10 Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me Before I Got My Chickens

I did my very best research before we became chicken owners. I had wanted chickens for years, so I had plenty of time to read books and research online. Mostly, all the information out there is the same, and some of it’s really good.

But there are so many things I wish I had known going in. I wouldn’t change a thing about being a chicken mama, of course. Getting chickens has been one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life, and they give me hope for our family during tough times.

Still, I think there’s a lot of information that seasoned chicken farmers forget to tell us when we’re just starting out. Even after just 3 years with our chickens, I’m already thinking of things I’ve learned and then forgetting to tell others about them.

But, for the end of 2017 and the end of my third year as a chicken mama, I wanted to put together a list of lessons I’ve learned—some of them hard lessons. My hope is that it can help others who are considering chickens or who have recently become chicken farmers.

  1. Getting chickens that are awesome layers can come with some costs.

When you’re researching breeds, sources often do not tell how you much variation there can be within a breed. And, if you’re like me, when you’re researching a chicken breed for egg-laying potential, you are really just thinking about egg laying potential. While some people do keep chickens just as pets, most people who raise chickens are also in it for the eggs. They’re extremely nutritious, and chickens are very generous to us.

However, what I didn’t know is that chicken breeds that have been bred to be extreme layers also sometimes come with health problems associated with being a layer who can lay at commercial levels. Even within a breed, such as Rhode Island Reds, the hens we started with, there can be great variation. I wish I would have looked for a heritage version of the RIR. Our girls have laid like commercial layers, and they’ve struggled with some genetic issues as a result.

  1. It may be better not to add light and extend the day for your hens during the winter.

If you live in a northern climate like I do, one way to keep your hens from really slowing down on the egg laying in the winter is to add light to the coop in the mornings to help extend the day and the daylight. It takes about 14 hours of light to make an egg, we started out adding a little light to our coop each winter to extend the day and keep our girls from taking a break.

After three years, much research, and making connections to some farmers who are a little more “old school,” we decided not to light the coop this winter. The rest can be really good for them.

Of course, for families who can’t afford to be without the food or income from the eggs, lighting the coop may be essential. But if it’s not essential for you, I would recommend letting them rest. Others will disagree, and I honestly don’t care. I’m a careful study of my birds, and I believe letting the girls take a break if you can is a good thing.

  1. Chickens hide their health problems.

Chickens are very easy to care for—until they’re not. And the issues come from the fact that chickens will hide their health problems. They don’t want to get picked off by a predator, so they’re extremely stoic. This can make it difficult to diagnose health issues in your chickens.

  1. Winters can be tough on your flock, but it’s not as bad as you might think.

If you live in the north, all you have to do is get breeds that do well in the winter. You don’t have to heat the coop, and you don’t have to keep them cooped up and never let them outside. In fact, never going outside is what makes winter so difficult for your chickens. They’ll start to go stir crazy. I’ve seen this on blizzard-like days here in Maine. When the girls can’t go out, it’s hard on them mentally. So we shovel the snow and get the outside as soon as we can.

If your chickens don’t like walking on the snow, put down leaves for them to walk on and scratch around in.

Key problems in winter are ventilation issues, coop fires, and chickens hurting each other from being literally “cooped up.” I know there’s an urge to “baby” our chickens. I feel the same way, but I’ve seen what works best for our girls. They have tough feet and thick feathers. According to my research, most chickens can handle temperatures down to 0 degrees Fahrenheit.

  1. Predators are going to stress you out.

Predators are an issue, and they come from overhead and on the ground. Neighborhood dogs are also a serious issue for many backyard flocks. Keep your chickens in a fence with plenty of space to run around if you can.

  1. Chickens are wicked smart and very social.

I figured chickens were smart, but I had no idea how smart. They are social, interactive, have friends, and have chickens they don’t like. They solve problems and know people. If you’ve never had chickens and are thinking of getting some, you’re going to be highly impressed—and highly entertained. They’re also downright funny.

  1. No matter how many chickens you start with, you will want more.

This is just a reality. Start preparing for it. We really need a second coop.

  1. It’s difficult to research care for chickens because even the “experts” disagree.

I’ve seen people have knock-down drag-out fights on chicken forums over the best ways to care for chickens. Even the “experts” will disagree quite a lot to the point of having completely opposite opinions. It’s also tough to find research on the web about chickens because so much of the research focuses on chickens as a part of the food industry. Find someone you can trust who’s been raising chickens for a long time. It’s my best advice.

  1. Genetics are important, so hatchery chickens you order online can be risky.

I’ll never order online from a big hatchery again, though I know this is how a lot of people get started. It’s how we got started, but I quickly saw genetic issues coming up. I’ve learned that it’s best to buy your chickens locally from someone who has a good reputation for breeding for the healthiest birds. The best way to do this, if you’re new and don’t know any chicken breeders, is to join online chicken groups on Facebook in your state or area.

  1. You’ll fall in love with your chickens in ways you can’t imagine and will learn so much about animals and nature that it may change you as a human.

I knew I wanted chickens, but I had no idea how much I was going to love them and how much I was going to learn from them. Being close to my chickens has made me a better person. I’m kinder and more open minded. I’m thankful to them for the food—and the wisdom.

