Well, the Delaware State Fair is over, and all of those cute animals went back home. I'm sure that those of you with kids had to go in and out of all of the barns, and then to the petting zoo, too.
How about those baby chicks that were hatching? Weren't they adorable? How many of you had kids begging you to take them home? I always wanted at least one or two of each kind of animal. Did you ever know that there were so many different kinds of chickens?
Have you ever thought of raising your own chickens? They really aren't that difficult, but first you need to check and see if where you live allows farm animals. If you live in a housing development, probably not — but much of Sussex County is zoned residential/agricultural, and then you would be able to have them.
Wouldn't it be nice to have your own fresh eggs? You can buy either baby chicks or eggs to hatch yourself. If you want to hatch your own chicks, you will also need an incubator, which can be a bit pricey.
There are basically five types of chickens; egg layers, meat birds, dual-purpose, endangered and exhibition. There are many different breeds in these categories. Some things will remain the same for raising all of these, but for the sake of this article, we will deal with egg-layers. We will also discuss raising them from baby chicks.
In the spring (April and May), Southern States and Bryan & Brittingham carry baby chicks; however, they go very fast. You should find out if they will preorder for you or allow you to pay in advance for the number of chicks you want. You can also order online. Two of the websites I found that I liked were www.mcmurrayhatchery.com and www.sandgpoultry.com.
When you first receive your baby chicks, you will need to keep them somewhere warm and safe from predators. If you only get six or so, you can keep them in a small-animal cage or dog crate. You do not want to use a cardboard box because of the heat lamp. The lamp could potentially catch the box on fire.
Make sure the bars on the cage or crate are small enough to keep the chicks in. If not, you could attach some chicken wire to the cage very easily using zip-ties. You will also need a heat lamp. You can purchase these from the reptile section in a pet store or, less expensively, at any hardware store.
You will also need something to put chicken food and water in. I do not recommend using saucers or small bowls, as they can be spilled or soiled by the baby chicks, and baby chicks can even drown. I recommend buying something specifically designed for baby chicks.
And, of course, you will need food for your baby chicks. Some supplements may be needed, depending on if your chickens are contained or free-ranging. People at the feed store can help you with the right food and supplements for your situation.
As your chickens grow, they will need a home. They will need a place to nest and pen. Even if your chickens are free-roaming, they should have a coop or nesting area. Many people like to have a pen, even if they are going to allow their chickens to roam.
If you keep the small birds in their pen for a few weeks and slowly allow them out during the day, they will return “home to roost.” They will also generally return home to lay their eggs if they have been started that way.
Their coop/nesting area can be very elaborate or very simple. Remember that you will need to occasionally clean the coop and the nesting boxes, so design something suitable for your needs. If you have an old tool shed or children's play house, you can easily convert it into a suitable home for your chickens.
You will need some perching areas and some nesting areas. If you line your nesting boxes with a piece of cardboard, it will make removing old nesting material easier for you. Then replace the piece of cardboard and add fresh nesting material/litter/bedding. (Do not use cedar shavings, due to the oils and odors.)
Suitable materials for litter are wood shavings, shredded newspaper, soft hay, cut straw, sawdust, ground corncobs, rice hulls, peanut hulls or any other soft, absorbent material. Supply 3 to 4 inches of nesting material per nest. Also apply a thick layer of litter on the floor of the coop. It will help to keep dust levels down and help to keep the coop cleaner and your chickens healthier.
If litter gets wet, remove it immediately and replace with fresh litter. If your coop begins to smell, remove old litter and replace with fresh litter. You can also “spot clean” — as you see areas that collect larger amounts of manure, remove them and replace with fresh litter.
If you want your chickens to be friendlier and less skittish, spending time with them every day will help. Whenever you are around your chickens, move slowly. Talk, hum or sing whenever you are approaching them. The more time you spend with them, the more they will become comfortable around you.
You can also use cracked corn as a lure. Sprinkle a small amount on the ground near you and stay still. They will start associating you with this special treat and will welcome your presence. Chickens also like fruits and vegetables, so by hand-feeding these special treats you will begin to tame them.
Most pullets (young girl chickens) start laying eggs at 20 to 24 weeks of age. She will generally lay one small egg every three or four days. When she reaches 30 weeks, her eggs will be normal-size and she will lay about two eggs every three days. If you want your hens to lay eggs during the winter months, you will need to install lighting inside their coop to extend their daylight hours to 14 hours.
Pretty much, that is all there is to keeping chickens. Provide them with clean, fresh water daily and, weekly, clean their water station. Allow them outdoor space to peck in the dirt or grass. Provide them with food and supplements. Keep their house/coop clean. Enjoy their eggs.
There are numerous books that can offer you advice on keeping them and on building your own coop. One of the books I especially enjoy is “Barnyard in Your Backyard” by Gail Damerow, which also tells you about chickens, ducks, geese, rabbits, goat, sheep and cattle. There is tons of information on the Internet, too.
One thing to bear in mind is that chickens' egg-laying abilities diminish every year. The first two to three years are the most productive. After that, they slow down immensely. Most chicken farmers replace their flocks, either in parts, by adding a few new pullets every year and removing the oldest, or completely replace a flock every two to three years.
The old hens often move to the stew pot. This is something to keep in mind before you become too attached to a particular chicken. You can always keep a chicken even after they have stopped laying — just remember that you will still be feeding and caring for a nonproductive bird.
Cheryl Loveland is a dog groomer, pet-sitter, dog trainer and fosterer for many unwanted animals. She does rescue work for all types of animals and has owned or fostered most types of domestic animals and many wild ones. She currently resides with two bloodhounds, which she has shown in conformation and is currently training her male bloodhound for search-and-rescue work. Also residing with her are a bichon frisée, two cats and two birds. She welcomes comments, questions and suggestions for future articles at firstname.lastname@example.org. Remember, she is not an expert: she offers her opinions and suggestions from her experience and research.