Our family consumes eight dozen eggs a week, so our first consideration was to get good laying hens. Some people raise chickens strictly for meat; some just for eggs; and others for both. We actually have chickens have both. Ours are mainly Australorps, which are able to handle the cold climate here in northern Idaho. They are good foragers, hardy birds, good layers and good meat birds. Do a little research to find the chicken that will be the best choice for your climate, location and purpose.
Depending on your area and the space available, you may be able to free-range your chickens, but the high coyote and wolf population here does not permit it. We built our coop to accommodate 30 laying hens, a rooster and a guinea rooster and to provide them with a fully enclosed fenced yard. We have a couple of Rhode Island Reds, Barbed Rocks, Araucanas, Buff Orphingtons and Sex Links, but they’re mainly Black Australorps. We would like to get several more guineas because they make excellent alarm systems when you have trespassers of both the two- and four-legged kind.
Because we weren’t certain where we wanted the chicken coop to permanently be, my husband Glen built it on runners so we could easily relocate it if the need arose. He installed individual doors in the rear so we could check each nesting box for eggs without having to enter the coop. The screening in the front and bottom of the coop can simply be covered for the winter months to help keep the coop warmer and draft free. It is important that chickens have enough room, proper lighting and ventilation. When it is too bright and too cramped in a coop, cannibalism and feather picking can become an issue. When chickens get bored, bad things happen.
Nesting And Laying Boxes
In addition to giving chickens enough space, you also need to be sure they have enough laying boxes: one laying box for every four chickens. Glen’s family once had one of the largest chicken farms in central Pennsylvania, so we were able to bring with us an 18-hole, metal laying box, feeders and galvanized waterers. The nesting boxes should be kept clean and filled with nesting material such as straw or wood shavings.
Keep a coop well ventilated and without drafts. During construction, try to eliminate entry points for rodents, predators and predatory birds. We placed our fencing a foot down into the ground to keep varmints out, and we have the fencing running over the top of the yard to prevent hawks and eagles from taking off with our chickens.
We started out with a pellet laying mix from the local feed store as well as some scratch that worked well but was very pricey.
Then we found a local farmer who makes feed, and we saved ourselves a lot of money. We added additional protein to the crumble to help keep the our chickens’ energy and body temperature at optimal levels. This makes for better laying during the winter and will also fatten chickens, so if they do not lay accordingly, they will go nicely in the freezer. Keep in mind that chickens eat more in the winter.
During the winter months, some people may choose to give their chickens a little mash moistened with warm milk or water to help stimulate their appetites. And scratch in the morning and again before nightfall helps to increase body warmth.
Keep ’Em Watered
Keep your chickens well watered to eliminate dehydration. Warmer water in the winter months may help maintain egg production. A chicken is 50 percent water, you don’t use too much power. We use a red, 60-watt EarthBulb party light that only pulls 13 watts and a regular 40-watt light bulb. Stay away from fluorescent lighting because it will make things way too bright.
Frostbitten combs and wattles are a concern. Good ventilation and no drafts help to keep this from happening. You can also rub down the combs and wattles with Vaseline. Frostbitten combs look pale and must be treated.
Chickens molt one to two times a year. During this time they shed old feathers, and new ones grow. They stress during this time and produce fewer eggs. To be sure that we maintain egg production, we purchased our chicks in batches of varying ages so that they molt at different times.
Life expectancy of chickens is from six to eight years. Some people are under the misconception that you must have a rooster for your hens to lay eggs, but a rooster is only necessary when you need fertile eggs for reproduction.
You may have problems with your chickens eating their own eggs. To try to eliminate this problem, you can place fake eggs in the nesting boxes. This will also make the nesting boxes look appealing and deter the chickens from all trying to nest and lay eggs in the same box.