chickens will go back into their coup at night. I just haven’t done it yet because it’s just one of those things that’s on the to do list that I haven’t gotten to, but I really would like to try the electric fence so that I can have a little bit more of a free range chicken.
Some people do free range their chickens, which is basically where you let them out during the day, they peck around your yard. And then at night they go back into their coop. I have dogs who will absolutely eat my chickens. So I haven’t ventured that far into that. So that kind of covers what kinds of chickens to get and how to feed and water them and how to house them. But just a couple final thoughts for chickens.
And the first one is that you’re going to have to prepare yourself for some loss. As I said before, where there’s livestock, there’s dead stock. So you’re going to have some chicken loss. I’ve lost quite a few chickens. I had my dog get into some of them. I’ve had foxes. I’ve had some just spontaneously keel over and that’s it. Every single time I cry. And I’ve said to myself that when it doesn’t hurt to lose animals anymore, that’s when I stop having animals.
It’s just a fact of life. It’s just what happens. Chickens are very fragile and they are natural prey and they don’t have a lot of defenses. So they’re going to unfortunately pass away. So just go into it, knowing that before you get started. But the thing is that they are hilarious. They are so much fun to watch. We call it chicken TV when you just sit there because they just have these little chicken thoughts and they’re just doing their little chicken things, and they’re just going over here and then going over there.
And it’s just hilarious to watch them do and be chickens. So even though it’s kind of challenging sometimes if you lose them and even though it is a chore that you have to then keep up with, the fresh eggs and watching their little personalities, all of it is just absolutely hilarious.
And I would highly recommend anybody who’s interested in chickens to get chickens. So check the show notes for the link to the chicken tractor plans that we purchased. And then we built from. It’s a wonderful chicken tractor. It took us about two days to put it together and it’s held up really well for two years now.
So I hope that was interesting. I hope maybe you learn something about chickens. I hope maybe if you’re on the fence about getting chickens, maybe this kicked you over into the chicken party. Thank you so much for listening. I’ve loved having you. And I will see you next time. Bye.