Keeping Chickens as Productive Pets

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAChickens are among the most productive of pets, and if numbers are an indication the back yard poultry movement is booming. Chickens are no longer cast in the barnyard to fend for themselves nor strictly farmed in volume – there are more options including pastured poultry and those with a dozen or less birds for eggs.

For most people interested in raising chickens for their own use it comes to whether you want to raise meat birds or keep hens for eggs. This can make a difference in the choice of breeds or the time from hatching to the table. The commercial industry uses white feathered birds but for home production there is no standard restriction.

Those interested in raising some meat chickens would do well to keep it at 25 or 50 in the order. That’s a chicken a week if they all survive, for the freezer. Many hatcheries will run specials sometimes a “frying pan special” which you can get a good deal price wise. Most of the birds will be cockerels, the less valued side of the quest for hens. Leghorn type are cheap but take a couple extra weeks to get to weight; larger birds can also take slightly longer maturing.

Most people looking for chickens for the back yard will be looking at ordering pullets and raising them for egg layers. Depending on the room available you can choose from white, brown or colored egg layers in a wide range of colors. Generally they will begin laying in about six months or so depending on breed. Some popular breeds for brown egg layers have been Plymouth Rocks, Wyandottes, Orpingtons, Dominiques and Rhode Island Reds.

Those with more room may enjoy the larger breeds such as Orpingtons, Brahmas or Jersey giants. Those with less room can still have the bantam varieties of many of these breeds or silkies which take less room and feed, produce smaller eggs but are still completely edible.

Chickens are often thought of for eggs and meat but another factor when you’re keeping chickens is manure. This can be added to the compost pile for fertilizing the gardens. Typically chickens will scratch dry any wet spots looking for bugs…which reduces flies and other pests.

Confined to a portable or stationery pen they are low maintenance pets that don’t bark all night, can let themselves out of the shelter in most areas and don’t need vaccinations. They don’t need daily walks or expensive toys, eagerly make use of many kitchen scraps and while they aren’t often “lap pets” they’re no less entertaining to sit and watch.

Make sure zoning is not a problem to keeping them, and do strive to keep them contained, odor free and well kept. There is a wide range of colors, feather type, sizes and appearances available from fancy to ordinary.

Did you know – A typical layer hen can mature at standard 5-9 pounds, smaller for bantams. Some crossbreds can be “sex linked” – or have colored females and white males at hatching. Pullets (females) eliminate having to deal with roosters and crowing.

Tips on Keeping Dual Purpose Chickens

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADual purpose chickens were selected and developed to be an efficient producer of both meat and eggs but they can do much more than that. If they are allowed in the barnyard during the day they help keep the insect population down as well as eliminate small rodents that are found.

Many people however misunderstand the function of these useful birds and seem to go to two extremes. This can mean total confinement, which they are less suited for than many commercial breeds, or total freedom which means they will feed something other than YOU! Anyone seeking to keep dual purpose birds needs to remember the principles they were developed for as well as the nature of predators to take an easy meal when they see one. For an owl seeing a dozen Plymouth White Rocks in an unenclosed pen it’s akin to hanging out the “Buffet here!” sign. The birds are not only unprotected but easy to see.

A fenced area of some sort is ideal to keep the birds safe from roaming dogs, coyotes, bobcats, foxes and a wide range of other animals looking for an easy meal. Even with this you can expect to lose an occasional bird to hawks, owls and other winged predators. Once a predator finds an easy meal source and many wild predators will return until the food source is gone.

In past and present chickens left to roam a barnyard have the relative protection of the buildings and people along with the bugs, weed seeds and other treasures that feed them as well as make them valuable to homesteaders! Use caution in letting them roam in your garden as they often will harvest as they roam!

Along with letting the birds out during the day it’s important to bring them into an enclosure at night. This habit can be taught early if you raise them because you bring the grain. As they mature simply bring the same bucket you feed with and call them, giving them a treat inside the pen in the evening an hour or so before dark. Normally whatever they don’t eat then they will in the morning when they wake before being turned out.

It takes little time before they begin automatically returning to their enclosure in the evenings, providing there’s shelter and plenty of roosting space. Nesting boxes should also be available as often hens will get into a routine of laying in the morning. This assures you don’t have to wander the barnyard searching for eggs and wondering how old they are, although you may find an occasional nest. It also keeps skunks and other creatures from dining on the eggs if your chicken coop is sound as it should be.

Another option is a portable pen which the chickens go into at night. The trick here is not to move it very far or they “get lost” and don’t recognize it as home. Still another option are portable pens the chickens are in all the time, typically with a shelter area and nest boxes, solid wire sides and top and often a bottom as well. With this option the birds can scratch and hunt for bugs and get forage then are moved down to fresh ground. This can be more time intensive but can be an option for the right area. If made on skids a good sized pen with shelter on one end can be moved with a garden tractor or four wheeler, while a pen for just a handful of birds is usually smaller and can be moved by hand.

