Raising chickens for multiple purposes requires a few things: patience, planning and persistence.
We have had chickens for egg production since moving to our small hobby farm in 2016 and while it is never easy, it is a great way to have animals on your land that help produce food for you and your family. (Note: make sure that where you reside will ALLOW you to have chickens. Many towns and even neighborhoods or HOAs can limit/restrict you around having certain animals… even GENDERS WITHIN ANIMALS… some places won’t allow roosters… make sure you check before getting your heart set on a backyard flock! Basic terminology for you up front: Straight Run means you will definitely get a rooster…. it is ‘unsexed’. If buying for layers, always buy female only. Meat come in straight runs. Roosters grow bigger and yield more meat. But they also learn to crow… LOL)
A small backyard flock needs to be well thought out before jumping into having one… and there are tons of resources out there to help you plan and prepare yourself for the responsibility of caring for animals that produce food for you. We started our chicken journey learning from Justin Rhodes as well as a bunch of books on the matter (some listed within the reference links at the bottom.)
#1 – I would say the BIGGEST QUESTION to ask yourself is WHY you want a flock. For eggs? Sure. That is a perfect reason! It will, however, require you to select breeds that are hardy for your climate, have egg production rates that you will consume, and that you have the proper housing and protections for in place to keep them healthy, happy and ALIVE depending on the predatory animals you may have in your location.
#2 – HOW MANY EGGS WILL YOU ACTUALLY CONSUME? An average hen can lay 200+ eggs a year. Some as many as 300+! A healthy young hen may lay an egg a day… so, quick math, here… if you have 12 hens of a heavy laying breed…. you may be getting as much as 7 dozen eggs in a week.
There is NOTHING WRONG with 7 dozen eggs in a week.. you can gift to food pantries, local churches, run team breakfasts for your kiddo’s baseball team… or bake a lot. Like, ALOT alot. LOL … Just know going in that based on breed and quantities.. you may get a LOT of eggs during peak production times. Aka: end of March thru End of October.
#3. If not eggs, and for meat…
- You need to understand the breeds available (many many chickens are classified as ‘dual use’ and you can raise for either meat or egg production… but there are several meat specific breeds that each have their benefits and draw backs… do your homework!) as well as…
- Learn their grow out timeframes (some are at harvest weight within 7 weeks! some require to grow out to 12 weeks… )
- Select your order dates based on your climate… you may choose to raise meat birds in the spring if you have easy summers… or wait until the fall when the high heat won’t impact their rapid growth and health…) and
- Understand how you will process them. Are you processing yourself? If so, understanding the tools and methods required for healthy and humane processing is key. If you are not, then is there a small scale poultry processor in your area? There usually is (if you have farming communities nearby) and make sure you contact and get on their schedule according to the grow out timeframes for your birds. We used a local processor for our first 4 years… this year we will process ourselves for the first time. Our reasoning? Understanding and owning the responsibility for our poultry for their entire life cycle is important. Just hopping into the car and grabbing a pack of tenders at the store removes a very important part of being a consumer of meat: the reality of what it truly means. We don’t raise many, and we respect the process and the animal. It is a responsibility we take very seriously… and if you are considering raising meat birds, I implore you to fully explore and understand what it means. It is not an endeavor that should be entered without full commitment.
Let me take you through our prep and plan for this year.
We have not added chickens to our laying flock or brought in any meat birds in 2 seasons. We lost a few hens over the last year and a half… not many, mainly due to old age or a predator… so we were ready to bring in some young ladies to keep our flock diverse. We have 3 different generations in our flock and all still lay (the old biddies still give us a few a week!)
- Ordering: We ordered in mid December once the 2021 ordering opened up for the suppliers we trust. We ordered 6 new egg layers and 10 meat birds-
- Layers: We like diversity in our flock and eggs so we ordered individual new breeds. We don’t do any animal husbandry or hatch our own eggs… (we tried roosters as flock protectors but the few we’ve had ended up quite aggressive and needed to be culled due to aggression with the hens) This year we added: A Speckled Sussex, An Easter Egger (lost one of our Whiting Blues last year), a Silver Spangled Hamburg, a Black Copper Maran, a Blue Laved Red Wyandotte and a Buff Brahma
- Meat: We’ve raised 3 different breeds and decided that the Freedom Rangers are our favorite breed of meat birds. The Cornish Cross (a breed that is very easily found EVERYWHERE as they grow out the fastest, the largest and yield the biggest breast/white meat ratio out there) were just too much for us. They were eating machines and basically grow so big and unwieldily that it didn’t feel very humane. They were MASSIVE within 7 weeks. You have to closely manage their feed consumption (only allowing access to feed for 10-12 hrs a day and forcing foraging most times)… it just didn’t feel healthy or right for us. So we tried Freedom Ranger and LOVED THEM. They’re like the exact opposites of the CX (Cornish Cross). They LOVE to forage, they are active and act more like chickens… they do take 12 weeks to grow out and the yield is smaller BUT the actual chicken is so much better. We also tried a Red Ranger which was a version of a broiler which is based on the Freedom Ranger but was slightly different and the yields were not as good. So this year it was back to our beloved Freedom Rangers!
