Introducing, "What I Have Learned..."
No doubt we have learned A LOT! And we humbly admit that we have a whole lot more to learn. However, as we have been reviewing and reminiscing about the last year, we realize that we need to share with others the things we have learned on our journey. Some of you may be much more experienced than us and others may be "city folks" like ourselves wanting to learn more about farm life. By the way, if you have suggestions on how to improve the way we do things on the farm, we are always ready and willing students!
So today I am going to start out sharing what I have learned about Layers. These are chickens that lay eggs. Several years ago, we decided to raise chickens in our backyard. Our thought was that free-range eggs are expensive so why not try to raise our own. And we knew we wanted to farm someday so we were excited to get started with one of the "simplest-ish" animals to raise. We did our research before jumping in, and quickly realized there is a lot of information on the internet! Some helpful, and some not so much.
One of the first items we needed to figure out was our local laws. At the time, we did not live in a neighborhood so we needed to check city laws, and we did not have POA rules to abide by. Our city allowed us to keep 4 hens in our backyard, no roosters were allowed in the city limits. So off to the farm store we went to purchase our first hens. We immediately ran into a problem, the store could not sell less than 6 birds at a time due to our state law. This presented quite the dilemma! We went ahead and purchased the 6 Rhode Island Red chicks thinking that 1 or 2 might die, it is common to lose baby chicks from a variety of things. Also, we lived on an acre so maybe it would be ok, as long as our neighbors were ok with it.
The baby chicks were set up in a brooder in our garage, complete with pine shavings, heat lamps, food, water and protection from our cat and dog. One of the things that often kills baby chicks is "poopy butt", it is a real thing! For some reason, they get a bit clogged up and need help cleaning themselves, thankfully I have a child that LOVES to keep animals as healthy as possible and she was all in! She checked bottoms hourly that first batch of chicks. She still gets that job, even though we have A LOT more bottoms to check!
The chicks stayed in the garage for the first several months. They need their feathers to grow in so they can stay warm, before they can move outside. We probably kept them inside much longer than needed that first time, but we were newbies. While they were still in the brooder, Tim decided to build the Taj Mahal coop in our backyard.
This project took about a month to complete, he was very thorough and basically built Ft. Knox. To this day, we still build our coops to withstand the predators. There is nothing worse than going out and seeing your birds strewn all over the yard, it happened with our first batch of guinea keets at the farm because we thought we could use chicken wire to build our moveable coop. It weighs a lot less but IT DOES NOT WORK!!! Chicken wire is not made to protect birds, always use hardware cloth, it is worth the expense and weight.
Anyway, we moved the girls out to the coop and they loved their space. Eventually we trained our Australian Shepherd to protect them, because we had owls and hawks in the forest behind our house. It is frightening seeing a hawk perched on your fence eyeing your girls! They were some of the sweetest chickens we have ever had, they had great personalities and gave us wonderful eggs.
We kept our first girls about 1 1/2 years, then we decided to sell them on Craigslist and get new birds. Why did we do this? Because we were newbies, we had read that hens slow down on laying eggs after the 2nd year. A chicken is born with all they eggs they will ever lay and as they get older, there are fewer eggs produced. However, we should have kept them as there was much trauma involved in the selling of our girls. We knew we did not want to eat them, since they were pets. Someone quickly answered our Craigslist ad and came out the same day to get them. The men who bought them were very efficient in capturing the girls and putting them in a box and many tears were cried as my children watched from the window.
Soon, we decided to visit a local farm and pick out our next batch of chicks, actually pullets this time. Pullets are a bit older and can move outdoors much quicker. We brought the birds home and put them in our coop. These were not nearly as friendly and we really did not like them very much, one turned out to be a rooster and all of the other girls died within 3 months! They all had some type of respiratory illness that we could not get rid of. After that experience, we decided on only order day old chicks from a hatchery to ensure we were not spreading illness. Biosecurity is a real and necessary thing, it is so easy to transmit/transport diseases from farm to farm. Just by walking around and getting poo on your shoes, you can transmit bacteria.
We went without chicks for a short time and then placed an order with a hatchery several hours away. This time, our daughter got to pick the breeds and she chose Silkies, which are not the best egg layers but they are REALLY cute. Unfortunately, they did not make it very long, one day we left our gate open on accident and a coyote got into our yard and killed all of them!
By the time we were ready to raise our next layers, we had a pretty good idea of what we wanted and we knew the farm was getting to be a closer reality so we purchased 25 heavy egg producer breeds from the hatchery. Different breeds of chickens produce different amounts of eggs. There are ornamental breeds like Silkies that are more for cuteness than egg production, then there are heavy production layers like Red Sex Links, and then you have the great backyard breeds like Rhode Island Reds, Buff Orphingtons and Australorps that are great egg producers and generally very friendly.
As we have grown our egg production to sell eggs, we have continued to mix up our breeds to have different colored eggs but still good producers. I love the variety of egg shell colors!
Some of the other things we have learned about laying birds: they are very hardy, through the winter their feathers keep them warm and no special equipment is needed to warm them; utilizing a "deep litter" method works best on our farm so we are not shoveling poop throughout the year, we add straw and pine shavings regularly to the coops to keep them clean and then once or twice a year we clean out the coops completely and build a compost pile. This method also produces heat for our birds during the winter to aid in keeping them warm.
We have also learned to love our Roosters. While roosters are not necessary for egg laying, they add another layer of protection for our girls. Did you know a rooster will fight to his death to protect his flock? Thankfully we have not lost any roosters to predators but it is very interesting to watch them protect and be on the lookout for their girls. Are roosters mean, yes, they can be sometimes and we have 1 that likes to assert himself occasionally. Usually we just catch him and carry him around with us until he calms down.
We love having chickens! They each have very different personalities and it is fun getting to know each of them. We highly recommend starting your own flock, our children have learned many great life lessons by caring for our birds.