Keeping chickens for eggs and meat is not only fun, it’s easy and cheap too. And, if you manage things right you only have to buy them once. The first thing you need is housing for your chickens. Chickens will thrive in almost any coop, and there are a myriad of options and plans available out there. I used a fast framer kit which allows someone without a lot of carpentry skills to build a building without having to worry about cutting angles properly.
There are also lots of ideas on square footage per chicken – the coop I built was about 56 square feet, and typically chickens need about 3-5 square feet per bird to be comfortable, so technically my coop should hold about 10-18 birds comfortably, although over the winter I kept about 6 for my needs, and 25 for the summer months. Murray McMurray hatchery is what I used to buy my chickens and equipment to feed and water them. You have to order 25 birds at at time and they come through the mail. Murray McMurray also usually sends you a free gift exotic bird as well. There are special feeders for the baby chicks so they don’t stand or poop in the food bin, and they need to have a heat lamp without a draft over them. The lamp has to be placed so that they can move under it to get warm, and be able to move away from it if they get hot. After about 4 weeks, they’re ready to move into the coop. Baby chicks get medicated chick starter for food in the beginning. I keep mine on it for a couple of weeks, and then switch over to chick starter until they are old enough for laying pellets.
Here is a pretty good video on setting up a brooder, I like the plastic tote idea.
Murray McMurray’s website has lots of useful free information for the beginner, and there is lots of good information here. There are several breeds of chickens that work well for both meat and eggs, my favorite is Rhode Island Reds. If you order 25 straight run (straight run is unsexed, cheaper, and about 50% male and female) and keep one of the roosters, in the spring you can hatch your eggs using a incubator or a broody hen, and raise them for the summer for the freezer in the fall, recycling your laying hens from the previous year. Here is how my coop looked;
There is a window on the side and the back, where it gets the most sun each day. In books you may find that people “light” chickens to keep them at 14 hours of light per day after natural light drops below that point, but I never have, and although egg production slows during the winter months it never stops. The door for the chickens is on the left side of the coop – just a small door for them to come out each morning. Your chicken door needs a good latch though – raccoons are excellent at figuring out how to open things. On the front door there is a piece of wood that can be lifted off and underneath it is hardware cloth for ventilation during the summer months. As long as your coop is well built, and does not have any drafts it does not need to be insulated. Here in Maine the winters get pretty cold, and my chickens survive just fine. If you feel that you really want insulation, it needs to be inside a wall, chickens will pick it all apart. My chickens were free range, that is to say I did not have them fenced in and they were free to forage for the day, returning to the coop at dark, where I would latch them in for the night. You need roosts in your coop – I used 2×4′s across the top. Chickens eat absolutely everything and enjoy table scraps too. I use layer pellets from the local feed store, along with scratch corn and leftovers from the table as well. Your local feed store will have shells (such as oyster or clam) too – chickens need them to keep their eggs hard. Chickens also need grit to help digest their food – if they are free range you don’t really have to worry about it, but if you have them penned you may want to throw some grit in once in a while. Chickens are perfect if you are a gardener too as their feces are fantastic fertilizer and full of nitrogen. It may be hard to see in the picture, but to the left of the coop is a run that I built that is about 8 feet long, and fenced in. You can put a few chickens in there and place them between the rows of your crops, and not only will they weed your garden for you, but they will fertilize it as well. Putting poop directly on plants will burn them, but between the rows it works great. The perfect recycler. For the floor of the coop I use wood shavings, making sure in the morning to shovel out the nights poop from under the roosts – doing it that way lets the wood shaving last for a while before you have to clear them out and replace them with fresh. There are lots of descriptions about particular sizes and shapes for nest boxes, I used a couple of old horse tack boxes – they were not very big, enough for a chicken to get into and turn around, and enough for them to feel hidden. A good trick to get them using the nest box is to put a wooden egg in them, you can get one at any craft store. It’s fun to watch chickens in the yard, and listen to their various calls. Some days they seem really intelligent, and some days the opposite. They are hardy and easy critters to keep.
The act of killing a chicken to eat can be a difficult one for anybody, and some people can’t do it. It is a fact of life, that something dies so that you can live. Celebrate the fact that you are providing for yourself, that you chicken had a much better life than a commercial chicken did, and that there are no chemicals or hormones in the meat you are going to eat. Here are a couple of videos on how to do it correctly. For me personally, I didn’t bother scalding and plucking, rather I just took the skin off and quartered. There is also some good information in slaughtering day for the meat chickens.
When I first decided to keep chickens, the book below was very helpful to me. Give it a try – it’s fun and easy, and there’s nothing like watching a rooster strutting his stuff.