Chickens are easy to raise and are second only to cattle in return on money spent. An adult chicken will consume 4.7 ounces (weight) of feed excluding wasted feed, and 5 fluid ounces of water daily. This low feed and water consumption results in very reasonable egg costs, and quality you won't get from commercially produced eggs.
There are many tales when it comes to chickens and eggs, "wives tales" or "farmer tales" so-to-speak. There is so much bad information, even on what would seem to be reputable websites. Tales indeed they are. This erroneous information is from a hearsay education, which is far from truth and fact. The most important is the tale that eggs shouldn't be washed. Nothing could be farther from the truth. As with all other avians, chicken feces contains E. coli as well as Salmanella. You should never knowingly invite either into your home. If you don't wash your eggs, guess what you've just done?
Feed quality is a big deal to me. The good thing about chicken feed is that it doesn't vary much in quality from one source to the other, though the price can vary greatly. Unlike feed for other species of livestock which are stuffed with fillers and coated with molasses so animals will eat it. Chicken feed doesn't contain fillers nor molasses. Feed from a local feed mill is generally much better quality and better priced, but it is even more reasonable if you can find a local feed supply. You can feed all of your chickens layer, in crumble or pellet form, but chicks need the crumbles. Though mildly beneficial when very small, there is no need to feed little chicks any special feed. They will do perfectly fine on the same crumbles adult chickens eat. If they were hatched by a hen that's exactly what they would be eating. One of the nice things about the layer feed is that it contains everything that a chicken needs, but not everything a chicken wants; the two are very different. For layer, I feed only crumbles because I usually have chicks just about anytime of year and there isn't much difference in the price between the two, often less than $0.01 per pound.
Utilizing the feeders and waterers from your local farm supply will result in a tremendous amount of feed waste, and dirty water which requires daily cleaning. The key to preventing waste is by making more appropriate feed and water containers which is really easy to accomplish. When it comes to water for your animals, always keep in mind that if it isn't clean enough for you, it isn't clean enough for them either. Jump to Feeders and Waterers
What can you feed your chickens, and what to they really like? Though chickens will eat just about anything, what they really like is vegetation. Especially garden vegetables and greens, even simple grass. In the photo, the chickens are eating habanero peppers, and they will consume every last morsel. You can and should feed your chickens anything left as clean table scraps. Chickens also like chicken, steak, and insects. The best chicken treats are lettuce, tomatoes, fresh grass clippings, peppers of just about any kind, and of course chicken. Even chickens know they taste good! Chickens love insects of all kinds. I once turned over a bucket that had a large female Black Widow spider in it, and a chicken ran up and ate that spider.
There is a lot of crazy ideas about what animals can have as food. You have to remember that somehow animals existed for thousands of years without human interference. They somehow knew what to eat, imagine that. The big difference when humans farm animals, is that they are captive and therefore dependent upon humans for access to just about everything. If your animals have all they need to eat they can and will be selective, and will only eat what they want. If they are starving, they will eat anything out of their instinct to survive, and that is the only real danger in what you feed them. If you have captive animals, there is only one rule that matters: if your animals don't have food and water, than you shouldn't eat or drink until they do. Their very life depends on you! As far as chickens go, keep plenty of layer in front of them at all times. Throw out scratch grains if you have them. If you keep plenty of scratch grain out, they will consume much less layer. I have found that straight wheat is best. If you feed whole or cracked corn, they will not eat most of it.
How many nest boxes do you need?
One nest box for every four chickens plus one is a good rule of thumb. Chickens instinctively lay their eggs with the eggs of other chickens, even when they are going to hatch them. Sometimes two chickens will crowd into the same nest box even though there are plenty of other ones available. Extra nest boxes are necessary since often several chickens will lay at the same time. I keep about 50 chickens and they are provided 12 nest boxes.
