More on Raising Chickens as a Family
By Brad and Jennifer Melton
In the Fall 2012 issue of the Arizona Home Education Journal you may have read about our experiences raising chickens as a family. [View article pdf]
In this article we continue this journey with more details on the how and why we did it as well as some other fun things we learned along the way.
PART 1: HOW WE RAISE CHICKENS AS A FAMILY
When chickens are first hatched they require the constant presence of a heat source that keeps their brooder at 95 degrees or they will die. The temperature in the brooder can decrease about 5 degrees a week until their feathers grow in. Therefore, we borrowed a friend’s home-made brooder and 250-watt infrared heat lamp. The heat lamps and bulbs are available at hardware or feed stores for about $30.
Store-Bought vs. Online
We started our flock with 25 pullets (female chickens less than a year old), which included Production Reds, Araucanas, and Plymouth Barred Rocks. All of the chicks were only a few days old. We paid between $3 and $4 each from The Stock Shop in Glendale. You can call local feed stores to see if they have any in stock. Since chickens are social creatures, we recommend that you buy at least two or three birds.
You can buy a greater variety of birds online for a little bit less and have them mailed to you, but we decided to go local because the children could pick their own birds and The Stock Shop provides a one-week guarantee. This is important because chicks are fragile. We know families who had no problems with birds purchased online and others who lost a lot of them without any recourse.
We ended up losing two Reds and two Barred Rocks during the first week. Two died for unknown reasons while the remaining two died after succumbing to “pasting,” which is a common problem where their excrement sticks to their bottom and prevents them from relieving themselves. We kept a vigilant eye on them after that and washed bottoms with warm water whenever they were blocked. The Stock Shop replaced all four of the birds we lost with no hassle.
The Chicken Coop
We began our hunt for a chicken coop by looking at local stores and online, but all of them were a few hundred dollars or more each and would only hold five or six birds per coop. If your flock is smaller and money is no object then these are great options. We were also tempted to build our own using online plans, which would have been a fun family project if we had the extra time.
We ultimately decided to purchase and repurpose a used dog kennel to serve as our chicken coop, which was $200 well spent. The kennel is six foot tall, seven feet wide, and thirteen feet long. It has a metal roof welded over two-thirds of it and one of the long sides is also covered with a tarp to shade the birds.
Chickens naturally like having a place up off of the ground at night as a protection from predators, so we wove a bunch of medium-sized branches together to create a roost on the back side of the coop. The most dominate birds roost higher than the less dominate birds.
Initially we placed the kennel on a long concrete patio off the back of our house because we needed electricity for the heat lamp during the winter months. The concrete was nice in that it allowed us to collect the droppings and add it to our compost to use later as organic mulch. However, the cons outweighed the temporary benefits.
Unfortunately, the poop on the concrete had to be removed every day or else the flies would gather around our house in large numbers. We also learned that chickens need access to dirt so they can add grit to their diet to help digestion and to take dust baths, which helps to control parasites like lice and mites. To help control the flies, we dusted the floor of the coop with food grade diatomaceous earth because it is a natural, non-chemical insecticide, which helped.
Even though we mitigated some of the problems, as soon as the birds had enough feathers to stay warm without the lamp, we moved the coop to a quarter-acre, fenced-in pasture on our property further away from the house.
Function has a tendency to outweigh form on a farm, but projects can still be done in an attractive fashion. For example, when our ladies started laying eggs we found some kitchen cabinets that someone had set out for bulk trash pickup. With permission from the owner (and at no cost to us) we brought some of the cabinets back, divided them up with plywood, and layered them with two to three inches of straw to use as nesting boxes.
Chickens do fly and to help keep our birds in the yard we decided to clip their wings. The procedure is painless for the birds and involves identifying the ten flight feathers on one wing and then using some sharp scissors to remove them. Removing these feathers from one side of the birds makes it difficult for it to maintain balance in flight, so it tends to stay on the ground instead. However, this is a process that requires repeating every time the chicken molts and grows new feathers. More information on how to clip wings can be found in books on raising chickens as well as online.
Chicken Feed and Water
Our family eats a lot of eggs, which is why we decided to buy so many hens. However, it takes a lot of feed and water to satisfy 25 chickens.
