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 Chicken Hugs and International Hug a Chicken Day

Have you ever had a chicken hug, I mean the kind where the chicken comes up to you and initiates a hug? Did you know this is possible?

I didn’t think such things were possible with most chickens. I love my chickens beyond words, but they’re not as humanized as some. Some chickens are house chickens, but mine are not. They run around, eat gross things like whole frogs, and poop all over the place.

When I have to do health checks for my chickens, I mostly have to do it when they go to roost. They pretty much never want to be caught. My chickens love me tons, but I tend to think it’s mostly for the treats I provide to them.

I’ve seen the video of the lady with the super sweet chickens who wait in line patiently to give her a hug. She has about six beautiful hens, and they all seem to adore her. I remember feeling like such a bad chicken mama when I saw that video. My chickens were more likely to try to jump on my head and poop!

But I had an experience this summer that changed me.

We had a few girls who were just having a rough time. We have three ISA Browns who are just so passive that they were just too much of a favorite for our rooster, as well as another hen who seemed to turn from girl to boy last year (that really does happen).

Each one of those girls was in need of a good spa day, so over about a week, each one of them spent a morning with me getting a warm bath, foot rubs, medicine for their poor sore backs, and a hen saddle I made for them myself with some old denim and old curtains.

All of my girls, despite their initial resistance to being caught and picked up, go along with spa days very well. They seem to know I mean well and go right along with the whole program, even when they have to have the little saddles put on.

But on this morning, something different would happen.

That little hen, who has since been named Melinda, did something different as I sat in the bathroom floor with her. I had finished rubbing some all-natural, Vaseline-like substance on her legs and feet and then put her saddle on, so I was talking to her, telling her she was a good girl and that her new saddle was going to help protect her poor back.

She began walking toward me and hopped into my lap. I was moved for sure, but she wasn’t finished. She walked up as high as she could into my lap and then leaned her head into my chest. On my chest, near my shoulder, she started this gentle pecking that was accompanied by the sweetest little chicken talking I had ever heard. She snuggled right into my chest and just leaned in.

It was a real and true chicken hug!

I was moved to tears, and that moment changed me. It was on the most profound moments I’ve ever had with an animal, and it was extremely powerful.

Melinda After Hug
This is Melinda sporting her new jacket in our bathroom after my hug. My goodness, I fell in love with that chicken that morning.

I knew chickens were brilliant little animals, but I had no idea a chicken could show that kind of emotion to a human that she was not used to be handled by on a regular basis. In fact, this girl had probably hadn’t been held by me in a month or so. I’m convinced she knew I was trying to make her feel better, and she was expressing gratitude to me. No one will ever convince me otherwise.

November 5 is International Hug a Chicken Day, and I know it may seem like a funny “holiday” to some, but there really is some importance behind it. It is a day meant to raise awareness about how important and wonderful chickens are and that the deserve some respect. I think this day is so sweet in spirit—and also very important.

Chickens are one of the most abused animals in the world. The live in horrific conditions right here in the United States, without space or any kind of comfort. They’re highly intelligent animals living in terrible situations with inhumane treatment, and I think the only way this is going to stop is if we vote with our wallets.

I’ll write more on the problems with “cage free,” but please just know that cage free is not enough and that you need to look for “Certified Humane” labels on your eggs—or better yet, buy them from your local farmer.

And, this weekend, let’s honor chickens and think about all they do for us. They provide so many people with nutritious food. They deserve our respect and kindness. Chickens are a joy. Let’s celebrate chickens in all of their loveliness.

Happy International Hug a Chicken Day! Now, let’s go hug some chickens!

On Backyard Chickens: When They Won’t Let You Have Anything Nice

I love my chickens—probably too much. I’m convinced one of the best decisions we ever made for our family was getting chickens and starting this whole homesteading thing. Our hens provide us with breakfast every morning and constant entertainment, but they also provide us with a sad backyard.

If you’re thinking about getting chickens, I would highly recommend them, but I should only fairly warn you that you won’t be able to have anything nice with those little dinosaurs running around your yard.

I’ll start with this image. See this beautiful backyard shed and magical flower garden? This does not belong to me. I was visiting with my neighbor this summer and realized that she has a magical flower garden that is breathtakingly beautiful.

Marie's Garden

Then, I headed home to see my own backyard full of holes our chickens have dug for their dust baths, despite having their very own sand box to dust bathe in.

It was a little disheartening.

I see the paint the chickens have pecked off of our shed door, the one I was so proud of when my husband painted it red because red is one of my favorite colors.

