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I wrote this guide for the purpose of learning about self-sufficiency through mini-farming, and self-sufficiency, in my opinion, has no political agendas attached to it. If, for personal, health, or religious reasons you are opposed to consuming animal food products, then skip this section and the next one. If you are a meat eater but are understandably squeamish about eating homegrown eggs or turning animals into meat, I nevertheless encourage you to continue reading simply for your own knowledge.
Nothing says "farm" like the sound of a rooster crowing in the morning, and nothing is more aggravating to neighbors than a rooster that seems to crow all day, every day. Still, small livestock have a place on the mini-farm because of the high-quality protein that they provide. If you currently purchase meat and eggs, know that homegrown meat and eggs can be raised at a very low cost that will save you money.
For the purposes of a mini-farm occupying half an acre or less, cows, goats, and similar livestock will place too high a demand on the natural resources of such a small space and will end up costing more than the value of the food they provide. In such small spaces, the greatest practical benefit can be derived from chickens, guineas, some species of ducks, and aquaculture. Rabbits are also a possibility, but remember that children (and adults!) can get attached to them easily. But chickens, overall, are the most cost effective choice on a small lot.
Chickens are foragers that will eat grass, weeds, insects, acorns, and many other things they happen to run across. They will virtually eliminate grasshoppers, slugs, and other pests in the yard, thus keeping them away from the garden. Many cover crops like alfalfa, vetch, and soybeans are delicacies for birds and since cover crops are recommended to be grown anyway, a small flock of 10 or 20 birds can be raised with minimal feed expenditures over the growing season.
Don't expect to get rich in the chicken and egg business because you would be competing at the wholesale level in a commodity market, so it's unlikely to be a direct money maker . But it is feasible to produce meat and eggs for yourself at costs that significantly undercut those of the supermarket while selling the odd dozen to friends and coworkers. On our own farm, the eggs we sell completely liquidate the cost of feed so that our own eggs are free, plus we get to keep the chickens valuable nitrogen-rich manure for our compost pile.
A flock of 12 laying chickens costs about $6.00 per week to feed during the winter months when they can't be fed by foraging. They will earn their keep by producing about two to four dozen eggs weekly (more during the summer , fewer during the winter).
Obviously, the family can't eat that many eggs, so a little negotiation with friends or coworkers who appreciate farm-fresh eggs will net you $2 to $3 per dozen. (Egg cartons cost about $0.20 each from a number of manufacturers. For more information, just type "egg cartons" into an Internet search engine. We get ours at a local get together known as a "chicken swap. ") To put the cost of chicken feed into perspective, a flock of 12 chickens costs less to feed than a house cat.
At the supermarket, a chicken is just a chicken, but eggs run the gamut from cheap generic eggs costing less than a dollar a dozen to organic eggs costing more than five dollars a carton. From the standpoint of raising chickens, there are numerous breeds available, each of which has its strengths and weaknesses. Many chickens are bred specifically for meat yield, and others are bred mainly for laying eggs. There are also dual-purpose varieties that split the difference.
For a mini-farm, I would recommend a hardy egg-laying variety such as the Rhode Island Red, which has the benefit of being good at hatching its own eggs over the more cultured Leghorn (pronounced "legern") varieties. Another good choice would be a dual-purpose breed like the New Hampshire or Orpington. In my experience, the laying productivity of hens diminishes over time, so these birds can be transitioned into the freezer and replaced with younger hens. (Old layers transitioned into the freezer are tough and best used for soups, stews, and chicken pot pies, so label them accordingly.) If you choose to hatch eggs from your chickens to supplement your flock, new roosters of the chosen breed should be brought in every couple of years to reduce inbreeding.
You'll find that hens and roosters are fun to watch and provide endless amusement. When the farmer steps outside, plate in hand, to deliver meal leftovers to the chickens, they'll come running! Then, the chicken that managed to retrieve an especially attractive piece of food will be chased all over the place by other members of the flock.
The roosters will be vigilant and defend the rest of the flock against attack but otherwise just strut around looking proud and important.
Chickens definitely establish a "pecking order" amongst themselves, so new chickens should be separated from the rest of the flock until they are large enough to defend themselves.
