Why Do You Raise Chickens?

Why do you raise chickens?

Most of us reading this article have probably already made the decision to raise chickens and have raised them for at least a few years, but occasionally, questions like this come up, perhaps in the form:

Raise chickens? Why would I ever want to do that?

to which my immediate response, verbalized or not might be: “Well, why not?”

When I was young, my parents began to raise chickens in the tiny backyard behind our small-town rental house. I was around 8 years old at the time. We raised mostly meat birds, and when it became time to prepare them for the table, we would slaughter and pluck them. Plucking is what I remember the most. Hot, wet chickens. A certain homey, but not entirely pleasant smell. Feathers — lots of feathers. Downy feathers sticking to my fingers. Picking them off and placing them into the black garbage bag while plucking. Picking up loose feathers from the yard after plucking was done. (Nowadays, I normally skin rather than pluck my chickens.)

A few years later, we moved “out into the country” into the suburb of a small town. We at last had some land, and our flock grew larger to match. In a used, round, metal incubator, we hatched eggs — a mixed flock of Rhode Island Reds and various crosses. Lots of color variety and lots of memories of caring for them. Time, it seems, has a way of aging memories, making them fonder even than the original experience.

Another move. Off to high school in the city then college, living in a dorm room. Calling various apartments home for a few years. Then marriage. Later, our first child. We moved onto small acreage, and I found myself preparing to raise chickens again, building a coop out of leftover lumber from another project.

All of my children have grown up raising and caring for chickens. Some have enjoyed it more than others. My youngest knows each chicken by name and won’t let a day go by without going out to check on them (or without picking up and holding them).

So while I could write about lots of practical reasons to raise chickens, something in my own experience and in my family runs much deeper than that, tying me both to my immediate family, my ancestors, and even extending into the future, continuing to tie things together there, and chickens are a part of that. Something deep in the heart can at times seem to compel you to take certain steps, make certain choices or decisions, or enter into certain commitments, even though you may not be able to fully articulate in a rationally comprehensible way to someone else all the practical reasons why. (And somehow even to try to do so can seem a bit trite — somewhat incapable of expressing the real reasons why.) Yet you try. You branch out into this metaphor or that, this remembrance or that, until someone else picks up the thread and begins to run with it. And, it seems, many of the more meaningful things in life take root in that way.

So back to our original question: Why raise chickens? Here are a few answers that come to mind:

For the experience and the memories. This, I would say, is the first and most fundamental reason. Raise them because they’ll enrich your life and experience in ways that you cannot fully predict or even anticipate. And they’ll bring you into shared experiences with others in certain wonderful and unexpected ways.

For the children. Even if you don’t have children of your own, surely some of your neighbors have children (neighbors that don’t yet raise chickens), or perhaps you have grandchildren, or friends who have children. (And if not, you’re missing out on something even more important than chickens, so start there, if you need to, and then come back to the question about why you need to raise chickens.) Getting some chickens and letting the children help you raise them will make a difference in their lives and yours.

Fresh Eggs. Though the ability to find high-quality, fresh food at local markets has taken a big leap forward over the recent years, there’s simply no such thing as a store-bought egg that’s as fresh as the eggs from your own chickens. You can step right out your back door, egg basket in hand, walk to the coop and grab a few eggs. Then walk back to the house, crack them into a hot, buttered skillet and be sitting down eating a fresh omelet faster than you can get your car warmed up to drive off to the market, even one that’s just a few blocks away. That’s fresh, and eggs don’t get any fresher than that.

These are just a few of the reasons why I raise chickens. More could be said on the practical end, and we’ll perhaps cover that in a future article.

So, why do you raise chickens?

Posted in Raising Chickens | 21 Comments

Don’t Let Your Chickens Run Out of Water

Photo by Joost J. Bakker IJmuiden

Your chickens need to always have access to plenty of clean, fresh drinking water.  This is especially important in hot weather when their need for water increases significantly.

Problems Caused by Lack of Water

Posted in Raising Chickens | 17 Comments

Keep Your Chickens Cool in Hot Weather

Keeping chickens coolWith summer approaching, you’ll need to help your chickens stay cool, at least in the warmer parts of the country.