For the first six months we fed them organic starter crumble, which is about $30 a bag through The Stock Shop or Azure. At first a single bag would last six weeks or more and I fed them out of a small plastic feeder. However, as the birds grew the amount of feed consumed grew to more than two and a half bags a month and I upgraded to a 30-pound feeder.
After about twenty weeks old the birds started laying eggs, so we switched to organic layer feed, which was a little bit less expensive, but not much. We also provided them with ground oyster shells, which are a rich source of calcium for the production of eggs, but we keep it as a stand-alone option separate from the feed. Strong, thick shells indicate that the birds are receiving enough nutrition.
To save money on feed, we began buying large bags of organic grains (i.e. wheat, oats, split peas, corn, etc.) as well as a nutri-balancer that contains vitamins to create our own feed, which reduced our cost to about $20 a bag, but it was a bit of a hassle. Of course, you can always buy cheaper feed, but we use organic feed because we want organic chickens and organic eggs, which is much healthier. If you don’t want to go through the hassle yourself, the most affordable way to buy organic chicken feed that we know of is through a Phoenix-area group called Backyard Chicken farmers Unite, which is led by a man named Scott Brown. You can find out more about the group on their Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/BackyardChickenFarmersUnite/info) or by email Scott directly at email@example.com.
We also feed the chickens table scraps from organic fruits and vegetables that are too old to eat. There are helpful web sites that make it easier to know what chickens are and are not allowed to eat.
Chickens peck one another to establish dominance in the flock. This is normal. However, too much pecking may be a sign that the chickens are bored or they are missing something in their diet. Boredom can be alleviated by giving them more room to roam around away from one another and by giving them fun things to investigate and play with, which takes their focus off the other birds. You can talk to your local feed store for ideas.
Chickens are omnivores and eat practically anything. Making sure that the chickens have access to a wide variety of food sources may help from incessant pecking because their diet will be balanced and they may be less likely to try to find protein from another bird. We’re told that stress is also a potential cause of pecking.
In our flock we were surprised to find that we had two roosters in the mix. Both of them did what roosters do with hens, but one was particularly vicious and active in this area. Several of our hens were showing battle wounds and were missing feathers, so we decided to donate the aggressive rooster to the dinner table and the hens began to look better almost immediately afterward.
Raising chickens in the desert will inevitably result in the loss of some birds. We experienced this first hand this past summer when we lost five birds due to the excessive heat. In conversations with other friends who raise chickens, we discovered that this is fairly common. Some of us lost more birds than others and there didn’t always seem to be reasons that made sense. For example, one family lost just as many birds as we did and they had more shade and water available. I don’t have an authoritative answer as to why this is the case, but somebody did suggest that some birds are simply hardier than the others. For example, four out of the five birds we lost were Araucanas, so it is possible that they were just not as heat tolerant.
Even so, we did respond to this challenge by buying two 20 inch box fans with weather protected motors from Wal-Mart and a long power cord. We used wire to attach the fans to the side of the coop and let them run all day to help the birds stay cool. Some people go so far as to add misters, which can drop the temperature up to 20 degrees, but I decided to start with the fans and see if we lost any more birds. Fortunately, even though the temperatures reached 116 and for several days, we did not lose any more after installing the fans.
Somebody else recommended buying one inch terra cotta trays (they sit under terra cotta pots) and filling them up with water. If they are sitting in the shade, the terra cotta trays stay cool and the chickens like to walk through them to cool off.
Conversely, some friends of ours raise chickens in northern Arizona and not only did they not lose birds due to the heat, but they also did not lose birds due to the cold. Apparently, chickens adapt better to colder climates than they do to hotter ones.
Much to our delight, one of our Barred Rocks turned out to be a cockerel (a rooster less than a year old), which was exciting because Barred Rock roosters are stunningly beautiful and we’ve enjoyed his crowing. There are a lot of roosters in our neighborhood, so his crowing is not a concern. Of course, your neighbors may not be as understanding. That being said, roosters can be ornery, so it is important that you handle your birds frequently from the beginning if you want them to be friendly. Our rooster was not handled and he can be aggressive.
There are people who can give much better advice on roosters than us, but the important thing that we’d like to share is do not run if a rooster is aggressive. The mother of a family friend was visiting their house when one of their roosters startled her, which caused her to trip and hurt herself. A good swift kick will knock an aggressive rooster backwards and make him think twice before charging again. This aggressive behavior tends to be with women and children more so than with men, but it can happen with anyone, so everyone who works with the chickens needs to be on the same page in how to respond.