Lucy and Poe Baby Day 1
This is Lucy and her first baby. Watching Lucy raise babies this summer taught me so much about chickens and about myself as a mom.

 

Final Thoughts

I know I have so much more to learn, but I’m making progress. I hope you find this advice helpful to you or someone you know. Others will disagree and that’s okay. See number 8. But I hope my list will at least help start a conversation.

What do you wish you had known before you became a chicken person?

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On Raising a Sweet Rooster

I’ve been reading chicken blogs, chicken forums, and following chicken Facebook groups for several years, and I’ve read some mixed reviews of keeping roosters. We had chickens a for quite a while before we made the leap and got a rooster for our flock.

We accidentally ended up with two roosters (story below), and so far, both of them are relatively sweet boys. They are mostly grown but still immature, and I keep watching and waiting for major signs of aggression. Based on what I read, I’ve been worried they are going to turn into mean roosters one day, but I’m starting to hope that we have two sweet roosters.

Is that possible? It is possible to raise a sweet rooster?

Rooster
This is our accidental rooster named Rooster. He’s our rooster who really seems to worry about the flock. He frets every time something isn’t right.

And I’m not talking about the roos who live in people’s houses. I expect them to be sweet. They get so much human contact that you just know they’re going to grow up and be sweet. I’m talking about the farm roosters who protect their flocks and live in the barn or the coop and, of course, have human contact but nowhere near the contact a house rooster gets.

And, by the way, if you were unaware that people have pet chickens in their homes, let me tell you: It’s true! There are many people who keep chickens as house pets because chickens are so sweet and smart. The chickens have to wear little chicken diapers, but people do it. If I could, I might try to let my favorite chicken, Poe, move in our house, but my husband thinks this is not a good idea. So there’s that.

Anyway, so far, my experiences tell me it might be possible to raise a sweet rooster, so I did some research. It turns out that there are some strategies to help promote sweetness—or at least good behavior—in a rooster, and I was accidentally doing some of these things, just following my instincts with my flock. I was impressed with myself!

I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m bragging. I’m not. I was just really impressed with myself that this once city girl and academic had some proper gut instincts in relation to our farm animals! I have grown!

But I won’t keep these strategies to myself any longer. Here’s what my research revealed about how to raise a sweet rooster, and, so far, these tips have worked for me.

Handle your rooster as much as you can as early as you can.

We were able to do this a lot with the Rhode Island Red rooster we bought as a baby, but we accidentally got a second rooster in a group of chickens that were supposed to be girls. I was outside last summer cleaning water and filling up food buckets when I heard a big crow come from a direction where there shouldn’t have been a crow. It turned out we had another roo, and since we had the space and enough hens, we decided to keep him. So we started holding and petting him as much as we could from that day forward.

The idea, of course, is to humanize them as much as you can, and the handling is how you do it. If your rooster is not a fan, use bribes. Treats are a good way to get your rooster to hang out with you a bit.

Don’t let your rooster mate in front of you.

You want to be kind about this, and you don’t want to kick or hurt your rooster, but, apparently, it shows your rooster that you are the boss if you don’t let him mate in front of you. I was doing this before I read about this as a strategy just because chicken mating is pretty aggressive, and I didn’t like one of my sweet girls getting jumped. So I just take my foot and scoot the rooster right off when he jumps on a hen in front of me. Not everyone agrees with this strategy, but, in my research, it came up time and time again.

If he gets aggressive, hold him or give him a time out.

If your rooster does get aggressive, it’s best if you can just pick him up and hold him firmly until. he settles down. I have also read about the method of picking him up by his feet and carrying him around a bit upside down, but I also read this can be dangerous if he happens to have something in his mouth when you do this. So I would recommend just holding if you can. Time out in another area also seems to work well.

Never, ever hit or kick your rooster, unless you are defending yourself or your kiddos.

Over and over again, the most important I read is to never hit or kick your rooster. You don’t want to hurt him—ever. He’s going to have instincts you will want to work with, and unless you just have to fight back to defend yourself, never hit him.

Of course, reading this list, you may be wondering if roosters are worth it. There are a lot of people who keep chickens who never want to mess with the trouble of a roo. They can crow quite loudly. And, in addition to being aggressive toward people, roosters can be aggressive to your hens, and this just makes them not worth it to many people. I do understand.

However, roosters will provide protection for your flock and can be raised to be kinder. And, if you want to raise your own baby chickens, you’re going to need a rooster.

And, so far, our experiences with roosters are pretty positive. The two we have, Runkle and Rooster, are at least pretty sweet. We can hold them, though they gripe about it a bit. And Rooster is a great guard rooster. He worries about the girls, gets stressed if something is out of sorts, and is the last one into the coop every night. He’s a good boy!

If you have rooster tips or experiences, please share below. I’m still learning, but so far, I’m a fan of roosters. Our roosters are pretty good boys, but I’ve read that even a mean rooster can be rehabilitated if you’re willing to work with him.

Of course, the best plan seems to be to try to raise a sweet rooster from the beginning.