Sunday, March 8, 2009

Raising House Chickens

We keep a small flock of 12-15 chickens. We like the fresh eggs, and usually have enough extra to sell or barter. I have a chicken bucket in my kitchen instead of a garbage disposal, and their manure heats up my garden compost pile. The girls are pets, really, so we keep even those too old to lay until they die of old age.

We keep our egg supply going by buying a few baby girls almost every Spring from the local Feed Store (we have a hen, Missy, that used to hide a nest and bring back babies every year, but she's too old now. Besides, hers now are all less friendly than those we've hand-raised, and we didn't want the extra roosters). Since we're only raising a few babies annually, we don't have the need for a big expensive brooding set-up. Our chicken coop is unheated, and the floor has big gaps the babies would fall through, so we can't put the babies outside. A dog crate kept inside the house works for us.

Chicks are shipped, either to you or to the Feed Stores, the same day they're hatched. The hatcheries will only ship in large groups so they'll keep each other warm in transit, but once you get the chicks keeping them warm is the most important. They survive without food for a couple of days after hatching (if a hen is hatching out a clutch of eggs this allows her to set on the late-hatching eggs a couple more days without having to get up and find food for the first-hatched) because they're still nourished by the remains of their yolk sacs. I buy a 25-pound bag of chick-starter feed every year or two - more than enough for the chicks and then for when the two guinea hens bring in their clutches of keets later in the summer. Some feed stores sell chick feed by the pound too.

I line the crate with paper for bedding (chopped hay or wood shavings could also be used, but that would be too messy in the house. You want to use bedding material too big for them to eat, especially at first, so sawdust isn't a good idea). For the first week, newspaper is too slick for the babies to stand on and could lead to leg problems, so if I've got day-old chicks I'll use paper towels for the first week to 10 days. You also have to check their butts for the first week - cleaning them off with a damp towel if they get pasted up with dried poo. With these guys, now almost 5 weeks old, I put a few more layers of newspaper down each evening, making sure they have a clean and dry place to sleep. Then a couple of times a week I'll roll up the old layers, put them into the compost bin, and put down a fresh layer.

I found a little feeder designed to be used with a canning jar in a second-hand store, but before I got that I'd use a clay plant saucer. The main thing is to use something low enough that they can eat out of and heavy enough that they can't tip it over. I make a waterer they can't stand in from of a can with a couple of holes punched near the rim, filled with water, and then flipped into a glazed plant saucer (once they go outside, I make a bigger one out of a coffee can flipped into a cake pan). Now that they're bigger, I've put a pointy tippy rock on top of the can to keep them from trying to perch on it.

Day-old chicks need 90F temperatures for the first week, and then can handle 5º less each week. Last year (photo at right), our chicks were maybe a week old when we got them, so I rigged up a small light hanging down that they could huddle under for warmth, raising it up as they grew. This year, our chicks were at least 3 weeks old, so they'd be ok with temperatures in the middle-70's. Instead of fixing up a light bulb for them in the spare room, I decided to try a low-energy method. I put the crate in the living room on the coffee table a few feet from the wood stove, and loaded the stove up each night before going to bed. They'd be huddled together for warmth in the morning, but quiet, and as soon as I'd start up a fire and open the shade to let in the sun, they'd be up and scrabbling about, happy little cheepers.

Chicks will let you know if something is wrong - they let out a loud, sharp alarm call. When they're content, they make a soft twittering noise. Having the dog crate upside-down puts the windows down at their level, and I like watching them watching me when I'm sitting in my chair, listening to them twitter. They can be a bit messy scratching about, so I've got a piece of plastic underneath the crate, draped up over the couch behind to catch any bits of food or paper they may toss out. Now that they're bigger I've got their water and food dishes raised up on upside-down plant saucers so they won't scratch food out or get stuff in their water.

This afternoon it was sunny and almost 60º outside so I loaded them into the cat carrier and put them out in the dog run for a couple of hours. They got a chance to sun themselves, scratch about, and dust-bathe, the rest of the flock got the chance to check them out, and I got the chance to give the crate a good cleaning (can't have the house smelling like a chicken coop). It'll be at least another month before they're feathered out enough to go out in the dog run full-time. By the time summer gets here, they'll be big enough to join the rest of the flock in the coop.


Valerie said...

I loved reading about these chickens. We used to have goats and a donkey but we don't have any of that now. I have always wanted to get chickens though to have for eggs and just fun for the grandkids.

DogLover said...

Dog Crates re also a safe way of transporting your dog in the car, as well as a way of taking him places where he may not be able to run freely. If you properly train your dog to use a dog crate, he'll think his dog crate is a safe place and will be happy to spend time in his dog crate when needed.

Annette said...

What a great idea! I love your chickens. =) Ronnie and I talked about building the coop and where - it appears to be a go!

Nancy M. said...

Baby chicks are so cute! My friend is wanting me to split an order with her, but I haven't decided if I want/need to get more or not?

Marsha said...

Thanks for sharing this! I've wanted chickens for so long but always shy away from actually going for it. I don't know why. Your news and success are inspiring, though, so who knows...