Fortunately, roosters are not required for egg production, so if you don’t want the hassle of an ornery rooster or if you don’t want to hear it crowing at all hours then you don’t have to. Just make sure that you buy your chicks as presorted for pullets (females). Even then you might get a cockerel in the mix, so when you identify a bird as a rooster then you can give it away or eat it.
PART 2: WHY WE RAISE CHICKENS AS A FAMILY
In our neighborhood, raising chickens is a pretty common thing to do, so nobody asks why we are doing it. However, some of our friends ask the question, especially when we tell them that we have 25 chickens and that feeding them organic food can cost up to $75 per month. The truth is that there are several reasons why we decided to raise chickens together as a family:
#1 Take Dominion over the Earth
In Genesis 1:28-29 and Psalm 8, God commanded Adam and Eve as His image bearers to represent Him by ruling over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, the beast of the earth, every plant, and everything that has life on the earth. Therefore, raising chickens as a family is an application of the dominion mandate, which brings glory to God.
Everything we have belongs to God and we are commanded to be wise stewards over what He has entrusted to our care (Matt. 25:14-30). One way of being wise stewards is to become producers instead of just consumers. By increasing sustainability, we decrease our reliance on the man-centered industrial model that emphasizes quantity and profits over quality and good health.
#3 Instill Godly character in our children
Most children today are more familiar with video games than hard work, which is unfortunate because hard work for the glory of God builds Godly character (Col. 3:24). This includes having a good attitude toward employers (Phil. 2:14-15). Before mankind fell into sin, God gave man meaningful work to do in the garden. Elsewhere in the Bible we read that hard work is good for man (Pr. 6:6-8) and that laziness leads to destruction (Pr. 10:3; 13:4). Men who work hard are blessed and men who are lazy should not eat (2 Thess. 3:10-12).
#4 Develop Relationships with and Disciple our Children
Over and over again the Bible makes it clear that parents (not the church) have the mandate to raise their children in the faith (Eph. 6:4; Col. 3:21). The best example of what that looks like is found in Deuteronomy 6:4-10, which describes a pattern of parents being role models and discussing Biblical truth throughout the day with their children. Jesus demonstrated this pattern for us through his ministry to His disciples. In fact, this is one of the theological supports for Christian home education. Parents advancing the Kingdom of God by walking along and talking along with their children about the things of God on a daily basis. Working side-by-side with our children affords us opportunities to develop relationships with and influence our children.
Home on the Free-Range
Another excellent reason for raising chickens is for good health. We were once a nation of farmers, but more than a century ago the Industrial Revolution began to impact America’s approach to food, which emphasized quantity over quality. As a result, we are now a nation that buys its eggs from corporations that place tens of thousands of chickens in huge buildings while depriving them of space and natural light. These chickens are also fed grain that contains pesticides as well as genetically modified corn, which is passed on to people through their meat and eggs.
God didn’t make chickens to live indoors and eat feed. Instead, they should be outdoors foraging on the ground, which is known as free-range. In fact, even though our birds have plenty of room in their coop they still gather at the gate with anticipation every time they see us coming because they want to run out into the pasture. Fortunately, allowing chickens to free-range has some extra benefits.
#1 Superior Eggs
Most people don’t know how beneficial eggs are to eat. Not only are they low in calories and high in nutritional value with naturally occurring Vitamin D, but they are also very good for our eyes and they may prevent breast cancer, blood clots, stroke, and heart attacks.
Organic free-range chickens produce eggs that have a superior nutrient content to the typical egg. Furthermore, organic eggs at the store can cost more than $5 a dozen, but even these eggs may only be from birds who have “access” to an outdoor area rather than from birds who forage for hours outdoors in a sunny pasture. Last but not least, the eggs you collect in your backyard are fresh while the eggs you buy at the store may be three or more weeks old.
#2 Removes Bugs & Saves Money
Chickens are voracious feeders and love to eat grass and bugs. In fact, chickens are a natural way to control the bug population including nasty critters like scorpions, which we happen to have in our area. When they eat bugs and grass they are eating less feed, which saves money.
#3 Improves the Soil
As you know, chickens love to eat bugs and plants and they love to scratch around in the soil. Fortunately, these habits pay off in the long run because their poop is an excellent natural fertilizer. Of course, too much poop in one concentrated area can burn the grass, but this can be mitigated if the yard is big enough or if the chickens are moved using a portable coop and electric fencing. Their habit of scratching can also benefit the soil when they scratch and distribute cow pies and poop from other larger animals like horses.