In the spring when a chicken sees that there are about a dozen eggs in a nest she may begin to sit on them. A chicken that takes this notion is called "broody". She don't care who's eggs she is sitting on, once she begins the incubation process they are all hers as far as she is concerned. You won't need extra nests unless some chickens start sitting.
Do you need a rooster?
You don't need a rooster unless you want chicks. The chickens are going to lay eggs whether or not you have a rooster, but without one they won't be fertile. I keep two roosters, one just in case the other croaks. Only one rooster will be dominant, and he will be brutally mean to the other rooster. Roosters tend to live slightly longer than hens, but not by much. They are significantly larger than hens, and more decorated especially on the tail. Roosters also have spurs which can get quite long, we don't clip the spurs but you can. Though we haven't had the issue ourselves, rooster can become quite mean and aggressive to humans flogging from time-to-time. If one of our roosters does that ever, I will immediately shoot him. We will not tolerate a mean rooster.
How long to chickens live?
Chickens live about two years on average, roosters slightly longer. We raise our chickens in a clean and healthy environment, and though we have had a couple hens live longer than two years, out of hundreds, it has only been a couple. We have had a rooster that lived five years, but that is much longer than average. To date, our oldest chicken is three years and two months.
How many eggs will you get?
Though most people think that a chicken lays an egg everyday, that is false. Over an annual average you will get (50%) 1/2 as many eggs per day as you have chickens. There are a variety of factors that affect the number of eggs chickens lay each day. The most significant is temperature, and to a lessor degree, light. As the days get shorter in the winter, and the temperatures become colder, the chickens egg-laying will decrease to their lowest daily average, about 25-30% or less. During the hottest periods of summer, the average will drop to about 40-45%, less if the chicken-house is poorly ventilated. During the spring and fall, chickens are the most comfortable and will lay the most eggs at about 65%. Temperature is the most significant factor. Your chicken-house should have adequate ventilation for this reason. Chickens are really comfortable with temperatures in the range of 65-85°F.
I insulated the roof in my hen-house to reduce the heating effect of the sun shining on the roof in summer, and to minimize heat loss in the winter. I neither heat nor cool my chicken-house. You can put artificial light in the chicken-house which will improve the average, but only minutely. I have my chicken-house light on a timer that turns on at 5am and off at 9pm. The reason that I chose that time cycle is so the light turns off after the chickens have come in and are safely on the roost, and it turns on before it is light outside so they can easily get down from the roost. They also have eight hours of darkness with this setting which is an adequate rest period. I use a single LED bulb that burns 17 watts of electricity for 14 hours a day in my 116 square-foot hen-house.
What about the claims of nearly an egg-a-day all year long? Ain't gonna happen unless you control all the factors that could affect your chickens which would require secure, climate controlled quarters. My chickens have free run of their 968 square-foot yard, which is secured by an eight-foot-high fence, and is surrounded by a six-inch-high electric wire to keep predators at bay. Another important note is that chickens only lay eggs for about two years. They don't live much longer than that either. I usually let my chickens free load off of me until they die naturally after they have given me eggs faithfully. I tag all my chickens, so I know exactly how old they are, and I keep good records.
Stress: If your chickens get stressed, they will stop laying eggs, but for a short period of time. This stress can be from several factors, but the most common are; stress from predator threats, and stress from shortages of food and water.
How long do eggs last?
Eggs will stay fresh enough to hatch for 5 to 7 days as long as the temperature is between 50-70°F, cooler is better. Above 70°, the embryo can begin development and if not warmed to the proper temperature, it will die. If you are going to keep the eggs for eating, it won't hurt their freshness to stay in a nest box for a week, so you can feel free to go on vacation. On the counter, eggs will stay edible for up to a month. Refrigerated, eggs can stay edible for 7 months or maybe even more.
Should you wash your eggs?
