Thursday, March 8, 2012

Chicken FAQs: Top Questions I Get Asked About Keeping Chickens

Hen, Rooster, Hen, Rooster, Hen, Rooster, Rooster.
Besides "Is it difficult?", the number one question I get is:
Do you need to keep a rooster?
Of course, they're half the fun! Ok, maybe that's a want. You don't NEED to keep a rooster unless you want fertilized eggs (such as if you want to hatch your own). A hen will lay eggs with or without a rooster around. Roosters are nice to have though, as they offer protection to their ladies in exchange for a little lovin'.

2. How often does a hen lay an egg?
Well, that depends on the age, breed, and general health of the bird. Some breeds are raised specifically for high egg production, such as the Leghorns. Others are raised for meat and eggs, and will lay fewer eggs. With a young Leghorn (1-2 years) you can expect about 250-300 eggs per year. With an Amerecauna you can expect 200-275 eggs per year. Here's a great chart if you want to look up a particular breed.

Chicken shed #2 made from scavenged materials
and stuff left over from other projects.
This houses 5 chickens at the moment.
3. How much space does a chicken need? Do I need a big hen house?
As much as you can give them! You need to provide housing with a 2-5 square feet per bird, maybe more if they're confined all day. I'd recommend giving them some yard, a run, or a pasture to move about on during the day. There's all types of housing, be resourceful and use what you have lying around. We converted an old shed into one house. For another we used salvaged metal siding, bead board, and cement blocks, having only to buy 2x4s. For our pasture shelters we're using 1x3s and salvaged chicken fencing. I've seen converted rabbit hutches, dog kennels, and green houses!

4. Are brown eggs healthier than white eggs?
No, nor do they taste any different. But brown, blue, green, and speckled eggs make for a beautiful breakfast! The shell color is determined by the breed. While colored eggs are no different nutritionally than white eggs, home-raised eggs taste and look much different (better in the opinion of most flocksters and their customers) from supermarket eggs.

5. How do you tell a rooster from a hen?
"Eagle" here is a hen.
By it's crow, silly. Seriously, as chicks, it can be difficult. Some breeds are sex-linked, meaning males will be one color or pattern and the females another. But for most breeds, it's tough to tell those babies apart. You can vent sex them, but it's a skill that requires quite a bit of practice to perfect. As the chicks grow, typically the roosters will get larger combs faster than the hens, their feathers are often more brightly colored and showy, they may be larger than the hens with thicker legs and bigger feet, they often have spurs, and yes, they will eventually start crowing. But, hens can crow, too! According to JD Belanger  (Idiots Guide to Raising Chickens) "This isn't as unusual as it might seem, and is easily explained. Hens have voice boxes, of course. And they're capable of crowing. The only reason they don't is because they don't feel like it. Really.
     "It's a hormonal thing. Older hens, or those that undergo hormone changes because of diseased ovaries or other conditions, can have a decrease in female hormones and an increase in male hormones, and they will often crow."
And that was new to me, too.

6. When do they start laying eggs? And what time of day will they lay?
Not soon enough, especially when you're waiting for those very first ones from your very first hens! Depending on the breed, they'll start laying somewhere around 22 weeks of age. I've had them start as early as 5 months and as late as 7. The first eggs may not look all that appetizing. They may be misshapen, too large or small, or even shell-less. It takes a few weeks for some of them to get in the groove. I've had a few that laid double yolked eggs until they caught their rhythm. It takes chickens 26 hours to make an egg. The hens will typically lay in the morning, each day getting a little later, until they eventually are laying in the late afternoon. Then their internal clocks adjust: they skip a day, then start up again, laying in the morning.

Jack Sparrow is, or was, a rooster
7. Do they lay all year long?
Some breeds do, although the rate will typically drop (to possibly no eggs) over the shortest days of the year. You can manipulate the birds by artificially lighting the hen house for a few hours each winter morning. They need about 14 hours of light to lay at the normal rate. I've never done that myself as I prefer my girls to take a much deserved break, but it can be done.

8. Do they need heat in the winter?
Not really. More than heat, they need shelter to get out of the wet and wind. As long as they are kept dry and sheltered, they will do ok in most of the US. Some breeds are better able to tolerate cold, some heat. If you live in a very cold area, you may want to look for a breed that has smaller combs and wattles...less surface area to get frostbitten. Chickens will tend to huddle together and keep warm. If you live in an area that is bitterly cold (Siberia?) you might want to check and see what the experienced flocksters in your area do.
Chicken house #1 and the garden

9. Can I let the chickens roam in my garden?
If you don't want any plants, sure. Chickens are notorious "tillers." They scratch at the ground to get to the goodies. They are great for tilling up a space. It's pretty safe once your plants are grown. But you don't want to let them into a new plot that you've just seeded or planted with seedlings.

10. What about cats/dogs?

Cats don't often bother fully grown chickens, the birds are just too big. And chickens get used to the cats wandering around. Peeps look like dinner though, so make sure to keep them safe until they're older! Dogs, especially other people's dogs, are a different story. You may be able to train your dog to guard the birds, or at least leave them alone, depending on breed and temperament. Dogs running loose will attack chickens just for the fun of it—it's their natural prey instinct. If there's a possibility that a neighbor's dog will come over for a visit, make sure the chickens are well protected.

Bonus question!
Aren't they smelly?
Yes, and no. Chickens poop everywhere, without any regard to anything. But keeping the odor down is manageable. Using a deep litter method in my housing, I partially clean the house out when I need compost or mulch. Other than that I keep adding fresh littler: dry straw, leaves, etc. before it starts to smell. (Don't use fresh weeds or grasses, they have too much nitrogen. You want to use dry, carbonaceous materials) The chickens constantly till it up and break it down making lovely compost. Once a week or so, I take the hay fork and mix the litter up if it doesn't seem to be getting enough action. (Sometimes my birds seem to miss the corners). Good ventilation and dry, deep litter should keep an odor-free home for your girls.

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