- Schedule delivery: We opted for Spring deliveries so we could harvest the meat flock (and integrate the layers) by the time it was peak camping season and we would be traveling a bit more with our pop-up.
- Week of Delivery: inspect, clean and set up all equipment as well as get supplies in order. Most brooders are INDOORS… either in a basement, or garage or other area where you can maintain the heat required for the baby chicks until they can be transitioned outside or into their introductory enclosures.
- Brooders (we use pop up playpens)
- Heat Lamps (one for each pen)
- Pine shavings
- Thermometers (one for each pen)
- Waterer (one for each pen)
- Initial feeder (one for each pen)
- Bulk feeder (for when they are older… particularly the meat birds who can eat twice as much as the layers!)
- Larger waterers and feeders for when they go outside at 4 weeks (or once their feathers are in)
- FEED: Get starter crumble. We like organic and unmedicated and have never had issue with our birds. They have been very healthy and happy!
- Super Water – Apple Cider Vinegar diluted into the water of your lil babies gives them a small electrolyte boost which helps them in their early days…
- Arrival (thru Feather Out): inspect chicks, de-band (if banded) and transition into their respective pens (if you are getting meat birds and layers, it is easiest to keep them separate from day 1, as you do need to monitor the feed more for the meat birds… you also do not want to integrate them with the layer flock as when it is time to process, you will be chasing them around trying to grab the right ones!)
- teach to drink: baby chicks have enough nutrients in them for the first few days, and will need your help learning to drink. Gently dipping their beaks into the water
- show food, but the instinct to peck and scratch is strong… they figure food out pretty quick on their own.
- MANAGE TEMPERATURES in each pen. From hatch to 7 days, they chicks will need a space in each pen that is 95 degrees. There are many ways to accomplish this, from a basic heat lamp pointed at an area of you pen/brooder, to a heat plate that is very localized heat. Chicks are also super smart…. if they’re too hot, they will move where it is cooler… if they are cold, they will seek out heat. Each successive week of the chick’s life (until about 4 weeks) you will lower the temperature in their ‘heat zone’ by 5 degrees… so from day 8 to day 14 = 90 degrees, day 15 to day 21 = 85 etc… you will see their feathers come in quickly starting in week 2 so once they are ‘feathered out’ (no fluffy just feathers) they are able to maintain their body temp better and eventually after week 4 usually you can eliminate the heat lamps or use very sparingly if your evening temps are cold.
- INSPECT THEM SEVERAL times a day. The fluffiness of baby chicks is cute, but it can also be BAD. They can sometimes poop and because it catches in the fluffy, eventually get completely blocked up. This is called “pasty butt” and can be deadly to baby chicks! Knowing how to check, clean if you see it potentially blocked and monitor for other signs of sickness or lethargy is VERY IMPORTANT. These animals are being welcomed into your homestead or backyard… your commitment to their healthy is extremely important.
- MONITOR FOOD and FRESH WATER DAILY. Water should be changed daily. Food can be supplemented when it gets low (and with the meat birds, it will get LOW… depending on breed, they can EAT CONSTANTLY. With CX, you will need to remove the access to food at night. This breed has been known to actually eat themselves to death. OR they can grow so fast it harms them… this trait happens throughout their lifespan… they can break legs if they grow too heavy too fast, have heart issues, etc… They generally don’t forage so they are lazy, lounging eating machines. Red Rangers act more like a chicken when it comes to foraging… they are much more active… so those concerns are not as common with that breed of meat birds. Their active foraging and scratching habits also are why they are a smaller meat yield, but due to those activities (and diet) the taste is FAR SUPERIOR in our opinion.
- CLEAN THEIR BROODER as needed. ALL BABIES POOP A LOT. Shavings make it easy to clean, you can usually scoop out the areas that are dirty and add a new layer of shavings over the top. Your meat birds will poop a LOT more than the layers…LOL What goes in must come out! (Note: don’t throw those poopy shavings away! To the compost heap with them to help keep that compost engine burning and getting you next year’s garden compost!)
- Transition to outdoor areas:
- Inspect/set up structures a few days before moving out. The meat birds have their own ‘yard’ to forage and scratch to their lil hearts content. Our goal is to have happy and healthy birds, respect their life and their sacrifice for our family and process them humanely. As I said, the responsibility of eating meat should include the understanding of where it came from and how it was treated. While we can’t always do this, we try as much as possible to understand that. We provide 70% of the chicken we consume here in our house, the other is what our daughter loves (Chicken nuggets currently) or what comes from our meat share program from WALDEN LOCAL MEATS (also where we get our beef, lamb, pork and fish from… all sustainably grown, grass fed and finished, small farm supportive and AMAZING.)