Absolutely without a doubt YES! One of the most common false statements with regard to eggs is that they shouldn't be washed even for eating. If you are going to incubate egg you shouldn't wash them. However, if you're going to eat them you should wash them as soon as you collect them. It is nice to wash them in warm water but cold water is better than nothing at all. You can use a dedicated dish sponge to clean the more stuck on dirt which is poop more often than not. You could use lightly soapy water, and even lightly bleached water and it wouldn't hurt anything but I don't. I just use warm water. Sometimes it's necessary to soak the eggs for a couple of minutes to soften hardened dirt. For incubating it's best to just knock off the big chunks and incubate them as is. When a chicken lays an egg there is a protective coating on the egg called, "bloom". It is this coating that is best left on eggs for incubating.
Do eggs and poop come from the same place?
They both come from the chicken, but there endeth the simularity. Chickens as with some other species, aligators for example, have what is known as a "vent": a single port. Inside this vent are the same two seperate ports that most other species possess in a more normal way so-to-speak.
Hatching your own chicks is about as much fun as one can have legally. But you have to start somewhere; that's how we know the chicken came first. That's where you have to start. You can get chicks from many farm supply stores or direct from a hatchery. There are also many private people selling chicks they hatched at home. So what breed of chicks to get? That depends on what you want the chickens for. If you want meat chickens, get Rocks. If you want egg chickens there are so many to choose from but some of my favorites are: Golden Comet, Australorp, and Dominique. Bantams are cute but they lay tiny eggs. To me it's about return. Anything on our farm has to pay their own way in some sort of product and with chickens it's eggs or meat. One way or the other they're giving something up.
Chicks need three primary things to survive: heat, water and food. They can do without food for the first two days, but without heat and water they will die quickly.
Heat must be maintained until the chicks are fully feathered. One cold spell and chicks will die. The temperature should be maintained from 90-95°F for a few weeks, then the temperature can be slowly tappered off for the next couple of months, but not less than about 87°F. When the chicks are a couple of weeks old they can be allowed to roam about when they want to as long as they can get to a heated area anytime they want. For this I use a plastic storage box that I got from walmart. I drilled a hole for the heat light in the bottom; cut an opening about 4x4 inches in the side leaving the edge intack for them to come and go. I just set it upside down and there you have it.
Water is more important to all creatures than food. With regard to avians which don't have teeth and are therefore unable to chew their food, water is even more important. Avians simply swallow their food as is. Water softens the food in their crop making it much easier for the gizzard to grind it up. The gizzard works like the heart and breathing in that it is automatic. Contractions of the gizzard (about 16 times a minute) grind up the moistened food using the grit within. Without sufficient water the food stays hard and it will plug the birds digestive track killing them.
Food is second to water and heat because chicks (and chickens) can survive a short little while without it, but not long if they are confined. Without food they will eat things that they normally wouldn't, and when they are finally fed they will over-eat which in itself can kill them. A chick doesn't need special feed; if a hen hatches them they eat what she eats. They learn to forage with the hen that hatched them. We feed chicks layer crumbles because it contains everything they need including the tiny stones for their gizzard.
Feeders and Waterers
Feeders are always going to be better if you make them yourself. The best product for making a feeder is wood since wood doesn't condensate. The feed stays dry and won't mold as long as you don't let it get wet unlike metal containers. A chick feeder should be raised off the ground to the level of the back of the chicks which is just as important as this next step; the size of the feeder slots where the chicks will access the feed. For chicks, these slots should be 1 inch deep, 1 1/2 inches long, and 1 inch wide. (For adult chickens, these slots should be 2 inches in depth, 2 inches long, and 1 1/2 inches wide.)
Water containers can be made from just about any plastic container that has a lid with the use of chick water nipples. To install the nipples, just drill a 21/64th hole and screw in the nipple. Two nipples in the bottom of a 5 gallon bucket is sufficient for 20 to 25 chickens, maybe even more. I use two nipples in the bottom of a 55 gallon barrel that I only refill once a month for 25 chickens. For adult chickens, the water container should be 16 inches off the ground. For chicks, it must be within reach, just about head level with the chicks or chickens.
