Chickens are probably the default animals when it comes to homesteading. Everyone has chickens. They’re easy to care for and they provide a homesteader with a couple high quality source of protein.
Raising chickens is a piece of cake. Chickens practically raise themselves. While they may be fragile at a young age, chickens become quite the hardy animal once they reach 4 or 5 months old. They don’t suffer from many illnesses and most breeds do quite well in the heat of summer or below freezing temperatures of winter if given adequate shelter.
choosing a breed
At this point in time, there are more chicken breeds out there than there are recognized dog breeds and people are creating new ones everyday. When choosing a breed a chicken fro the homestead, production is usually the quality your looking for whether that be meat, eggs or both is up to you. There are breeds that excel in either meat production or egg production then there are dual purpose breeds that are a middle ground for those qualities.
A popular breed for meat production is the cornish cross. This is actually not a true breed but a hybrid that hatcheries have developed for fast growth. These birds will grow very quickly, reaching a mature weight at 8 to 10 weeks of age. This is also the best time to butcher them. They usually dress out at over 5 lbs at this age. When you buy any kind of chicken at the supermarket, this is exactly what you are buying. There are pros and cons to this breed though and there is a lot of negativity towards them from many homesteaders. While they grow very quickly they do so at a cost, some put on muscle and weight so quickly that their bones and joints can not keep up with the weight. These poor birds develop leg problems and if they do not die before butcher time, they must be culled unless you are okay with an unhappy deformed bird limping around your yard, which most people are not and who would eat such a thing? They are also unsustainable for the true homesteader because they can not be bred. There are a couple reasons for this, the first is their growth almost always catches up to them, so birds that are not butchered, die fairly young. The second is that they are hybrids, therefore if bred they’re offspring will not resemble the parents as they would if you would breeding a purebred. So it is uncertain if the meat production would be the same. Part of the growth of these hybrids comes from hybrid vigor, so this is also lost when breeding cornish cross to one another. However, considering all that they are the most efficient birds for meat production. When grown in the proper conditions, the cornish cross will provide the homesteader with a steady supply of meat throughout the year and at a fairly low cost.
If the problems of the cornish cross have put you off from ever raising them, then you might consider a dual purpose breed. Many of these breeds were THE meat breeds before the cornish cross and centralized factory farming came along. These breeds are ideal for the homesteader who wishes to become truly self-sufficient. Once a breeding flock has been estabilished, it can provide the homeowner with eggs and meat without ever having to order more chicks off the farm. One could keep hens for eggs for eating and also hatching, in which new hens could be raised to replace the old ones and extra roosters could be used for meat as well. In my experience the dual purpose breeds, and their crosses, produce more eggs than any homesteader will need depending on what their needs are of course. However, when it comes to meat productions the results can sometimes be disappointing depending on what you are looking for. If you are looking for a lean, flavorful meat and you really enjoy dark meat and can wait at least 6 months from hatch to enjoy this meat, then dual purpose breeds will be great for you. But from my experience even a 1 or 2 year old dual purpose breed rooster can not come close to the amount of meat a cornish cross puts on in 8 to 10 weeks time. And if they do, most of the meat is in the legs, breast meat tends to be lacking. This is from my experience in raising Buff Orpington crosses.
Now if you are really really really looking for some eggs then you might what to try a production egg layer. Something light a White Leghorn, which lays white eggs, or a Rhode Island Red, which lay brown eggs. These breeds generally lay over 300 eggs a year. They are egg laying machines and once again, if you’ve ever bought eggs at the supermarket, these are the birds that are laying them. While these birds are great for egg production, they have very little meat on them. Leghorns are especially lean and roosters of this breed would be better off as breeders than being eaten. Most hatcheries don’t even sell males of these breeds because their so abundant and rather useless. And a homesteader looking to sell extra roosters will have a very hard time selling these on their own.
Considering all this Dual Purpose breeds are probably the best if you are just starting out. Most people don’t dive right in to butchering their own chickens anyway and the slow growth rate of a dual purpose bird will give someone the time to think about whether or not they want to do such a thing. I can tell you that it took me about 2.5 years to go from no way in hell will I butcher to butchering my own extra Buff Orpington crosses and then purchasing Cornish Crosses for butcher. So it’s a natural progression and it will determine what breeds you eventually settle on.
For most chickens a simple 16% layer feed is adequate. This will give enough nutrition for the layers and also sustain any roosters or juveniles in your flock. Layer feed would be all most mixed flocks require.
I also give my flock corn(whole or cracked) and oats that I will throw out for them daily. I do this more in the winter when there is less grass and bugs for them to forage. Corn, and basically anything yellow or with beta-carotene like cantaloupe, carrots, etc, will make your egg yolks that deep yellow orange color. You only need to see at egg yolk like that once before you stop buying stale eggs at the supermarket with their washed out kinda yellow yolks.
Chickens will also appreciates any scraps you have from in the house. Anything you’d feed a wild bird, a chicken will eat. Bread, seeds, that sort of thing. Any extra greens, outer lettuce leaves you may cut off, bottoms of broccoli stalks. All that can go to your chickens rather than in the trash, which they shouldn’t be going in the trash anyway, even if you don’t have compost all that stuff can just be thrown outside. Don’t worry, it’ll go away.
I also occasionally supplement my chickens with Oyster Shells. I do this irregularly. The oyster shells act as a calcium supplement. It is essential that hens who are laying an egg a day have some source of calcium or they will quickly deplete their calcium and suffer from egg binding which is when an egg gets stuck in the oviduct and usually leads to death. Oyster Shells can be given free choice but chickens will usually just end up flipping the container they are in so I occasionally mix it into their daily feed. You can tell that you chickens need calcium when their shells becomes too brittle. A free-ranged chicken will usually be able to get enough calcium from foraging especially if they are digging through gravel because they will ingest these stones which often contain calcium, this also acts as grit which aids the digestion of their food in the gizzard. Although my chickens are free-range, I do occasionally find their eggs to be brittle and so I supplement as mentioned above. A flock that is penned will require grit and oyster shells on a regular basis.
Chickens need shelter. There’s really no way around it. My chickens only have a night shelter and this is the bare minimum. Most predators come out at night and without a secure shelter for them to be locked down in, your chickens will be gone in a matter of weeks. This applies to anywhere, rural, suburbs, even in the city if your city allows you to keep chickens, which some do.
The shelter I use for my chickens is a coop entirely made of plywood with ‘windows’ covered in chickenwire along the top half and a window on the side for ventilation. It also has a wooden floor. I feel all these features are essential for a coop to keep predators from getting at your flock. It is important to have some solid material around the bottom of a your coop because a raccoon can easily grab a sleeping chicken right through most sizes of chicken wire. A solid floor is also a must because many animals like foxes or minks can dig right under a coop and inside of it, if it has a dirt floor. A solid or wood floor can be harder to clean but if you are building a coop one from scratch, trying covering it with a roll of linoleum and this will make clean up a snap especially if you use wood shavings or straws as bedding. The soiled bedding will just slide right out of there.
Once chickens know where there shelter is, they will use it as their base. They will lay their eggs their and return to it at night to roost.