You need only one rooster for every 20 or fewer hens. In fact, you need no roosters at all unless you are planning for the hens to raise babies. Too many roosters is a bad idea since they are equipped with spurs on their legs and will fight each other unless the flock is large enough to accommodate the number of roosters.
Roosters are not usually dangerous to humans, but there have been cases of attacks against small children, so it's good to keep an eye on kids who are playing in the same yard with roosters. In addition, if your flock has fewer than 20 birds, the rooster will likely mount the chickens so often that they may develop bald spots.
I recommend the following breeds of general purpose chickens for a mini-farm: Rhode Island Red, New Hampshire, Wyandotte, Sussex, and Orpington. These breeds make good meat and eggs, will get broody and hatch their own eggs, and make good mothers.
Especially important around kids or in suburbia, they have gentle dispositions. But don't be complacent, especially about roosters. If they feel that one of the hens is being endangered, they will attack, and once they do, breaking them of the habit is difficult.
Caring for Baby Chicks
All birds have requirements in common with any other livestock.
They need special care during infancy, food, water , shelter , and protection from predators.
Chickens can be started as eggs in a commercial or home-built incubator . Most often, they are purchased as day-old chicks. They can be obtained at the local feed and seed store in the spring or ordered from a reputable firm such as McMurray Hatchery (mcmurrayhatchery.com), Fairview Hatchery (fairviewhatchery.com), or Stromberg's (strombergschickens.com). After hatching or arrival, baby birds should be provided with a brooder , food, and water . For a mini-farm-scaled operation, a brooder need be nothing more than an area enclosed on the sides free of drafts, an adjustable-height heat lamp, and a thermometer . (These products are available at agricultural supply stores.) The floor of the brooder should be smooth (like flat cardboard or newspapers) for the first few days until the chicks figure out how to eat from the feeder , and then you can add some wood shavings. Make sure to clean all the droppings and replace the litter daily. Feeding and watering devices for baby birds are readily available.
When the baby chicks are first introduced to the brooder , duck their beaks briefly in the water so they recognize it as a water source. Just before hatching, chicks suck up the last of the yolk so they are all set for up to 24 hours without food after hatching, but you want them to have food and water as soon as possible.
Incubators and brooding areas must be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected before populating them in order to keep a disease called coccidiosis controlled. Coccidiosis is caused by a parasite that is spread through bird droppings and is more dangerous to baby birds than to adults. It is easy to tell if a baby bird has contracted the parasite because blood will appear in the droppings. Feed for baby birds is often formulated with an additive for conferring immunity to the parasite; some small-scale poultry farmers report that the disease can be controlled by adding one tablespoon of cider vinegar per quart to the birds' drinking water for three days. Either way, the importance of cleanliness and disinfection in areas to be inhabited by baby birds can't be overemphasized.
Disinfection requires a thorough ordinary cleaning with soap and water to remove all organic matter followed by applying a suitable disinfectant for a sufficient period of time. A number of disinfectants are available including alcohols, phenolic compounds, quaternary ammonia disinfectants, and a large number of commercial products sold for that purpose. The most accessible suitable disinfectant is chlorine bleach diluted by adding 3/4 cup of bleach to one gallon of water . This requires a contact time of five minutes before being removed from the surface, then the area has to be well ventilated so it doesn't irritate the birds.
Baby chicks should be started on a type of feed called "starter crumbles" and kept on it for six to eight weeks or until fully feathered. Once fully feathered, they can go on layer rations and be put in the hen house. They don't usually start laying eggs until they are a little over 16 weeks old.
You should check with the agricultural extension agent in your local area for vaccination recommendations. Poultry are prone to certain diseases, such as Newcastle disease, that are easily protected against by vaccination but are incurable once contracted and can easily wipe out a flock.
We order vaccination supplies from an online veterinary supply company-Jeffers Livestock-and administer the vaccinations myself. Most vaccines come in a size suitable for vaccinating 1,000 birds, which is not particularly suitable for a backyard flock. We vaccinate laying chickens for Newcastle disease and infectious bronchitis (IB).
Newcastle disease is a highly contagious viral illness of birds that has been recognized since the 1920s. It manifests in various forms, some of which cause as much as 90% mortality in a flock.