There are two different styles of these nipple that look very similar. One is spring loaded and the other is not. The nipple used for chickens must not be spring loaded. The spring loaded nipple will work for rabbits, but not for chickens especially chicks. From the moment I hatch my chicks, they use these nipples without prompting. You don't have to do any of that quacky crap like dipping their beaks. Nature works without human intervention believe it or not. Their nature curiosity will have them pecking at the nipple in short order.
When do the eggs come?
Eggs are one of the safest foods on the planet, and can be eaten in many different forms, even swallowed whole if you could get it down. In a survival situation, eggs, since they are known safe, can be eated from just about any source.
Chickens become adults at about six months of age, and begin laying eggs at about that time give or take a month. The eggs tend to be small at first and increase in size for about a month. Eggs can vary in color, shape, and size all the time, even from the same chicken. Inside the egg, especially if the eggs are other than white, colored spots are normal and edible. These colored spots usually occur from the pigment that colors the egg. Sometimes there may even be a spot of blood. These are harmless and can be eaten the same as the perfect egg. You wouldn't throw out a steak because it had blood on it before you cooked it.
An egg can have one yoke, two is really common (double yoke), and I have heard of triple, but I haven't had one myself yet. Once I cracked open an egg, and it didn't have any yoke at all. It is possible to find an egg inside of an egg as well. It is also possible that some chickens lay eggs with thicker or thinner shells than others. Once I even found a soft shelled egg.
I have been asked many times, "How do you tell an egg that is for eating from one that is for hatching." It always strikes me as kind of funny, but everyone has to learn from somewhere, right? So, how do you tell? It's simple, if you have a rooster, all eggs can be incubated and potentially hatched. If you don't have a rooster, no eggs can be hatched because they will not be fertile. They all can be eaten regardless of whether or not you have a rooster. The eggs will look the same when cracked into the pan, with one tiny difference. There is a single tiny cell that lays on the surface of the yoke, this cell exists on both fertile and non-fetile eggs. The difference between the two is that on the non-fertile egg this cell is irregular in shape, while on the fertile egg this cell is perfectly round. It is this cell that will develop into a chick only if the egg is warmed to the proper temperature and maintained at that temperature for 21 days.
When can you put chicks with bigger chickens?
This is an issue relative to a couple of factors. It's relative to the number of chicks, If you have less than six, then they need to be at least four months old. The size of the area is important because if the chicks can't get away from the chickens, they're in trouble. If the per chicken square footage is less than 15, the chicks need to be at least four months old. If the chicks are six months old, the other two factors don't matter because they are pretty much full grown and now called pullets, not chicks. In no case should chicks that are less than two months old and not fully feathered be put with older chickens or they will surely be killed.
No matter what you do, the pre-existing chickens are going to be aggressive with any new additions. It's their domain, and they aren't eager to share it. Once you introduce new animals, the "pecking order" has to be determined, and it is a brutal process. All animals do this in a natural setting, horses, cattle, dogs, and of course chickens.
Want to hatch your own chicks?
You should, it is a tremendous experience to witness the miracle of nature first hand. In just 21 days, that single cell on the surface of the yoke is going multiply and grow into a fully developed chick. That is an unbelieveable rate of growth. This high rate of growth continues for another two weeks or so after hatching, then slows a great deal.
In order to develop a batch of eggs, the eggs must be held at an even temperature range and humidity level for the 21 days necessary. Eggs also need to be turned either manually or automatically. For this, an incubator of some sort will be required. It is not necessary to purchase a commercial incubator, you can build one yourself if you so desire. A commercial incubator will provide good success, but a homemade one will be a lot more fun, and could have a higher success rate.
The problem with small cheap incubators is that they have minimal heating capabilities. They will work, but if opened for to long, it takes a long time to warm back up, which over time can cause hatching problems. If you make your own incubator, you can put sufficient heat in it that it warms up rapidly, where as a result there is less heat on-time. Incubators need to have fans in the top to force the heat down where the eggs are. There should be sufficient fans to ensure that the whole incubator is the same temperature no matter where it is measured. The temperature control sensor however, should be at egg level.