Unlike humans, chickens don’t sweat, but like humans they depend on evaporation to stay cool – by panting. As they pant, moisture within the chickens’ lungs evaporates and is moved out of their bodies. This is also why it’s harder for them, like us, to stay cool when it’s humid.

The best way to know if your chickens are getting too hot is to watch their behavior.

Are they panting? Are they hanging their wings out a little distance a way from their bodies? These are early signs that they’re having to work harder to stay cool. If they’ve become listless or their breathing has become labored, then they’re experiencing heat stress – that’s harmful to them. Hens that aren’t able to stay cool enough will slow and stop their laying, and chickens that get too hot or stay hot for too long can die from heat stress.

So, how do we keep them cool?

Adapted breeds

The first thing is a decision you make before you get chickens: to start with adapted breeds, that is, breeds that are well-suited to your climate.

There are a lot of different chicken breeds, and each breed was originally developed for a specific purpose. Some breeds do better in warm weather, and some do better in cooler climates.

Mediterranean breeds, such as Leghorns and Minorcas are a good choice for hot areas. For more suggestions, see our chick breed selector. Click “show more characteristics” and then make a selection for “heat tolerance”. For more information, see our recent article on using the chick selector.

Next, let’s consider housing.

Housing

First, make sure your birds have plenty of space. Chickens have a natural body temperature of 107° (F). They put off a lot of heat and moisture. Put too many chickens in too small of an area, and it will be difficult for them to stay cool. For full size birds, we recommend a minimum of 4 square feet per bird.

Next, make sure the coop is well-ventilated. Good airflow will help to move out both the moisture and the heat put off by the birds. If you’re not able to get enough airflow with natural ventilation, consider creating a breeze with a fan.

Third, when possible, position the coop and the run under the shade of a tree or a building or other structure. Placing the coop and run beneath a shade tree can make a big difference in temperature. Also, position the coop where it will catch a breeze.

Water

It’s always important to give your chickens plenty of access to fresh water. But in hot weather, this is even more critical.

Put waterers in the shade so that the water will stay cool. Chickens may be reluctant to go out into the hot sun to get a drink – so having water in the shade is critical. Keep the water fresh and clean, and fill waterers with cool water if possible. On excessively hot days, replace warm water with cooler water again during the hotter part of the day. Your chickens will drink more water when the water is cool, and the cooler water will be more effective at helping them stay cool. If needed, you can even add some ice.

Be Observant & Be Creative

Checking on your chickens every day and watching their behavior is one of the best ways you can discover things before they turn into problems. If you notice that your chickens have plenty of water and shade, but they still seem hot and are sitting, panting in the shade, or if you notice that they’re not drinking as much water as you would expect, you may have to do a little detective work.

I recently heard an account of someone who was raising chickens in a hot, dry area. They were using nipple waterers, and there was ample water at all times. But still, the birds did not seem to be drinking enough water. Under most circumstances, nipple waterers work well, but the person keeping the chickens discovered that when it’s hot and the chickens are panting, they aren’t able to operate the nipple waterers well, so they weren’t getting as much water as they needed. When they’re not panting, the nipple waterers work well. The solution was very simple – they added a water fount in the shade so that the chickens could quench their thirst there and make use of the nipple waterers.

Small Things Make a Big Difference

In the heat of the day, chickens aren’t as active as when it’s cooler. If they have to cross a hot, sunny area to reach a waterer, they may not drink as much water as they should. Simply adding another waterer in the shade near them or repositioning the waterer so that it’s more easily accessible can make a big difference in how much water they drink and how well-hydrated they stay.

At one point, as I was writing this article, I sat and watched our chickens for a few minutes. In a chicken tractor nearby two Black Stars were panting a little. The large thermometer in the shade of our porch read 97° (F). I went out to take a closer look at the hens.

