Sunday, June 26, 2011

Keeping Chickens for Beginners

So many people are asking about chickens lately, I thought I’d share my experience. That said, I don’t consider myself an expert, but a hobbyist. I like to know where my food came from, plus free-range eggs are more nutritious than factory-farmed eggs. Beyond that, chickens are quite entertaining and relaxing to watch.

Most of the questions concern housing and predators. The main thing I recommend is to bury galvanized wire fencing at least 8” deep around the perimeter of permanent housing. A foot deep is better. If you have soft, easy to dig soil, maybe try 18”. (Our soil here is almost like concrete.) Raccoons and the like tend to give up after a few tries when they keep encountering fence even underground, or at least that has been my experience. Some people like to use ‘chicken tractors’ – movable housing – so they can fertilize one piece of lawn at a time. You’d have to ask one of those folks about how they prevent predators, as I haven’t done that, but I suppose you’d want to enclose the entire bottom with 2”x4” wire.

My chicken house is 15’ x 15’ enclosed, with the same size attached sunny yard enclosed with wire to keep out predators, roof and all. There is a partial loft in the chicken ‘barn’, which they love to roost in. I keep 10 to 15 hens at a time, and when there’s anything for them to forage, I let them out during the day. That’s most of the year where I live. They roam an area of about two acres, but don’t like to go farther than that. They like to have brush areas to retreat to in case of overhead predators. In the winter when there’s nothing but snow and ice on the ground, they must be fed more to make up for the lack of insects and greenery.

Hens lay about one egg a day, when they are laying. They go through cycles of laying and not laying. Some breeds are more likely to lay in winter than most, so it may be wise to get multiple breeds in your flock. Or maybe you get tired of eggs and it’s okay to go through the cycles with them… Sometimes I provide artificial light in the winter to lengthen their daylight hours. This seems to encourage them to start laying again.

Here are some basics you should know if you want to get chickens:

Space: Factory farms might provide two square feet per chicken. I think this is an unhealthy small amount of space. At least double it. I like ten square feet per chicken. That’s your range for housing. They also need an outdoor run, which should be about ten square feet per bird. Of course if you have more room, there’s no such thing as too much space. If you let them free-range, try to feed them just before dark inside their coop, to train them to come home at night. Finally, chickens need a roost. The narrow edge of 2x lumber is just right for their feet. Allow six inches of length per bird.

Food: Feed chicks gamebird crumbles. This is a high protein feed that helps them grow to maturity. Medicated chick starter is widely available, but usually isn’t required. Once they are old enough to start laying eggs (about 6 months), switch them gradually to laying pellets or crumbles. Grown chickens don’t need as much protein. They also like a little scratch grain starting at this age. I sometimes also give them cracked corn and/or crimped oats in the winter for extra energy. Supply fresh clean water at all times. Feed stores have waterers that are optimal.

Where to get them: Feed stores often have chicks for sale in the spring, which is a fun alternative to mail order. Mail order companies have more breeds to offer and information about the breeds. I suggest looking through online catalogs to learn about breeds and decide on a list of breeds you think you might like. Then again, you might find some locally - through the newspaper, word of mouth, etc. – and those are probably just fine. Also, if you can find full grown hens, you won’t have to raise chicks, which involves closely monitoring temperature. If you want eggs, just make sure you get layers or dual-purpose birds, not meat birds. Here are two places to get you started. Please read ordering info carefully.

Saturday, February 19, 2011


Just a few current pics of seedlings...

Pepper: Numex Pinata x fertile

Celery: Tango F1

Onions, leeks, artichokes, basils, etc. The red stemmed seedlings are beet x sea beet.

Soon the seedlings will be individually transplanted to larger containers.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Thoughts on this Soil

My father used to raise New Zealand White rabbits for meat production. Bud’s Bunnies was a smallish rabbitry, but it produced truckloads of rabbit manure. Those were the good old days before Dad’s shoulder replacement. I haven’t had a source of free rabbit manure for a few years now, and, the quality of my garden soil has been increasingly disappointing.

I’ve been fertilizing with bulk seed and alfalfa meals. It’s just not doing the trick, though - not like an inch or two of rabbit manure, anyway. Aside from being a high nitrogen fertilizer, rabbit manure makes excellent mulch at first, and high quality compost as the season goes on and it decomposes. It’s a perfect source of organic matter for the soil, and encourages earth worms and hosts of other beneficial soil organisms to flourish.

I’ve been using the most readily available localized source of organic matter for mulch in place of rabbit manure, tree leaves. Living in a forest means lots and lots of leaves to clean up each Fall. They are amazing for weed suppression, as they end up in flat layers like a deck of cards. Eventually they do break apart and decompose into nice, fluffy, earthy-smelling leaf mould, but at a much slower rate than manure.

I think the combination of cottonseed meal, soybean meal and alfalfa meal in addition to leaf mould will eventually make good soil, but it’s not keeping up with the heavy demands of gardening - not like rabbit manure did. So this year I’m changing a few things. First thing: lots more leaves – a deeper mulch. Deeper mulch means better water retention and fewer weeds in the short term, and more organic matter for the soil in the long term. More high-carbon material like this does call for more nitrogen. Which brings me to the second change: apply more nitrogen (than I have been). I get a soil test done once every two or three years, and they always have one recommendation in common: add more nitrogen. I’m not sure yet if I’ll address this in any way other than to increase the nitrogen sources I’m already using. I did grow some hairy vetch in combination with other fall cover crops, but considering how late it got planted, the amount of nitrogen it will have added to the soil by the time it’s turned under in a few weeks will probably not be tremendous.

Also, I hope to be trying at least one new product this year for foliar feeding. More on that to come...