Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Chickens: The First Five Years

My adventure in chicken farming began when my sister-in-law (aka The Instigator) gave me three Rhode Island Red hens and a rooster to match. Without her, I probably never would have worked up the courage to try raising farm animals. She had ordered her chicks (all Rhode Island Reds that first year) from Welp, which is her hatchery of choice – she’s ordered all of her chicks (except the second year, as you’ll see) from this hatchery, and highly recommends them.

I had read Joel Salatin's Pastured Poultry Profit$, and Andy Lee's Chicken Tractor, and knew from the start that I wanted raise my birds on pasture and use them to till up and fertilize the garden. My first pen was just a four-foot high ring of welded wire garden fencing, held up with fiberglass step-in fence posts (looking back, I’m amazed the chickens didn’t get eaten the first night!) They escaped quite often, but the kids and I had a wonderful summer playing with them and enjoying the novelty of eggs from our own back yard.

Those three hens laid eggs for us right through the winter, in a small coop and run my brother built for me (if I recall, they did slow down quite a bit in February, but since I didn’t have any supplemental light at all, I consider that AMAZING). The rooster was my son's favorite (he loved to carry it around, hugging it and talking to it) but in the spring, when we finally let them out of the coop, the testosterone (or whatever hormone drives male chickens) took over and he turned mean. Apparently this is common with RIR roos, but my son was very disappointed not to be able to play with his "pet" anymore.

The next spring The Instigator and I decided to drive over to Iowa and pick up our chicks from Decorah Hatchery. It was a fun road trip, with a boxful of cheeping fluffballs serenading us all the way home. We weren't overly impressed with the hatchery (there were dead chicks in the brooder cages, and they didn't have the quantities they'd said they would) and haven't purchased chicks from them since.
That year, I raised Ameraucanas, Buff Orpingtons, and Silver Laced Wyandottes. I love the green eggs from the Ameraucanas, and the fact that you never really know what the birds are going to look like (they're bred commercially for egg color, not standard appearance. I've had brown with black pencil markings, black and white, and all white birds; all laid green eggs). They were fun, and laid a good number of eggs, but not nearly so many as the RIRs.

I wanted the Buff Orpingtons because I'd read that they tended to be broody, and I wanted to see if I could hatch some of my own chicks. No such luck, however, and the rooster was the meanest I've ever had. They also weren't very prolific layers, but the hens were very sweet-tempered and I loved their golden color.

The Wyandottes were very pretty - until about mid-winter. I kept two roosters that year (the Orpington and an Ameraucana, who was very sweet!) and by January my cooped-up hens were definitely the worse for wear. The roosters' amorous attentions had worn away the feathers on the girls' backs, and the Wyandottes looked worst of all. The Instigator told me that Wyandottes are known for losing feathers more easily. I don't think I'll be getting them again if I plan on keeping a rooster around.

The next year I bought all Rhode Island White chicks from Stromberg's (the world's record for most eggs laid in a single year is held by a Rhode Island White, although this is not typical of the breed). I ordered 25; they sent me 30. This should have tipped me off right away. I ended up losing 7 chicks in the first week. It was heartbreaking. This was my first experience with ordering chicks through the mail, and I hoped this wasn't normal (it's not!) I was using non-medicated chick starter, but after a few days of this I bought a bag of medicated feed, and after a few days more the chicks stopped dying - whether from the medication, or simply because the weak ones had been culled out already, I don't know. But it was definitely not an auspicious beginning (I have NOT ordered from this hatchery again).

Once past the first week, however, these turned out to be one of my favorite batches of birds. They laid very well, and were sweet-tempered and mild. I ended up keeping them for two years, and although their rate of lay did decrease dramatically in the second year, I would say they were my most prolific layers to date. I didn't keep any roosters those years, although if I can get some broody hens I might consider getting another batch and trying to hatch some chicks.

Last year was my worst year of chicken farming. I bought the cheapest chicks I could find - 15 "Special Blacks" and 15 "Browns" from Sunnyside Hatchery (I was excited because it's based in Wisconsin, but it seems to be focused mainly on a few production-quality breeds). This was the hatchery where I'd purchased my Cornish Cross broiler chicks (which did fine). I thought I'd save on shipping costs by ordering both at the same time. They were delivered to my local feed mill (where I bought my feed), and all seemed hale and hearty.

