{DIY Backyard Chickens} for the love of one good egg

with a coop full of laying hens our fridge sometimes overflows with fresh eggs

In the spring of 2009 I decided it was high time I got myself a flock of chickens. For years I had contemplated this endeavor, collected flyers from Agway and Cooperative Extension, and had even gone as far as hoarding old building supplies for a coop, some of which are likely still in my parent’s garage (sorry Mom & Dad!). Finally, I had the time and got the guts to go for it and now I can’t imagine not looking out my kitchen window each morning to see my flock pacing the fence waiting for their breakfast scraps or a jaunt in the grass.

Keeping chickens is something I would highly recommend if you live in a place where hens are legally allowed and you are willing to do a little homework and preparation. My motivation was two-fold: I desperately want to have a farm, and this is as close as I can get where I live (we are zoned “R2″ where we live; mixed residential/ag for those with enough acres and road frontage), and I love eating fresh, naturally raised eggs but they are expensive! Minus the initial expense of the coop, keeping chickens that are laying eggs at their peak is cheaper than buying eggs at our farmers market at $3.50-$4.00 a dozen. I’m getting a little ahead of myself, though… if you are interested in keeping chickens, or hearing the story of our evolving flock, read on. I’m going to break it down into parts that will be posted over the next several weeks because there is a lot to share. Depending on interest, I can share more or less… please comment with any questions you have or topics you’d like me to address when it comes to chickens in your backyard.

First up,

THE CHICKENS:

In two and a half years, we have had 26 chickens total (never more than 9 at a time). This is slightly abnormal, as chickens should lay well for one and a half to three years and can continue to lay for many more years if well cared for BUT we had a few predator issues the first year and had a few additional bumps in the road as we’ve learned.

Our first nine chicks came from Vermont. I actually drove two hours each way,  including the ferry ride, with my baby in the car to get them. I drove them home for three hours in the way back of my station wagon. It was too cold to open the windows. It was smelly and feathery in my car by the time we got home and my son was less than happy.

TIP#1: Unless you are picking them up in a truck on a cool evening in the summer and have an appropriate crate for them, source your chickens locally. They can travel safely in a well vented cardboard box, but three hours is about two and a half hours too long to drive for chickens. If you are looking for baby chicks, Tractor Supply or Agway generally sell them in the spring. Or, ask your local egg farmer when they will be ordering or hatching chicks and if you might be able to share the order or hatch. Alternatively, ask your local egg farmer if they are retiring any older hens (I’d recommend 1-2 years max). Farmers often only keep hens for a year to a year and a half because their production declines after that, but a well kept, healthy older hen may lay eggs every or every other day for several more years.

About 3 months after that epic journey to VT, I took another journey to west Texas (also not a great idea in July at 6 months pregnant). On our second night there, I got a 3am text from my husband, who stayed home.

“Trouble on the farm. Call me when you wake up.”

Apparently, the chickens made some noise in the night and at first my husband thought they were squawking over who got what spot on the roost. As it turned out, there was a large, unfriendly racoon that had made its way into the coop. To make a long, sad and awful story short, this awful creature killed six of our nine robust and healthy hens just weeks before they were due to start laying (usually at about 5 months give or take a few weeks). It was really disappointing and disheartening, but we cleaned up the mess and locked down that coop like Ft. Knox.

TIP #2: Keep your coop secure. More to come on this in the next installment of DIY Backyard Chickens.

Later that fall, I went to a “tailgate” poultry sale held at our local fairgrounds.

TIP #3: Don’t walk, RUN away from any “tailgate” sale. Buy your chickens from a trusted source and inspect then carefully, especially when buying older birds. If you are not sure what to look for, do some research or bring a knowledgeable friend. We brought home 6 “hens” that appeared healthy (I checked one of them, they all came from the same guy). What I failed to see was an awful case of chicken lice (not to be confused with human lice – different species, chicken lice aren’t interested in human hair/bodies) and mites. It also turned out that we took home a beautiful Aracauna rooster. He was gorgeous, but crowing isn’t a great way to make neighbors happy in a suburban ‘hood.

