Hens On The Homestead: 6 Questions You Need To Answer Before You Get Chickens

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The backyard chicken craze is gaining momentum as more people come to realize that chickens are entertaining, social, and useful pets. Many are also drawn to raising chickens because, of all the barnyard livestock, they have a reputation of being among the easiest and cheapest to keep. Chickens are the second most cost efficient homestead animal in converting feed to meat (the first being fish, which are far less feasible for the Canadian backyard homestead.) There is also a huge interest among urbanites, small-town dwellers, and country-folk alike in knowing where our food comes from and learning to raise it ourselves. Considering all of this it’s no wonder that chickens are such a popular backyard pet! If you’re just starting out with chickens, though (or even sometimes if you’ve been raising chickens for years!) it can be very overwhelming when trying to decide on what type of chickens to get, how many, should you have a rooster or just hens, etc. etc. Little Farm in the Alberta Foothills is here to help!

Is keeping chickens for you? And what exactly should you consider when you are trying to decide on a chicken breed? In this blog entry I will pose a few questions that you need to consider when deciding the answers to these very important questions, and relate to you our personal experiences.

About Chicken Breeds

I’ll admit it – I’m a chicken snob. Many people believe that a chicken is a chicken, meaning there isn’t much difference to be noted between one bird and another. This couldn’t be further from the truth! There are dozens of chicken breeds, some with fascinating histories dating back hundreds of years, while others have been recently developed to suit modern commercial-farming needs.

Similar to breeds of dogs or any other domestic animal, each chicken breed has its own traits, purposes, and history. Commercial-type breeds (and modern hybrids) are primarily used for the production of either eggs or meat. Two well-known examples that come to mind are Cornish-cross broilers, noted for their speedy growth and effective conversion of feed into meat, and Leghorns, known for laying up to 300+ eggs each annually. If you are interested in finding out more about poultry breeds I would recommend checking out the American Poultry Association (APA) and consider purchasing a membership!

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Rhode Island Red Bantams

Some chicken breeds, including many heritage breeds, are known as “dual-purpose”. These are the versatile farm-type flocks your grandparents or great-grandparents would have kept, noted for being hardy, good foragers, great layers, and for being suitable as table birds (for meat). Many beautiful poultry heritage breeds have been declining in numbers, some to the point of near extinction, since the development of modern commercial strains. Recently there has been a resurgence of interest in conserving these wonderful breeds among small farmers, hobbyists, and keepers-of-backyard-flocks. I feel very strongly that heritage breed conservation (for all types of livestock) is incredibly important, for many reasons, including genetic diversity. In 2015 we purchased a flock of beautiful purebred Light Sussex chickens, a dual-purpose heritage breed, which I describe in more detail below.

If you are interested in heritage breed livestock and live in Canada I would recommend joining Canadian Heritage Breeds. The annual membership fee for this association is just $10.00 and you will have access to information, workshops, support, and a network of fellow enthusiasts who share an interest in perpetuating heritage livestock. The Canadian Heritage Breeds’ mission statement is: “To encourage the preservation, growth and overall welfare of heritage breeds. To be the vehicle that allows the public, both rural and urban, to recognise the strengths, values and relevance that heritage breeds possess in today’s marketplace. To demonstrate the benefits of heritage breeds through public awareness campaigns, which are designed to educate as well as offer the opportunity to become proactive in the conservation of heritage breeds.” I encourage you to check them out and to purchase a membership! This volunteer-run organization is truly outstanding.

