Despite the fact that we continue to encounter new and strange issues with our girls, it really feels like we’ve had chickens for much longer than a mere eighteen months. Amazingly however, it’s only been that long since we picked out six chicks from the brooder boxes in a stranger’s garage and took them home in a cardboard box, completely unprepared for what was to come.
As I sat down to attempt a year+ in review and list the things we’ve learned, I realized it would be a struggle to distill this experience into bullet points, and yet I feel fairly confident in the day-to-day operations of chicken keeping. I suppose we’ve lived our knowledge to the point that it’s been internalized and thus has become our own. Which is nice, but doesn’t make for a super helpful blog post.
Would we do it all again? Decidedly yes. I think even J would agree with that statement. He’s taken a much more active and willing role in the care of “my” chickens than I ever anticipated, and our little flock has truly become a family responsibility. Our girls are still physically too small to do much of the work, particularly because of where locks and latches are placed, but they love to “be the one” who goes in a looks for eggs, and they help fill feeders and waterers. While J grew up on a working (to varying degrees over the years) farm, I never had much exposure to animals other than our family dog and a series of short-lived hamsters, so being hands on has been quite new for me. I’m still not entirely comfortable in every situation (the lice thing still skeeves me out. We’ve been dusting all the girls’ bottoms with diatomaceous earth, and sprinkling it in the coop and run, but otherwise not stressing it too much), but I’m able to carefully scoop almost any of the hens and maneuver them to do a full check. I can tell for the most part what is normal and what is not, and know where to go to get answers on how to help them.
We had our first six-egg day last week, now that the youngest hens are laying. Their eggs are small, which is in line with what I’ve read about pullet eggs being smaller at the start (a pullet is a female chicken who is less than a year old), but neither of us remember our very first eggs being this much smaller. We’re chalking it up to the fact that the Salmon Faverolle is turning out to be a smaller breed than our other girls, and so the eggs may never be as large. That makes it difficult to use them for baking, but they scramble up just fine. I’m hoping they make it through the winter alright, knowing that the bigger birds are generally more cold-hardy. I think I’m going to add another twelve chicks in the spring, and this time have them sexed (getting only females) rather than choosing straight run (no idea if they’re male or females). We’ve had a 50/50 ratio in both sets of chicks and while we’ve chosen to keep these two docile cockerels, I’d rather be getting eggs than fancy feathers for the cost of my layer feed! Theoretically, a flock that size would give us 16-18 eggs per day, enabling us to trade them with friends and give them as gifts while still having enough for our family. J and I can eat 5 between us for breakfast, and if I bake or use eggs in a dinner recipe, we easily outpace our production.
As such, I’ve resorted to buying eggs every other week or so. I try to get them at the country store in town; a family we know sells their extras there, but they’re not always in stock. My next choice is our store’s brand of organic free-range eggs, but goodness, do they ever pale (literally) in comparison to our own! You can both see and taste the difference.
Let’s do the math. There is a bit of expense in the startup: building the coop and the run, buying the feeder and waterer, investing in the birds themselves. Once that’s all in place however, our regular expenses are food and bedding. We spend approximately $15 per month on a 50 pound bag of layer pellets (not organic, but a natural recipe) which are carefully formulated to meet the needs of a laying bird, meaning they have extra calcium, mainly. We currently buy bricks of pine shavings as bedding, which are around $5 each at Tractor Supply, though we’re planning to find a cheaper local source. For now, let’s say we spend $20 a month on chicken supplies. If I buy local eggs, I’m paying $4 for a dozen, same as those pale commercial eggs at the grocery store. Even if I only get three eggs per day from my own hens, that comes out to just under eight dozen eggs a month. At $4 a dozen, my own eggs would cost me $32 if I was buying them from someone else, so I’m getting far higher quality at a $12 savings.
Now, tracking it like that is very similar to “chicken math,” but you get the idea, and that doesn’t even factor in the enjoyment we get out of spending time with the flock, or the savings they provide in terms of kitchen scraps. I’d say our girls are more than worth the expense.
We do free range our birds, but have found that we don’t get as many eggs if we let them out of the run first thing in the morning. Whether that means they’re laying them somewhere in the yard, or they’re just not laying, I don’t know. Regardless, we’re having much more success keeping them confined until early afternoon, and then they have run of the property. I read an article that a single hen can eat up to 80 ticks in an hour, though unfortunately cannot now find the source, but living in a state with a rising rate of Lyme disease, I’ll take all the help I can get. We never had predator issues before moving to this new property, but have had a hawk visit twice this summer; it’s far more open here. Each time, the roosters and big girls all went bonkers, sounding the alarm and running for cover. The second time, the hawk was perched on the arm of a lawn chair, facing off with our roosters when I ran out clutching J’s sneakers to throw.
So yes, I am a crazy chicken lady. And yes, chickens are the gateway animal – absolutely. We can’t wait to add more critters to this mini-homestead of ours.