Newcastle disease infects and is spread by all manner of birds, and it is endemic throughout Western Europe and North America. Most birds don't experience the levels of mortality and debility that manifest in domestic chickens, though. It is primarily spread by droppings. In plain English, this means that all that is needed for your flock to be wiped out is for a sparrow to poop into your chicken yard while flying over . (As a side note, the virus causes a mild conjunctivitis in humans and is particularly toxic to cancer cells in humans while leaving normal cells practically unharmed. Research into this is ongoing.) So vaccinating your flock is a good idea. Meanwhile, while the Newcastle vaccine is available on its own, it can also be purchased as a combined vaccine for IB.
IB is caused by a highly contagious coronavirus that mutates rapidly. While the immediate mortality rate from IB tends to be low, it can permanently damage the kidneys and reproductive tracts of chickens, hurts shell pigmentation, and makes the eggs unappetizing. Thus, especially if you visit the backyard flocks of other poultry owners, vaccinating your flock for IB makes sense.
So, now that you've decided to vaccinate your flock, how do you go about doing it? First you have to get the vaccine-which I order from Jeffers Livestock. Trouble is, the teeny-weeny 7 ml (less than two teaspoons) vial contains enough dosage for 1,000 chickens. For those of us with a smaller flock of 20 birds or so, it isn't practical to use the watering directions. So how do you administer the vaccine? The vaccine comes with directions. If you can't find them, you can get them from the company Web site.
Two methods are of interest. The first is to use an included plastic dropper and administer one (very small) drop of vaccine into either the nostril or the eye of each bird. My birds are pretty tame. They jump up onto my shoulders to keep me company and have no real issue with me picking them up or handling them. So in my case, this method works just fine. I set up a chair in the chicken yard and bring a couple of pieces of bread with me, and as each chicken takes a turn jumping up onto my lap, I gently hold its head still and beak closed and put a drop on one nostril. I then briefly close the other nostril with a finger until the drop gets sucked in, give the chicken a piece of bread, and send it on its way.
But not all chickens are so friendly and cooperative. When I was a kid, we had some chickens who thought they were kamikazes or something, and securing their cooperation in such an endeavor was unlikely. So we vaccinated them through their drinking water.
The question is how do you translate dosage instructions intended for 1,000 birds so they work for a small flock of 10-30 birds? Here's how I do it.
We rehydrate the vaccine in the vial using high-quality bottled water . We shake it thoroughly and then dump it into a 100 ml graduated cylinder . We add water to bring the total volume to 100 ml.
Now we know that each milliliter has enough vaccine for 10 birds. We set that aside.
Then we turn my attention to the waterer . We take it apart and clean it thoroughly with hot soapy water, rinse it thoroughly, and then dry it with paper towels. Our water at home isn't chlorinated. If you have chlorinated water, do the final rinse with bottled water.
Then, we put 1 gallon of bottled water , 1 teaspoon of powdered milk, and 1 ml of vaccine for every 10 birds into the waterer and stir it up. Then we make sure that for the next 24 hours it is the only source of water available for the birds. The next day, we clean out the waterer thoroughly and then fill it up with my normal watering solution plus a vitamin supplement. The vaccines are live virus vaccines, and they put some stress on the birds, so we give them the vitamins to help them deal with that.
Speaking of live viruses--we should mention that if you aren't careful while playing with this vaccine, you'll get a mild case of conjunctivitis-also known as "pink eye"--or maybe some cold-like symptoms. Nothing serious though.
While we use this method for the Newcastle vaccine, it will also work for other vaccines that are dosed for larger flocks.
Sometimes vaccinating chickens makes them sick, and they need medicine. Other times, they will get sick from germs you have brought home on your shoes from visiting someone else who has chickens or even from buying a couple of adult birds and introducing them to the flock-even if you keep them in a separated space for 10 days beforehand, which you should always do.
This is a tough situation. If you are raising birds organically and they need antibiotics and you use them, the chickens are no longer organic-so you may be stuck destroying the birds.
The most likely reason you would resort to antibiotics with chickens is respiratory illness. These sorts of illnesses aren't all bacterial-some are viral and unaffected by antibiotics. Nevertheless, we have found that most often the respiratory illnesses characterized by wheezing and nasal discharge or sneezing have all responded.
