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Getting Started With Chickens: Things to Consider

People across the country are resurrecting an old pastime- keeping chickens.  I myself have taken the plunge after years of thinking about it, and I can tell you now from experience that it is a worthwhile endeavor.  Not only will you be rewarded for your (minimal, usually) efforts with eggs and/or meat- you will also get the satisfaction of knowing where your food comes from (plus what went into it and how it was treated), a sense of fulfillment from producing something substantial, and free entertainment.

I can't even tell you why, but I love to watch my chickens.  They're attractive animals, but no more so than cows or hippos.  They're friendly if treated well and handled regularly, but are nowhere near as affectionate or loyal as dogs.  But I find myself several times during the day lingering in the chicken yard, seated on my chicken chair (an old rusty folding chair I found in the shed and spray painted yellow), watching my three and five week old laying hens and my three roosters (ah, the roosters...) scratch and peck and flap and run and jump around the yard.  Perhaps I simply enjoy finally having the chance to sit and enjoy my handywork, after a pretty hardcore five days of construction (plus two additional on the chicken tractor, but more on that later).

Have you ever thought of keeping chickens?  Starting something new, particularly if you don't know anyone else who can guide you, can be scary.  I'm not even completely new to chickens- my parents made a few endeavors into poultry when I was younger, and when I was a teen I did a project for 4-H called "the Broiler Project," where I was to raise 25 broilers from chicks and bring the best three to the fair.  But even for me taking this plunge on my own was scary and intimidating.  But I can tell you the entire experience, from fixing up the shed I converted into a coop, to rearing the fragile looking little chicks (the first seven of whom spent three weeks in my dining room in a dog crate), to building the fortress, I mean yard, has been rewarding and was well worth the fear, anxiety, blisters, and cuts (if I never see another piece of welded wire, hardware cloth, or poultry netting again, I will be thrilled).

How do you know it is right for you, though?  Even if you are frugal, getting started with chickens can get expensive and you don't want to spend a bunch of money getting started just to find out it's not for you.  So, as I was tamping posts and hammering in fence staples I came up with a list of things you should know and consider before taking the plunge.  But I am no poultry expert, so I would also encourage you to do some further research.

The first thing you should give thought to is WHY you want to raise chickens.  If your first reason has anything to do with saving money, stop now and reassess your motivation.  You will get high quality eggs/meat for near or possibly below what you would pay at a grocery store, IF you only take into consideration the feed and the chickens themselves (and any other expenses for supplies, supplies being things that have to be replenished over time, like medicine, bedding, grit, etc), but the cost for the materials to get started means that you won't be saving money at first, you will be spending.  However, the pricey parts of such a project, if constructed properly, will last you 20 or more years.  If you are okay with spending in the first months, your rewards later will be great.

If, however, you want to get in touch with where your food comes from, you want to know that your meat and/or eggs is humanely treated, want a rewarding experience, want to be more sustainable... I could probably think of more good reasons to keep chickens, because there are many good ones... then proceed.  But I warn you, keeping chickens is not for the chronic procrastinator (a demon I fight myself...).

Next you must consider what you want to get out of the project.  Do you want chickens for meat?  Do you want a flock of layers?  Do you want three or four bantam hens in your urban backyard (because more and more urban areas are allowing chickens!  Check this list, which is by no means exhaustive, and if you don't see your city on the list call your town hall or check your city's website).  There are different considerations for the type and number of chickens you want, so think of what you would want ideally (and check restrictions in your area, which may limit the number you can have), then move on to...

What kind of space do you have available?  Do you have a building on your property that could be used for housing?  Will you have to build/buy a coop?  If you want to keep Cornish Cross broilers (the typically raised chicken for meat) you could keep two "crops" of 10-25 each year (one is spring and one in fall) in a relatively small and cheap tractor, assuming you have enough yard to move the tractor daily.  Housing for meat chickens is cheaper to build because they require less space and doesn't have to be as weather proofed, since you don't keep them over winter (more on meaties in a later, post, so stay tuned if you're interested!).  A laying flock or non-broiler meat chickens require more space and a more "serious" coop, especially if you have cold winters... and obviously your climate affects the housing.

And further, will you/can you free range, or will you build an enclosure?  What are the common predators in your area, and how can you guard against them?  If you're building an enclosure, what type and what materials will you use?

What will your chickens eat?  Will you mix the feed for them, use commercial feed, or a mixture of both?  Organic or conventional?  Where will you buy the feed?

And the truly hard questions, at least for bleeding hearts like me- how will you handle it if a predator or an illness kills one of your chickens?  If one is sick or injured beyond treatment, will you be able to put it out of it's misery?  Do you have a vet near you who will treat chickens?  If you're raising meaties will you process them yourself, or is there someone near you who does it?  These questions gave me more pause than any other consideration, but remember that (in 99% of cases) these are rare occurrences- it's helpful to be aware of a few of the things that could go wrong a) so you can help prevent them, and b) so you can be prepared to deal with them, but don't get bogged down with worry.  Bad things can happen (and likely will eventually), but they don't happen all the time. 

Yes, as you can see getting chickens (like getting any animal) is similar to having a baby- there are lots of important decisions to make and it can seem overwhelming.  But as with anything that seems this way, when you actually do it and take things one decision at a time it's much more doable.

So stay tuned as I give more info and my own (limited) experience on getting started with chickens.

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