In the past few years, thousands of Americans have begun tending small flocks of chickens in their backyards. For most folks, it’s a new hobby, but we’ve been at it far longer. Rich began raising chickens in his suburban backyard when he was eight or nine years old – over 60 years ago. Marion’s family raised chickens at their New Hampshire home.
This spring many chicken newcomers will install a coop, raise chicks, and produce delicious food in their yards. It can be complicated, so this blog is designed to explain chicken husbandry in its very simplest form. Many books in most libraries and websites on chicken culture give detailed chicken care information and are outstanding resources. We recommend checking Hoover’s Hatchery. It offers a printed catalog, an online catalog, and website blogs. We also do a Facebook Live program each month for Hoover’s about different aspects of chicken care. Also see Scoop from the Coop for detailed information.
Baby chicks can be purchased on line.
Baby chicks can be purchased online. Most hatcheries require a minimum order of 15 or 25 babies, usually more than most families want. Smaller quantities can be purchased at farm stores, such as Tractor Supply. Many cities have ordinances allowing chickens but usually limit the flock size to six or fewer birds. Check your local ordinance before buying.
Chicks come in dozens of different breeds, but we suggest choosing those that lay brown eggs. These breeds are fairly large bodied, calm birds. Our long-term favorites are New Englanders like the Rhode Island or New Hampshire Reds, or the Barred Plymouth Rock. Other great breeds are Wyandottes, Orpingtons, and Australorps. White egg breeds, like Leghorns, lay like crazy but are more nervous and noisier than brown eggers.
Often, it’s possible to buy a variety of breeds. Having a six hen flock composed of six different breeds is colorful and fun.
Chicks need to be warm until their insulating feather grow.
Baby chicks need to be warm until their insulating feathers grow. They are reared in a device called a brooder. A simple one can be made with items most people have around the house. See the blog on building a brooder on Hoover’s Hatchery Website for detail.
By the time the babies are six weeks, or so, old they need to move into permanent quarters, the chicken coop. The easiest way for a family to start is to buy a pre-made coop online or at a farm store. These range in size from tiny ones that will fit just a couple of hens to those that might fit up to a dozen. It’s a good idea to have an attached outside fenced in area, called a run, so the hens can enjoy fresh air and sunshine. Building a coop isn’t difficult and plans are printed in most basic chicken books or can be downloaded from websites.
Chicken houses need fluffy bedding, called litter, covering the floor. Pine chips work great. Bales of chips can be bought at farm stores. Every coop should have a nest for hens to lay their eggs in and a pole installed parallel to the floor for them to roost on. Yup, chickens sleep standing up.
The house should have windows that can be closed to prevent cold winter drafts but open to welcome fresh summer air. Cover windows with mosquito mesh and heavy wire to discourage both bugs and raccoons. Neighborhood raccoons would love a chicken dinner, so keep them out of the coop!
Food and Drink
Stores that sell baby chicks almost always sell feed. Babies need a high protein mash called Chick Starter from the time they hatch until they lay their first egg. Then switch to Layer feed. Simple inexpensive feeders are sold in farm stores. Chickens love drinking fresh water so invest in a water fount and keep it full. Hens enjoy a handful of corn every once in a while, as a treat. They also love table scraps. We give ours bits of rice, squash seeds and hulls, meat scraps and a few other things. As with all treats, we keep portions small.
Raising chickens helps kids learn care and responsibility.
This is chicken husbandry in a nutshell. There’s lots more to it, so be sure to read websites and books on chicken care before buying your first batch of chicks. If you are lucky you can take a backyard chicken basic class at a nearby nature or garden center.
An outdoor run gives chickens more than fresh air and a place to exercise. Delicious tidbits are waiting to be discovered outside and break the monotony of daily mash or pellet meals.
Hens find food in even the smallest runs. Unfortunately, they quickly consume green grass yet still find earthworms and grubs while scratching. Occasionally they’ll even snatch a fly from the air, and if they can run down and catch a wandering mouse they’ll soon convert it to high protein food. At Winding Pathways our run is enormous, so our chickens enjoy greenery and insects all summer.
When the ground freezes and the snow flies the run remains a place for exercise, sunshine, and fresh air but there’s not much to eat there. Chickens are forced to dine on the same commercial mash day after day. It meets their nutritional needs but is boring!
Chickens love treats.
We jazz up their diet with tasty snacks from our kitchen and mealworms.
Fortunately, chickens, like most humans, are omnivores and enjoy a diversity of food. They love most table scraps. On a cold winter morning a handful of leftover bread, pizza crust, salad bits, and meat or fish scraps is enthusiastically devoured.
