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Fun with Chickens — Wild About Chickens
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Fun with Chickens

by Annie Janauer on December 29, 2008

in Funny Animal Stories, backyard farm, chickens, chicks, fresh eggs, mini farm

This past spring my husband and I decided to raise chickens for eggs. In preparation for the project I read several books and websites on the subject before we got started including Story’s Guide to Raising Chickens, Chickens in Your Backyard, A Beginner’s Guide by Rick and Gail Luttmann, and How to Build Animal Housing by Exarius. Armed with information from these and other sources, we planned the construction of a small chicken coop we thought would hold five or six hens. Being clever people :) lol (we both have degrees in chemistry) we decide that the coop should be on wheels and have wire mesh for a floor to keep predators out and not keep the chicken poop in.  We drew up our plans for our cool little coop and headed out to the local lumber yard. As we were ordering the materials we thought we needed a very nice and polite young man asked us what we were planning to build. Since we were fairly proud of our design we were more than willing to tell him all about it. I even showed him my drawings. Well, he was polite but he was also to the point. “You do not want to build it this way.” “We don’t?” And then he very quickly created new drawings and gave us a crash course in how to build our coop. In the end we were very grateful for the help. Hey, we’re chemists not carpenters. We ended up with a 4 ft by 4 ft by 5 ft coop with two tall doors in the back for access to the eggs, one tall door in the front for access to eggs and cleaning, and one small drop down door for the chickens to get into and out of the coop.

Front view of coop

Front view of coop

Coop from back and side.C

Coop from back and side.

Gerald wired it up so that we have a heat lamp and an incandescent light. Both can be put on timers if needed. We used 1 by 2 inch furring strips for roosts. There are two levels of roosts across the back of the coop and we bought plastic stackable bins from Lowes for nesting boxes. Three boxes fit along the back of the coop on one level.

Here is what we did not plan for…

We planned this coop for 4 or 6 birds. We never checked to find out the minimum number of birds that could be ordered through our local Agway. It turns out the minimum order is 15. Next we were told that we were ordering pullets and that they would be 15 weeks old. Well we decided to go through with the order, despite the fact that we would end up with 10 more birds than we build the coop for. We would figure something out. Maybe our neighbor would like to take a few birds off our hands. Or maybe some of the birds will become stew.

Other choices we had to make on that day included whether to vaccinate against coccidiosis and whether to clip their beaks or not. I had read a great deal about birds dying from coccidiosis and planned not to use any medicated feeds so I chose to have them vaccinated. I had also read a great deal about chickens pecking at each other and even eating each other so I asked a few questions about the beak clipping and was told that their beaks would grow back and it was a good idea since young chickens sometimes eat each other. I had read about cannibalism in chickens and had forgotten that adequate space often eliminates the problem so we chose to have them clipped.

We completed our order and went home to eagerly await the arrival of our birds. We were told that they would be shipped on a Sunday or Monday and arrive on a Monday or a Tuesday and we would have to be ready to collect them the day they arrived. The expected Monday came - but no call and no birds. The next day was the same story. We called them. “We are sorry they have not yet arrived.” Finally the call came on a Thursday while we were at work and we rushed right over to the local Agway. Where are our birds? The woman were excited for us. “Oh I am glad you are here.” You need to unpack them right away because they will need water. The birds have been in transit since Monday with no water or food.” Then she pointed over to the far side of the room. There was a very small box, smaller than a shoe box, with a heat lamp over it. Oh boy! That couldn’t be our 15 week old birds. Something was wrong. It turns out that the woman we spoke to when ordering our chickens was new and did not realize that the chickens we ordered were actually day old chicks. I picked up the box and listened to the tiny little cheeping sounds coming from inside. It was incredibly pleasant. But this was an emergency and I had no time to stop and enjoy the moment. We had to hurry up and figure out how we were going to care for these day old chicks. They would need heat, water, food and a draft free place to live. They were way too small for our coop. We purchased a heat lamp, a small water bottle and starter ration  and took our baby birds home.