Shed Door

I see the holes in the yard where our chickens are either trying to dust bathe or dig to the center of the earth.

Rooster and the Holes

I see the patches of yard where grass will never again grow because they are high-traffic areas for those cute little chicken feet.

And it’s not like our chickens don’t have a ton of room. They have like ¾ of an acre fenced off with trees, a sand box, a beautiful, sturdy coop, two waterers that are refreshed every day. And there’s only 20 of them. They’re living the good chicken life. They are just a little destructive.

I love our chickens, but potential chicken mamas should know, you won’t be able to have anything nice. I keep hearing my mom’s voice saying “We can’t have ANYTHING nice around here.”

Now, I’m not saying I would have a beautiful garden like my neighbor’s garden, where surely the fairies live, if we didn’t have chickens, but I’m thinking we could do better.

This summer, my husband talked about building a flower garden in the middle of the chicken area to help fancy the place up.

I just laughed.

So, if you’re considering backyard chickens, just know they’re going to be a little destructive. You can’t let your chickens in your vegetable garden until all the plants are pretty big. Those chickens will dig up everything you plant and eat your green leafy veggies. They will tear up your flowers for sure and replace them with dust baths. And, for some reason, they will peck at your paint. They will peck and scratch and dig holes that you fall into when it’s dark and you have to walk through your yard. You will curse at your chickens for sure when you nearly break your ankle and fall to the ground.

And, just in case you don’t believe me, I’ve added photo evidence from other chicken mamas.

First, good luck decorating for Halloween…

chicken and pumpkins
Photo credit: Used with permission of user on chicken forum.
pumpkins on porch
Photo credit: Anna Powell

And your chickens will have to be involved in everything, and they really like to poop as well…

chicken under the hood
Because checking your oil has to involve a little chicken poop! Photo credit: Elise Michelle Allen

And chicken poop on your computer is always nice…

chicken and a computer
Photo credit: Abbey Lynn Prast

But you will love those little T-Rexes anyway. Because, in addition to tearing up your yard and making sure you don’t have anything nice, those chickens will steal your whole heart. And, when you have a chicken jump into your lap and give you a big chicken hug, you’ll forget all about those holes in your yard and your half-eaten pumpkins on your doorstep!

On Chickens: Are They the Gateway Farm Animal?

I’m just going to go ahead and answer the question of my title right away: The answer is yes. It’s my belief that chickens are, indeed, the gateway farm animal. Right now, all we have on our little backyard farm is chickens, but I’ve got goat fever in a big way. Goats are next.

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But it’s my chickens’ fault that I have a need to add to our farm animals, to add to my reasons that I will never, ever sleep late again as long as I live or have to shovel snow out of the chicken run and put down leaves saved from the fall so that the girls who are afraid of touching the snow will have a place to put their cute little feet. I know it’s going to snow again tomorrow, but those babies can’t stay cooped up all day!

But I enjoy every minute of it deep down. Our chickens have been amazing little animals that we let into our lives, and I’m so thankful for them.

Our chickens have been great layers and great friends. They give us breakfast, as well as loads of entertainment and joy. I even enjoy cleaning out their coop. I know it’s going to make their little days to have all that fresh straw to play in, and I lost my sense of smell, so I can’t even smell their poop. I was meant to be a farmer of some kind, right?

I’m not alone in my love for chickens. Backyard chickens are wildly popular in the United States as more Americans work to be more self sufficient and raise their own food. A recent study for the U.S. Department of Agriculture documented the popularity and attitudes toward keeping chickens and estimated a 400% growth in backyard coops in the next five years.

So, since it’s quite evident that chickens are awesome, it’s easy to see how one thing can lead to another, and the next thing you know, you’re thinking, “I wonder how tough it would be to raise goats, milk them, make goat cheese.” It’s well known among the chicken community that keeping backyard chickens leads to more and more and more chickens for many, but it also leads to ideas about different animals.

Before we got our backyard flock, I watched this video and thought surely this was an exaggeration. Nearly two years into raising chickens, I realize this video is exactly right. This woman knows the danger of keeping backyard chickens—you’re going to love them WAY too much.

Now, I want to go to goat school. I love goat milk. And we really need some bees one day. And maybe a pig. I think my husband is a little worried about me, but I’m thinking this is all a good thing. Well, maybe. I definitely have way more pictures of my chickens than my kids on my phone.

So what do you think? Are backyard chickens the gateway farm animal?