Let’s get the pros and cons out of the way up front. Pros: fresh eggs, pick the right kind of chickens (we’ll get to this in a little bit) and you’ve got the potential for great pets, wonderful learning experience for young people (responsibility, biology, agriculture), and for gardeners the manure is a terrific fertilizer (be sure to read this publication by U. Maine Cooperative Extension on Guidelines for Using Manure on Vegetable Gardens and this article on National Geographic’s website about composting with chicken droppings. Cons: chickens need daily maintenance (fresh water and feed, collecting eggs), shelter (and periodical cleaning and disinfecting of), depending on the number they can smell (or more specifically their poop will), and expenses (after food and shelter it is unlikely you will turn a profit unless you have a sizable operation).
Okay, the nitty-gritty…
State laws – in Maine you need a license if you have 3000 or more chickens. If you reside outside of Maine, check with your local town office, neighbors who keep chickens (or other farm animals), or if by luck your state university has a poultry science department check with them. The University of Maine Cooperative Extension’s Livestock/Poultry information and contacts can be found here.
Education – Do not underestimate the importance of talking to people who keep chickens – ask them about what kind of birds they have, how they secure their hen area from predators (on the ground and from above), what equipment they use…. These conversations could save you a whole lot of lost sleep and birds! Best to learn from other people’s successes and losses and have someone to phone to confer with when you’re not sure what to do. Of course, make sure if you want to use organic methods you talk to people practicing them. Check out this Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association’s fact sheet on Organic Chicken Basics.
Visit BackyardChickens.com and spend some time at their Learning Center. *This website is probably the first place you should go as it is free and from there you can decide whether to invest in books. MyPetChicken has useful information on caring for baby chicks and links to chicken suppliers.
As for magazines, Backyard Poultry is something you might want to pick up after you have committed to the idea of chicks (the ads alone for supply companies are worth the $4.99 for the publication).
Chick Days: Raising Chickens from Hatchlings to Laying Hens by Jenna Woginrich has been the single best resource for information in my first year of keeping chickens. It is fun, has great week by week photographs that chronicle the life journey of three chickens from newly hatched fluffy butterballs to grown hens laying eggs. Day by day and week by week, you’ll watch these three chickens grow and change, and along the way you will learn everything you need to know about chicken behavior, feeding, housing, hygiene, and health care.
Keeping Chickens: All You Need to Know to Care for a Happy, Healthy Flock by Ashley English was helpful to me as a secondary resource when it came to selecting a breed and the health and wellness of my chicks. I used the instructions in English’s book to build the nesting boxes.
Hatching & Brooding Your Own Chicks by poultry expert Gail Damerow addresses challenges: selecting a breed, finding the best incubator, maintaining sanitary conditions, feeding and caring for newborn chicks in a brooder. Damerow also wrote Storey Publishing’s Guide to Raising Chickens, another solid resource for new chicken owners.
A great gift book is Storey’s Illustrated Guide to Poultry Breeds. This definitive guide to North American barnyard and wild fowl includes a brief history of each breed, detailed descriptions of identifying characteristics, and colorful photography that celebrates the birds’ quirky personalities and charming good looks.
The University of Maine Cooperative Extension’s website has a thorough list of resources (online, publications….) for small-scale poultry producers.
Selecting the appropriate breed – The first question is do you want chickens for eggs or meat? All hens, unless they are old or sick, lay eggs starting at 22-24 weeks of age. A few breeds known for being dependable egg layers: Golden Comets and Plymouth/Barred Rocks. Breeds raised for meat include: Cornish Cross, Dominique, Jersey Giant, and Welsumer. Dual Breeds (raised primarily for eggs, can be eaten) include: Ameraucana, Australorp, Orpington, and Rhode Island Red.
Once you decide the purpose of your chickens, it’s a good idea to research what birds have a good temperament (and whether they are compatible with another breed(s) if you want a mixture, are good with confinement (something they’ll have to deal with during snowy winters), and if they are known for being hardy (again those pesky cold winters).
How many chicks and do you want a rooster – It could be keeping a rooster is illegal in your area, so check. Note, you do not need a rooster for eggs, unless you want them to be fertile. Raising chickens takes time, these ladies (and maybe dudes) will be reliant on you year-round a few minutes each day for food, water, etc. Originally, I was going to start with six when a more knowledgeable source intervened and advised me to consider doubling or quadrupling that number as taking care of six would be the same roughly as taking care of 24. The expense might be a little greater, but considering I have the room why not. Well, I spoke to some friends who keep chickens and everyone advised me – start with 12, you can always grow the flock the next year (chickens only produce eggs for the first two – three years). How much space you need is dependent on whether you want to have them be free range or not. I have a little over an acre, but am way too fond of these gals to let them become snacks for the foxes, fisher cats and occasional bobcat that happens onto my property. I opted for an outdoor run attached to my chicken coop so the gals have ample room to explore and exercise. During the summer I let them free range during the day while I’m home and can keep an eye on predators. During the winter they reside in the barn and are let out to graze on mild days when there isn’t snow on the ground.
If you have 1/10 acre you have enough room for 1/2 dozen chickens. Chicks need one-half square foot of space for the first two weeks. They grow fast and after two weeks, should have one to three square foot per bird depending if they are a layer or heavy breed.
Purchasing Chicks – Unless you purchase chicks from your local farm store in the spring, the chances are you will want to check out mail-order sources for chicks. There is stress involved for chicks by mail-ordering, so if you can go to a local trusted seller. Murray McMurray Hatchery in Iowa is one of the better known (and who I used). Most mail-order firms require a minimum order of 25 chicks on each order prior to April 1st (you can mix breeds up and share an order with a friend as I did). On and after April 1st, the minimum number of chicks required is 15 (fewer than 15 chicks are not enough to stay warm). Before you order check with your local postmaster to make sure chicks are shipped there and will not take more than 48-72 hours (especially if you live in a remote area). Chicks will not survive without food and water after 72 hours! Make sure to notify your post office when to expect the chicks (they usually arrive within 1 or 2 days of being shipped). Make sure you are available to pick them up as soon as they arrive.
Chicks will die in transit due to mishandling, being left too long in a hot or cold area, not being well to start off. Of the 25 I ordered with my friend one did not survive.
**I strongly recommend you do not purchase McMurray’s “Special Baby Chicken Bargains” assortment. I know people who have received “surprise” chickens which did not get along. Know the breed(s) you are getting. Chickens can be aggressive with people and each other.
Arrival of chicks/brooder management – Here we go! Before you pick up your two-day old chicks or they are delivered, their new home should be waiting for them. Keep this in mind – the first four to five weeks of a chick’s life are the most perilous. They need constant attention!
The Brooder Box – chicks need a warm, dry, draft-free place where they are protected from house pets and loud noises (radios, machinery…that would be stressful), but have ventilation. Some websites sell kits or you can purchase one (like I did and highly recommend) from Roots, Coops & More in Maine. If you do not want to spend the money, you can convert a large plastic tub or cardboard box into a brooder by fastening chicken wire to the top of the box. The screen over the top of the brooder will prevent escape, allow for ventilation and deter the curious house cat. The container’s walls should be at least 18-inches high. Line the bottom of the box with several layers of newspaper (I found paper towels got torn quickly). Do not use loose bedding for the first 2-3 weeks (the chicks might choke on it, get stuck in it...). *Practice scrupulous brooder hygiene for your chicks health. If not kept in check, disease can result. You should replace the newspaper daily and cl