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Backyard chickens for the best eggs ever: you can keep a few hens to produce homegrown eggs, even if you only have a small back yard.

The minute you crack open a homegrown egg from a hen that's been able to eat grass, seeds and bugs, you'll never settle for pale, tasteless factory-farm eggs again. Homegrown eggs are more colorful and flavorful, and they're more nutritious: richer in beta-carotene, vitamin D, vitamin E, folic acid and vitamin B-12. Plus, eggs from hens raised on pasture have one-third less cholesterol.

When you're in charge of your own chickens, you'll know they've been raised in humane conditions. Also, you can be assured that your birds are not fed antibiotics or growth hormones.

The best chicken breeds for backyard egg production are elegant heritage breeds, such as those shown on Page 58. You can do your part in preserving these endangered breeds and enjoy farm-fresh eggs, even if you have just a small yard. These traditional egg-laying specialists are smaller than dual-purpose (meat and eggs) breeds, and in most cases they have retained their natural instinct for foraging, making them well suited for portable mini-coops. (See "Portable Chicken Mini-coop Plan" at www.MotherEarthNews.com.)

Even city dwellers can keep a few hens as easily as they keep dogs or cats. If you live in a city that currently prohibits your feathered friends, we're betting you could get the law changed if you tried. A few hens are no more potential bother to neighbors than dogs. So if dogs are allowed, why not chickens? (See "Laws and Regulations for Backyard Chickens" at www.MotherEarthNews.com/forums.)

In addition to providing delicious and nutritious eggs, readers report free-range hens can control grasshoppers and many other garden pests--plus fleas, flies, fire ants, ticks, termites, lawn grubs--and even mice and rats.

Getting Started with Chickens

Most people start with day-old chicks purchased in the spring from a local farm store or mail-order catalog. But hatcheries usually require a minimum shipment of about 25 chicks (so the chicks can keep each other warm en route). If you just want three or four hens, combine your order with some friends' orders to meet the minimum, or find a farm-supply store that will order exactly what you want when they place their orders. We don't recommend roosters for backyard beginners (they are loud and can be aggressive), and the hens might lay better without them. When you order your chicks, specify that you want all females (pullets).

Before the chicks arrive, set up a "brooder"--a large box with a heat lamp hanging over it to keep the chicks warm. You can buy a lamp at the farm store, or for just a few chicks you can use a regular 75- or 100-watt bulb. You'll need wood shavings, straw or dry leaves for bedding, a waterer and feeder designed for chicks, and some chick starter feed.

Adjust the heat lamp's height so the chicks can sleep under it comfortably, without trying to huddle too closely together (which signals that they are chilly and the lamp should be moved closer to them). As the chicks' feathers grow in, gradually raise the lamp. Change their bedding often, and keep their feeder and waterer clean and filled.

When nighttime temperatures remain above 50 degrees Fahrenheit, your chickens can be moved to their coop outside. The portable mini-coop shown at right is designed to keep your hens safe from predators, while allowing them access to fresh pasture. But it is still a good idea to close the coop door every night. All kinds of critters like to dine on poultry, including skunks, opossums, weasels, foxes, coyotes, dogs, feral cats and raccoons with very long arms and sharp claws. In the daytime, hawks might be a problem.

Adult birds will need a larger feeder and waterer. You can make excellent homemade feeders and waterers by cutting holes in the sides of big plastic kitty litter containers (the bottoms of the holes should be about the height of the chickens' backs). In addition to their feeder full of "laying mash" that you buy at the feed or farm store, your hens will love your kitchen scraps, grass clippings and any weeds you pull (be sure they are pesticide-free). If you're moving the pen regularly, the hens will be able to pick up plenty of the gritty sand they need to digest their food (they use the sand in their gizzards to grind their food, since they have no teeth), but you should give them a crushed oyster shell supplement to provide extra calcium for strong eggshells.

The young hens (called pullets) will start laying eggs when they are about 24 weeks old, and they will lay five to six eggs a week. This means four hens will give you nearly two dozen eggs a week. As daylight hours dwindle in the fall, production will decline and the birds will molt (grow new feathers). In the spring, they will increase their laying rate. Each year thereafter, expect their annual egg production to drop by about 20 percent. (The upside: Their flavor as stewing chickens will increase!)

Incredible Homestead Chickens

Poultry are excellent starter livestock for most homesteads because their needs are easily and cheaply met, and the homesteader can start on a small scale. Even if you only have a small yard, you can keep a few hens (see "Portable Chicken Mini-coop," above right).

One reason poultry are the easiest livestock is that their housing can be simple. All domesticated poultry are hardy and will do well if given protection from predators and the extremes of weather. Any housing that protects the birds from wind, rain and snow will be adequate for your flock. (Remember, too, their need for shade on the hottest summer days.)

Chickens, guineas and turkeys all have an instinct to roost at night and will be more content if given perches. Any structure that allows them to sleep perched above ground level will satisfy their urge to roost.

If there are laying hens in your flock, you should provide nesting boxes for them to lay eggs in (one for every eight hens or so). I make my own wooden nests--12 inches high and wide, 16 inches deep--and fill them with straw, leaves or other clean, soft material.

Almost any structure can serve satisfactorily for housing poultry. I strongly advise leaving an earth floor in stationary coops and covering it with a deep layer (up to 12 inches) of organic matter.

