This post is by Contributing Writer Lori Hernandez of Three Acre Farm.
I never knew I would fall in love with chickens. Look at them. You’ve got to admit they are a little freaky. They’re twitchy, spastic and let’s be honest – they are tiny feathered velociraptors. Imagine my surprise when I realized how hard I had fallen for these pea-brained birds. I’m well on my way to becoming a Crazy Chicken Lady!
Like so many others, I fell under the spell of having backyard chickens. Seems like everywhere you turn, people are getting chickens. City folk, country folk, it doesn’t matter. Chickens are wildly popular.
Which makes one wonder, why DO so many people want chickens?
I can’t answer for everyone, but I’m guessing for many folks (like myself), keeping chickens is a political statement, declaring our frustration and disgust with the way industrial agriculture treats animals (and people).
Or perhaps because in a world where things seem to be spinning wildly out of control, it’s comforting to know that you can control one aspect of your food, even if it’s just a few eggs a week.
Maybe it’s because we’re confused and frustrated by all the choices (or lack of choices) when it come to buying eggs.
Whatever the reason, folks are flocking to chickens (pun intended).
The Joys of Backyard Chickens
We got our first batch of chickens nearly 6 years ago and have been getting a steady supply of eggs ever since. This sounds silly, but I am still excited and amazed every time I walk to the coop and find eggs. It’s so comforting knowing I can quite literally walk outside and collect my breakfast.
Whenever I know we’ll be having a family with small children visiting, I like to leave the eggs in the coop and let the kids “find” the eggs. It delights me to see their eyes grow wide with wonder.
They all ask, “Can I hold one?”. I always let them… and have lost many an egg as a result, but it’s worth it!
Watching my beautiful “Mobile Lawn Ornaments” wandering around in the backyard is incredibly soothing and entertaining. There is something so deeply satisfying watching chickens pecking, scratching and puttering around, engaging in their natural behaviors.
Happy chickens make happy people!
3 Things to Consider Before Owning Chickens
Before you jump in the car and head to the farm store to get some chicks, I do have some things for you to consider. It’s wise to go into the endeavor with some forethought and knowledge.
1. You don’t get “free” eggs
Believe me, you will be paying for those eggs (especially if you buy Organic feed, which is well over twice the price of conventional feed).
If you were to measure cost effectiveness, it would certainly be less expensive for you to just buy the cheap factory farmed eggs from the grocery store.
However, most people are raising chickens because they don’t want to support factory farming, so maybe cost is not your primary concern.
There will be lots of time where you are paying for chicken feed, but not receiving any eggs in return, such as:
- Chicks – Chickens don’t lay eggs until they are roughly 5-6 months old. So when you buy those cute baby chicks in the spring, you need to realize you will be going through lots of chicken feed before you even collect your first egg in late summer/early fall.
- Molting – When chickens are about 18 months old, they lose their old feather and grow a new set. This is called molting and it can take several weeks or even months. During the molting process their egg production reduces significantly…and sometimes stops.
- Winter – Depending on where you live and how much sunlight you get in the winter, your chickens may stop laying altogether in the winter. Long days (hours of daylight) triggers egg production, so people living in northern climates (where winter daylight hours are very short) may notice a big drop in egg production.
- Some hens stop laying altogether. The real kick in the pants is that the chickens require more feed to help them stay warm in the winter! You’ll be increasing their feed rate, while getting less/no eggs.
So keep that in mind – your eggs are not free. The money we spend on chicken feed (and buying new chicks, supplies, etc.) is actually taken from our grocery budget.
But… your ladies will also produce the most delicious eggs you could ever imagine and the satisfaction of eating your own “homegrown” eggs is not to be underestimated. There are some things that money cannot buy!
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2. You Don’t Need a Rooster to Get Eggs
Believe it or not, the #1 question I get about chickens is “Do you need to have a rooster to get eggs?” NOPE.
A chicken will ovulate and produce eggs, regardless of whether she has a mate (just like a female mammal ovulates regularly as well). There really is no reason to keep a rooster, unless you would like to try raising your own chicks at home (although they are ridiculously handsome creatures!).
Most people avoid roosters because they are loud and can be aggressive (our own rooster was turned into soup after he went after my 3 year old daughter – don’t mess with this Mama Bear!).
It is a myth that roosters only crow in the morning. They crow ALL. DAY. LONG. And sometimes at 3am. True story.
Most chickens, at their peak, will lay about 5-6 eggs a week. It takes about 25-26 hours for a new egg to form, so each day she will lay the egg later and later. Chickens rarely lay after 3pm, so she may skip a day to get back on track.
3. You Need to Have an “End of Life” Plan
This is the biggest mistake I see people making when they decided to get chickens. What happens when your dear Mathilda gets old and stops laying eggs? What will you do?
It’s tricky. If you have a backyard flock and your city only allows you to have 5 chickens, what will you do when it’s time to replace the old layers?
If you just hold onto the old hens, pretty soon you will be feeding 5 hens that aren’t giving you anything in return. I know many people get attached to their chickens and cannot bear the thought of eating their “pet”.
However, unless you want to start running a retirement home for chickens, you need to take matters into your own hands. As chickens age, they lay eggs more infrequently.
They can continue to lay for 5-6 years at an increasingly reduced rate (and can live for over 10 years!), but most people sell them or butcher them after 2-3 years, once the hen is costing more to feed than she is worth in eggs.
Older laying hens (“Stewing Hens”) make delicious soup and broth – they are generally cooked slowly and the meat used as stew or soup meat, not as a roasting chicken (meat chickens are usually butchered when they are only a few months old).
So when Mathilda reaches 3 years old and she is hardly laying anymore, you have 3 options:
- Sell her to someone else as a Stewing Hen.
- Butcher her yourself and make soup (admittedly not for the faint of heart).
- Start a Chicken Retirement Community. Not ideal as it will be very expensive (all that feed cost with no incoming eggs). Possibly preventing you from adding new chickens to your flock.
Our family has chosen all 3 of these options. We have a few special chickens that earned the right to a long and happy life. We’re sold several as stewing hens and we’re eaten our fair share of them as well.
Final Thoughts on Raising Chickens
One last warning… and I say this half jokingly and half seriously!
Chickens are the gateway animal.
You know how people talk about “gateway drugs”? Well chickens are kind of like that.
It all starts off so innocently.
You just want to try having a few chickens… and next thing you know, you’ve got turkeys, ducks, rabbits, goats, pigs, cows, llamas and a pony. Ha!
I’ve seen it happen SO MANY times and it happened to us too… So be warned! It always starts with chickens. 🙂
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