A Novice’s Guide to Raising Chickens

town_142WE DID SOMETHING RIGHT WITH OUR CHICKENS

If I had the space I’d have at least one-hundred chickens roaming the property.  That’s how much I love raising these birds.

We’ve had our birds now for about two years I guess.  We haven’t lost a one from the original flock, so I’m writing this from a soapbox constructed by a perfect success rate.

Knock on wood!

Before it sounds like I’m tooting my own horn, let me tell you my success rate with quail is considerably less.  I think we’ve lost close to forty of our quail due to my lack of knowledge and plain stupidity, so consider that as we go along.  In the case of chickens, you can learn from my success. In the case of quail, you can learn from my failures.

A LITTLE BACKGROUND

We live in Olympia, Washington.  In our city we are allowed five hens and no roosters.  I’m okay with that.  We don’t pay much attention to the hens requirement, but I’m okay with the rooster regulation. They are noisy s.o.b.s at four in the morning and I get it that some people are turned off by the crowing.

So check your city ordinances before you consider raising chickens.

We raised ours from chicks. We drove out to a guy’s farm and picked out six as I recall. We drove back out three months later and swapped three roosters for three hens.  Sexing a chick is tough and I’m not good enough at that talent yet….but I will be.

Anyway, that’s how we started, but before we ever bought the chicks (for $3 each) we had to get ready for chickens.

A CHICKEN ENCLOSURE

You can go out and spend a thousand bucks on a pre-made chicken coop/enclosure, or you can do what we did and build yours from scrap lumber and whatever else you have handy. There are several things that are non-negotiable when building a chicken coop so listen up.  You need it to be completely secure from predators, you need it to have nesting boxes and you need it to have a roosting pole for the chickens to sleep upon.  Those three are absolutely necessary.

There are secondary considerations as well.  The placement of the coop is fairly important.  You want the coop to receive adequate sunshine during the winter but adequate shade during the summer.  You want it facing away from brutal winter winds.  And you want it made in such a way that it is easy to clean because, after all, you will be cleaning it.  Chickens are pretty consistent about not cleaning their own coop.chicken coop March 31 2013 002

Our coop is basically made with two large wooden pallets, so the interior is about 40”x48” in size.  That’s just big enough for our six hens to rest at night. We made it in such a way that their food and water is stored underneath the coop, and their nesting boxes are flush to the back wall so they don’t take up interior space.  You can see from the attached pictures what I’m talking about.

The entire front panel of the coop is on hinges so it is easy to open up for cleaning. In addition there is a chicken door for easy access for the chickens. The entire coop is tightly sealed so no critter/predator can enter at night.chicken coop March 31 2013 011

THE CHICKEN RUN

Our chickens are free-range, meaning they have the run of the backyard.  Not so when they were younger, though; once they were put outside for good, at about four weeks, we attached a chicken wire enclosure to their coop.  The “chicken run” was twenty feet in length and completely sealed with the chicken wire to keep hawks and owls from swooping down and grabbing the four-week old chicks.

We removed the chicken run at about six weeks.  By that age chickens are smart enough to hide under their coop if they hear a hawk screech.

We let the chickens out in the morning when it is light enough.  At night they enter their coop at dusk without any prodding and we lock them in.  Never…never…leave your chickens outside at dusk, early dawn or nighttime.  Once raccoons and possums start roaming, your chickens need to be locked up away from harm.

CHICKEN FEED

Any farm and garden center will have fifty pound bags of chicken feed you can buy.  A fifty pound bag lasts us a long time with our six hens.  Most of the time they forage for their own food, scratching in the dirt for bugs and worms.  We supplement all that with some table scraps.  The girls love watermelon. They love pasta and rice.  As long as we don’t give them too much of those things our girls are fine.  Our chickens have never been sick so again, we must be doing something right.

Always make sure your chickens have easy access to water.  Always!  During the winter this is a real issue if you have cold weather, so plan on some arrangement where their water will not freeze up.

