By James Stordahl
Extension Educator, Clearwater and Polk Counties
Keeping a small poultry flock can be a fun and rewarding experience for anyone interested in producing their own food. Chickens can be kept by just about any member of the family and make great 4H projects. Chickens are typically kept for eggs or meat, but they are also great for pest patrol, they love all bugs, including wood ticks. Indeed, it's joy to have colorful animals around the home that provide healthy, nutritious homegrown food.
The first decision to make is whether your flock will produce eggs or meat - or both. Once that decision is made, selecting a breed is the first task. Although some breeds are considered dual purpose, breeds are typically divided into two groups, breeds best adapted for the production of either eggs or meat.
Most store-bought eggs have white eggshells, but most farm flocks are comprised of breeds that produce eggs with brown shells. Brown egg layer breeds are generally a better fit for small flocks because they tend to be hardier, more docile and colorful.
Although some layer breeds can be used for meat production, most chickens destined for meat production tend to be a crossbred. The most common one is a Cornish x Rock cross that lives to eat - and gain weight. Some of the fastest growing crosses can be ready for the freezer in a little as eight weeks. The slower growing crosses may take ten to twelve weeks, while a dual purpose breed take up to 20 weeks.
Getting started is as simple as a trip to your local feed store, hardware store or grain elevator. In fact, most of our area communities will have someone that sells day-old chicks. If not, they can be ordered and delivered through the mail or purchased in a nearby town.
Newborn chicks require additional heat since their mother is not there to keep them warm and safe nestled under her wings. Typically, a simple heat lamp and a small pen is all that is needed to get started. The chicks should be "brooded" at 92-95° for the first week, followed by a reduction of 5 degrees per week until a steady 70° is reached.
Once the birds get larger, they need housing that will allow about 4-5 square feet of space when they reach the age to lay eggs - typically at about five months of age. A corner of the barn, an unused garage or even an abandoned playhouse can be adequate. Chicken housing is limited only by your imagination.
Most small flock owners feed a completely balanced feed ration. However, most flock owners utilize table scraps, garden waste, and whole grains from your farm to supplement purchased feed. During the summer, chickens allowed to roam will find about one-third of their ration from grass, weeds and bugs. These pigment rich feeds create a darker yolk richer in the healthy omega-3 fatty acids and carotenoids both of which are beneficial to human health. In fact, a recent study in Pennsylvania found pastured chickens produced eggs that contained 10% less fat, 34% less cholesterol, 40% more vitamin A, and four times as much omega-3 fatty acids compared to standard values reported by the USDA.
Waterers and feeders can be purchased or made with the most basic carpentry skills. The investment in equipment can literally be nothing if you can scrounge up makeshift feeders and containers for waterers. If you would rather purchase these, the investment is minimal, typically less than $50.
If you would like to have maximum egg production during the winter, laying hens require at least 14 to 16 hours of light each day. This can be accomplished with a simple timer and a small light bulb. So as you consider housing options, consider the need for electricity for light, as well as a small heater to keep the water from freezing in the winter. Electricity in the coop is convenient but not an absolute necessity.
Predators may be your greatest production challenge. Chickens allowed to roam will head for the chicken coop to roost as the sun begins to set, but you still need to protect them from various critters. The most common predators are skunks, raccoons, raptors, weasels and foxes - as well as domestic dogs. Indeed, protecting your chickens from someone's meal will be a primary concern and should be high on your "to-do" list. We're not the only ones that like chicken.
Keeping a small flock can be rewarding on many levels, but will be most evident when you begin to eat the fresh eggs or meat. You'll marvel at the flavor of free-range eggs and will wonder when commercial chicken lost some of its flavor.