Chickens are probably the most popular animals on the small farm since they produce both meat and eggs and contribute valuable manure to the compost pile. Raising chickens can be especially economical if you can raise your own grain for feeding; and if allowed enough room and access to range they seldom sicken or have the diseases that plague commercial poultry-raisers who keep thousands of birds in close confinement.
In general, you can buy egg breeds, meat breeds and what art called general-purpose breeds. This means that the bird produces a fair number of eggs per year and also possesses a good configuration for meat production-large size, a broad breast and rapid growth.
Rhode Island Reds, and White, Barred and Plymouth Rocks are popular general-purpose breeds for the homestead. They are good layers, producing large brown eggs. Other breeds, such as Cochins/Light Brahmas and especially Araucanas, are popular because they are good setters. These birds also tend to be seasonal layers, so you will get a large egg production in spring which will slacken off as the days get shorter and the weather gets colder.
For most efficient egg production, buy White Leghorns or Leghorn crosses. These are the breeds used by professional poultry men. Since they are bred-for laying, cost per dozen eggs is low but leghorns make poor meat birds. Any chicks will have to be purchased or raised from fertile eggs in an incubator or under a banty that will set them.
For meat production, Cornish and Cornish crosses are best. They reach a large size quickly, have white breasts, yellow skin and white pin-feathers which make them a good market bird. Egg production is low, however, and since they eat more, cost per dozen eggs is high.
There are numerous other fancy and unique breeds which you might like to try on your farm. You can also buy banties or ban-tams in many breeds. These are miniature chickens, bred for small size from larger species. They are popular on the homestead because they are good insect-catchers, don’t take up much room and are fierce setters who will even set eggs from non-broody hens.
You can usually find a local hatchery that stocks White Leghorns and perhaps some other breeds and will sell you a few chicks. Although you can occasionally buy pullet and cockerel trios (two pullets and a cock) of more exotic breeds from local poultry fanciers, the widest selection can be found in catalogs of mail-order poultry houses. Addresses of these concerns are available from most farm and poultry magazines.
Probably the best way to start is with day-old chicks, bought mail-order or locally. Chicks are sold in either straight-run or sexed batches. Straight-run means that you take your chances on how many pullets versus cockerels you will be sent; but remember that you can always slaughter extra cocks or pullets at the end of the summer when you select your layers and breeders for the next season.
The area for starting chicks should have 1/2 square foot of space per bird. It should be deeply littered—use a litter that will not raise a dust, such as peanut hulls, ground corncobs or peat moss. Straw is not a good litter for chicks. Cover the litter with newspaper for a few days; if you don’t, the chicks will eat it.
A heat lamp should provide warmth for the chicks; the temperature two inches and floor should be 95°F. (35°C.). Temperature can be regulated by raising and lowering the light. Provide a circular enclosure for chicks; they will pile up in the corners of a rectangular structure and smother if frightened.
Provide starter mash in small feeders, allowing one-inch-per-chick feeding space. Keep feeders constantly three-fourths full. A constant supply of fresh water is a must; plastic waterers screwed on regular fruit jars are sufficient. Provide two one-gallon waterers for seven chicks.
When the chicks arrive, dip the beaks of each into the water and put them in the closure. Make sure they are all in good condition—hatcheries have different procedures for reporting losses and provide extra chicks to cover deaths en route.
Feeders and waterers should be wavier daily. After the first few days, remove newspaper from the litter. A small night-light of 15 watts should be provided. Reduce the heat in the enclosure 5° F. (2.78° C.) each week until it reaches the outside temperature.
After a month, your chicks are ready move to larger quarters. Allow 3/4 square of space per bird. A five-gallon waterer for each 100 chicks and three inches of feeding space per bird are necessary. Birds can feed a commercial or home compounded or growing mash at this time.
Most books on chickens list many diseases to which the birds are prone. However, allowing plenty of room in the chicken house and access to range keeps chickens pretty healthy.
One problem you may encounter is cannibalism. This can be due to many causes—crowding, too much heat or light, boredom, bad diet. Cannibalism starts when one bird picks another and draws blood, usually in the vent region; the whole flock may join in and kill the affected bird. Some chickens are sold debeaked to prevent cannibalism, and pine tar rubbed on the affected area as soon as signs of cannibalism appear is quite effective. If you allow your chickens to range and give them plenty of room, many causes of the problem disappear.
Other diseases are common to other forms of poultry as well.
Your flock can be managed so that unwanted hens and roosters can be slaughtered for specific purposes. Medium heavy birds can be killed for fryers at eight to ten weeks, broilers at 12 weeks, roasters at six months. Older birds are used for stews or soups.
There are a number of ways to kill chickens. You can use an axe, chop off the chicken head, and allow it to run around or thrum about under a bushel basket until it has bled death. A method that uses fewer bushel baskets is recommended to those who plan on picking their birds. Hang the chicken upside down by a cord attached to its legs. With a thin knife, slash the jugular vein at the site of the head just on top of the neck. Insert in blade into the mouth and thrust through the roof of the mouth to pierce the brain located in the back of the head. This method loosens the feathers on the bird and makes them easier to pick.
Didn’t find what you were looking for? Try <a href=”http://www.poultry.allotment.org.uk”>Poultry Pages</a>