LAYING EGGS

Hens lay eggs, just like human females.  They do not need a rooster to lay an egg.  Let’s get that myth out of the way immediately.  The only reason to have a rooster is if you want fertilized eggs to raise more chicks.

Chickens will lay eggs, on average, five or six days per week during the main laying season.  They need twelve to fourteen hours of daylight to lay on a regular basis, so our girls lay from April to early October.  They could lay during the winter if we provided artificial lighting for them but we don’t choose to do so.

Most of the time our hens will lay their eggs in their nesting boxes, but occasionally they feel a bit adventurous.  Don’t be surprised if your hens lay under bushes.  It doesn’t mean anything is wrong; it just means your hen was feeling a bit cantankerous.

TIMELINE

Just to give you an overview, this is the timeline from purchase to adulthood:

  • Newborn chicks go to a brooder (Tupperware bin and heat lamp)
  • Remove chicks from brooder at about four-six weeks and take them outside to the coop and run (provided the weather is warm enough)
  • By six weeks they can be set loose to free-range if that’s what you choose to do
  • By eighteen weeks they should be laying eggs.

That timetable is an estimate so don’t quote me on it.

How long does a good hen live?  I can’t answer that.  There are so many factors that it’s impossible to say.  Plan on a few years at least.  You should be getting eggs for three or four years at least.  Some will lay longer; some will not. Some will live longer; some will not.

In the brooder as chicks
In the brooder as chicks

CHICKEN BREEDS

Do your research. I don’t have enough space here to list all the chickens available.  I can tell you that the best egg-producers are Leghorns, Rhode Island Reds, Light Sussex, Plymouth Rocks, Cuckoo Morans and Barred Rocks.  If you are raising chickens for meat then look at the Cornish, Cornish Rock, Jersey Giant, Plymouth Rock and Orpington.

Talk to anyone who raises chickens and they will all have their own personal preferences and opinions.

WHAT ABOUT THE WEATHER?

Chickens are pretty hardy birds.  Last winter the temps dipped into the low twenties and the birds were fine.  If you live where it really gets cold you can always run an extension cord out to the coop and attach a heat lamp.  If it rains hard the chickens will get out of the rain.  If it’s real hot they will go to the shade.  Snow confuses them but they muddle through it.  Just make sure they have access to fresh water at all times and you’ll be fine.

ONE FINAL NOTE

My good friend Cristen requested that in the future I give all of you some idea regarding cost of items I mention. In my last blog I mentioned that ½” hardware cloth was the best to use for enclosures.  That “cloth” costs about $1 per foot for the three foot wide, and $1.50 per foot for four foot wide.  Poultry netting, also known as chicken wire, costs about fifty or sixty cents per foot.

Thanks for the suggestion, Cristen. I’ll try to be better about that in the future.

ANYTHING ELSE?

If you have questions just drop me a line at holland1145@yahoo.com or ask your question in the comment below. I’ll do my best to answer them.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: I’m amazed more people don’t raise chickens.  I find them enjoyable, personable, intelligent and great producers of food.  Why some communities don’t allow them is a mystery to me.

I hope you give it a try. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed in the experience.

Bill

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Raising Quail

town_358HOW TO RAISE QUAIL

As promised, here is a primer on how to raise these delightful little birds for fun, profit and food.

Let me begin by stating I simply don’t understand why anyone interested in urban farming would not raise quail.  The only logical reason against it would be if your community does not allow it, but my experience is that most communities have yet to write laws for or against them.  Quail seem to have flown under the zoning radar so far.  Excuse the pun and yes, it was intentional.

Let me give you just a few reasons why I think you should raise quail:  they take up very little room; they are cute; they are champion egg-layers; their eggs are much more nutritious than chicken eggs; they are easy to butcher if you want them for meat; and did I mention they are cute?

Let’s get started, shall we?

COST OF QUAIL

Most quail chicks can be purchased from local farmers for two or three bucks each.  If your goal is to raise quail and eventually hatch your own eggs, then purchase one male for every four or five females.  If you just want eggs you don’t need a male.