After a few weeks in the brooder, I put them out in the pasture pens, as usual. All went well, including mixing the flocks in the fall (if you recall, I kept the Rhode Island Whites for a second year). It wasn't until the next spring that the problems showed up.

I should mention that this was also the year I tried the deep litter method (as described in The Small-Scale Poultry Flock). Unfortunately, I did it wrong. It's supposed to be done over a dirt floor (my coop has a plywood floor), and my coop was much too crowded for this to work effectively.

Whether it was poor management, weak genetics in the cheap chickens, or some disease that the Rhode Island Whites were carrying, in the spring, when I was finally able to let them out of the coop in the daytime, they started dying. I would find a dead hen once or twice a week, and, though I try to raise my birds as naturally as possible, I finally gave in and bought a commercial anti-coccidostat. It didn't help. They kept dying one by one (by midsummer I was losing as many as two a day, three times a week). This dragged on all summer until finally they were all gone. I was put in the galling position of buying eggs for our family to eat until that springs' chicks started laying in October.

So I learned my lesson not to simply order the cheapest, production-quality chicks I could find. Although the hybrid production layers did make a lot of very large eggs (when they were healthy), it’s not worth the anguish I went through last summer.

I also decided I don't want to order chicks through the mail if I can help it; I really feel that the stress on the chicks must affect their future health. So last spring I responded to a classified ad in our local paper, and bought my chicks from a man named Bill who lived about an hour away from me.

I was soon to find that working with a small local producer is a lot different than working with a big hatchery. For one thing, you have to think ahead. If you order your chicks May 1st, it will be at least 20 days until they hatch (more if Bill needed time to collect enough eggs). Of more concern to me, however, was the problem of quantity. I was hoping for 50 laying hens for the coming year (yes, I had a bigger coop by this time!) but I didn’t think through beforehand that to get 50 pullets, you needed to plan on hatching out at least 100 chicks, hoping for at least a 50-50 pullet to cockerel split. Even if your incubator is that big (I’m not sure if his was), it would still be hard for a small producer to have that many eggs of one breed viable all at once.

So, the 40 Rhode Island Red and 10 Ameraucana pullets I had planned for ended up being a mix of 36 straight run Rhode Island Red, Black Star (Australorpe/RIR cross), and Ameraucana chicks. Not exactly what I wanted.

I raised them all for roughly 12 weeks, when the roosters were finally large enough to be “processed”. I made them into stock in the crockpot, and then pressure canned the meat and stock. The remaining hens (and one rooster that I kept) stayed in the pasture pen, but unfortunately found a way to sneak out at night, and I lost quite a few to predators that way.

I finally ended up with a laying flock of 4 Black Stars, 3 Rhode Island Reds, 4 Ameraucana hens and one rooster. Needless to say, I didn’t have any extra eggs to sell this year – my eleven hens just barely keep up with our egg-loving family of seven. I’m lucky if I get 2 green eggs a day, and often only five browns as well, which has my hen to egg ratio only slightly over 50%. I knew from my previous experience that Ameraucanas aren’t great layers, so I can’t say I’m too surprised. I was hoping the RIRs and Black Stars would be better, though.

So, with those experiences guiding my decisions, I think I've figured out what I want to do for this coming year. I found another local farmer (Jennifer) who is hatching out New Hampshires (similar to Rhode Island Red, and a breed I’ve been wanting to try), Buff Orpingtons (I suppose I could give them another chance - I still want to try to get a broody hen), Barred Rock, and Speckled Sussex. They’re $2 each, which is a better deal than you can find at most hatcheries, and I can pick them up, so they don’t have to go through the mail. From my correspondence with her, it seems like she'll be able to hatch out the quantity I want (especially if I go with those four different breeds), and since I'm actually thinking ahead this year, I think I'll be able to get them early enough to have them laying by October.

So what do you think? What breeds and hatcheries have you had success with?

This post is part of Simple Living Wednesday , Frugal Days, Sustainable Ways, and Raising Homemakers' Homemaking Linkup.


  1. We've had great success with Murray McMurray Hatchery....yes through the mail. Delaware, Black Stars (they are crafty!), and one other breed that excapes my mind. ha We are going to try the Austrolopes this year I think. Sure is a lot of fun! I agree about the roosters though. We sent them to Grandpa's farm as they started chasing and pecking the kids. Love your blog!