We accumulate kitchen scraps in a small stainless-steel seamless bucket that’s easy to clean. Each morning we carry it outside. As soon as the hens see one of us carrying the bucket, they run toward us. Our compost bin is immediately outside the chicken run, making it easy to toss the foods chickens will eat into the run and drop the rest in the composter. Generally vegetable and fruit peels get composted while the rest goes into the run. Some people smash eggshells and give them to chickens, but we prefer composting them. By spring our composter has transformed the scraps we don’t give to chickens and decomposing coop litter into outstanding compost for the garden. At Winding Pathways everything organic is used and most is returned to the soil.
Every afternoon our hens get a special treat – a scoop of mealworms. They absolutely love them, and we use them to help manage the flock.
According to Cesar, Director of Marketing at Mealworms By the Pound, mealworms are an ideal chicken food supplement. Nearly all dried mealworms are produced in China. “They keep about two years as long as they’re stored in a sealed container,” he said.
We bought a 30-pound bag of the dried bug larvae in the fall. They’re expensive so we feed them sparingly as a special treat. We store the mealworms in a metal trash can with a tight-fitting lid and give the hens a small scoop every day. Thirty pounds last all winter. Small bags of dried mealworms can be bought in most stores that sell chicken feed or ordered online.
Our hens love them so much that they come running when we announce, “MEALWORM TIME!” with a husky voice. That’s especially helpful during afternoons when we want to close the pop hole door before sunset. We simply yell “MEALWORM TIME!”, scatter worms inside the coop, and close the pop hole door as soon as all the girls enter.
People tire of monotonous food served every day, and so do chickens. Commercial mash is an outstanding feed but giving hens special treats livens up their day.
It’s turning time for wildlife, chickens, and people
As the Northern Hemisphere of the earth continues its ageless slow wobble away from the sun, days gradually shorten until a wondrous event happens.
The Autumnal Equinox happens around September 21st each year. It’s when daily hours of sunlight equal those of darkness. On only two days each year does every place on earth enjoy roughly 12 hours of sunshine. These are the fall and spring equinoxes. So, whether someone lives near the tropics or poles they will experience the same amount of light on only those two days.
Light changes quickly around equinox time. Up here in the Northern Hemisphere days shorten quickly and darkness advances until the December 21st Winter Solstice, the year’s darkest day. The Southern Hemisphere begins to enjoy its longest days through December.
At Winding Pathways around the Equinox, we do these things:
- Stimulate our chickens. We plug in the timer and light bulb in the coop. Chickens lay the most eggs when there are about 15 hours of daylight. So, the coop light is set up to come on about 4:30 a.m. and turn off about three hours later when the sun pokes over the horizon.
- Drain, clean, and invert our rain barrels. We won’t need extra water until next spring, so we turn the barrels upside down, so they don’t collect winter water that freezes and can split the barrels. We weight them with stones to keep Arctic winds from blowing them away.
- Watch this short video on how to Prepare Rain Barrels
- Bring in pumpkins and winter squash. A frost is soon to come, and we don’t want it to bite our squash. We store
Winter Squash vary in color, texture, shape and size.
pumpkins and squash in a room we rarely use. It stays cool but above freezing. Butternut, Acorn, Hubbard, and most other winter squashes and pumpkins, which actually are a squash, keep for months and give us delicious and vitamin stoked food on cold days.
- Exclude, or try to, insects and mice. Somehow mice, box elder bugs and Asian beetles sense coming cold and find tiny cracks to enter the house and enjoy winter warmed by our furnace and wood stove. Each fall we caulk up cracks and weather strip doors to encourage them to stay outside where we prefer to see them. It’s never perfect. Some always find their way inside.
- Enjoy leaves. Each’s fall’s spectacular leaf color peaks in October but some leaves start turning sooner. Our backyard black walnut starts coloring up in early September. The real show is the deep orange, red, and yellows of our sugar maples. They peak in early to mid-October followed by russet oak leaves.
Fall wildflowers are an important food source for insects and birds.
Enjoy wildflowers. Asters, Goldenrods, and Maximilian Sunflowers are the very last blooms of the season. Their colors brighten the yard and provide nectar for insects and then seeds for migrating and overwintering birds. But all this comes with sadness as we know we’ll not see wildflowers again until next spring.
- Watch wildlife. It’s migration time and one of the best seasons for seeing unusual birds. We often look upward and sometimes spot pelicans and waterfowl winging high overhead. By now deer in their subdued winter coats are sleek and well fed on a diet of acorns. Bucks have polished their antlers. Chipmunks and squirrels scurry about caching winter food.
We’d like to hear what you enjoy about the Equinox time. Please email us your joys and projects in this wondrous season.
Hoover’s Hatchery is sponsoring a “Chicken Shaming” contest! Seriously! Join the fun for some good clean Chicken Shaming by sending your story and photo. Winding Pathways works closely with Hoover’s Hatchery and we love their work.
Hoovers Hatchery Invitation
Mama Hen with chicks foraging.
Now a couple of months old, the quartet of chicks is exploring farther afield. After the cold and snowy introduction to the outside world in late March, they readily follow Mama Hen outside.
