Spring has arrived at farm supply stores. Peeping young chicks serenade visiting customers.
Whether you’re looking to add farm raised eggs to your market offerings or are simply interested in having fresh eggs for your family, chickens are relatively easy to integrate on any farm.
The number of chickens needed for a starter flock depends on your goals.
At the annual Beginner Poultry Class held at the Cornell Cooperative Extension in Saratoga County in early March, Carter Older, 4-H / Livestock educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension in Saratoga County offered advice on housing, feeding, breed selection and basic maintenance of a flock. Her biggest takeaway: spend time to research the different of breeds available, the housing requirements and the nutrition the birds will need.
Any hen will lay eggs, but “laying hens” are designed to produce more eggs over a longer period of time. The characteristics of each breed determine if the chicken is primarily an egg laying bird, a meat bird or a dual-purpose bird. The features of a breed make chickens better suited to a specific geographic area.
“The Rhode Island Red, White Leghorn and Buff Orpington are popular egg laying breeds around here because they are pretty hardy and are better suited for the winter weather,” Older said.
The Rhode Island Red, known for its rusty feathers as a chick and mahogany color as an adult, is a dual-purpose breed. It can be raised for meat and eggs. This breed originated in the United States and lays brown eggs. It’s estimated that each Rhode Island Red hen produces 260 eggs per year.
The white Leghorn is native to Tuscany in central Italy and was first brought to the U.S. in the mid-1800’s. These chickens produce white eggs and average 280 eggs per year while sometimes laying as many as 300-320 eggs in one year.
Named after the town of Orpington, Kent in southeast England, the Buff Orpington is blue, buff, black or white in color. These birds are also multi-purpose, making good meat and laying birds. They produce light brown eggs at an average of 190 eggs each year per hen.
“These three breeds are popular because they produce a good amount of eggs, they are tame and family friendly and you can keep them in your backyard,” she added.
Shell color is determined by the breed of chicken and is usually brown or white. Some breeds may even produce a bluish-green or light pink eggshell.
Adequate housing is extremely important, especially for chicks. Chicks require heat and protection from predators. A brooder is needed until the chicks reach six to eight weeks in age. “Until that age, the chicks are too young to keep warm on their own,” Older said.
Once the chicks are old enough they can be moved into a chicken coop. “Free range” is a popular technique for raising chickens. The birds have access to a coop with brooder boxes for laying eggs, but a door is opened during the day and the birds are free to roam the property. At night, the birds return to the coop, the door is shut and they are safe from predators.
Chicken tractors and coops with access to fenced yards are other alternatives for raising chickens. Pre-built structures are readily available or you can build one yourself. “You can find plans for building a coop online,” she said.
Regardless of which management style you choose, be sure to offer enough brooder boxes for the hens in your flock. “Make sure there is more than one brooder box inside the coop. Three to four is a good number for a small flock,” she said.
Unless you install artificial lighting, chickens in the northeast molt or shed their feathers in the fall and stop laying. “They stop laying because of the shortage of daylight, not because it’s cold,” she explained.
A laying flock requires the most attention while the birds are young. Chicks require a medicated chick starter feed, which is available in pellets, crumbles or in a powder. Once the chickens begin laying eggs, then the feed should be switched to a laying feed. “The pellets and crumbles are most popular. People don’t tend to use the powder,” Older said.
Kitchen scraps, fruit peels, bread and popcorn are also popular feed choices. “Don’t give them eggs or egg shells,” she cautioned, “some people think this is a good source of calcium, but then they will begin eating the eggs in the coop.”
The good news is, once chickens mature they are low maintenance. They need fresh food and water each day and shelter to protect them from severe weather and predators. Best of all, you’ll have access to a new product for your market offering.