January 12, 2010

Of Chickens: Gathering Information

It's been a lot of years since I've had chickens. Even then my experience was primarily the gathering and cooking of eggs, though I've helped with butchering too. However, I've never set up a coop, nor hatched them, nor raised them from chicks, nor maintained them for any length of time. With springtime approaching, I figured it was time to do some serious research on everything we need to know in order to start our own little flock. This post is about what I've learned so far.

In general
  • On the average, 2 eggs / day / 3 hens
  • Nest boxes - need 1 / 2 - 4 hens
  • Hens start laying at approximately 6 months of age
  • Peak egg production is the first year, less the second, decreasing afterward
  • Laying stops or declines during moulting
  • Laying ceases when daylight falls below 14 hrs / day
  • Egg production is best at temps of 45 to 80° F
  • If a rooster is desired, need 1 / 8 - 12 hens
Breeds I'm considering are dual purpose, relativity docile (read quieter for the neighbors) types with good egg production, with hopefully brooding & mothering instincts. Top of my list so far:
  • Australorp
  • Buff Orpington
  • Delaware
  • Sussex
  • Ameraucana
Will probably get a mix of breeds.

How many?

Two factors to consider here:
  • How many eggs do we want?
  • How much space do we have?
Mathematically speaking, if we had a dozen laying hens, we could probably count on about 8 eggs per day during peak production during their first year. That's a lot for two people, but eggs can be stored in the deep freezer for about a year, so theoretically, homestead eggs can be available for use year round.

Put another way, (this is all book knowledge, mind you) from 7 to 18 months of age an average hen will lay approximately 20 dozen eggs her first year, 16 to 18 dozen after her first moult. So, a dozen hens x 20 dozen = 240 dozen eggs a year. I usually buy zero to two dozen per week, so it looks like with a dozen hens we'd be using a lot more eggs that first year! At 16 dozen per year per hen, we're looking at about 192 dozen eggs. That's still a lot!

Our future coop is about 90 sq. ft. Large breed chickens allowed outside privileges can be housed with a minimum of 4 sq ft per bird, which would mean we could house 22 large birds. I'm not sure if the breeds I'm considering are classified as large, but even so, we have ample room for a dozen or so chickens.

Cost / Benefit Ratio - Well, I've decided I'm not going to strictly break it down like that, but it's hard not to at least make an estimate.

The benefits of raising our own chickens are:
  • Eggs
  • Meat
  • Manure
  • More chickens

Eggs: Comparable to how I'll raise them, i.e. free ranged, natural diet, etc., I could expect to pay about $3.50 per dozen locally. I admit I don't buy this quality of egg due to the price, though I definitely would if I could afford too. If I do manage to get 240 eggs my first year, that's comparable to $840 worth of high quality eggs.

Meat: In general, I can get a comparable chicken for about $3.49 / pound. That would be for a whole, free-ranged chicken from local farmers who practice sustainable agriculture, and who feed locally grown grains. If a dressed chicken weighs approximately 3 pounds, then that would be $10.47 plus tax for a chicken. We can get 2 good meals from that, more if I use it in soup, stew, or a casserole. And then there are the bones to simmer with a little vinegar for a mineral rich chicken broth.

Manure: I have no idea what chicken manure would cost. Our local Lowes doesn't sell it but a quick Google search shows that organic chicken manure can be bought online at a range of $3.50 to $9.70 per cubic foot of organic chicken manure (before shipping, which is always a cost consideration). At those prices, I couldn't buy it, considering the size and number of gardens we will have. And considering that good compost is hard to make without manure, our own chicken manure will be worth it's weight in gold!

More chickens: Realizing that egg production drops pretty quickly after the first year or two, the question of replacing layers has to be addressed eventually. If chicks cost about $2 each plus shipping, then replacing them ourselves is another cost savings.

Cost: is still an unknown. After the initial cost of the chicks plus any equipment and coop repair expense, it will be mostly feed, whether I buy pre-mixed commercial, or mix my own. But feed is another blog post. Allowing chickens to forage and supplementing their diet with kitchen scraps helps keep feed costs down. In fact by doing that, I could probably get away with buying the cheaper grain scratch rather than a fully formulated complete feed. Growing our own grains is the ultimate ideal and a goal we'll be aiming for.

Of Chickens: Gathering Information is copyright January 2010


Alison said...

Oh, exciting!!

I know quite a few people who keep chickens (Geodyne being the closest), though none for meat, so far as I'm aware. They seem to be acquiring a semi-pet status in the UK, mainly for egg production. I don't know if it's even legal to kill your own chooks for meat here, actually.

I'd love to have a few myself, though not till we have enough land that the dogs could be kept ignorant of their presence. They would stress each other out enormously - and might result in accidental meat-production, too!

