Chickens… aka little reincarnated dinosaurs. You’ll forgive any atrocious behaviours inherited from their reptilian, barbaric, cannibalising ancestors for their a cute feathery disguise and endearing loyalty to you (when you have feed in hand). There are a few things worth noting BEFORE you embark on the wonderful journey of raising your own egg laying chickens. I specify egg laying chickens because raising meat chickens is a completely different ball game. And I mean COMPLETELY. I’ll write up more about them in due time but for now, the focus will remain on the egg smashers. They’re entertaining and very functional animals. But they can easily go rogue if not provided the right food, space and care. When it comes to raising chickens, it’s not complicated rocket science. If you’re raising them for yourself, don’t get freaked out by the number crunching exhibited by commercial producers. If you intend to scale your production, then by all means, you may concern yourself with getting your feed portions and ratios nailed to a fine art. On a small home-scale, however, keep it simple. With a little bit of forethought and most certainly, an observant eye, you can quickly adjust to any changes in circumstances. My number one piece of advice?
Think like a chicken.
The Benefits of Raising Your Own Egg Laying Chickens
- Fresh, home grown, nutritious eggs – duh!
- An efficient way to do away with kitchen scraps
- Nitrogen for your soil
- Entertainment for hours
- Feel good vibes from raising happy animals
The Life Cycle of a Laying Hen
Laying hens won’t produce their first egg until they’re 5-6 months old (they are referred to as ‘pullets’ during this time). Depending on the breed, time of year, and maturity of the chicken, they can lay anywhere between 1-7 eggs a week. During winter, a chicken’s natural cycle is thrown off due to shorter daylight hours. So don’t be surprised if production falls a bit during this time. After their first year of laying, a chicken will also go through a molt (meaning it will loose some of its feather) and it will stop laying for a period of 6-8 weeks. Many commercial producers will do away with their chickens at this point, because the whole freeloading thing is a cut to their profits/efficiency. If you can bear this small burden of time, you’ll be rewarded with a second year of decent egg production (albeit at a more sparse laying rate to their first year). By year 3, a chicken will be laying fewer eggs and from there, it’s up to you what you wish to do. The quality also decreases as one can expect from an old hen.
And in case you were wondering….
You can still slaughter them for meat when their time is up. Due to their age and the simple matter of egg laying chickens not being the same breed as broiler chickens, their meat needs to be slow cooked to tenderise it.
Just like humans, if you try and cram too many chickens into a small space, they will go crazy. Chickens are omnivorous foragers. They like to scratch in the dirt and forage through the grass for bugs and an array of tantalizing things our eyes would never pick up. If you’re chickens are overcrowded, you’ll fast know about it. Feather pecking and even cannibalism may occur. They will also do quick work of the ground cover too and soon turn it into a dust bowl. If you are raising them as chicks, their brooder needs to have sufficient ground cover (our preferred form being wood shavings we get for free from the local timber mill) to keep them snug and warm.
When your chicks are old enough to transfer to a larger home, make sure your ground cover in the coop is either cleaned every few days or layered with fresh hay. We utilise a deep mulch method of hay in our stationary coop (which we use for raising our pullets in) by simply spreading a thin layer of hay over the previous. Chicken manure is high in nitrogen so it breaks down over time but you may find if you have a stationary coop, you’ll need to go in and muck it out once it’s built up over a couple months. It’s great for the compost and garden! Naturally, the rate you do this will depend on how many chickens you have and how often you lay down fresh hay.
I’ve also heard of owners using pebbles as the base of a coop to allow easy scraping away of the manure. Another options is raising the coop floor off the ground and having mesh flooring so manure can fall through. This will be part of our mobile chicken coop design for when we transfer our egg layers to pasture.
Roosting Space & Nesting Boxes
Factor in about 20cm of roosting space per chicken. They like to bunch up to keep warm at night. A sturdy bar or branch is sufficient, raised off the ground. Chickens prefer to roost off the ground as a survivalist instinct. Think like a chicken. For the nesting boxes, you want them to be large enough for a chicken to happily sit in, with some hay for them to lay their eggs. They do tend to scratch about and make a mess, so keep an eye on this. We’ve recycled old hydrogen peroxide containers, leaving a 3cm lip at the end to minimise the amount of hay from being scratched out.
Sunlight and Fresh Air
Do not, I repeat, do not, keep your chickens cooped up all day. They need sunlight. Just like humans, they love to be outdoors and sunlight is vital for healthy chickens. Chickens urinate in conjunction with their poo, so it’s highly potent stuff. The strong ammonia smell is toxic in large amounts, so providing chickens will plenty of opportunity for fresh air and sunlight is crucial. Keep their sleeping quarters clean. There should never be an overpowering smell of manure or ammonia.
The ideal situation is to have you chickens roaming on fresh grass each day. We have ours out on pasture and move them daily with the aid of solar powered, electric fencing.
If you’re raising chickens from scratch, you will need to adjust their diet as they get older. Until the 5- 6 month old laying age, they require a slightly higher protein intake. Aim for 18-20% protein in a feed mix. To keep it super simple, buying a good quality organic starter feed will ensure your chickens are getting the nutrients they need. Supplemented with fresh grass and dirt to scratch through, you’re well on your way to chicken rearing success. We, however, are raising our chickens a little outside of the norm. Our circumstances allow us access to less common inputs. They get fed biodynamic wheat soaked in biodynamic milk (1/3 cup per chicken per day) and depending when we have available any of the following – raw lamb/beef liver, smashed eggs (when in excess supply or sourced as seconds locally) with parsley (home grown), food scraps from the garden (we have plenty of chard/kale/green scraps), and plenty of fresh grass and dirt. When chickens come to laying age, their calcium requirements increase. To satisfy this, we save our egg shells and grind them up into a powder to then feed back to the chickens. This is on top of their wheat we soak in raw milk. We also allow our chickens access to grit at all times.
- Provide your chickens with a tray of grit (small rock sand, pebbles, etc) to help them better digest their grains. We buy this by the bag for relatively cheap from our local produce store.
- An added supplement we like to provide is diatomaceous earth. Not only have we used this as an effective external treatment for mites in the past, it’s a great way to keep the immunity of a chicken strong internally and eliminate parasitic threats.
- Dirt baths. Chickens love to bath in dirt to keep mites at bay. A shallow tray with dirt will do the trick, otherwise they dig around and make their own.
I’ll be updating you in the coming months as we go along. The beauty of farming… every day there’s something new to learn!
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