    1. Thanks for the encouragement!
      I've heard a lot of good things about Murray McMurray - I was actually thinking of ordering through them before I found Jennifer. Delewares and Australorpes are on my "to try" list, too!

  2. I really find your blog informative. Have a blessed day!

  3. Hey, Cheerful Agrarian! Instigator here. ;) I tried to post a comment with my ourprairienest.wordpress ID, but it wouldn't have me, so I guess I'm anonymous.

    We did use Murray McMurray one year and while the birds were healthy, the pullets only group had a poor sexing ratio and we ended up with more than 7 roos. I had a rough year with Welp this year, ordering 52 birds in January. They sent 57. 4 arrived dead and 3 more died shortly after. The remaining birds (New Hampshire, Rhode Island Red, and Buff Orpington) are doing very well. They're 5 weeks old today and we'll be moving them into the smaller coop after moving the older flock to the large coop (of course, disinfecting in between!).

    I think you'll really love the Speckled Sussex. They've been among my favorite for appearance, personality, and laying productivity. I still think you should try Delawares, too. Definitely a top notch bird. Let me know how the Barred Rocks do. As you might remember, we loathed the batch of 50 we had in 2010. As in the case of many breeds, I think they've lost the characteristics they used to have as a purebred and have been overbred for crazy laying skills. Or is that skillz? Ha!


    1. Hello there, Instigator! Thanks for chiming in!
      I didn't realize you'd ordered through Murray McMurray! And I'm sorry to hear you had problems with Welp, too. You're supporting my theory that ordering through the mail is a hit-or-miss proposition!
      I'll be sure to let everyone know how these birds do - we chicken-keepers need to share our experiences, so we can all make better choices (isn't it fun to try new things?) I can't wait to try out these new breeds and a new, local source for chicks!

  4. One year later and I still have my full flock of 4 Barred Rocks and 5 Austrolorps (from mypetchicken.com!) All seem healthy and happy, and the Austrolorps are very friendly and don't mind being held. But the Barred Rocks lay slightly bigger eggs and are a little more consistent layers. I'd recommend both for anyone just getting started with raising chickens.

  5. Hello I have partridge rock, barred rocks, RR, EE, Black Austrolorps and a Favaroli she doesn't lay well and is the outcast of the group. I have 14 in all counting the roo and he is a Dom and is totally afraid of me which I like. I get on average 9 to 10 eggs a day and they layed through the winter because I ordered them so late in the season. They started laying on Christmas day and have been going strong since. I have so much eggs that I am finding it hard to find places for them and no one buys mine a lot. It goes in spurts with people buying . I do love my girls and they are a great way for me to get rid of my stress for the day. My EE's don't lay as regular as the others but all the others are like clock work.

  6. I recently ordered 15 straight run chicks from Ideal Poultry in Texas. I picked the white crested blue polish because of their "neat" factor with their top hats and all. I currently keep light Sussex for egg laying and have found them to be average, but they are beautiful. Anyways, my polish chicks arrived right on time and were all very healthy and in very good condition. The only complaint I might have is that I ended up with only 6 hens out of 15 chicks. I ordered straight run as there was not pullet option on this particular breed, but still. More than half of my chicks ended up being roos. There isn't that big of a market for roos here, so I'll probably just have to give them away. No, I'm not quite ready for butchering my own chicken :) Thanks for sharing and good luck with this years crop!

  7. A cpl yrs back, my first run with chickens, we had Australorps and a Black Cochin. They were pretty quiet, docile, and not particularly flighty. It being our first yr we made some mistakes & had various incidents; snakes, rude neighbors dog getting into the coop on multiple occasions to "play"/attack them. Our flock of 10 was down to 2 by the end of our 1st yr. They laid a good amt of eggs & did well in confinement (no cage just a large coop). 2.5 yrs later I'm raising what are supposed to be some Production Reds, a Rhode Island Red, and some New Hampshire Reds. The oldest are a month old, the younger group is 2 wks behind. The Production Reds are proving to be flighty. I've been hearing that all three tend to be more aggressive/mean type birds. We'll just have to wait & see. If I could have gotten Australorps I would have. Depending on how things go with this group next year I may have a new flock. I'd like to try some Light Brahmas which are supposed to be broody & child friendly. I'm also interested in the Salmon Faverolle, Dominique, and Silver Laced/ Black Laced Silver Wyandottes. These are all supposed to be docile, friendly, and dual purpose but good laying chickens that have tendencies to be broody.