Renee Nefe said...

I've got 4 friends who have gotten Chickens recently. They all started out with chicks. One had an issue where her chicks were ready to lay eggs before she realized it and she found her eggs in an unusual place. Another friend would send her kids out on a egg hunt every morning as they let their chickens free range around the yard.

Two friends have had their chickens attacked. One lost all 12 of her birds the other managed to scare off the fox before it got any lunch and the chicken survived her encounter.

other than growing up next door to a family that had chickens that were mostly a pain (roosters crowing at all hours of the night and day, smell and us getting yelled at because their chickens got into our yard) that's about all I know from chickens.

I think with your set up that Chickens would be a great idea. I know you've done your research and will do well with them. Best wishes.

Laura said...

I have raised chickens for awhile, and here's my take:

1)Stick with one breed. If you get a rooster, you'll have purebred chicks. If you have a mixed flock, you'll get hybrid chicks, which probably after the first year, won't be as productive.
2) Buy Cornish Cross chicks for meat. Your egg chickens won't ever give you much meat; "dual-purpose" or not, they just don't compare.
3) Raise your chicks, cornish included, on grass. I have only lost 2 cornish to leg problems before butchering, which I believe is due to the extra minerals, etc. they get from being outside. A chicken tractor works well for this.
4) 4 sq. ft. per bird is not enough. I know that's what the books say, but it's not, especially for the larger, dual-purpose breeds.
5) Broodiness is very hit-or-miss. Get an incubator.
6) Look into getting heritage breed chickens. They may not lay quite as many eggs, but you would be contributing to their continuing existance.

My current flock consists of Dark Brahmas. They are docile (even the roo), lay a light brown egg, and are avid foragers. They are also huge (bigger than I expected). I'm planning to incubate some eggs this year, and then replace my roo and older hens, partially for bloodlines and partially for production. The older birds become dog food. (Harsh, but it's a farm, already!)

Good luck with your poultry enterprise! They're better than TV...

Angela said...

We have 5 Delawares in our backyard chicken coop. Their coop sits on our raised beds and is rotated every month to a new raised bed, thereby fertilizing our garden and getting rid of bugs and weeds in the beds.
Delewares are super friendly and quiet. We have neighbors on both sides of us and they would not be able to tell we have them.
Ours are not laying yet, but I expect them to very soon.
I hope you will consider this beautiful breed of bird.

Nina said...

We've raised meat chooks in the past. We always just bought the chicks from the feed store since it seemed much easier and cheaper in the longrun than hatching out our own eggs. We used to get 3 or 4 times the chicks we needed.. raised them all and then sold the extras to family and friends, to cover the entire cost of raising all the birds. It worked for us and our freezer was full. Really though, they weren't dressing out at 3 lbs but rather in the 6-8 lb range.

We're considering egg layers as well as a few meat birds this spring. Again, the local feedstore will batch order chicks for specific delivery dates. A local hatchery also sells ready to lay pullets for $6, in a variety of not horribly commercial breeds. A friend who raises a variety of heirloom birds recommended them as a great way to start.

Anonymous said...

My mother started keeping chickens about six months ago and so far they are showing no signs of being put off their laying by the short winter days (about 6 hrs daylight in midwinter). The recent cold snap (about 3 weeks of sub-zero temperatures) has reduced the egg count to about half the number of hens daily, but we don't know whether that is because each hen is laying every other day or because half have given up for the duration!!

She has 5 Light Sussex and 3 Black Rock. All are mature and laying now, but the Black Rock got on with it much more efficiently than the Light Sussex.

Michelle said...

(Couldn't stand the typo!) I would like to let our hens free-range, but as I've said on my blog, my husband doesn't like free-range poop. The advantages of a fenced in chicken yard are safety and eggs; like someone else said, free-range chickens may or may not lay eggs where you can find them! We have a mix of Rhode Island Reds, Red Sex-Links, Easter Eggers (very few sold as Ameraucanas really are), a gold-laced Wyandotte and a Welsummer. No roosters; none of our hens has ever gotten broody. I love the variety of egg colors we get with these. Here, scratch grains are actually more expensive than the complete feed (I buy the all-grains feed, with no meat by-products). I sell the extra eggs for $2.50/doz. and figure the girls pay for their feed most of the time.

Robin said...

I love our chickens! We almost got Delawares too. We still plan on it in the future.

Leslie said...

