Do you have what it takes to raise chickens?
So, you’ve been thinking about raising some chickens, eh? Well, I’ve had chickens since 2013 (plus researched the hell out of them a year leading up to actually acquiring them, plus scoured the interwebs countless times whenever something happened that stumped me), so I’ve picked up a thing or two about raisin’ ’em. Chickens are definitely not for everyone, but I’ve really grown to love my fuzzy little monsters. The following is the real deal about raising chickens.
The eggs from backyard chickens aren’t really cheaper than store-bought.
If you have some delusions about it being cheaper to raise chickens for eggs instead of buying eggs in the store, well I’ve got some bad news for you, Buttercup… I’m sorry to say that in most cases, your eggs will be a lot more expensive from your backyard flock. Even after factoring the cost of the coop/living quarters, feeders, and other equipment out of it, there’s still the ongoing expense of feed and whatever medium you’ll use for litter/waste management. If you have a lot of access to pasture and you plan to let them graze most of the day, that’ll cut a lot of the expense down. You can also reduce expenses by purchasing feed in bulk (only recommended if you have a secure area to store the feed in that prevents pests from getting to it).
Get a flock of chickens with the expectation that you’ll give them a better existence than that of a typical commercial egg-layer… NOT with the expectation that it’ll be cheaper than buying eggs (because it probably won’t be).
You won’t always get a consistent supply of eggs.
The amount of eggs you get will vary from breed to breed, hen to hen.
I have silkies, which are not seen as super prolific egg-layers. Some of my hens might give me 2 or 3 eggs a week, while others may give me 5 or 6. Then, you have to factor in the spells of broodiness. The broody phase is basically when a hen has decided that she wants to sit on a bunch of eggs and hatch out some chicks. When they’re in broody mode, egg laying is put on pause. (There’s also a hormonal shift that takes place when they go broody, so it can be hard for them to snap out of it until they actually get some chicks.) Silkies can go broody A LOT. They have the motherly gene, so it’s natural for them to want to have lots of babies. This is great if you have the space and accommodations for tons of chickens… not so great for getting a consistent supply of eggs for breakfast.
Aside from broodiness, molting can also affect egg production. Chickens usually molt once or twice a year, and when this happens, egg laying can slow or stop (depending on the severity of the molt). Stress and illness can also bring egg production to a halt.
The eggs are healthier from backyard flocks if…
you give them a good quality feed and plenty of access to pasture. What your chickens eat influences the quality of the eggs, so don’t go out and get the cheapest bag of feed you can find – really look at the ingredients in the feed and decide what’s best for the health of your flock (and, ultimately, you).
Unless the bag of feed specifically says otherwise, assume that anything with corn or soy is genetically modified (which I would HIGHLY recommend you avoid like the plague). Organic feed is preferred, as it doesn’t contain all the nasty chemicals that will affect the health of your birds and the eggs they produce.
I use the Scratch and Peck feeds for my flock. If you have little baby chicks, go with the starter feed, then, after they’re a few weeks old, switch to the grower feed. When they get to egg-laying age, give them layer feed (unless you have a mixed flock [hens and roos], then keep them on grower feed and offer oyster shell on the side to help meet the egg-layers’ calcium needs). You may also be able to get Scratch and Peck feeds through Azure Standard if there’s a drop location near you.
No matter what kind of feed you give them, it’s important to give them some access to pasture. Chickens don’t thrive on grain alone – they eat grass AND any creepy crawly they can find, too. Denying them their natural diet will affect the quality of their eggs (and health).
Get comfortable with handling poop (lots of it).
Not only are you gonna be up close and personal with poop when you’re cleaning out the coop, but you want to take note of any weird changes. Changes in poop can be a good indicator of when members of your flock are sick… in fact, poop may often be the only indicator that something’s wrong (as you’ll see in the next section).
