Bird is the word: Learn what's involved in raising your own flock of egg-producing hens | Kitsap Week

It is a myth that chickens need roosters in order to lay eggs. A flock of female chickens don
It is a myth that chickens need roosters in order to lay eggs. A flock of female chickens don't need a rooster to produce healthy eggs.
— image credit: Brian Jennings

If you saw chickens roaming the yard, or saw containers of peaches in glass jars on the basement shelf, would you think you were back in time?

Having chickens in the yard and canned peaches on the basement shelf were two ways that our great-grandparents kept food on the table.

Now with giant supermarkets receiving fresh produce daily from Chile and Mexico, canning your own food seems so 1920.

Think again.

There is a movement afoot. More and more people are taking responsibility for what they eat. They no longer mindlessly squirt cheese-flavored-products (full of sodium and preservatives) onto their crackers. That was so 1972.

Instead, people are more conscious about what they eat and how the food arrived to their table.

At Kitsap Week, we are going to explore ways to bring home-grown food to your table. This week, our focus is on chickens. Next week, we will explore gardening and preserving your harvest.

Shannon Harkness and Diane Fish of the Washington State University Extension Office Small Farms Team have seen a huge increase in the number of people who want to grow their own food.

“It’s like people woke up and realized that the processed food they’ve been buying doesn’t taste as good as making it yourself,” Harkness said. “And it’s not very healthy.”

Because of the economic downturn, people aren’t spending as much on entertainment outside the home. Instead, they are looking for more home-based activities. Harkness said people are looking for hobbies to keep them busy and give them a new purpose. Classes the extension office has offered include cheese making, sausage making and raising chickens

Having fresh eggs from your backyard can be rewarding and delicious — and, now, more nutritious. The USDA recently changed its ruling on eggs. It found that eggs contain 14 percent less cholesterol than previously believed. (The eggs sampled registered at 185 mg of cholesterol.) Upon further examination, eggs also contain more vitamin D — a whopping 64 percent more!

But before you head to your local feed store and fall in love with the chirping ball of fuzz, you need to do some research.

First of all, figure out if chickens are allowed where you live. Local ordinances vary throughout Kitsap County, so check with your municipality. And be sure to check neighborhood covenants. If you get the green light, think about where your coop will be located and make sure it’s far away from neighbors. Coop design and plans are available online. The Kitsap libraries also have a good collection of resources.

According to Fish, who has a flock of 20 hens, chickens need to have eight square feet per bird. Plan ahead and build your coop accordingly. The cost of a coop varies depending on size, materials used and how fancy you wish to build. Harkness said building the coop is half the fun! For $200 you should be able to get a small flock with a small coop if you have some building skills and some spare parts on hand. Scour your community for free building supplies. You also have the option of buying a pre-fab one or having one built.

When building or buying your coop, be mindful of predators. Raccoons are a common enemy of chickens. A raccoon’s paw can fit through cracks and grab an unsuspecting chicken. Despite its name, chicken wire is not the material of choice for coops. Instead, use hardware cloth, which is stronger with smaller holes.

Other common predators include dogs, coyotes and eagles.

“I always know when eagles are flying around because the chickens scurry to find cover,” Fish said.

Roosters do an excellent job of protecting the hens. Their primary job is to keep the hens together and to help them find food. The downsides of roosters are their early-morning crowing and their sometimes aggressive behavior. Local rules may prohibit roosters in your area, so be sure to check before purchasing a cock-a-doodle-doer.

When picking out your chickens, pay close attention to the breeds. Heartier breeds like Rhode Island Reds and Buff Orpingtons do well in our climate and can produce eggs nearly year-round.

If egg production is your main goal, stay away from smaller breeds and bantams. They don’t have the body mass to lay during the colder months. The calories they consume in the winter goes to maintaining body weight instead of producing our breakfast.

Of course, providing nourishment is not a one-way street. It is important to make sure your birds are well fed. Luckily, being omnivores and scavengers, chickens will eat just about anything.

“My husband calls them pigs with feathers,” Fish said.

Despite their flexibility in diet, you should make sure your chickens are getting the proper nutrients. Protein is particularly important for egg production, which is why chickens are always searching for bugs and worms. Calcium is also essential. Although high-quality chicken feed will contain calcium, you may want to supplement the feed with ground oyster shells (available at local feed stores).

If a chicken’s calcium level begins to get low, they won’t quit laying, but eventually the egg shells will become brittle.

As long as your chickens are of a hearty variety, they should do fine when the winter winds begin to blow. In the extreme cold, you can clip a heat lamp to the coop. Use caution, however. Heat lamps can be dangerous.

During the colder months, check the chicken’s water supply to make sure it hasn’t frozen. Fresh water is imperative for a chicken’s health and egg production.

Before bringing home baby chicks, set up a brooder. A brooder is a protective environment used to keep the chicks safe and warm. Fish recommends using a plastic storage tub with high walls. You will need to hang a heat lamp above the brooder.

For the first week, the lamp should be positioned above the brooder so that the temperature is between 80 to 85 degrees. The best way to tell the perfect temperature doesn’t involve a thermometer: if the chicks are huddled together under the heat lamp, it’s too cold; if they are fanned out to the corners of the brooder, it’s too hot. They are just right when they are moving around and chirping and peeping.

Each week, as their feathers come in, you should raise the lamp gradually. By the end of the fourth week, they should be sufficiently feathered and not need the heat, said Fish.

When the chicks are old enough and large enough to transition from the brooder to the coop, you can clip a heat lamp on the side of the structure if nighttime temperatures are still low. Fish said as long as the temperature doesn’t drop below 50 degrees, the chickens should be fine without a heat source. They rest comfortably in chilly conditions by huddling together.

Once you have an established your flock of egg-laying hens, you may not be able to resist adding to your flock. It’s also not uncommon to lose a chicken or two to illness or predators.

When introducing new chickens to an existing group, Fish recommends putting the new members into the coop at night. The older chickens will be sleepy and they won’t be as bothered by the new tenants. Still be prepared for some loud squawking and fighting as the chickens figure out their place in the flock.

Fish also said it’s difficult to introduce a single bird. Often, the single bird will be dead in the morning.

“There is a reason they call it the pecking order,” she said. Combining at least three or four chickens to the existing flock is recommended.

Fish said chickens have tremendous personalities. They are engaging and funny.

Bringing home chickens is like bringing home any other pet. Each chicken will have her own unique personality. Some enjoy being held. Some flap their wings wildly and do the funny chicken waddle. Some you’ll bond with and some will have you asking, “Just how small is her brain?”

Harkness said after a long day of work, it’s nice to unwind by watching the chickens. “People are excited about working chickens into their schedule because they are so fun,” she said.

Fish added, “They really are delightful in so many ways.”

Engaging and entertaining birds that also provide nourishment? Sounds like a win-win situation.

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