We set up a cardboard box with peat moss for bedding in the garage. We hung the heat lamp over half of the box and covered the other half with a towel to reduce any drafts. We filled the feeder and the waterer and let out the chicks. They were the cutest little fuzzy yellow things I had ever seen. Right away I showed each of them the water and the food and they went right to work. We had 15 fuzzy yellow chicks.

One week old cicks just starting to grow wing feathers

One week old cicks just starting to grow wing feathers

On the second day after their arrival two chicks were sluggish and sickly looking. They died by the end of the day. The third day a third chick died and the fourth day a fourth chick died. We were worried that the birds were sick and all of them would die or that there was too much or too little heat. We checked the dispersal pattern of the birds often and they did not seem to huddle under the heat lamp or to stay away from it so heat was not the problem. I read more information and learned that newly hatched chicks can survive without food or water for about 24 hours after hatching because they absorb the yolk sack into their tiny bodies and live off of that. Our chicks were in transit for 3 to 4 days with no food or water. The four birds which died were not able to recover from that. The remaining 11 birds were growing stronger every day. No additional birds died.

It was early May and still chilly out so the chicks had to stay in the box in the garage until they were feathered. This turned out to be great fun. Everyday several times a day we checked in on them to make sure they had food, water, enough space, and adequate heat. We also picked them up and talked to them. They seemed to talk back. One of the birds had slightly lighter colored fluff and stripes on her back. She was easily identified among the other birds so she received a name (Stripe) and became a real pet. Whenever one of us showed up at the box Stripe would come over and say hello. She is still friendlier than the other birds.

Little by little their fluff was replaced by feathers and the birds, while still very cute, started to look like miniature chickens instead of chicks. At this point we were looking for signs that some of the birds were roosters. I had read that sexing newly hatched chicks is an art and that I should not be surprised to find that some of the birds turned out to be roosters. We were so eager to have a rooster or two in the flock that we convinced ourselves that some of the birds were developing larger comes and wattles. However none of the chicks were males. Whoever sexed our chicks is a real artist. So we had 11 young birds growing into hens who would start laying eggs at about 20 weeks of age. If they each lay 2 eggs every 3 days that’s 22 eggs every 3 days. We would be swimming in eggs! What to do? Eat some of the birds at 12 weeks? NO WAY! These birds were defiantly pets at this point. By the beginning of June they were mostly feathered and we were able to move them out to their coop and their fenced yard.

Three pulletts sitting on a coop handle

Three pulletts sitting on a coop handle

Whenever one of us would go out there to check on them the entire flock would run up to the fence and chirp at us wildly. Hello! Hello! What is new? How are you? When we climbed inside the yard and sat down on milk crates to hang out for a while some of the birds would jump on our knees or even our shoulder. Stripe always came over and jumped up. It was great fun to have one of these birds sitting on your knee cocking her head so that one eye is looking right at you and listen to her cooing, chirping, clucking conversation about the goings on in the hen yard.

At the moment the coop was plenty large enough given their small size and the fact that they did not need their laying boxes yet. They could go into and out of the coop at will during the day and had a 68 ft perimeter electric net enclosing a yard around the coop. The electric netting was meant to keep predators, such as our German Shepherds, out but the openings were too large to keep the tiny birds in. Every few days we moved the coop and the fence to a new location so that the birds would have a fresh supply of bugs and grass to eat and the droppings would not build up in one spot. At night as soon as the sun started to go down all of the birds went into the coop on their own to roost. They only used the bottom shelf at first but as their flying skills improved they moved up in the coop to the top level. We go out after dusk, count our chickens and close up the coop until morning.

The birds are over 25 weeks and they are all laying and are using three nesting boxes which sit on the bottom of the coop. It turns out that all of the birds fit just fine in the small coop probably because they are only in there at night when they are resting and have lots of room during the day. (We have expanded the perimeter of their yard to 200 ft and we move the coop around in the yard for a while and then we move the entire yard and start again. Thank goodness we did not have to either build a bigger coop or get rid of some birds. We are swimming in eggs however but we have been offered enough money for our eggs to pay for their food (we supplement their foraging with laying crumbles which they eat a fair amount of now that it is winter). It’s great that someone else is paying for at least part of my hobby.

