Not Sure About Homesteading? Try Raising Backyard Chickens

backyard chickensPerhaps one of the first things we did on our old urban homestead was to put in a chicken coop for a small flock of six ISA Brown hens. We had done our research and the breed fit our backyard chickens needs well. Over the years we took in a few strays including Araucanas, Polish and a matronly Orpington.

Now situated on our new forever off grid farm, the flock has increased to fourteen with some New Hampshire Red/Cornish crosses culled from our first experiment with raising meat birds. The larger meat chickens went off to the butcher while we held back a rooster and a few select hens. As you can guess, we are getting serious with our backyard chickens.

We were drawn to chickens for a few reasons. To begin with, it was a desire to start producing our own meats to compliment the garden veggies. Second, backyard chickens are entertaining and simple to keep. Our kids learned the value of where food comes from, especially after that first meat flock came back in vacuum-sealed bags to fill our freezer. Lastly, chickens were a way for us to learn to manage livestock in preparation for more complex animals later on. We are thinking bees this spring and pigs in the summer, perhaps leading us to dairy goats further down the line.

Backyard Chickens

backyard chickensOur foray into the backyard chickens lifestyle began with a fenced-in backyard and heated coop created from an attached woodshed. This urban environment meant a safer free-range philosophy with some adjustments to how we gardened. Instead of fencing up the chickens, we fenced up the veggies. Everyone was happy.

However, this same methodology of raising backyard chickens is not something we can easily replicate with our new homestead. You see, we live in the country and are surrounded by woods. Beautiful to live in but dangerous for unprotected livestock. Our wild neighbors include fisher cats, foxes, coyotes, raccoons and black bears, any of whom would love to raid our flock for some protein if they got the chance. Our thoughts shifted to better ways to keep our ladies and Bruce the rooster safe.

Backyard Chickens Coop

backyard chickens coopI'm a DIY guy, and the initial idea was to build the coop ourselves. The plans aren't complicated as you need to figure in not only protection from predators but protection from the elements. A good coop has a secure way to get in and out that can be locked up and a comfortable balance of roosts and brood boxes for egg laying. However, while poking our noses around at our local hardware store we came across an end-of-season sale on a pre-fab chicken coop that was too good to pass up. This top end backyard chickens coop was a fraction of what it would have cost me to build one myself. That, and it looked adorable. 

Our backyard chickens coop is surrounded by a six foot high, 40'x75' fenced in area that also doubles as our garden. To accommodate both the coop and garden during this time, the chicken run will be segregated from the garden beds by an additional fence that we can remove in the fall to once again add to the chicken's protected run. We will balance the smaller seasonal footprint by letting the chickens have managed free-range in the yard to enhance and support their warmer-month diets. 

How to Raise Chickens for Eggs

how to raise chickens for eggsWe started with egg layers simply because learning how to raise chickens for eggs is a traditional gateway practice for homesteaders. To do so successfully required a little education and some basics, but the process, once incorporated into our routine, was a great choice.

How to raise chickens for eggs starts with a safe environment including a coop and run, with a daily practice of providing food and water. For feed, we balanced free-range forage in the backyard with egg-layer scrapple. Once in a while we would treat them to some mealworms and once we learned how, kitchen scraps. Our birds were healthy and happy. As a note, we don't repurpose our layers. Instead, we dedicated ourselves to keeping them as pets even after their laying days are over.

How to Raise Chickens for Meat

how to raise chickens for meatWe may treat our egg-layers as pets, that doesn't apply to our broilers. Knowing how to raise chickens for meat is a slightly different skill set, but one so closely related to eggers that it was a simple addition for our little farm. Our meat chickens arrive as pullets, or teenagers in chicken terms, early in the fall.

They clearly standout from our egg-layers, so we blend the flocks for easier management. The major difference is the diet, where the meat chickens are fed a grain specifically designed to fatten them up. Sure, our egg hens benefit as well, but after a two-month fattening season, the meat birds head off to the butcher with a dressed weight of between 4.5 and 6 lbs.

Owning Chickens

owning chickensOwning chickens has been a wonderful addition to our lifestyle, and one that surely will continue to evolve. As our backyard chickens constitute both egg laying pets and meat birds, our techniques and practices will adjust with the seasons. For example, the addition of an attached run to our backyard garden allows the birds to forage and scratch in the vegetable beds after harvest, adding in high-quality fertilizer. Their scratching will break up the soil and remove any inspect pests that may have found a home there.

There are plenty of philosophies for owning chickens and we would love to hear how you manage your ladies and roosters. Please add to the conversation by leaving your thoughts on backyard chickens below in the comments section.