We have been raising chickens here at the Yardstead for over 4 years now. We started with 12 chicks from Murray McMurray Hatchery. The minimum order for baby chicks from Mcmurray is 25 but that's more than we wanted to start out with. A friend offered to split the order so we each picked several varieties from the catalog and placed the order. I don't remember the particular breeds from the first order (my wife actually picked), but they were all hens listed as good layers. We didn't want to get any roosters mainly because we did not want to listen to the crowing. The baby chicks were shipped overnight and the post office called me the next morning and said they were holding a box for me at the front counter and that it was chirping. I sped over and picked up the package and opened it as soon as I got in the truck. There were 25 lively chicks inside. I took them home and put them in a larger box with a small waterer and food dish. It was the end of winter so we kept them inside in their box for several weeks. All of the chicks we ordered for the yardstead survived to adulthood, and all but one of the chicks my friend ordered survived. In fact two of our current chickens are from this original order.
We purchased more chicks the next year from a local feed store after an unexpected event caused a rapid drop in our chicken population.....
The yardstead dogs gained access to the chicken pen. I was alerted suddenly by furious hen squawking and ran to the pen as quickly as I could. I put a stop to the slaughter but it was too late for 3 unfortunate hens. The new hens we got from the feed store were Araucanas. These lay beautiful light green or light blue eggs. We have since picked up a few more from the feed store, but plan another order from McMurray soon. They have a greater variety at McMurray and I look forward to getting some breeds we have not seen yet. Aside from the eggs from these hens (which are delicious) I enjoy watching and caring for these birds. Althought they have very tiny brains, they seem to have very individual personallities and I love watching them interact with each other and the other critters here.
Some of the hens are confined to the chicken pen where although confined they have plenty of space to frolic and scratch. The others roost in the pen every night and eat there frequently, but fly in and out of the pen at will. To qualify for the "at will" confinement plan, chickens need two important things. The mental capacity to understand how to get out, and the physical ability to fly high enough to get over the 5 foot fence. Out of the twelve we have currently six can leave the pen at will. These "smart" chickens dont have much to brag about though, as they frequently forget how to get out or back in the pen. They usually figure it out eventually through trial and error. The ones that do get out usually stay close by in the garden or rake around in a nearby tree line. They share this area with a family of 5 semi-wild cats. The cats are all siblings and we have managed to trap and neuter all of them except one, the big tom in the picture below with the white chicken. They mostly ignore each other but chance interactions sometimes result in tense standoffs. Most of the time the cats simply walk away ignoring the chickens but if the chicken is too bold she will likely get slapped. Some of the hens love to eat the dry cat food we put out for these cats every day. They come running up to porch when they hear the food hit the bowl. Usually the cats will wait for the chickens to finish and leave, but if the cats are hungry a quick slap usually sends the hens on their way.
The chickens do a good job of keeping the garden free of bugs. They spend a lot of time eating bugs in the grass as well. The hens that stay in the pen keep it picked clean and they rake through grass clipping I dump in there for bugs and tender shoots. They also eat a lot of table scraps and are not very picky.
In my opinion these birds are very easy to keep. They have very few needs and will produce eggs daily with very little maintenance. We plan on adding more here at the yardstead and I will be covering all the details in future articles. I will also have more details about chicken pens, chicken care, egg production and few other things I've learned.