Make sure while planning mobile shelters as well as free ranging to always have water available for the birds. Use caution and have a log or board secured over livestock tanks. Some hens perch on the sides to drink, get bumped or lose their balance and for lack of being able to get out of the tank due to the sides they drown. This is a tragic loss of good birds that can be prevented with a little thought.

Dual purpose birds were developed to be able to forage and work best in that capacity. They can be much lower from a care standpoint than confinement birds but still need some care and attention to detail to insure they have a long productive life.

Good Choices for Homestead Chicken Flocks

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen selecting chickens for home food production it makes a difference if you are seeking eggs, meat or both. For most homesteaders and small farmers there is little more enjoyable than chickens that produce eggs for Sunday breakfast as well as growthy fryers for dinner. This leaves the choices mostly to the larger breeds developed for doing both.

Some people have a preference for white or brown eggs or for the skin color on meat. Here in the US it’s said yellow skinned birds are more favored than the white skinned “English” breeds. Another consideration if raising meat birds and hatching eggs to do so is the temperament of the roosters. There is no excuse for a mean rooster and those that are can easily become Sunday dinner themselves!

For the purposes of dual purpose with a focus on not only producing eggs and meat but also foraging for part or most of their food, these are the breeds I recommend and favor.

Sussex chickens are white skinned brown egg layers that are hardy. Difficult to find in the “light” or “red” colors here in the US they are more easily found in the speckled variety. These are unique and personable birds that have wonderful temperaments, straight combs and each one is unique due to the dots on their feathers, seen as they mature. Often young chicks can look as if “iced” with white drizzled on them. Eager foragers that were developed for the farm the darker colors help protect them from predators during the day as they seek food in the farmyard. They are a “threatened” breed with the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.

Plymouth Rocks come in several varieties that sometimes are represented as breeds including barred rocks or white rocks for example. Among the other varieties are buff, partridge, blue, Columbian and silver penciled rocks, each with distinctive and beautiful coloring. They are hardy birds that grow well and lay brown eggs. These are more numerous than many of the other breeds but many have been “industrialized” so the original farm type is less common. Large size is needed with many of the breed being used as a crossbred for “Cornish rock” or game hens.

Wyandottes are another breed that have a long history in the US as a medium weight bird with rose combs that are less susceptible to freezing then the Rocks. Occasionally a single combed bird is hatched from rose combed parents but these should not be kept as breeders. For those who like a rainbow of colors these come in white, buff, Columbian, golden laced, silver laced, blue, silver penciled, black and partridge. They’re fast growing normally docile birds.

Brahmas are a delightful large bird with hens up to 9-1/2 pounds. Brown eggs and a small comb with feathering in light, dark and buff this is a bird that photos just don’t do justice. They are feather footed, often not favored for farm settings, but their gentle nature allow withstanding cold weather well. They do mature somewhat slower as they are a large breed at maturity and often favored for heavy roasters for the table. Not quite as prolific in the egg laying department as the other breeds these are still a nice large breed to have even if just a few to enjoy in the flock!

New Hampshire is a somewhat new breed with a deep body that has room for meat production as well as brown eggs. They are red in color with a little black in the tail. Long a favorite on small farms these are lighter colored than the Rhode Island Red.

Rhode Island Reds and white offer two colors that may be single or rose combed and have long excelled as a good layer of eggs for a family. Some roosters can be aggressive but normally these are quiet birds that may show traces of black in the tail and occasionally on the wing or body. From a breeding standpoint these should be not used in a program.

Araucanas and americaunas are distinctive for their “ear muffs” and sometimes beards that are visible from a young age. Their appearance is not the only distinctive quality about these birds as they also lay colored eggs in green and blue shell colors! These are hardy birds in a rainbow of colors that are active foragers and quite willing to do for themselves.

Orpingtons are a white skinned brown egg layer that matures at larger weights, about 8 pounds for hens with roosters a couple pounds heavier. Available in black, blue, buff and white these excel as a meat bird and were brought from England over 100 years ago. There was a boom for the breed when the commercial broiler ad roaster market demanded the larger sized birds but when that tailed off so did the popularity of the Orpington. Chicks can be somewhat passive and if raised in a group with other breed care needs to be taken to insure they all eat.

Dominiques were the bird of choice 100 years ago for their ability to raise a good meat bird, forage for food instead of relying on expensive grains and lay enough brown shelled eggs for a family. They were also expected to set and raise their own chicks to insure a steady supply of young birds for the table as well as replacement layers for the following year.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABuckeyes are an American breed that has been likened to feathered cats of the barnyard for their fondness of mice. This is a breed that is critically endangered according to the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. This is a larger breed with a pea comb that leaves less to frostbite in cold weather climates. They are an active, free ranging breed with hens about 6 pounds and laying medium sized brown eggs. With a history dating back to Ohio in 1896 this breed has survived due to a handful of people who appreciate their hardy characteristics.

While many search for the dual purpose characteristics of meat and eggs it must be remembered too that these breeds serve another purpose as foragers. They help control bug populations as they seek morsels and should a mouse cross their path they will show you chickens are NOT vegetarians!

These are wonderful birds that can keep a family fed with basic care and TLC.