Antibiotics will find their way into the eggs of laying birds, so the eggs should be broken and added to the compost pile during treatment and for a week afterward. The two most common antibiotics used for chickens are variants of tetracycline and erythromycin, both of which are available mail order or right in the feed store without a prescription. A study of tetracycline residues in eggs found that on the second day after finishing treatment, any residues in the eggs were undetectably low.
So disposing of the eggs for seven days following treatment is fine. On the other hand, while the meat is safe to eat one day following discontinuance of erythromycin, I have no data indicating that the eggs are ever safe to eat again. So laying chickens treated with erythromycin to cure illness should be transitioned into being meat birds and replaced with new layers.
As with vaccines, antibiotics are usually packaged in sizes suitable for much larger flocks, but a bit of math will let you know how much to use. One thing you will definitely need, though, is an accurate scale weighing in grams. Digital scales used to be quite expensive but can now be found for less than $30.
During the active growing season, birds will provide about half of their own food by foraging if the farmer keeps the size of the flock suitable for the area being foraged, but during the winter and for the first weeks after hatching, they will need to be given commercial feed. (The amount of pasture required per bird depends on the type of vegetation being grown in the area. Start with 300 square feet per bird, and adjust from there.) You can also feed grain and vegetable leftovers-such as bread and pasta-to your chickens.
Technically, you can feed them meat as well, but I would avoid the practice because too many diseases are being spread these days by feeding meat to livestock--things like mad cow disease that can spread to humans and is incurable. A small flock of birds will be much less expensive to feed than a house cat, and the feed is readily available at agricultural stores. A number of bird feeders are available commercially, or they can be built by the farmer . Make sure that whatever you use for a feeder , it can be raised or lowered so that its lip is even with the backs of the birds. Building the feeder this way, and never filling it more than half full of feed will significantly reduce the amount of feed, that ends up on the floor since chickens have to raise their heads to swallow.
If birds are used for pest control, a fencing system should be created that allows the birds to forage in and around beds that are sown with cover crops but not in beds growing food crops A small flock of birds will devastate a garden in short order because they like to eat most things that humans eat. They make excellent manure that should be added to the compost pile if gathered.
Otherwise, just leave it in the beds containing cover crops to naturally degrade and provide free fertilizer for the next growing season.
Commercial feed comes in many varieties. Both medicated and non-medicated versions of mash, crumbles, and pellets are available.
If you specify it is for laying hens, the clerk at the store will know exactly what you need. The medicated versions aren't typically necessary. You can also buy a mix of cracked corn and rye called "scratch feed. " Scratch is about half the price of regular feed but is not, in and of itself, a complete ration-although chickens tend to prefer it over regular feed. All feeds are very attractive to rodents, easily rotted by water , and a lure for grain moths, so they should be kept in metal storage containers with tight-fitting lids.
One winter , we kept a feeder with both scratch and regular feed available in the coop for the birds that were confined while the snow was deep. We also kept bales of alfalfa hay in the coop, covered with a tarp. Because the birds preferred the scratch to the complete ration, they became nutritionally deficient and sought to make up the difference by eating the hay. One of the hens developed an obstruction of her crop this way and had to be euthanized. So we have learned not to provide scratch while the chickens are confined, especially if an edible litter-like hay-is used.
What we do instead, when the chickens must be confined because of bad weather, is provide a daily bunch of greens such as lettuce or kale to supplement their feed. This helps give the yolks a nice color and keeps the chickens from getting bored.
All birds have similar housing requirements though their habits are a bit different. A coop should be built for the birds with about three square feet of floor space per bird. Technically, as few as two square feet can be adequate for chickens, and ducks require only three square feet each, but the coop should be sized to account for temporary increases in flock size during the spring and summer. For a flock of 20 birds, which is the largest practical flock for a small lot, that means a 100-square-foot coop-a size that can be accommodated in a number of configurations such as 8 × 12, 10 × 10, and so forth. Enough floor space helps to reduce stress on the birds and prevents behavior problems. The most prevalent behavior problem resulting from inadequate living space is chickens pecking each other, which can lead to infections and other problems.
The subject of construction techniques required to build a chicken coop is beyond the scope of a web page on farming. McMurray Hatchery (mcmurrayhatchery.com) has two suitable chicken house plans including a complete bill of materials for less than $15 each as of this writing. Judy Pangman has also written Chicken Coops, a comprehensive book containing 45 illustrated plans for chicken coops to suit every circumstance and budget.