As I got closer, I found that the shade provided by the coop was mostly falling outside the chicken tractor on an area that the hens couldn’t reach, so it wasn’t doing them much good. The chicken tractor was parked right next to a tree, but the shade from it wasn’t landing inside the coop. I moved the coop a few feet and turned it 90° so that the shade from the coop’s roof would fall on the grassy run where the hens were, and they immediately got up and began foraging again in the grass.

Sometimes, something as simple as repositioning a coop or placing a layer of straw or fabric on the top of the run can give your chickens all the shade they need. In our garden, we have difficulty with Bermuda grass. To manage the Bermuda requires pulling out as much as possible of the roots. Bermuda is very apt to root again, so I don’t like to put it directly into the compost heap or leave it on the soil in or near the garden even once pulled. Instead, often I will lay the uprooted Bermuda on top of one of the chicken runs. There it provides cool shade (better than a piece of tin would) and this keeps the Bermuda off the ground where it will dry out fully and not be able to take root again.

This covers some of the basics. What kinds of things do you to keep your chickens cool?

Posted in Chickens | 25 Comments

4 Excellent Egg Recipes

In spring and summer, sometimes your chickens may lay so well that it’s hard to come up with ideas for what to do with all the eggs.  Here are a few tasty recipes that will help you out:

Chile Relleno Casserole – This makes a hearty dinner that’s simple to make and nice enough to serve for company. It can be served together with homemade Green Chile Sauce.
Spinach Yogurt QuicheSpinach Yogurt Quiche – For a special breakfast or lunch, try this great quiche. Even though quiche isn’t one of my personal favorites, this one is really quite good.
Jalapeño Cheese Snacks – These spicy little treats make a tasty afternoon snack or appetizer.  They’re also attractive enough enough to bring as “finger food” for parties, “showers,” or other “get-togethers”.
Easy Oven Pancake Oven Pancakes – Also known as German Pancakes, Dutch Babies, Finnish Pancakes, Kropsu, or Pannukakku. These are simple to make and make a great breakfast for special occasions, such as birthdays. They’re great with  home-canned fruit, such a peaches, along with yogurt and a little maple syrup.  They’re also good with fresh fruit or baked apples and a dab of whipped cream.

We know this barely scratches the surface. If you have recipes that you’d like to share that use lots of eggs, please post as a reply below.

This post was originally published in 2011 and was updated on May 25, 2015.
Posted in Recipes | 4 Comments

Murray McMurray Hatchery Chick Selector

Murray McMurray Chick SelectorWith so many breeds and varieties of chickens to choose from, sometimes determining exactly which breed you want can be difficult. The chick selector on our website is a tool we developed to make it a lot easier to decide, based on the breed characteristics that matter the most to you.

How to use the chick selector

McMurray Hatchery Chick Selector

First, click the link below, or click “Chick Selector” on our website:

https://www.mcmurrayhatchery.com/chick_selector.html

Next, select the characteristics that you care the most about. By default, we show you a short list containing some of the most common characteristics, or you can click “show more characteristics” to see the complete list.

As you make your selections, to the right, you will be shown a list of the breeds that meet your requirements, and a small popup window will briefly show you how many breeds meet your criteria.

An Example

Let’s try an example. Suppose I want a backyard chicken that will produce eggs reasonably well and that’s a good meat producer. I don’t care about the color of the egg, and I’d like something that’s available to order right now as a straight run.

Good egg productionSo I select “good egg production”, “good meat production” and “st. run available”. The chick selector returns a list of 37 breeds (if you try the same selection, your results may vary because of changes in availability).

That’s still a large list to pick from, so I’d like to narrow it down further.

I decide that I really want large eggs, not medium or smaller, so I pick “large eggs”. Now I’m looking at 29 matching breeds.

Show more characteristicsNext, I click “show more characteristics”. This brings up more criteria so I can further narrow my choice. I decide that since my children will be helping with the chickens, I’d like something that has an “excellent disposition”. I make that selection, and now I have 8 matching breeds.

Since I live in a warm climate, I decide that I want a bird which is somewhat heat tolerant, or at least more so than average, so I select “better heat tolerance”.