HOUSING QUAIL

Safety, safety and more safety!  Quail are basically defenseless against backyard predators and, in all honesty, they are not terribly intelligent.  In other words, their survival instincts suck.  As I stated in an earlier posting of this blog, our quail are housed in two outdoor aviaries.  One aviary is 14’x19’ and has forty quail in it. The other aviary is 10’x14’ and has twenty inhabitants.  We use ½ inch hardware cloth for the sides and the top of the aviaries, and we sink that cloth at least a foot into the ground along the sides.  The hardware cloth is non-negotiable.  Raccoons and weasels can fight their way through chicken netting, so don’t use it.

Quail, in the wild, spend most of their time on the ground in tall grasses, so we simulate that by throwing hay into their pen.  They like to hide in the hay and lay their eggs there. It gives them a sense of security and as an added bonus it’s cute to watch them try to hide.  Quail can fly, about a maximum of ten feet vertically and horizontally, and they will break their necks if there is a solid ceiling to the aviary, so that’s why we use wire for the top in one of our aviaries. The other aviary is over ten feet tall, so we have plastic roofing on top of that.town_553

FEEDING QUAIL

There are bags of quail feed available at your local farm and garden center.  Quail will also eat chicken feed.  They will also eat fresh greens.  They love watermelon.  Baby chicks need to have their feed ground down to a powder. We just toss the feed in a blender and grind it up. Adult quail just eat the pellets whole.

RAISING THEM FROM CHICKS

If you buy baby quail then they need to be in a brooder for about four weeks.  We just use a large Rubbermaid tub with a heat lamp about 18 inches above the brooder.  We place wire over the top of the brooder and keep their food and water fresh.  In warm weather, the quail can be placed outside after three or four weeks.  In cold weather, four weeks in the brooder is a minimum.  They are hardy birds, and they winter just fine, but they need to be old enough to handle the cold before putting them outside.  A day or two before we put our quail outside we turn the heat lamp off for a few hours at a time just to get them used to the colder temps.  Off with the lamp for two hours, on with the lamp for two hours, and so on.  In a day or two they will be ready for the great outdoors.

If you live somewhere that has brutally cold winters, you might have to string a heat lamp out to your quail enclosure and turn that lamp on when the temperature really takes a dip below freezing.  We’ve had nights in the teens and the quail were fine without a heat lamp, but I think any temps below that you will be pushing your luck without that supplemental heater.

EGG  LAYERS

Quail will lay, on average, 1.5 eggs per day during laying season.  They need about fourteen hours of sunlight to lay, and they will lay during the winter if you provide artificial light for them.  We don’t do that, so we get eggs from ours for about four months out of the year, but with all the quail we have we get a lot of eggs each day.town_642

The eggs taste, to me, just like chicken eggs, but they are considerably more healthy.  As you might suspect they are small.  For us, it isn’t worth the effort to fry up a batch of eggs for breakfast.  Too much work to make a decent omelet.  What we do is hard-boil them.  They make a great snack done that way. Peel the shell, pop three or four in your mouth for a quick snack, and your appetite is satisfied.

THAT’S ABOUT IT

If you have questions just include them with your comments.  Oh, breeds…we raise Japanese Coturnix.  They are the most common here in the States and the most affordable.  There are quite a few breeds to be found online, but the Coturnix is our breed of choice.

And I did not mention how to butcher quail, but you can find out how by watching Youtube videos.  It’s an easy process if you are into that sort of thing.

I hope that helps.  I’ll talk to you about raising chickens next time.

Bill

Sanctuary is Important to Us

town_553What’s in a name?

The name of this blog should be self-explanatory with the possible exception of the word “sanctuary.”  What am I referring to? Why not just use the title without that word?

Actually, the word “sanctuary” is fairly important to us.  Let me explain.

A BASIC BELIEF WE HOLD

Here’s the thing: we don’t believe in putting animals in cages.  Oh sure, our quail are in aviaries (actually Bev calls quailries, but that’s another story), but the aviaries are rather large and we are quite certain the quail feel a certain freedom of movement.