Mama protects them inside from the other hens by cornering the chicks and standing literally in front of them, screening them from the others who get too close. Outside, Mama clucks and calls the chicks over for food and again, warns off the adults with a serious sounding tone and lunge toward one that may get too close to the chicks or be aggressive toward them.
Mama hen with four chicks on roost.
The chicks learned how to fly up onto the roost with Mama and she mightily shelters them at night. We were worried the first few nights in April when temperatures fell to 11 degrees. But, they did OK.
Getting back down off the high perch is a challenge. A hilarious video shows three on the ground foraging and one walking back and forth screwing up courage for the long “flight” down.
The other day, one chick squeezed through the wire into the yard. Mama called it back. The funny thing about chickens is they can figure out how to get out and sometimes cannot figure out how to get back in.
Enjoy our blogs, pix and videos of the chicks growing up.
You know Steve Brown is from Texas right away. Vernon, Texas, to be exact. Home of the Red River Valley Museum, that features native sons trombonist and singer, Jack Teagarden and singer-songwriter, Roy Orbison. Brown’s drawl and easy manner draw you in. But, there is something else in his voice – maybe a hint of an Eastern clip? Perhaps a touch of wry Midwestern humor? And, what about the creative way he describes raises chickens in the north?
Technology and Tinkering
All of these are part of Dr. Stephen Brown who has lived, studied and worked in Upstate New York, Kansas, and now Alaska. “I grew up raising chickens since age eight,” he stated. “I love the soap opera of the coop,” he added. An engineer and self-professed “tinkerer” Brown is smart, innovative and ambitious. Above all, he is good with people. Pretty important qualities since he is District Agriculture and Natural Resources Cooperative Extension Service Agent for the Mat-Su/Copper River District of Alaska. He integrates his specialties of Global Positioning System (GPS) and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) with agriculture and the environment.
He applies his advanced degrees in Environmental Sciences from the University of Texas at San Antonio and the State University of New York, and his numerous publications and presentations practically for those living in the far north.
As Alaskans learn to raise poultry, till the soil, and ward off predators Brown is right with them. “I get to remote homesteads by boat, airplane and snow machine,” he said. “I may be the only extension agent in the country with reimbursement mileage for a snow machine,” he quipped.
Adapting the Coop
“Chickens can adapt to the cold when they have a safe coop,” explained Brown. After arriving in Alaska about a dozen years ago, he experienced some of the challenges of “high latitude farming.” He researched and presented keynote talks across the US and Canada. Then, he adapted methods that fit with homesteader lifestyles and pocketbooks. “You have to be practical because of the costs,” he explained. For example, temperature extremes make watering farm animals a problem. Since you don’t want to haul fresh water out every day and everything in Alaska is expensive, Brown adapted dog water bowls to stay heated in the winter for the low cost of about 15 bucks.
Brown also addressed other barriers to raising poultry in the far north. “Frostbite and ammonia build up are the two largest killers up here,” he explained. To prevent frostbite on chickens’ toes, Brown simply installed flat perches instead of round ones, so the chickens’ feathers covered their toes when they roost. Frostbite solved.
Animals also need to be safe from predators – bears and mosquitoes. So, the coop must be sturdy, have mosquito netting inside heavily wired windows, and have good ventilation. He converted an old horse stall to a secure, ventilated and warm chicken coop. He affirmed that chickens can handle the cold and only adds a heat lamp when temperatures really drop into the double-digit minus degrees.
Tom Sawyer Method
The deep litter method works well to keep the coop fresh and prevent ammonia build up. Spread a thin layer of fresh litter about once a week and toss in some treats for the chickens to scratch and keep the litter turned over. A couple of times a year he uses the “Tom Sawyer” method of cleaning up the coop. “I invite local gardeners to come over to my place twice a year and clean out the deep litter. I show them how to use it in their gardens to improve their soil for better crops,” he explained. Win-win.
Some poultry techniques he teaches in “Chicken U” classes which fill up. These include such basics as how to safely catch, hold, and butcher a chicken. Classes are booming and so is poultry husbandry. According to Brown, in the past eight years, chicken orders have skyrocketed from single thousands to well over 120,000. He gets to experience the great results of good husbandry and farming in part because he is president of the Alaska State Fair board of directors. The State Fair runs late August.
Marathon Man and Mountaineer
In his position, Brown is passionate about more than chickens. He has been on the cutting edge of promoting Rhodiola rosea as an important cash crop for Alaskans.
And, he is not all work and no play. His recreational pursuits run deeply, too – literally. He’s a marathoner and mountaineer. Since 1979 Brown has summited numerous peaks and seeks to summit on all continents. He even mused about taking a chicken to the top of Denali. “Even though I am no a spring chicken myself, I think it’d be kinda fun,” he said.
Call him up some time to chat chickens and crops. You’ll know him at the Alaska State Fair by his drawl and friendly manner that draws you in.