Oh, definitely the chicken. Or in this case, chickens, plural. And a custom constructed coop. And feeders. And waterers. And a plethora of medicated v non medicated chick feed, ingredient lists, do's and don't, lists of acceptable greenery and scraps, predator control, warming lights, and, and, and AND!
And....a lot of patience.
There's a big trend lately for backyard chickens. Reasoning ranges from having access to a fresher product you can control to being emotionally opposed to commercial egg production facilities. To be able to fully research the issue, I needed to not only observe high volume farms and small volume hobby owners, but to get in the game and raise a few for myself.
Having no prior experience with our fine feathered friends, I went to the undisputed source of knowledge on all things- the internet. I quickly became confused by conflicting information and concerned about sites which loudly proclaimed the benefits of producing your own eggs but were short on facts as to problems and risks.
Before I'd even read as much as I think I should have, and relying heavily on the limited amount of experience my husband had with chickens growing up, it was off to Tractor Supply Company's "Chick Days" to procure our new livestock. First things first; there's a state law in effect requiring purchasers to acquire a minimum number of chicks at a time. I understood the rationale behind this- to keep casual "oh aren't they adorable!" impulse purchases where they belong. The candy aisle. We looked through the different varieties offered, compared needs and projected production, and settled on six little red hens. Except they weren't red. Not yet, anyway. And they weren't hens. I learned they wouldn't be called that until they lived to a year of age. We also purchased 2 White Pekin and 4 Khaki Campbell ducklings of indeterminate sex, since I've always preferred duck eggs for baking. I figured that we probably didn't need that many for ourselves, but considered mortality rates and the fact we weren't sure whether we had male or female ducks on our hands.
Before we could take our very vocal birds home, we needed to make some additional purchases. Medicated feed was strongly recommended for the chicks for their first few weeks of life, though we we warned just as adamantly to avoid allowing the ducklings to consume the same food. We took our time in that row, talking to poultry owners who came in for feed about their preferences and practices. Eventually we settled on what we needed and headed home to begin our new adventure.
We hadn't built a coop yet, and used a large wire dog crate with fresh pine shavings for bedding set up inside our mini barn. A light fixture with an exposed bulb secured near the crate provided warmth for the chicks and allowed them space to move away from the heat if they need to do so. Keeping them cool wasn't a worry, since a storm blew in the next day bringing unseasonable low temperatures, wind and rain. The structure was dry but not very warm, so we used a small heating pad under the crate to keep the little fuzzballs comfortable.
My husband is your average weekend do-it-yourselfer. He reviewed some plans online, read a few books, then chucked it all and created a coop of his own design. Pencil never touched paper. Six trips to Lowe's and three days later, the coop was completed, and what a sight it was! Four feet wide, eight feet long, with an attached multi-story sleeping and nesting area. A slanted roof that went from 6 feet in height at the top of the housiong unit to the four foot height of the remaining of the living space finished the structure. Solid pressure treated lumber, a securely latching door, and even laminate flooring in the house. Nothing but the best for his new friends! We were confident they would be warm, dry, and safe in the new coop. The ducks, we decided needed more space for water play and were moved into an empty, roofed 10' x 10' kennel run. A large rubber basin provided a swim space for the ducklings, who didn't seem to get along at all with the chicks. After observing just how messy the ducks could be, I didn't blame the chickens for a moment.
In all the excitement present in articles about backyard chickens you don't read much about the ugly realities. Like what to do with used bedding, accumulated manure or the attraction your new birds present to predators. Thankfully, we live in a rural area and had space to compost the wheat straw we used for litter, containing the droppings and leftover bits of whatever scraps we'd allowed them to feast upon (melon, of any kind, was a big favorite!). I even posted it as available on Craigslist a few times, and happily watched someone interested in nitrogen rich natural fertilizer cart it off for their gardens. What would an urban owner do in the same situation, I wondered? It's a serious consideration for anyone in a small bedroom community, especially if there are any restrictions on animal waste. As for predators, we found our dogs, though highly interested in the new additions themselves, were very effective in deterring coyotes, foxes, raccoons and others from coming too close. The strength of the structure made a difference too, and kept the local raptors busy reducing the mole, mouse and snake populations instead of the chicks. There was plenty of interest, but happily, no successful predation of our birds.
Another thing you don't read much about; when to actually expect your eggs. Our chicks feathered out, gained weight, and grew up. We watched and waited for any "egg-tivity". We read up on when to expect our daily ration of homegrown protein. We eagerly checked the nesting area, brought treats, made sure they had plenty of supervised time to graze in the yard for bugs and sweet grasses. They certainly looked big and healthy enough to lay an egg!
I was worried that our impending move to a new home would bother the chickens. They seemed content where they were and with life in general. Yet move we must and we packed them up into crates for relocation.
Our new home came with an old, large building used as a coop for years but in some disrepair. We left our custom coop behind for the next family, and set to work putting the building to rights. Their new digs consist of an approximately10' x 20' wood building with a tin roof, concrete floor, elevated natural wood perches, milk crate nesting boxes and an upgrade to larger metal hanging feeders and watering cans. At first, due to the increased space, we placed the now humongous ducks inside with the chickens. It didn't take long to determine this would be a strictly segregated neighborhood; the chickens didn't like the ducks and the ducks took every opportunity possible to harass the chickens. The ducks received an outdoor pen attached to the new (old!) coop and constructed of old lumber recycled from other buildings on the property. We were steadily going "green".
Ah, such peaceful mornings! We now wake to the sound of the chickens making soft, contented noises and the ducks sounding suspiciously as if they are laughing at some joke only they understand. And one fine morning a few weeks after our move, we found it! The first egg! Has anything ever been as exciting as realizing your efforts, your work, your determiniation, has paid off in the form of one slightly oval caramel colored bit of satisfaction?
We had a home produced egg! And it only took nearly 6 months of time.
Our crowning moment was tempered by the remembrance of the time invested, the purchase price of the birds, their feed from growing chick to productive chicken, materials for building and then repairing coops, containers for food and water, dozens of hours of research and untold hours of sanitizing equipment, raking litter, hauling away manure and caring for the animals.
A few weeks later, we're at full production. Once one decided to get to work, the rest followed suit quickly. And they are hard at work. We're averaging an egg a day from each little red hen, um, pullet. They still enjoy the treats we supply them with, leap onto perches and spread their wings to be scratched and stroked, and are, quite simply, beautiful birds. The eggs are much larger now, and we frequently see double yolks, with strong shells and uniform color.
One advantage is that now that we have so many eggs a week (we never lost a single chick) we're supplying my husband's co workers' carnivorous habits. It pays for the feed our chickens consume, so other than the work involved, our own eggs are now, essentially, free. By the time we allow for labor, buying commercially produced eggs would be a more financially practical solution. But the birds are here now, and we have no intention of disposing of them now that we've got our answer to the age old question.
The ducks however...
Our Pekins turned out to both be males, and two of the Khaki Campbells, who started life like little loud kiwi fruits indistinguishable from the females, also were males. Were being the operative word. We had no interest in raising successive generations of poultry, and consigned the males to the freezer. The remaining two females have yet to produce a single egg and may yet be destined for the same fate.
Bring food or be food. It's a harsh reality of life here at our home. And I'm glad I can share this experience with my daughter, who understands exactly where the food on her plate comes from.