Now there are only three matching varieties, making it much easier to choose one:

  • Blue Cochins
  • Delaware
  • Red Stars

The characteristics of each of these breeds is listed so I can easily compare them side by side and make my final selection.

Posted in McMurray Hatchery | 2 Comments

Feeding Your Chickens Table Scraps

Chickens like to eat table scraps, and most of the leftovers from your meals are safe for them to eat.  Table scraps alone don’t form a balanced diet for your chickens, so feed them and moderation and use them as a supplemental treat, not the main course.

Most table scraps are lower in protein than commercial grower rations.  Since baby chicks need plenty of protein to grow and develop properly, we recommend waiting until chickens are about 3-4 months old before introducing table scraps. Continue reading

Posted in Feeds and Feeding | 27 Comments

How Much Roost Space Do My Chickens Need?

Chickens roosting on fenceRoost space depends largely on the size of your chickens — how tall, wide and long they are, from beak to tail. There are several considerations that affect how to position the roost and how much space to provide.

If a roost is too close to the wall, the chickens will get some manure on it. For large breeds, start the first roost parallel to the wall and about 18″ from it to help keep the wall clean. Consider having making the roosts easy to remove so you can more easily clean and disinfect the coop.

Large, dual-purpose chickens will use up to about 12″ of space (width along the roost) per bird. The more chickens you have, the better use they will make of the available space.

Avoid placing the top roost too close to the ceiling so that your chickens can fly up to the roost and flap their wings as they settle for the night, both without bumping the ceiling.

Horizontal roost spacing

Horizontal roost spacing

There are two basic ways to lay out the roosts. If you have ample space in the coop, you may want to lay the roosts out horizontally, with all of the roosts at the same height. In that arrangement, a spacing of 12″ per chicken (width along the roost) and 18″ between roost bars will be adequate.

Stair-step roost arrangement

Stair-step roost arrangement

In a coop where space is more limited, you can save space by staggering the roosts in stair-step arrangement, as shown in the diagram. Place the roosts at least 12″ apart horizontally and 12-15″ apart vertically, as shown.

If the roosts are too close together in this stair step arrangement, lower birds will not be able to avoid droppings from birds above them. For large breeds, avoid this problem by keeping the roosts spaced at least 12″ apart horizontally, and at least 12-15″ vertically to provide enough headroom. Simple things like this, which improve hygiene and reduce stress to your chickens go a long ways toward maintaining a strong, healthy flock.

Finally, it’s best to place your roosts higher than your nest boxes, at least your top roost. The reason: chickens like to roost as high as they can get, and they produce manure all night long. It will be impossible to keep the nest boxes clean if the hens sleep in them. Having your nest boxes lower than the roosts reduces the chance that your birds will roost in them.

As mentioned earlier, the size of your birds determines the space that they’ll need. The above recommendations are for large, dual-purpose chickens. For lighter breeds, like the White Leghorn, or for bantams, you can scale the distances down.

Posted in Chicken Coops | 3 Comments

How Often Should I Worm My Chickens?

Free Ranging ChickensFor most backyard flock owners, we don’t recommend worming on a regular schedule without first having your flock tested for worms. The test involves a fecal sample, which can be done by a local vet. It will tell you whether or not your chickens have a problem with worms, and if so, how severe the problem is and what the treatment should be.

Because chickens are susceptible to a variety of different worms, and because the medications used to treat these differs, it’s important to identify the type of worm that you’re trying to treat for before trying to treat it.

By practicing good flock management, you can keep your flock as strong and healthy as possible, and this will allow your chickens to develop a natural resistance toward worms. Using wormers regularly short-circuits their ability to build this natural resistance and makes your flock more dependent on the continued use of wormers.

What are the keys to good flock management? First of all, hygiene. Clean the chicken’s waterers, feeders, coop and other equipment regularly. Provide a supply of fresh, clean drinking water at all times. Keep feed out of contact with the ground. Keep bedding clean and fresh or use the deep bedding method. Second, use a good quality feed that’s appropriate for your flock. Third, provide adequate shelter against rain, wind and predators. Fourth, choose breeds that are well-adapted to your environment, climate and management style. And fifth, if possible, move your flock to new ground regularly.