Now that the birds are full grown we see that there are some real problems with our coop design. First, full grown birds produce large enough droppings that the wire mesh becomes clogged in a day so we are still shoveling chicken poop but because the floor is not smooth it is harder than it would have been if we had covered the floor with ply wood. Second, in the winter we have to minimize the air flow through the coop so that the girl’s feet don’t freeze. So we had to cover the bottom of the coop with card board to stop the upward draft. Third, the two levels of roosts (made from firing strips) are in line with each other and over the laying boxes so the ladies on the top drop their droppings on the ladies on the bottom and then on the eggs under them. We had to retro fit our coop with a poop shield to protect the eggs from above.

So we have a plan. In the spring we will be getting more pullets and some meat birds to raise. The meet birds will use the old coop and we will build a new bigger better coop for the hens. This set of birds are not going to have their beaks clipped. The beaks on the first set did not grow back and my ladies have trouble eating grass and weeds on their own. I have to throw grass clippings into the yard for them. They are still good at eating bugs and are very aggressive about it. This hobby is getting expensive. I hope there are enough folks out there to buy my eggs.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Richard Reeve 12.30.08 at 5:49 pm

wow…so awesome to see you jumping in with both feet. I’ll buy eggs!

Beth Donovan 01.01.09 at 2:47 pm

I would suggest that in the winter, it is okay to leave the chicken poop where it is - this sounds odd, but many of us with chickens do it - I layer straw and wood chips or wood shavings on the bottom of the coop each week. The chicken droppings will start to compost and provide some heat for the chickens. Just keep layering until it is spring, and then clean out the coop - you will have a great start for a compost pile, and your chickens will have stayed warm.

Also, there are other hatcheries where you can buy smaller quantities of chicks, or, you can get a small incubator, buy eggs (many on-line sources) and in 28 days, hatch your own chicks - this way, no stress.

Honestly, I’m not so sure that the vaccine is a great idea. I go ahead and I do feed the medicated baby chick food for the first 5 weeks - a lot of my hens are very large breeds, and do not start to lay until they are close to 6 months old - there will be no remaining antibiotics in those eggs, and you will have a much higher survival rate.

My chickens are free range during the day and all go into the hen house or coop of their choice at night. I found that 2×4s are better roosts than 1×2s, because the chickens actually rest their breasts on the roost, it is not a perch - a lot of that depends on the size of the chicken, obviously!

Welcome to chicken raising! I sell my eggs at the local farmer’s market and now I have started making home made egg noodles, fettuccine and other pastas with all those eggs! There are some great on-line groups dedicated to gardening, farming, poultry and chickens - davesgarden.com is one of my personal favorites, those people know everything!

I enjoy your blog, I’ll keep checking here to see how your chickens are doing.

ajanauer 01.02.09 at 4:12 am

Thanks Beth. I guess this means I do not have to worry as much about diseases spreading in winter? I have been letting it build up more than I did in summer because it is warmer in there with a thick layer but I was afraid of parasites and such. Also as it turns out some of the starter we gave the chicks was medicated because we could not initially find starter feed that was not medicated. Next time maybe we will skip the vaccination as well. We will be building a new coop for the next set of birds and will go for wider boards for their perches and we will put in a solid floor. We do not have a tractor so if the new coop is heavy we may have to have it in a permanent location. I welcome any other insights you have.

Beth Donovan 01.21.09 at 1:46 pm

One more thing, sorry, I’m getting back to you about a month late - LOL!
Use Diatonacious Earth in with the bedding for the coop - I add it regularly - it is a way to kill parasites without hurting anything. I use it on my angora goats, my chickens, etc in winter, because I don’t want to spray anything that will get them wet.

Annie Janauer 01.24.09 at 4:32 pm

Beth,

Thanks again for more great advice. I will try the Diatonacious Earth. I want to avoid using chemicals if it is at all possible.

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