Often in gardening magazines and on homesteading web sites, people dream of raising chickens to provide fresh eggs and meat for their families, but the fear of the unknown keeps them from ever taking the first step toward food independence. The reality is anyone who has ever owned a cat or a dog can easily raise his own chickens—all you need is a little knowledge and some planning.
Raising chickens is actually easier than caring for a dog or a cat. There is no litter box to clean, no long walks on a leash and no baths. Chickens will not chew your favorite chair, and they will never urinate in your laundry basket. If you raise them organically, there are no vaccines, costly vet visits or annual medical treatments. You can treat them with wholistic medicines or with antibiotics or other over-the-counter medications depending on the lifestyle you choose. And, best of all, if the chickens drive you crazy and you decide you don’t want them anymore—unlike a dog or a cat—you can turn them into dinner.
Chickens don’t care if they get your attention. They are happy enough to simply scratch around in your yard, cooing and eating grass and bugs. At a minimum, all chickens need is a regular supply of food and water and a small coop to keep them safe from predators at night. That’s it.
For a small family, four or five hens provide more than enough eggs for breakfast and for cooking all year long. A couple could definitely get by with two or three hens providing enough eggs with a few extra to spare for friends and neighbors. Hens will lay eggs without a rooster, but, by adding a rooster, you are making an investment in your future, because a broody hen will sit on fertilized eggs and hatch them out. She will then do all of the work associated with raising your next generation of chickens, such as ensuring the chicks stay warm until they are feathered out.
If money is tight, you can always purchase a 50-pound bag of feed for your chickens for about $10.These can be obtained at independent local feed stores or even corporate stores like Southern States or Tractor Supply.
The chickens will do OK on these. However, keep in mind that these typically contain genetically modified (GMO) corn and other grains that have been grown and processed God only knows where. They could come from as far away as Mexico or even China.
Since there is little more critical in this world than quality food, why not spend a few extra bucks to make sure you know the source of your food? Since you are raising your own chickens, get organic feed, which is certified GMO-free. This can be purchased from multiple sources around the country. This writer buys his feed directly from McGeary Organics in Lancaster, Pa.
McGeary sells only certified organic feed that it purchases from local farmers. Their employees mill the corn and grains on-site in the oldest running mill in the country, which has been operating since 1741. On the West Coast, Peaceful Valley Farm & Garden Supply in Grass Valley, Calif., just outside of Sacramento, sells organic feed for $24.99. If you bug your local feed store enough—and convince others to ask, also—they may even stock organic feed just for you.
The easiest place to find chicks to raise is at your local feed store. However, they can also be purchased from local farms in the springtime. As a last resort, chicks can be ordered from large breeding houses like McMurray Hatchery. They will be overnighted to you, but you usually have to order at least 15 at a time in order to ensure sufficient body heat to keep them warm during shipment.
As for a coop, chickens will tolerate even the simplest of structures, so long as there is a place for them to roost at night and a nest box in which the hens can lay their eggs. Dogs will kill chickens, so if strays are a problem in your neighborhood, you may want to build some fencing to keep animals out. Even heavy breed chickens like Rhode Island Reds, Barred Rocks and Leghorns can fly over low fencing, but if they have enough feed and water and a sufficient yard to patrol, they will usually stay put.
Butchering your own chickens for meat is simple, but there is a slight learning curve to the process. It may take a few times to get a professional-looking carcass. But stick with it. It will get easier the more you do it. The book Storey’s Guide to Chickens is one of the best beginner’s guides to chickens. It is full of information on raising birds for eggs and meat and is available in most bookstores across the country. There are also multiple web sites, including backyardchickens.com and featherman.net, that provide critical information and feedback from other farmers.
Finally, don’t be afraid to ask your local farmer or feed person for tips. But be warned: Ask a dozen farmers the best way to raise livestock, and you will get a dozen different answers—and, most likely, they will all be right.
Chris DePaulo is a staff writer for Rabble Magazine, focusing on health, nutrition, lifestyles and the environment.