Wow, you really have done your calculations! Probably not good to do things the way I did. I bought all my chicks before I even had a coop to keep them in. :) One thing I have experienced with my 2 Reds and 2 Rocks are that they almost always lay one egg a day, I rarely collect 3 eggs, and never 2 since they started to lay. Barred Rocks are very sweet, my favorites so far although I love them all. The decrease in light also has not affected them. With 12 hens you will probably get more eggs than you think during their peak laying time. My hens also started laying at 20 weeks (almost to the day) so be ready then. I have Black Australorps, Buff Orphingtons and Black Stars also that are currently 15 weeks old so I will soon be getting many more eggs, Yay! Best wishes on your chicken endeavor!

Sharon said...

What Laura said - she really should blog. She was my first weaving teacher. Anyway, our mutual friend Mim raises chickens, sheep, emus, etc. The chickens aren't for meat. I buy eggs from her at $3 a dozen.

Woolly Bits said...

keeping chicken - a neverending story for us:)) we had planned to, but so far we never started. when we were ready to do so, the bird flu started up... we really should, but maybe reading about it in your blog gives us the push? it's not the keeping or the eggs - butchering is the difficult point! I always imagine a yard full of chicken on walking sticks or in a wheel chair, because neither of us can butcher them:))

Julie said...

I have always want chickens for the eggs only. I really don't think that I could kill one and eat it after getting to know it. It would be like eating my pet!! But then that's just me a little crazy!!!

Leigh said...

Alison, I think so too!

Renee, the noise is a good point and the main reason why the decision about keeping a rooster wasn't a simple one. All the other points you mention is why folks want to keep their chickens cooped up. Still, my experience with free range chickens was that they laid in their nest boxes. The shed area we have for a coop is pretty secure from digging animals, and I think that's a big part of the battle to protect them from predators.

Laura, thank you so much for all the points to consider. I had thought about the cross breed chicks if I got several breeds and kept only one rooster, but to be honest, my mindset hadn't been one of breeding chickens but rather raising eggs and meats.

I'm glad to hear you've had such good success with pasture raising chickens. That's what I wanted to hear.

Our square footage of coop space per chicken will be more like 7 sq feet per bird, with a 700+ sq foot chicken yard and pasture beyond that.

I will definitely consider the heritage breeds. I know that ALBC considers Delawares and Sussex to be high on their priority lists. But I have to say also that I'm partial to Ameraucanas, because that was the first chicken I had experience with!

Angela, yes I've definitely been thinking about Delawares. Your management system is really clever. I'd be curious as to how many chickens you have and how big your coop is. I take it you don't have a rooster?

Nina, 6 to 8 lbs dressed out! Wow, that would cost me $21 to $28 for a whole chicken to roast! So much the better. I hadn't thought about our local feed store though. I'll have to check into that.

Cally, that's encouraging information! About the laying I mean. Also about the breeds. This is the kind of feedback I'm looking for.

Robin, what kind did you get???? Now I have to go search your blog to find out!

Leslie, nothing like learning on the fly, eh? Again, I'm delighted to read how your chickens are doing with winter daylight. Also your breeds. Very helpful.

Sharon, after reading Laura's comment I agree that she definitely needs to blog! Laura, are you following the comments?

Bettina, yes, butchering is a sticking point, especially for those of us who aren't accustomed to the reality of farm life. Still, the alternative has to be considered. One good question all of us need to ask is, where does our food come from? Home butchering can certainly be more humane that industrial butchering.

Julie, that's a potential problem, isn't it. i.e. the chickens becoming pets whether we realize it or not. I learned something though from some friends in Arkansas. They were city fold with 2 young boys and a lot of enthusiasm for becoming farmers. She later told me that their big mistake was naming all their animals. It was fun for the boys to do, but it made it nearly impossible to butcher the named animals. As you can imagine, I'm not planning on naming my chickens.


I can't help you with chicken, but if you ever need a Rooster, Cock fighting ready let me know. It's disgusting and I'm opposed to the sport but my father wasn't and trained us all to cut the feather the correct way. Like us **giant eyeroll** we had small hands and could manipulate the tiny scissors. I'm amazed I didn't need therapy for that one.

Nezzy (Cow Patty Surprise) said...

I was raised with chickens, well not literally but ya'll know what I'm sayin, and fresh eggs are to die for but Hubby said, " ain't no respectably cattleman raises chickens and besides the feed 'ell cost more than buying the eggs!" So here I am sittin' on the Ponderosa just a little envious of your plans!

Enjoy and have a super great day!!!
God bless ya'll!!!

Katrien said...

Thank you for this neat breakdown, and thanks to all your commentators as well! So much to think of, I'm happy I enrolled in a chicken class"!

Looks like we are really on the same track, with the wood stove, the garden, the chickens... I love coming over here and seeing what you're up to this time, and sometimes thinking: hey, that's what I'm doing! Other times it's: hey, that would I should do!

Leigh said...