For our chicken coop, we used a product called Star Plates available from Stromberg's Chickens. It allows for building a floor in the shape of a pentagon and an extremely strong and secure shelter . It also, per square foot, works out to be less expensive than many other approaches plus allows for a natural draft when used with a small cupola.
No matter which way you'd like to build a coop, I'd like to convey a few aspects of coops that I believe to be important.
First, a coop needs to have a smooth floor , made out of plywood, for example, that is well coated with polyurethane or a similar substance that is impervious to moisture and easily cleaned or disinfected. The floor should be strewn with wood shavings, peat moss, or a similar clean absorbent material that is replaced anytime it becomes excessively damp or dirty in order to prevent infections.
Some experts recommend against using hay, but that is precisely what we use without any difficulties as long as we don't store the hay bails in the coop.
Second, any windows should be made out of Plexiglas rather than real glass and preferably located high enough on a wall that the chickens can't get to it easily. That way they won't be tempted to fly into it and break their necks.
Third, even the smallest omnivores, like mice and rats, can cause serious problems in a bird coop, so it is important to construct the coop in a fashion that will exclude even the smallest predators. We learned this lesson the hard way back when we was 12 years old and a rat got into our chicken coop and managed to kill three adolescent birds. The easiest way to achieve this is to build the coop on pilings.
Finally, nests should be provided. These are most easily built onto the walls in such a way that the birds can get into them easily via the roosts and they are up away from the floor. Ducks, being more secretive, prefer a covered nesting box on the floor. Nests should be filled with straw, wood shavings, or peat and kept clean. The farmer should provide half as many nests as there are birds.
Because of the way the noses of birds are designed, birds cannot create suction with their beaks. As a result, they have to raise their heads to swallow. What this means in practical terms is that birds sling water all over the place and make the litter on the floor of the coop wet if the lip of a watering device is too low. If the lip of the watering device is even with the level of the backs of the birds, the mess created will be substantially reduced. It is more important with some birds than others, and particularly important with turkeys, to make sure plenty of water is available anytime they are given feed in order to avoid choking. Water provided should be clean and free of debris, and the container should be designed to keep birds from standing in it or roosting on it. If birds stand in or roost over the water source, they will certainly contaminate it with droppings.
Many books on poultry cover the lighting arrangements needed to maximize growth or egg laying. Light affects the hormonal balance in birds and therefore affects when a bird will molt (lose and replace its feathers), lay eggs, desire mating, and so forth. When birds molt, they temporarily stop laying eggs, which is a big deal on a commercial scale. Likewise, egg production naturally decreases as the amount of available light decreases. All of this can be affected by controlling the amount of light that birds receive and, to a lesser degree, the food supply.
This brings up a fundamental difference in the mind-set of a mini farmer who is raising birds as compared to a large commercial enterprise. In a large commercial enterprise, the life span of a laying chicken is about 16 months because it has been pushed to its physical limits by that time and has outlived its usefulness in terms of the cost of food and water that it consumes compared to the wholesale value of eggs in a commodity market. Likewise, because it has laid eggs daily without respite since reaching adulthood, the minerals in its body have become depleted and the quality of the egg shells has declined. So by the time a chicken is 16 months old, it is consigned to the compost heap because it isn't even good for eating.
A mini-farmer can have a different outlook because the birds are multipurpose. The birds serve to consume pests and reduce the costs of gardening, consume leftovers, produce fertilizer , provide amusement with their antics, and lay eggs or provide meat for the table. The economic equation for the mini-farmer is strikingly different, so the treatment of the birds will likewise be different. If birds are allowed to molt when the seasons trigger molting and come in and out of egg production naturally because of seasonal light changes, they are subjected to considerably less stress, and their bodies are able to use dormant periods to recover lost minerals and nutrients. In this way, it is not at all unusual for non-specialized bird breeds to live several years with moderate productivity.
One other thing to consider if you live further north is the need for heat in the coop. Where we live, temperatures below zero are not uncommon, and there can be days in a row with temperatures never budging out of the teens. In these conditions, their water can freeze, and they can suffer rostbite. The water is easily dealt with via a simple water fount heater available at agricultural supply stores. For general heating of the coop, mine is insulated using thermal reflective insulation, and I've installed a simple 400W flat panel radiant heater behind the roosts so the chickens can stay warm at night.