- Meat Tractor (I know it sounds weird, but chicken tractors are just a term for a basic, movable chicken structure LOL) with electric net fencing protection. The birds may need a heat lamp available to them if it is still very cold in your location. Full feathers should give them the protection they need though. Our tractor also gets covered with a reflective/insulating tarp that can be removed or pulled back to allow airflow. It keeps out the rain, provides a shaded area for them as well as some wind break…
- Chicken Condo and run. The new layers cannot be immediately introduced to the existing flock. “Pecking order” is a real thing and chickens can be very MEAN GIRLS about newbies. Giving them adjacent space to get to know each other while keeping them separate is recommended by everyone who raises laying flocks. It can take a few weeks, and pecking will still happen once they are fully integrated as they determine the order of dominance, but to avoid any harm coming to your lil ones, make sure you have a good plan in place for this introductory period of a few weeks. We have an enclosed chicken run that opens up into a pasture protected by electric net fencing for our layer flock. Within that large fenced area, we have a big ‘condo’ stand alone coop that is backed up to a metal wire structure (I think it was a dog kennel?) with a tarp on the top for shade/rain protection. This keeps the young pullets (younger birds) separated and safe from the existing flock, while giving them the ability to interact and get used to each other before fully integrating.
- Integration of layers: let them co-mingle but keep and eye for any overly aggressive behaviors. You will always have a top hen and a bottom hen. Just make sure it is mainly corrective behavior you see from those at the top of the order, not actual aggression with intent to harm.
- Processing of meat flock. Based on the breed, you will need to make sure you are prepared to process on TIME. Letting your flock grow too big or for too long is never recommended. The health of a bird should never be sacrificed to wanting a bigger roast. Process ON TIME and appreciate what you received. Our CX average dress weight was 6-7lbs (we had one that was near 9lbs and had bowed legs…. that is probably what had us decide against raising them again) and our FR (Freedom Ranger) dress weight was 4-5lbs. The difference is in the activity and diet of the bird. Meat birds deserve their own post in the future though.
Now layers don’t truly start to lay until they are at least 4-6 months old… sometimes longer. Hatch date and delivery to you will determine when (and if) you will see eggs from your newbies before the winter months arrive and the reduction in daylight reduces the hens ability to produce eggs.
Here is our expectation for this year’s new gals:
Hatch date: 4/12
Feather out expected: Week of May 24th
Move to Condo: Week of May 24th
Fully Integrate: Week of June 20th
Possible Eggs: Mid to late Sept- October (different breeds mature at different rates… the world of chickens is DEEP, RICH and VERY DIVERSE, my friends.)
Example #1: Buff Brahma…
- moderate egg production
- 3 large brown eggs a week = approx. 150 eggs a year
- will lay in winter
- broody (can help hatch and tend chicks if you are breeding on your own)
- 6-7 months to first egg
Example #2: Speckled Sussex
- good egg production
- 4-5 medium pale brown eggs a week = approx. 250 eggs a year
- will lay in winter
- 5 months to first egg
Example #3: French Black Copper Maran
- moderate egg production
- 3 large VERY dark brown eggs a week = approx. 150 eggs a year
- 6-8 months until first egg
Example #4: Silver Spangled Hamburg
- Excellent layers
- 5 medium white eggs a week = approx 250 eggs a year
- Happy foragers with early maturation
- 4-5 months to first egg
I know I dumped a lot of chicken knowledge in this post, but honestly, it is something that have spent a few years learning and hope to share what getting started with ‘chickening’ means.
It might seem like a lot, but once you learn it, get comfortable with it, the every day ins and outs of having your own flock is not that complex.
Food, water, protection, cleanliness of their henhouse… treats, egg collection and usage… how to treat illness or handle predators and aggressive behaviors from the flock are basics that once learned you will just do.
NO chickens do not need to be let outside at 5am every day. BUT they are happier if they are not stuck in the henhouse.
As said before, meat flocks need to be their own post (there’s just a lot to learn and know before jumping in… we took about 2 years before making that leap.) BUT if you are considering raising your own chicken for meat purposes, I hope this post gave you a good starting point along that journey.
Reference links for tools, equipment and resources:
Brooder Kits are available, but you can get your own together easily from re-used items: galvanized tub or even a large plastic storage bin, wooden box, reinforced dog crate… so many ideas are out on the internet…. we love the pack and play because it is easy to set up, break down, spray off…. and is lightweight…
Brooder Box (we use a pack a play so it can be stored easily when not in use but here is another kind):
Accessory Kit (I have never used but this has all the basics in one set)
Chicken coop (we have a barn with one built into a stall… and then have a stand alone out in the chicken yard… this is very similar to what we have as a stand alone. Strong, durable and big enough for a small flock of 4-6 birds!)