This leads me to two common questions I get:

1) Do you need a rooster to get eggs? NO. Hens ovulate, like humans, with or without male influence. Hens do it every day, in the form of an egg. If they are exposed to a rooster, then the eggs will be fertilized. You can eat fertilized eggs and not even know it. Fertilized eggs only turn into chicks if they are incubated either under a mama hen (called “broody” when she sits on eggs), or artificially in an incubator.

2) What do you do with chickens you don’t want? We are lucky enough to have a livestock auction house about 4 miles from our home. Each Saturday they accept animals of all kinds for auction. In theory, this is not how I’d like to see my time with my hens come to an end BUT in the case of the tailgate chickens I had no other option (I treated them aggressively three times to rid them of the mites and lice with no success and the infestation got so bad I feared my coop would never be clean).  Also, and admittedly selfish, taking unwanted birds to the auction is just easier for me and for my kids. Obviously, I would not recommend getting your chickens from auction.

To bring us to the present, after the tailgate chickens (and the 3 from my original flock who were infected by the newbies) were gone, I let the coop rest for a couple of months so that I could clean it thoroughly and be sure there weren’t any remaining parasites waiting around to infect new birds. After the quarantine was over, I got six older hens from a generous farmer friend who knew what I had been through. Most of those gals laid eggs faithfully through the following year, minus one that died in the winter of unknown causes. Part of that story is here. When they stopped laying I decided it was time for them to go. Please don’t take offense to this but my chickens are not pets. I do everything in my power to keep them healthy and happy but when they aren’t producing at all (I was getting 1 egg every other day from 5 hens), it becomes too expensive. We could have had the hens processed and used them in the soup pot but they were on the smaller side and would not have justified the expense of having them processed. So, off to auction they went. Apparently they were appealing to someone because I got a check in the mail the next week and those old gals earned $8 each which is quite a bit for old hens! I do hope that they are happily eating grass scratching around for bugs in someone else’s yard.

some of our “old ladies”

So you might be wondering what is in my coop today? Well in May my mom hatched eggs in her third-grade classroom. I special ordered 18 blue laced red wyandotte fertilized eggs and my mom’s students carefully tended them in the incubator. Unfortunately, only 5 hatched and those chicks came home with us in May. More unfortunately, it appears as though (due to the noise we’ve been experiencing at 6am and the lovely red wattles we are seeing) FOUR of them are roosters. I still haven’t decided what their fate will be but I am leaning against the auction… and I will be on the lookout for some older hens soon because it’s been far too long since we’ve had fresh eggs from our own backyard.

I hope that you don’t let my “lessons learned” discourage you from pursuing your own dreams of having your own backyard. Really, if you get healthy birds and keep them healthy and secure from predators you should be able to easily avoid some of my early pitfalls.

Stay tuned next week for the next installment of {DIY Backyard Chickens} THE COOP!

And don’t forget to leave your questions or comments so I can be sure to address anything you’d like to hear about in upcoming posts.

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Categories: Animals- Raising, chickens, DIY, Homesteading

Author:Liz

Mama to Andrew and Eleanor. Lover of food, all things fiber (the woolly kind) and farms. Can't go a day without being outside and making something with my hands.

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10 Comments on “{DIY Backyard Chickens} for the love of one good egg”

  1. September 15, 2011 at 11:53 pm #

    wish i could have chickens. Maybe someday when my children aren’t allergic to eggs it might be worth it! Nice post!

  2. September 21, 2011 at 8:49 am #

    I wonder if they allow chickens in your town? Your yard has multiple perfect spots for a coop!

  3. February 13, 2012 at 1:37 am #

    It is so helpful to hear that you’ve gone through very similar trial & error, struggles with predators and disease, AND the great joys and gloriously fresh eggs that we have in our first year of owning backyard chickens! Thanks for writing your story down!

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