If you’ve never been around chickens, they eat A LOT… and what goes in must come out, so be prepared for the copious amounts of waste they produce. (Put that poo to use – stick it in a compost pile to add all kinds of good stuff that’ll benefit your garden.)
If you get a good quality feed, the smell is really not that bad. (I made the mistake of purchasing one of the cheap/popular brands of feed from the feed store when I first got the chicks – worst.idea.ever. The poo smell was HORRIBLE. It was quickly remedied by going to the higher quality organic feed that I use now.)
Odors can be further reduced by using products like Sweet PDZ (which is a horse stall refresher, but is also commonly used in chicken coops) on the coop floor and/or poop board (if you have a poop board under the roost). If you get Sweet PDZ, go with the granular version to cut down on dust.
I prefer to use sand in their living quarters (with Sweet PDZ sprinkled in) as opposed to pine shavings… and there’s a few reasons why I decided to go this route:
- Pine shavings harbor moisture, which produces a breeding ground for all kinds of nasty bacteria and other pathogens – this can make the coop SUPER stinky and unhealthy to be in
- Pine shavings are pretty costly compared to sand – I can purchase a yard of sand for less than $15… and a yard of sand is enough to change out all the sand in the coop at least a few times (so that $15 probably lasts a couple years)
- Pine shavings are more of a hassle when trying to clean – most people use the deep litter method with pine shavings (which basically entails piling new shavings on top of old shavings, then removing all the shavings at least a couple times a year… this, again, harbors moisture and bacteria and smells gross). Sand, on the other hand, is pretty easy to clean – I have one of those reptile scoops that I use to sift out the poo from the sand, but you could also make your own with some window screen and a rake, or something similar (I find it’s best to scoop once a day or so – if you do it a few minutes daily, it takes a lot less of a time commitment in the long-run vs. letting it pile up). This cuts down on stink and moisture, making it a cleaner, healthier habitat for the flock.
They can die out of nowhere.
One minute, little Penny is scratching and pecking along with the rest of the flock. The next minute, she’s completely face-planted on the ground… deader than a doornail. A lot of times chickens will hide any sort of illness (to the best of their abilities) because their flock-mates will take them out if they don’t (gross, but true). Flock-mates tend to take out the weak, so if the chicken doesn’t want to be pecked to death, they have to act as normal as they can. This, unfortunately, means that you won’t always know when something’s wrong.
If you’re around your flock a lot and are pretty familiar with their different personalities and quirks, you might be able to tell when something’s off. You’ll also want to observe them right after you feed them to make sure everyone’s eating (since a drop in appetite can indicate illness).
If illness is caused by parasites or mites (or something else along those lines), it’s not usually a tough fix. Sometimes, though, they’ll have a weird condition that you can’t really do anything about, so be prepared for some losses.
They are waaaay smarter than most people give them credit.
My flock is filled with master manipulators. Whenever they see me eating something, they come up to me with this sad little look like, “buh, buh, buh… where’s mines???” Sometimes one will distract me while another snatches the food right from my hand – true story (one even stole a half-eaten slice of pizza from my husband). They quickly learned that my husband is a much messier eater than I am and they now follow him whenever he’s around them, waiting for food to drop so they can snatch it up. It’s both adorable and ridiculous.
They also have a knack for going places they shouldn’t be going, doing things they shouldn’t be doing, and eating things they shouldn’t be eating.
They’re kind of like a toddler that just learned how to walk.
You’ll make multiple (MULTIPLE) attempts to chicken-proof different areas, but they almost always figure out a way to jump/fly/roost on areas you don’t want them to and they’ll definitely eat/scratch/peck just about anything and everything you don’t want them to. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to rig up something to prevent them from pushing/kicking food from their feeder (and keeping them from pooping in it! Ugh.). Sometimes I swear it’s like a game to them to see who can aggravate us the most. We still love them.
Oh yeah, and there’s also this:
(I swear, one of these days I’m gonna figure out how to train them to poop in one spot. Supposedly it can be done…)
They make a lot of noise.