Deep End there's cock fighting around here too (illegal) and I think it's absolutely nasty. So sorry you had to grow up with that.

Nezzy, I didn't know that about respectable cattlemen! :) If he grows feed for the cattle, what would it hurt to toss in a little for the chickens and get free eggs? ;)

Katrien, I think the same thing about your blog! It's fun to compare notes and projects, plus I've gotten some good ideas from you. I've been meaning to tell you that I got Edible Forest Gardening (both volumes) from our public library and am delighted with the information these contain, especially all the charts.

cwisner said...

I had chickens many years ago and I miss them still but a full time job makes it impossible to raise them now. About a rooster, I just want to remind you that he will be a protector and will be on the lookout for problems. Our rooster even knew the car that my mother-in-law drove and would chase his chickens back into the chicken coop when she visited. (She was the one who had the ax and who kept our freezer full of meat) He also made sure they were all on the roost at night.
Some neighbors don't mind a morning wake up. Just ask. I love to hear the neighbor's rooster, it always reminds me of better days.

Leigh said...

Charlotte, thanks for the info on roosters. I've been reading about them and how to choose a good one. If I get straight run chicks, I'll have several to choose from and will want to make sure I get one who will do a good job.

Lee said...

I'll answer for Robin. We have 4 breeds: Rhode Island Reds, Barred Rocks, Golden Laced Wyandottes, and Araucanas. We like the Barred Rocks the best. They started laying first and are friendly. We like the Araucanas (green egg chicken) the least. Only one of the two is laying, and that was over a month later than the rest of the chickens (and less frequently). They are extremely skiddish too. The other two breeds are fine .. the Wyandotte's being great yard decoration.

I think Laura is right -- egg laying breeds are not a cost effective way to raise meat, and the meat value of a 2 year old hen is tiny compared to the eggs produced and feed consumed. When we buy our next batch of hens, I'm hoping we can try at least one lighter breed. The heavier the bird, the more they eat, regardless of egg production.

That said, I have limits with regard to "efficiency". The commercial Leghorn strains are light birds and highly productive, but they're known for being neurotic.

I'd suggest looking for breeds that are active and good foragers if you want them to be free range. I'm interested in Hamburg's next time around, but I'm afraid they might be pretty skiddish too. Raising some Delaware's is on my list also. :)

My brother tells me that having a rooster around is useful as a hawk-detector, even if you don't plan to raise chicks.

Finally, with regard to costs, back in September we estimated the cost of raising one hen (direct costs only) to be $16 before laying started. The feeding rate definitely went up after that. We haven't had a chance to re-tally.

Anonymous said...

Hi Leigh, thanks for visiting Henbogle. You've received lots of great info here, I can't add much, and I have lots of posts on Henbogle about the hens. I will say that henkeeping has been way more fun than I expected. We have less than 1 acre in the village, and a big area fenced in for the girls.

They get lots of greens from the garden and in the winter I actively collect greens from friends and my egg customers. Our eggs taste so good -- I did not like eggs before I started keeping hens. I am fortunate that I can sell my girl's delicious eggs for $3.50/doz, which helps defray the cost. This spring, I'm planning a garden bed to grow greens just for the girls with lots of cold-hardy kale and cabbage to last into the winter. Feeding them the garden excess really helps with the feed cost.

We also found the hybrid layers have been calmer and more productive than the Ameracaunas we got this year. The blue/green eggs are fun, but the Golden Comets are by far the best layers and friendliest hens we've had.

Have fun, I'll be back to visit again!


Leigh said...

Lee, thank you for that! I had thought about RIRs too, but after reading they were not terribly docile, decided to think about other breeds.

I agree with you about efficiency. It's factor, but shouldn't be the deciding one. That's why I never considered Leghorns either. The breeds on my short list are known for being both good foragers as well as adapting to confinement. I hadn't particularly thought to keep a strictly meat breed, but will see how this first batch. Since I plan to order straight run, there will be roosters to cull and eventually stewing chickens. (Fortunately a crock pot can turn shoe leather into a tender tasty meal. :)

I remember your post on cost. I agree that a re-tally would be interesting, because really, the entire life of the chicken (plus manure!) would be the most realistic figure.

Also, thanks for the tidbit on roosters and hawks! We definitely have hawks and how to deal with them and the chickens is a concern we discuss frequently.

Ali, thanks so much for returning the blog visit! I plan to explore your blog more for your chicken posts. Real life experience is so much more helpful in book learning, so I appreciate all the comment and content I can get.

Life Looms Large said...

I like how analytical you are about this decision. I am no help with chickens, having no chicken experience.

Could you possibly sell some of the eggs for anywhere close to that organic egg price??

I know there's another chicken post for me to read....off to do that!