Raising chickens is pretty easy. They are a low maintenance small animal, perfect for the homestead. If you provide a good feeding and watering system chickens can even be left unattended for a few days while you are out of town. Watching chickens just be chickens is as mesmerizing and relaxing as watching a camp fire.
Kids love chickens! Our children each have a pet chicken that they pack around like a Chihuahua. They take their chickens on wagon rides and swing with them. We allow the kids to have a pet of certain homestead animals that we don’t plan on eating.
Feeding chickens in our harsh climate requires us to purchase feed. We have a great local source for organic chicken feed. We sprout grains (barley and oats) for the chickens as well as feeding them a layer mash. They go for the sprouted grains first which are very nutritious and a little more cost effective. We also give them kitchen scraps and some alfalfa hay. For calcium we simple crush egg shells on the floor and they eat them when they want. This does not cause them to eat their eggs. Remember that chickens need grit to digest their food. We have found some pretty peculiar things in the gizzards of chickens we have butchered. They will eat broken glass and other small hard things to use to grind up their food. In the winter the chickens pretty much stay in their house which is more like a chicken mansion, lots of room, large windows and deep litter. They will go out to the coop on a nice sunny day but for the most part they try to keep their feet out of the snow. We let them free range more in the winter as they do less damage with the snow covering. During nice weather the chickens get rotated in a chicken tractor, a little free range time and lots of coop time. We use to have them free range all the time but with the installation of the forest garden we have to keep them from digging up everything. Our hope is that as the forest garden matures we will be able to run the chickens through more often. The ducks are less damaging on the crops so they get to roam more freely. Often plants are harvested and taken to the chickens rather than letting the chickens harvest their own. Chickens will eat down and also pack down their coop. The soil can easily become hard pack over time. Shrubs and trees work better in coops than ground cover. They provide shade and are not damaged by the birds. Native sage brush is the primary bush in our coop but we plan on adding caragana so the chickens can harvest the seed pods. Chickens also need dust to bath in. This will keep mites under control.
Coyotes love chickens. We have lost as many as 35 chickens in 3 days. We had no problems and then the coyotes came and once they tasted one of those birds they wanted more. They moved in fast and after a few days of feasting moved on. They didn’t eat all the birds but got most of them. The solution for us was a fence and a big outside dog. We have an Akbash, a Turkish sheep dog. She has been a real asset. She works the night shift and we haven’t lost a chicken to a coyote since. The dog smells of skunk most of the summer so she is protecting the place from other critters as well. She doesn’t however mind if the neighbor dogs come over for a chicken dinner. She welcomes in the domesticated sort.
The benefits of chickens are many: eggs, meat, pest management, litter and manure and don’t forget quality of life. I can’t imagine living without animals.