Keeping Chickens: How We Got Started

I describe myself as a “chicken snob” because I grew up raising and showing bantam (miniature) and standard purebred chickens throughout my childhood 4-H career. (Ever been to a poultry show? No? It is quite the eye-opening experience! I would recommend supporting a local show. Seriously, check one out! Find one close by.) I also had ducks and pheasants as a child. From the age of 8 I had a passion for all things poultry. Thanks to these experiences I developed a critical eye for poultry and have had a heavy bias toward purebred stock ever since. When Alex and I moved to what is now Willow Lane Farm in 2013 I knew that I wanted to keep chickens, thinking that perhaps I would get back into showing them as a hobby. I found the ones I wanted and we made a seven hour drive each way to pick up our little bantams. I enjoyed keeping our bantams as pets but it soon occurred to me that as an adult I no longer had a passion for poultry shows – and then we were bitten by the homesteading bug! Our needs had changed.

Our Experience: Heritage Breed Birds vs. Commercial Broilers

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Light Sussex Hens

In 2015 we bought our 25 purebred Light Sussex chicks from a breeder. We chose these birds because they are known as an effective dual-purpose heritage breed and we wanted to keep one flock for both eggs and meat. We thought we would keep the hens for eggs and most of the roosters we could butcher. Of the 25, nine of these were pullets (female) and the rest were cockerels (males). This so often seems to be the case with straight-run (unsexed) chicks – the majority always seem to end up being male! We now are down to seven hens and one rooster, and I have been very pleased with them overall as egg layers. They lay a lovely medium-sized tinted coloured (light pinky-brown) egg. As for keeping the Sussex as meat birds: we decided that they are just not worth it. The birds we processed for meat were tender and flavourful but we decided it is too much work to butcher them for the little amount of meat we received from this slow-growing breed. It was because of this learning experience that I began to open up to the idea of raising commercial broilers for meat.

Until last year, I had looked down my nose at commercial birds but after raising the flock of Light Sussex I began to reconsider the value of commercial varieties for food. After a bit of research we decided to give a batch of commercial broilers a try. We ordered 30 Cornish Giant pullet day-old chicks from our local Miller Hatchery which were promptly delivered via post to our door the same day they were hatched. Very convenient! We chose pullets (females) because it was my dad’s recommendation that pullets are easier to raise and butcher. With his years of chicken-raising experience, I trusted this good advice, though that said it is worth noting that we had no processing problems the year before with our Light Sussex cockerels. The hatchery was kind enough to send us two extra chicks so we ended up with 32 fluffy yellow peepers. We lost one chick at about day three for reasons unknown, but after that we had no health problems or deaths with these birds. Our Cornish Giants grew at a remarkable rate and consumed a lot of feed during the process. And subsequently produced a lot of poop. We cleaned their house many times throughout the summer. We butchered them in batches of 10 or 11 and filled up our freezer with delicious home-grown and ethically raised chicken meat. Fully dressed our chickens were anywhere between five and ten pounds. Not bad! We certainly have enjoyed eating them this winter.

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Cornish Giant Chicks, 2016

None of our birds had leg problems (which can sometimes happen with commercial broilers) likely due to good genetics and the fact that they had room to move around and scratch and walk. They were definitely quite food aggressive and would rush us and each other any time we went into their coop with feed and water – I didn’t care for their personalities. (Yes, chickens have personalities. And certain breeds have personality traits. Over the years I’ve developed my preferences!) I much prefer the temperament of the Light Sussex and the other heritage breeds. On the other hand, this can be viewed as a plus because who wants to be good buddies with something you plan to eat?? 😊 Butchering went along just fine, we had no problems (we’re just slow due to lack of experience!) These white feathered birds plucked cleanly and easily, and we had no complaints. Overall, I have changed my opinion about commercial-type chickens. They can certainly have their place on the small farm! And since these guys are only here temporarily for a few months, I definitely feel they are a good choice for us.

Given the broiler experience, we are considering purchasing a flock of commercial-type laying hens for the farm this spring. I do love my heritage breeds, though – it makes this a tough decision! I would like to experiment and be able to compare the two types of laying flocks so it would be a good experience to raise some commercial layers. We also hope to sell some eggs this year and commercial layers may be more prolific and consistent in their laying to allow us to do so. Our Light Sussex girls didn’t lay one egg for several months this past fall (though they are coming two years old and hens will often take a break laying eggs, depending on age, time of year, hours of daylight, etc. so this may not be any different with commercial hens). I found out yesterday that our local feed store is selling ready-to-lay commercial layers which is a tempting idea. Though more expensive than purchasing day-old chicks, it would eliminate the work and worry of rearing chicks, and have the bonus of eggs right off the hop. (Chicks are cheep-er to buy than adult birds. See what I did there?!) I will keep you updated on what we decide to do!