When incubating eggs, not all eggs will hatch. About 5% will be infetile, and others just won't continue to develop. This is true whether artificially incubated, or naturally incubated (by a hen). The eggs can be candled periodically to check for development, but in the end it is normal to have about 35% success rate. I have had as good as 80%, but that is far above average. Generally, the cheaper the incubator, the more likely a poorer success rate because temperatures and humidity are not as accurate, but anything is better than nothing.
It has been my experience that small to medium sized eggs have a better success rate than large eggs. Also, in my experience the eggs begin to hatch on day 19, not day 21 as commonly indicated. Once the chick begins to pip the egg, it can take 12 hours or more for the chick to hatch. You should not assist the breaking of the egg in most cases, though it is so tempting. The chick gets tired trying to get out of the egg, and sometimes die in the process though this is not the norm. Sufficient humidity during the hatch process is of the utmost importance.
The chick can't seem to break out of the egg: This does occur, and sometimes the chick suffocates in the end anyway. The chick is developing at an unbelievable rate even during the hatching process.
- Sometimes time is all that is necessary. You should always give the chicks at least 12 hours to get out on their own.
- You can gently break away some of the shell, but extreme care must be taken not to tear the membrane under the shell. Inside the shell is a membrane that contains blood vessels which are connected to the chick via the umbilical cord. If these tiny blood vessels are ruptured, it will cause bleeding which of course could kill the chick. I have had about 50% success rate in assisting chicks using this method.
- While hatching, the chick is obsorbing the yoke of the egg into it's abdomen. Sometimes after the hatch, a small amount of yoke is visible especially if assisted to early. It is important that chicks like this are kept seperate from others to prevent the other chicks from pecking at this and pulling on it.
- During the incubation period, the chick lives on the nutrients of the albumen, this is the white of the egg, clear before it is cooked. After the chick hatches, it will live on the yoke that it abosrbed during the hatch process until it gets food and water from the outside world.
Innards or yoke is hanging out of the chicks abdomen: You will encounter this sooner or later. I have had these cases with several chicks in a particular batch, and with no chicks at all in other batches, which causes me to think that it is relative to temperature or humidity.
- When this occurs you must remove that chick from the others because they will peck at it. Humidity must be kept (60% or so) until this condition resolves itself, which it does not always do.
- You can put a divider in your chick container to keep this chick seperated; it could do without food or water for up to 48 hours, but I always make sure they have both.
Umbilical cord stuck to egg shell: But the chick is otherwise normal.
- This happens a lot, and often the chick will be dragging around a part of the shell. I keep a small pair of scissors available to clip the cord. Be careful not to tug on the abdomen in the process though.
- It takes very little pulling of the umbilical cord to rupture the tender abdomen of a newly hatched chick. I have even seen other chicks pulling on the umbilical cord of a fresh chick causing a rupture. I always keep newly hatched chicks protected from the others until they can stand on their own for this reason.
Chicks pecking at the eyes of other chicks: Chicks do this and I hate it when I see it. I haven't had any complications from it yet, but I have heard of it.
- Chicks are curious creatures and they can only explore with their beak. There is nothing that can be done about this. The curiosity with the eyes wanes after a couple of hours usually.
Chicks don't seem to be drinking water: Don't worry, they will.
- Chicks can't leave anything alone. When they want water they will get it as long as it's available. Don't dip their beaks in water, they will figure it out when they're good and ready.
- Chicken nipples in just about any covered container are the best method for watering chicks or chickens.
Pieces of egg shell stuck to the chick: Don't pick at it and don't worry, it will fall off.
- The chicks are very tender at this stage, and no, they aren't chicken nuggets, though they could be; picking at these pieces of shell could do more damage than just leaving them alone.