To multiply, worms rely on being ingested (eaten) by the chickens as part of their reproductive cycle. If you move your chickens daily to new ground, such as you can do easily if you house them in a chicken tractor or portable coop or pen, it can go a long way toward preventing a worm problem.

If your flock has had a history of worms, you may want to schedule a regular fecal sample 2 to 4 times per year. Treat worms when necessary, then follow up with another fecal sample to make sure the treatment was effective. But also, take a close look at your flock management, as discussed above and make any adjustments necessary. With worms, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

We’ll discuss the types of worms that can affect chickens and treatments for them in a separate article.

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Which of My Hens Are Laying?

black-star

As you raise laying hens, it becomes obvious over time that some hens are more productive than others. Some breeds are better layers, but even from hen to hen within a breed, productivity will vary due to differences in length and timing of molt, health, nutrition, hygiene and other variables. Age also has a big effect on laying — on average, with each passing year, a hen in good health will lay only about 80% as many eggs as she did the previous year.

If you raise chickens for eggs, sooner or later, you’ll want to know which hens are laying and which ones aren’t. How can you tell?

A number of characteristics give a pretty good indication of whether a hen is laying well or not. Some are easy to spot at a distance and will help you to quickly identify suspected non-layers. Others require picking up a hen to examine her more closely.

Let’s look at these.

Pale Yellow Pigmentation

Many (but not all) breeds of chickens have yellow-pigmented skin, legs and beak. The yellow pigment that colors these and other parts of the hen’s body is the same pigment that colors egg yolks. The pigment comes from the hen’s diet.

When a yellow-pigmented hen begins laying, there’s a limited supply of pigment, and since more of it is now needed in the egg yolk, less pigment is available to color the hen’s body. Over time, her yellow body parts will tend to become more pale or “bleached out” looking.

This follows a certain sequence, with the area around the hen’s vent being the first to fade, fading almost immediately. The last areas to fade are the hen’s feet, shanks and hocks. See Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens or “Molting and Determining Production of Laying Hens” for more details on the sequence.

If you have several hens of the same breed and about the same age and one of them has legs and feet that are much more yellow than the others, it’s likely that she isn’t laying as well or hasn’t been laying as long. This test isn’t foolproof, but it’s a quick way to determine which hens to inspect more closely. (It’s also only applicable to hens with yellow pigmentation, which some breeds don’t have.)

chicken-anatomy

Bright Comb and Wattles

When a hen is laying well, her comb and wattles will tend to be bright red. A non-layer’s wattles will appear more pale.

Behavior: Active and Alert

Because producing eggs takes energy, a laying hen’s nutritional requirements are higher than those of a non-layer. Good layers, therefore, will tend to be active and alert. When food is available, they’ll be among the first to approach and eat it. Non-layers will linger behind, tending to be lazier and more lethargic. Non-layers will also eat their fill and be done eating more quickly than good layers. When observing your hens’ activity levels, it’s good to stand at a distance or partly hidden from view so that you don’t affect their behavior.

Different breeds, of course, differ in demeanor. Leghorns (generally excellent layers) will tend as a group to be very active. By comparison, even a Buff Orpington that is laying very well may seem fairly laid back, so if you have a mixed flock, you’ll need to look at additional characteristics beyond just behavior.

Soft, Pliable Abdomen

Pick up a hen and feel the area below her vent, known as her abdomen. It’s easy to do this if you lay her on her back in one of your arms and probe with the other hand.

Is her abdomen soft and pliable? If so, the hen is likely a layer. If her abdomen is somewhat harder and less flexible, then she’s likely a non-layer, though it’s important to consider that when an egg is forming inside the hen, it will have a hard feel to it that could be mistaken for the hard, inflexible feel of a non-layer.

As with many of these tests, this is somewhat subjective and takes some practice to develop a feel for. If you’ve got a hen that you know through other means is laying well and one that’s not, a good way to develop your skill in identifying layers is to practice on each of these until you can easily tell the difference.