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What will be the purpose of chickens at your farm or homestead?

First decide why you want to keep chickens and what their purpose will be at your homestead. Much like adopting a family dog, you need to first research your breed options and decide what variety of chicken will fit with your needs and expectations. Find out as much as you can about breed traits, requirements, strengths and weaknesses etc. Research is very important. For example, Leghorns are incredible layers but they have a reputation for being flighty and skittish. Be sure you know what you are getting into! If you can, speak to people who have experience with the breed and ask questions. A simple Google search can also tell you a lot, too.

If you would like to raise a few hens for eggs you have many choices. To maximize eggthreeeggs production and minimize price per bird, I would recommend you start with a commercial hybrid such as the Red Rock Cross. These birds tend to be hardy and reliable and may have fewer health problems than do purebred stock. You can easily purchase this type of bird locally or from a hatchery. Most hatcheries ship day-old chicks and you can have them delivered to your door, post office, or feed store for pickup on a day of your choosing.

If you want an attractive, decorative, and uniform laying flock I would recommend one of the many beautiful heritage breeds known for excellent egg production (Wyandottes, Crested Polish, Hamburgs, and Anconas, for example.) These breeds are well-suited for the backyard homestead. Or perhaps you don’t necessarily want to put all of your eggs in one basket and would like to start with a mixed-bag variety flock – one or two each of a variety of breeds that interest you. Try to find a local breeder who is willing to sell you some of their birds and help you get started. Many local poultry associations, such as Canadian Heritage Breeds, have a breeder directory. We have also attended several local livestock sales where we have purchased some wonderful Heritage Breed birds (including our ducks and geese.)

Same thing goes for purebred dual purpose heritage breed chickens (such as Rhode Island Reds, Plymouth Rocks, Orpingtons, Sussex, Chantecler, and Australorps) – do your research and then source out a breeder or attend a poultry/livestock sale. Most local sales will announce ahead of time what type of stock will be available at the sale so you know in advance whether you will be able to find what you are looking for. Try not to impulse-buy – make sure you are comfortable with the breeder (Is their stock healthy and well cared for? Are they helpful and willing to answer your questions?) and always trust your instincts!

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Old English Game Bantams keeping cool in the summer

If you have children, (and even if you don’t!) you may also wish to consider bantam chickens. These mini-sized chickens are truly my favourites and are the perfect size for children. I have kept many bantam breeds over the years and have found them to be delightful. What bantams lack in size they more than make up for in attitude! Some of the most memorable chicken personalities I have ever encountered have been bantams. Breeds such as Silkies are docile (making for great pets), lay plenty of eggs (albeit smaller than regular-sized chicken eggs), and are known for being great mothers. There are dozens of bantam breeds and many standard-sized chicken breeds also have a bantam counterpart. If housing space is limited in your coop you may also want to consider bantam chickens.

Don’t Ruffle Any Feathers!

**Before you purchase: a note about chickens! Chickens are extremely territorial and have a strictly-enforced pecking order. If this pecking order is disrupted by you introducing feathered newcomers – look out! Chickens can and will brutally fight and may do serious harm to an interloper. Keep this in mind when you are buying birds who do not know one another or when introducing new chickens to your flock. Find out how to properly and safely introduce birds to each other or how to integrate a new chicken into your existing flock from a reputable source such as this online guide.

To rooster or not to rooster?