Our chickens have the entire yard to roam in.  The rabbits are in the aviaries so that is considerably better than living in a cage….and the goats have the entire yard.  We believe we are providing a much better home by doing this than if we kept our animals in wire cages that severely restrict their movement….thus, they are in a sanctuary.town_142

PLUS….

Sitting in our backyard is like sitting in an emotional sanctuary for Bev and I.  We love it here.  We are at peace here.  We leave the craziness of the world at the front door. When we walk into the backyard we enter a different world.

So the word “sanctuary” is very appropriate.

Sanctuary also means a place of safety.  We have spent quite a bit of money to keep our animals and birds safe.  Short of a grizzly bear, nothing is going to harm our critters.  We could have done it all cheaper but the way we see it, our animals’ safety is our responsibility.  Bev and I are the ones who made a commitment to raise animals and birds, and part of that commitment is to give them a quality life while they are with us.  There are less expensive ways to do this urban farming gig, and I’ll talk about many of them in this blog, but I won’t cut costs where safety is concerned.

We use what is called half-inch hardware cloth on the aviaries. We learned the hard way. The first time we did this we used chicken wire, only to find out a determined raccoon or weasel can get through chicken wire. That cost us twenty-two quail and it was a lesson well-learned.  So hardware cloth it is; expensive but safe.  We dug a trench a foot deep all the way around the two aviaries and sunk the hardware cloth that deep to prevent animals from burrowing in…and out…another precaution that equals safety.

COMING UP……

Next post I’ll talk to you about raising quail.  Hopefully I can get some of you interested.town_358

Bill

An Introduction to Our Urban Farm

town_683Welcome to our Farmyard!

This is a blog I’ve been meaning to start for months but….well, you know how it goes.  I just never seemed to find the time in the past.  This blog combines two of my passions…writing and urban farming.  I hope you’ll follow along and I also hope you’ll find something useful as we go along.

Credit is due to my wife, Bev.  She is really the spearhead behind this blog.  She has been lovingly prodding me to get this started.  She even took the step of naming the blog, another not-too-subtle hint that I needed to get in gear.

What are we going to do here? We’ll going to talk about all things related to urban farming.  Those of you who know me know my wife and I have one-eighth of an acre smack dab in the middle of Olympia, Washington.  On that one-eighth of an acre we have a large vegetable garden, berries, fruit trees, grapes, chickens, quail, rabbits, goats and guinea pigs.  We still have room for more and we have big plans, so you’ll be able to follow along as our dreams and plans come to fruition.

I believe in urban farming.  I think it is a movement that is gaining momentum in this country and I think it will continue to grow.  The state of the economy, for those of us in the bottom 99%, dictates that changes be made in our lifestyle.  Growing our own organic food is a huge step in the right direction.  Raising birds for fresh eggs is another.  Sharing ideas with neighbors increases a sense of community, bringing people closer together.  Managing an urban farm in a responsible manner helps the environment.

I could go on but I think you get the picture.

Let me give you an overview of what we’re doing, and then I’ll cover a specific topic with each new blog.

HOW IT ALL STARTED

It started with a small, 2’x3’ herb garden.  That was four years ago.  Next we added a 20’x40’ vegetable garden, then five chickens, then last year we began our quail enterprise.  The rest were added as we found the time and funds to do so.

We began, believe it or not, with the belief that lawns are a complete waste of time and effort.  We had a big yard and no desire to constantly mow it, so we decided to eliminate the lawn and put in something productive.  The garden was our answer to Monsanto and other corporations that are slowly poisoning us through our food supply.

WE ARE NOT PERFECT

We make constant mistakes despite the tons of research we do before making any addition or change to our urban farm.  In that way, our farm mirrors life.  About the only thing that can be said about us is that we don’t quit.  We keep trying something until it works for us, and I’ll share our mistakes along the way so you can learn from them.

So we’ll go from here. Thank you for joining us along this journey. I hope we post something that inspires you to give urban farming a try.  Share your ideas in the comments.  Ask questions as well.  We will all learn together.

Bill