#4 “Cheep Entertainment”
The presence of chickens in the pasture adds beauty to our yard and creates a source of family entertainment. We’ve spent several evenings sitting in lawn chairs watching the chicken foraging in the pasture. At times they quietly walk around pecking the ground while others they cluck loudly and wildly run or fly as best as they can with clipped wings. Sometimes the birds sneak up behind us when we are sitting in the chairs and untie our shoe laces.
PART 3: FUN THINGS WE LEARNED ALONG THE WAY
The Production Reds are a cross between a Rhode Island Red and a Leghorn, which are both excellent layers. They are reddish-brown with a friendly demeanor and they produce brown eggs. The Araucanas are odd looking with vibrant, multi-colored hues and ear-tufts (feathers that stick out from the sides of their heads), but they produce pretty green eggs. The Plymouth Barred Rocks have attractive black and white feathers and produce brown eggs. Our Araucanas and Barred Rocks do not like to be held, but I’m told that regularly handling the birds from an early age make them friendlier and easier to pick up.
There are many common expressions that we use in America, but may have never really understood before because they come from our nation’s pastoral past. Several of these expressions relate to chickens. Here are a few:
#1 Being a Chicken & Playing Chicken
Being a “chicken” is universally understood to mean that someone is scared or not brave, which is easily seen when raising them. For example, early on we noticed that whenever we introduced something new (i.e. a plate of milk, watermelon rinds, etc.) all the birds were “chicken” because they were afraid of the mysterious object for a while. Eventually, the Barred Rocks would investigate the object for the flock while the others hung back until given the “all clear” sign. The expression “playing chicken” refers to a dangerous game where two people can be seriously harmed or killed. The first one to stop the game is considered to be “chicken” or less brave than the other.
#2 Pecking Order
Before raising chickens I understood that the term “pecking order” meant a group’s hierarchy, but I never saw it in action among birds. However, from the very first day our chicks walked around pecking each other with their beaks. Apparently, they do this to establish who the top chicken is, who the bottom chicken is, and where everyone else fits in-between.
At times, their pecking can become vicious and they can draw blood, which causes even more pecking. Therefore, when this happens we separate the wounded bird from the others, so that it has time to heal. Of course, the rooster is the dominant chicken in our flock, but all of them fit somewhere in the pecking order.
#3 Chickens Coming Home to Roost
During the day the chickens love to be in the pasture and, therefore, it is hard to corral them and get them back in the coop. It is funny watching ambitious children try to do so because no matter how hard they try it seems that they never quite succeed. However, every evening like clockwork, the chickens come home to roost, which means that they walk back to the coop on their own and fly back up to their favorite branch to roost for the night. Of course, this expression more ominously means that the bad or foolish things we do eventually come back to us.
#4 Don’t Count Your Chickens Before they Hatch
We collect all of our eggs to eat and have not tried to raise chickens from eggs, so we have not experienced wondering if we are going to get a chicken from an egg or not, but this common expression reminds us to not anticipate something good happening in the future until it actually does.
As you’ve seen from both of our articles, raising chickens as a family includes enjoyment and beauty as well as work and money. We’ve learned a lot in a short period of time and we’ve had fun along the way, but we are still not experts. You’ll need to do the research, weigh the pros and cons, and do your own due diligence when deciding whether or not to raise chickens. For example, some communities have restrictions on raising chickens while others are more lenient, so you will need to check with the appropriate officials first.
If you are able and have the desire to do so, you’ll discover that raising chickens can bless your family as much as it has ours. You will honor God by taking dominion, instill Godly character in and build stronger relationships with your children, create a more sustainable lifestyle, naturally improve your soil, remove bugs without pesticides, and eat healthier. These are all good reasons to give it a try.
Brad Melton is a pastor at Heritage Baptist Church in Avondale, a secondary teacher at the Liberty University Online Academy, and the executive director of Brad Melton Ministries, a Biblical Worldview and Cultural Apologetics ministry. Jennifer Melton is a pastor’s wife, a stay-at-homeschool mama to three blessings, and a blogger. Brad and Jennifer married in 1996 and they speak at conferences nationwide.
More on Raising Chickens (pdf)