If you would like to have your chickens raise their own chicks, to hatch chicks yourself using an incubator, or plan to sell fertile “hatching eggs”, then you will need to invest in a rooster. Note that hens will still produce just as many eggs for you in the absence of a rooster, but the eggs will not be fertile. If you are hoping for hens to “go broody” or “go clucky” (meaning when a hen will decide to sit on a nest and hatch some eggs, if available) you should also consider a breed that is known for being good mothers, such as many of the heritage breeds like Orpingtons or Sussex.

Roosters are loud. They crow in the morning – starting about an hour before the sun comes up – and will continue to crow throughout the day. Consider if you will be happy hearing this sound continuously (and if your neighbours will mind).

sussexroostersPersonally I enjoy the antics of our roosters. They are the comedians of the henhouse. Roosters are typically incredibly dedicated flock leaders and protectors and are willing to fight to the death for their girls. When a rooster finds a tasty treat he will “tidbit” – clucking in a special way to let the hens know he has found them a yummy prize that makes them all come running. I find them incredibly endearing. They are useful watchdogs if you plan to free range your flock, constantly scanning the ground and sky for threats. A flock of hens does just fine without a rooster, however, so the choice is a personal one!

Are you ready for the start-up and ongoing costs?

The expense of keeping chickens extends beyond simply purchasing the birds themselves. You need to build or buy proper facilities and equipment. Your ongoing costs include bedding, feed, supplements, medication (if you choose), and an increase in your monthly utility bill if you live in a climate requiring your coop to be heated. If you are raising chicks you will also need a heat lamp, brooder, and special chick-sized equipment such as feeders and waterers. Make sure you understand the costs associated with raising and keeping chickens before you buy so there are no surprises!

Research and decide on what you want to feed your chickens. Source out where you will be purchasing your feed, how much each bird will use, and what it will cost. Determine what you can expect to pay monthly for feed – feed prices vary depending on where you live. Be aware of all the costs of keeping chickens so you can budget accordingly and decide if it’s worth it for you!

Are you prepared to raise chicks? Or would adult birds be a better fit for you?

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Our incubator set with a few bantam eggs, 2014

As I mentioned, chicks require special care, attention, equipment, and added costs. Many hatcheries will sell you “sexed” day-old chicks (meaning they will send you either pullets or roosters, depending on what you ask for) at an extra cost. Most heritage breed chicks from farms or breeders are sold “straight run” (meaning you get what you get – you won’t know until they start to enter adulthood whether they are pullets or cockerels). When buying straight-run chicks, consider again the purpose of chickens. If you would like a few laying hens, what if you end up with a flock of all roosters? Do you have a plan for this? If you want hens for laying, I would recommend purchasing sexed chicks or ready-to-lay pullets or hens so you do not have to deal with potential unwanted roosters down the line. You can also expect to wait a good six months until your pullets start to lay eggs. Full grown birds are much easier to care for and you have the bonus of farm fresh eggs right away.

If you would like your chickens to eventually raise their own chicks (or you plan to hatch some eggs in an incubator) down the road it is important to remember that your fluffy babies will eventually become full grown chickens. Do you have a plan for these extra birds? Will you be willing to sell them, and who would buy them? If you want to keep them, do you have the space? What if they do not get along with the existing flock? What if they all turn out to be roosters? Be sure to think it all through! Hatching chicks is fun but you can find yourself all of a sudden with too many chickens on your hands!

For this post I won’t get into the details of how to raise chicks, but there are many helpful guides online including this one.

Housing – what should you consider?