So, you would think that the rooster is the one who makes the most noise. Hate to break it to you, but the hens often make more noise than the rooster most days.
The hens tend to make a lot of noise around the time they’re laying eggs. When they’re still new at egg-laying, you’ll see them running around in a panic, making the most annoying sounds before they actually lay (depending on the hen, this could last an hour or more) – they do this a lot when they’re younger because they’re not used to those sensations yet.
By the way, if you basically went into labor and pushed out a baby every day, you’d be bitching about it, too… ;)
After the egg is laid, oftentimes they’ll sing the “egg song”… which is not so much a song as it is a proclamation…
“Hey!!!! I laid my damn egg!!! LOOK AT ME! LOOK AT ME!
YAY!!!! HERE ME NOW, BITCH!! Now, where’s my food?”
This song can be LOUD. In fact, the first time you hear it you’ll think, “WTF – did something just go after my hen??” And sometimes they’ll all join in on the song. There’s pretty much a lot of drama around egg-laying time (sometimes the drama fades with age, sometimes not).
And don’t even get me started about when they go into broody mode – anyone (or anything) that comes near them when they’re sitting atop their stash of eggs will elicit copious amounts of growling and screeching. (Funny thing, they don’t like to be disturbed when they’re incubating chickies – who knew?)
They even have a specific cluck that they use when they’re doing something they shouldn’t be and think they’re getting away with it. (At least, mine do. I can tell by the tone of their cluck that they’re being naughty.)
They also make all kinds of other interesting sounds, like when they make excited little clucks after finding something tasty to eat. (The rooster also likes to find food to woo the ladies and get in their good graces so he can have some hanky panky – he’ll cluck to alert them to any little morsel he discovers.)
When they’re super happy, they often make little cooing sounds (which can sound like purring). They do this a lot when they’re dust bathing in the sun (they LOVE dust bathing), when you’re petting one who actually likes being petted (my silkies LOVE having the back of their heads petted), and they also tend to make cooing sounds at night when they’re up on the roost and drifting off to slumber land (it’s actually pretty sweet and endearing to hear).
They’re pretty freaking addictive.
Don’t be surprised that, as you fall in love with your flock, you’ll want to add more and more chickens. You’ll want different breeds of chickens with different personalities and temperaments and have some egg layers who produce different colored eggs. You’ll probably find yourself drooling over the idea of getting a fancy shmancy
coop palace for your spoiled little chickens that costs about what your car is worth. You’ll probably feed them better food than you eat yourself and spend extra time in the produce section at the grocery store, thinking long and hard about what the flock would like (meanwhile, forgetting to buy your OWN groceries). I have a chicken sitting on my lap right now as I write this – she is a spoiled little diva (in the best possible way). God bless her.
Because the chickens are so addictive, you might piss off your other pets (or family members, ha!) because of all the attention they’ll get from you (not because they need a lot of watching over… you’ll just find it hard to tear yourself away). My cats get jealous, big time. It’s funny, they weren’t really lap cats before, but since we’ve had the silkies, the cats try to pin us down every chance they get (as if to say, “MY HUMAN!!”). Our cats are also the biggest babies, so the chickens have been known to chase them around (even though the cats are easily 4 times the size of our little silkies). It’s both amusing and embarrassing.
So, to recap: it’s not usually more cost-effective to raise chickens than to purchase eggs at the store, they poop A LOT, they can drop dead out of nowhere, they can outsmart you from time to time (and steal the food right out of your hands), they can make a hell of a racket, and they may end up being huge time sucks and attention whores. If none of this scares you off, you just may have what it takes to raise chickens.
(I’m not gonna lie, they’re pretty amazing… and I wouldn’t trade the experience of raising ’em for anything.) :)
Have you thought about getting chickens? What’s holding you back?
Do you have chickens now? Share some of your quirky chicken stories below – I’d love to hear them!
Until next time,
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