Wide Distance Between Pelvic Bones

You can feel the hen’s pelvic bones slightly below her vent to the left and right sides. This can be done with the hen upright or on her back as when checking her abdomen. The pelvic bones will feel slightly pointy.

With your fingers side by side, measure the distance between the pelvic bones. Can you fit the width of 3-4 fingers in that space? If so, that usually indicates that the hen is laying. A width of no more than two fingers indicates that she’s not laying or not laying consistently.

Another thing to check is the distance between the hen’s vent and her keel. The keel, at the base of the breast in the center of the bird, feels pointy. A distance of 4 fingers’ width indicates a layer. Less than that indicates a hen that’s not laying or at least not laying well.

These measurements apply to full size breeds. When dealing with smaller hens or bantams, scale your measurements down accordingly.

The Vent

The hen’s vent is where eggs come out. Moving back the surrounding feathers, if necessary, examine her vent. Is it moist? Oval? Is it fairly large?

Layers tend to have a large, moist, oval-shaped vent. The vent of a non-layer tends to be smaller, dry and round. If the hen is a breed that is naturally yellow-pigmented, as described above, the area around the vent will tend to be pale in color if she’s laying, even somewhat white or blue. If she’s not been laying, it will be yellow.

Here again, if you can examine both a known layer and a known non-layer, it will help you to identify the differences.

Other Approaches

Trap nesting is another approach that can be used to determine which hens are laying and how well they’re laying. It involves special nests that trap the hens when they lay so that you can positively identify and record who laid each egg before letting her out of the nest. It is more applicable to breeders, but we may discuss it in a future article.

Another approach that might seem obvious, but that won’t work as well in practice, is to temporarily separate your hens into separate cages or coops so you can monitor how each hen lays, individually. The problem with this approach (in addition to the extra time and space it requires) is that moving hens in and out of the flock disrupts their laying, so it can lead to inaccurate conclusions.

Further Notes

Of the tests above, checking the condition of the vent, measuring the spacing of the pelvic bones and keel and checking the pliability of the abdomen are some of the most reliable. Other, more visual checks are quicker and will help you identify potential non-layers at a distance.

As you check your chickens periodically and watch to confirm whether you see them lay or not, you will become better at distinguishing layers from non-layers. By culling your non-layers and using them for meat, you can have a more productive flock and have more space available for your most productive birds.

Your hens will molt, usually once a year. While molting their egg laying will decline or stop. Once the molt is over, egg laying will increase again. It’s not a good idea to cull your non-layers during a molt since that’s when even your best hens aren’t laying well.

Posted in Chickens | 6 Comments

Delaware Chickens

History

Delawares are a relatively recent breed. They were developed in 1940 from a cross between New Hampshire Red hens and Plymouth Rock roosters.  Occasionally, the cross would produce an off-colored sport, and those were used as parent stock for the Delaware. Delawares and Delaware crosses once had a place in the broiler industry, but have now been superseded by Cornish X Rocks.  The Delaware was accepted into the Standard of Perfection in 1952.

Qualities of Delawares

  • Gentle – Delawares are gentle, friendly, and docile. An occasional rooster may be aggressive.
  • Brown Egg Layer – they are good layers of brown eggs.
  • Meat Production – because they mature quickly and are good sized, Delawares are a good source of meat for the home grower.
  • Broodiness – Delawares have some tendency to go broody, and when they do, they tend to make good mothers.
  • Heat Tolerant – Delawares tolerate warm climates well and are a good choice for the Southern States.

Delawares are a gentle breed that are friendly and may follow you around the yard.  They are a dual purpose breed that can be raised for meat and eggs.  They are easy to keep, forage well and tolerate confinement well.

Physical Appearance of Delawares

  • Comb, Wattle, and Earlobes – bright red and moderate in size.
  • Coloration – Beaks are reddish horn. Eyes are reddish bay. Skin, shanks and toes are yellow.
  • Plumage – Body and breast are white to silvery white. Hackle, tail, and wings are white with some black barring.

Availability

To check the availability of Delawares on the Murray McMurray website, visit the link below:

 

Posted in Chicken Breeds | 5 Comments