First, be aware of your local bylaws and rules. Some communities do not allow livestock of any kind, including chickens. Other places will allow you to have a certain number of hens but no roosters. Find out what you are permitted to have before buying! Also familiarize yourself with any bylaws relating to what type of outbuildings and structures your zoning laws permit before you move in a chicken coop and start setting up. If required, first obtain a permit or written permission from authorities.

henhousequoteKnowing your space requirements can also be helpful when settling the question of how many chickens to purchase. Before you bring home your new chickens you will need to prepare for their arrival. You need a secure and spacious chicken coop to house them and protect them from the elements. Even if you plan to free-range your birds during the day they still need a safe and dry place to sleep, lay their eggs, and for their feed. A good rule of thumb is at least three square feet per bird of floor space. Bantam chickens need less space – one or two square feet per bird will suffice. Your coop needs to have ventilation and should be well insulated in colder climates. Our chicken houses are insulated and have electricity for heat and light for our long winters. We also have screen doors on our coops to allow air flow during the hot summer months. Your chicken coop should be sturdy and secure to keep out predators. If you have an outdoor run this should also be secure and safe; remember that predators can dig, fly, jump, squeeze, gnaw, and more. If there is a way in, they will find it! An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure – be diligent in preventing predators from getting their sneaky paws and claws on your poultry! Remember too that predators can be wild animals or domestic dogs and cats. Check out this helpful post for more.

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Alex being visited by our goslings as he cleans the broiler coop, Summer 2016

Building a chicken coop does not need to be expensive. There are many simple designs available online if you would like to purchase materials build your own. We bought garden shed kits from local lumber suppliers and adapted them to suit our chicken house needs. Some handy folks also custom build and even deliver coops for backyard chicken keepers. This would certainly be worth looking into if you don’t want to build a coop yourself! I like this little design but the possibilities are endless! Find one that fits your needs, space, and taste.

If you are getting hens you will need to provide them with nest boxes to lay their eggs. Chickens also like to roost at night so I would recommend that you install a perch. Provide bedding for the floor – we use wood shavings and have always found them to be the best type of bedding as the chickens continually scratch around and turn the shavings over keeping things fresh instead of packing them down (which is what would happen with straw or hay in a small space). Try to anticipate your needs as well as the needs of your flock when choosing a design. Consider your own comfort and convenience if you are building a coop and outdoor run – make sure you have easy access to feed, water, collect eggs, and observe your chickens. I love this guide to designing your own chicken coop.

If you are buying a second-hand chicken coop, make sure that it is properly disinfected before getting your new chickens. Poultry parasites and diseases may linger long after the previous tenants have vacated, so be cautious as you do not want to start off with a sick flock (be especially diligent if you will be getting chicks or adolescent birds as they do not yet have a fully developed immune system.) Ensure that the coop you plan to purchase is sound, secure, has enough space, and that it will adequately protect your chickens from the elements and predators. If it is in need of repairs have these complete before you bring home any chickens. You can find some great biosecurity tips for poultry here.

Are you ready for the commitment of keeping chickens?

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Our Light Sussex hens peck snow from my boots as I refill their feed, Winter 2017

Chickens have a life span of several years. This means you are committing to the daily responsibility of tending to your chickens for the entirety of their lives. We have had individual chickens live to be nearly 10 years old – are you ready for that? Where will you be in 10 years? Hens also significantly slow down in their egg production after the age of about two or three. If you are keeping your chickens just for eggs and have no use for them as pets after they stop laying, you need to consider what you plan to do with them for their remaining years. Re-homing them is simply not practical – very few people will be interested in taking on aging chickens that no longer lay eggs, and because chickens have a strict pecking order most people who already have chickens will not want to upset their existing flock by taking on someone else’s birds. Traditionally, on farms, hens of a certain age are butchered and used for stewing. They are tough but flavourful and known for making wonderful stews, soups, and chicken stock. If you plan to keep your chickens as pets and are prepared to let them live out their lives with you – that’s wonderful! But if not, you need to have a realistic plan.

You also need to think about who will look after your birds when you go on vacation. Make sure you have someone reliable lined up who either knows chickens or is willing to learn! It might cost you – sometimes getting the proper care for your particular type of livestock comes at a fee. I think it’s worth it to have the peace of mind that comes with knowing your feathered family members are in good hands!


For additional support: check out Little Farm in the Alberta Foothills’ Pinterest account for poultry resources, reading, and recommendations!

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