All domestic poultry are quite cold hardy. They don't need added heat here in Hume, Va., (with temperatures down to 10 below zero) as long as they are protected from the wind in the coldest weather.

Occasionally, cocks (males) suffer frostbite to their large combs and wattles (the red, fleshy protuberances on top of and hanging from their heads). If you live further north, you might want to consider breeds such as the chantecler, which have minimal combs and wattles that are almost impervious to frostbite.

Options for Feeding

I strongly urge you to avoid the conventional flock setup, with the birds confined to their coop and a small, static chicken run. The birds quickly consume or trample all vegetation, and droppings accumulate. It's better to get the birds out onto healthy, green pasture where they can enjoy the sunshine, fresh air and exercise, and forage a significant part of their diet.

Some flock owners have good results allowing their birds to range free during the day, then penning them up at night for protection, since most predators are nocturnal. For others, different levels and types of predation (your neighbor's dog, or even your own) or proximity of neighbors' gardens or flower beds may require fencing a large area for their pasture.

It is convenient to buy bagged feed for a flock, and we'd like to think that such "scientifically formulated" feeds are the best diet we can offer our birds. Ask yourself, however: What would the chicken eat if completely on her own in a natural setting?

Though we do not think of chickens as grazers, they actually eat a fair amount of grasses, clovers and broadleaf weeds. They relish wild seeds of all sorts and live animal foods such as earthworms, insects, slugs and snails. All of these foods (plants, seeds and small animals) are alive and unprocessed. Commercial feeds are anything but alive or unprocessed; they are made from highly processed ingredients.

I urge you to take the feeding of your flock into your own hands. A willingness to experiment, a bit of research about nutritional needs and access to whole ingredients available in your area are the only requirements.

Whether you buy prepared feeds or make your own replacement mixes (from whole corn, oats, wheat, field peas, kelp meal, etc.), the heart of your feeding program should be maximizing your flock's access to whole, natural foods. If you pasture your birds, they will find a lot of high-quality food on their own. If you practice vermicomposting to recycle kitchen wastes or manage manure, you can harvest the worms to feed your flock. If you live in an area "blessed" with lots of Japanese beetles, collect them to feed your birds.

Putting the flock to work

There are many ways to enlist the natural behaviors of the flock to achieve key homestead goals.

Before the era of Monsanto and Cargill, free ranging poultry flocks helped control excess insect populations in orchards. Another useful service the flock provides in the orchard is cleaning up dropped fruit, which can harbor disease or overwintering insects. We can utilize our flocks in the same way, confining them to their work if necessary with portable electric net fencing or small wire pens.

Though chickens could destroy an established garden with their constant scratching (and they like ripe tomatoes as much as you do!), just prior to the spring garden season, I net my flock onto the garden for two to four weeks. The birds eat sprouting weed seeds as well as slugs and snails.

I usually assign tilling chores to my chickens. If I need to develop new ground for a garden, I use electric net fencing to keep a flock of chickens on the plot and let them do what they love best, scratching away at that tough sod until it is killed and turned into the top few inches of the soil, in the process boosting soil fertility with their droppings.

There are so many ways our flocks can be integrated into helping us develop food self-sufficiency on the homestead. The examples I have given only hint at the possibilities. The key is liberating them from an isolated corner and making them part of the broader, interwoven patterns of your homestead endeavor.

--Harvey Ussery

Top Egg-laying Breeds for Backyard Chicken Mini-coops

Chickens have been domesticated for thousands of years and dozens of beautiful breeds have been developed. Some "dual-purpose" breeds such as Rhode Island Reds or Barred Rocks lay a good number of eggs and also put on weight well for meat. But our mini-coop is designed specifically for egg production by foraging hens, so we asked our experts to name the breeds that are the best egg-layers and good foragers. As it turns out, their recommendations are breeds that are smaller than better-known dual-purpose breeds, and these smaller egg-laying specialists Buttercups, Brown Leghorns, Hamburgs and Anconas will be more comfortable in the confined space of the mini-coop. Note: All four breeds lay white eggs.

Anconas

Originally known as Black Leghorns, Anconas have lustrous black feathers, some tipped with white, giving a beautiful mottled appearance. The chicks are black and white. Very active foragers, Anconas are "as good as the best at winter laying" and easily trained in pens, according to Wright's Book of Poultry (1910).

Brown Leghorns

Hardy and active Leghorns (pronounced "leggerns"), which originated near the city of Leghorn, Italy, are outstanding egg layers. Female Brown Leghorns are medium brown with delicate penciling, darker brown wings and salmon breasts. The lively chicks are striped like chipmunks.

Buttercups

Developed centuries ago in Sicily, Buttercups are golden-colored, with unique cup-shaped combs and beautiful, dark-spangled (polka-dotted) feathers. According to Wright's Book of Poultry, Buttercups are "small eaters and great foragers." They lay eggs "of a rich and delicate flavour" and are especially docile, "due, doubtless, to their long and close association with the Sicilian peasants, in whose homes they wandered freely in and out."

Hamburgs

Very snappy and alert, Hamburgs were once known in Holland as the Dutch Everyday Layers. They can be gold or silver, spangled (polka-dotted) or penciled (pinstriped). They are small eaters, good foragers and prolific layers.

These beautiful illustrations of heritage breeds are reproduced courtesy of WATT, Rockford, III.; www.wattpoultry.com.
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Author:Long, Cheryl
Publication:Mother Earth News
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2012
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