Collecting and Cleaning Eggs
Chickens usually lay midmorning, but there's no predicting it completely. They're chickens, after all, and lay when they are good and ready. Ideally, you should collect the eggs immediately, but this is seldom practical-especially if, like me, you work a regular job.
I've never had a problem with freshness simply collecting the eggs when we get home from work and putting them in the refrigerator immediately.
There are a couple of phenomena pertaining to eggs that may become an inconvenience: dirty and broken eggs. Every once in a while, chickens will lay an egg that has a thin shell and breaks while in the nest. Sometimes, they may lay an egg with no shell at all.
When these break, they coat any other eggs in the nest with a slime that makes them unmarketable. Obviously, the proverbial ounce of prevention applies in that having enough nesting boxes will reduce the number of eggs coated with slime in any given box. However , chickens tend to "follow the leader" to an extent and have a decided tendency to lay eggs in a nesting box where another egg is already present. So even if you put up one nesting box for each bird, this problem wouldn't be solved completely.
Then, of course, there is the problem presented by the fact that eggs leave the body of a hen through the exact same orifice used for excrement. Meaning that sometimes eggs will have a bit of chicken manure on them. Not usually, but sometimes. In addition, chickens who have been running around outside in the mud on a rainy day will track mud back into the nest and make the eggs dirty.
For minor dirt and manure, just scraping it off with a thumbnail or using a sanding sponge is fine. But for slime and major dirt that won't come off easily, water washing is required.
Water washing can be extremely problematic and yield unsafe eggs if done improperly. When the egg comes out of the hen, it has a special coating that, as long as it is kept dry, protects the interior of the egg from being contaminated by anything on the shell. But once the shell becomes wet, the semipermeable membrane of the shell can be compromised, and a temperature differential can cause a partial vacuum inside the egg that sucks all of the bacteria on the shell inside-thus creating an egg that is unsafe.
Nevertheless, the techniques and technology for properly water washing an egg are very mature and well understood. Special egg washing machines exist, but on the scale of a mini-farm, they are so expensive (about $6,000) they don't make sense economically. One alternative that we haven't tried yet is a product called "The Incredible Egg Washer" that sells for less than $120. But let me tell you about the safe and low-cost technique that we use for our small-scale operation.
First, clean your sink and work area thoroughly, and get a roll of paper towels so they are handy. Next, make a sanitizing solution from the hottest tap water by mixing two tablespoons of bleach with one gallon of water . You can multiply this by adding four tablespoons of bleach to two gallons of water , and so on. Put the sanitizer in a cleaned watering can and the eggs in a wire basket.
Pour the sanitizing solution over the eggs very generously, making certain to wet all surfaces thoroughly. Wait a couple of minutes, and then use a paper towel that has been dipped in sanitizer to clean the egg. Use a fresh paper towel for each egg. Then, rinse them very thoroughly with sanitizing solution and then set them aside to dry on a wire rack. It's important to let them dry before putting them in egg cartons, because wet eggs tend to stick to egg carton materials.
The Broody Hen
Sooner or later, you are going to run into a hen who is very interested in hatching some eggs. If that is part of your plan--great! She'll sit on any egg, so take some others from adjacent nests that were laid that day, and slide those under her too. If, as in my coop, the standard laying nests are up in the air , make her a new nest that is closer to the ground--6 to 12 inches. That way, once the chicks are hatched, they won't hurt themselves if they fall out of the nest.
Usually, though, when a hen goes broody, you don't want it to happen. The hen will sit on the eggs, keeping them at a high temperature, so that when you collect them a few hours later , they have runny whites and just aren't fresh anymore. Just collecting the eggs out from under her for a while won't work-she'll just keep setting forever. The solution to this problem is a "broody cage." A broody cage is any cage fashioned with a wire bottom and containing no litter . I've used a small portable rabbit cage for the purpose. If you keep a broody hen in this for 36 to 48 hours, it will break her of the desire to sit on the eggs. It is extremely important that you provide adequate food and water in the cage or you will force her to go into molt.