Events, features and things to do for families in New Hampshire
By Wendy Thomas
One of the best things I've ever done for my family was to get chickens. Originally we got our chicks as a summer experiment, something to keep the kids busy, a “we'll see if this works out” sort of project. But here we are three years later with a flock of 35 layers living in our backyard and we wouldn't have it any other way.
How's this for a stupid pet trick? Mine can provide me breakfast. That's right. With our flock, in the summer months when they are most productive we can get up to two dozen eggs a day. When you use the eggs for meals and snacks that makes quite a dent in the weekly food budget.
And if you haven't tasted a fresh egg from a bird fed from healthy kitchen scraps and non-medicated feed, you truly don't know what you are missing. There is nothing better than going out to the hen house and picking up a newly laid egg for a noontime meal. Even the kids have learned that they can always prepare a snack if there is an egg handy and all know how to scramble an egg (sharp cheese, onions, and cracked pepper are a must.)
As people start questioning the nutritional content of the food they are eating, they are starting to see having backyard chickens as a sensible way to get clean food. People are realizing that with very little effort, they can raise a few chickens which will keep them in a constant supply of healthy and nutritious eggs for years to come.
First you have to get chicks. In New Hampshire, if you buy chicks from a feed store you need to buy at least 12 at a time. That's a lot for a beginning flock. I usually suggest that people start off with three to four birds. With a flock that size, you'll get two to three eggs a day. If you want to buy your chicks at a store, put a post on Facebook or put an ad on a local bulletin board to see if anyone is interested in going in on a batch with you. (Editor’s note: It may be a good idea to check with your town, especially in more urban communities, to make sure you live in a part of town where raising chickens won’t be a problem.)
When purchasing chicks, you can either buy them from a straight run or from a sex-linked batch. A straight run is where you get what you get, and you will probably end up with a rooster (cockerel) or two. If you have enough land, are planning on breeding your birds or plan on harvesting them at around five months old, this may not be a problem. Contrary to what some people think, you do not need to have a rooster to get eggs from your chickens.
Those of us, however, with close neighbors and who only want our chickens for their eggs want the pullets (young females.) Sex-linked chicks are those who have been bred so that the males are one color (and therefore destroyed at birth) and the females are another. These birds (like Golden Comets and Black Sex-linked) are usually hardy birds designed to be good layers. They are a good breed to test the chicken waters with.
Caring for the chicks
Chicks need to be kept warm for the first few weeks, which means they will probably be kept in the house or in a heated garage. We keep ours in a large plastic storage bin in our mudroom. Use (non-treated) wood chips for the bedding. You'll also need to keep a heat source in one corner of the bin so that the chicks can go to it if cool and move away when warm – a 60 watt bulb in a wire cage holder works fine. Along with the heater, you'll also need a feeder and a waterer. You can buy small plastic versions at your local feed store.
For the first five weeks, feed your chicks medicated mash for illness protection; once they are over the five-week mark, you can switch to a non-medicated feed. Chicks are messy eaters and much of the food will be thrown around. Be prepared to refresh their food several times a day and change the bedding as needed (it will get water soaked and as the chicks grow, it will get covered in lots of poop.)
The chicks will not be ready to go outside until they are fully feathered, which means that the baby down they had on their bodies has been replaced with feathers. Once outside, your chicks will need to be housed in a secure chicken coop. Our coop has a fully enclosed yard and a house in which the birds get locked into each night. Some people like to let their chickens free range during the day but at night all of your birds will need to be in a secured house. One fox can decimate an entire unprotected flock in just one evening.
When hens are about six months old, they will start laying eggs (this means the chicks you get this summer will start laying around October/November.) When your hens have begun laying, you'll need to add calcium to their feed. We mix 5 pounds of crushed oyster shell in with their regular feed, which is augmented by all of our kitchen scraps except for onion and garlic waste.
Other than food and fresh water, a mature flock requires very little care. Some of our birds are quite tame and like to come out to play, but others who are more timid prefer to remain in confines of the coop. Although setting up a flock requires a bit of time and money (mostly to build a secure coop) the benefits of having a constant supply of fresh eggs and of having a chicken peck at your back door to say hello can outweigh any and all costs.
For more information on chickens check out:
Wendy Thomas lives in Merrimack with her husband and six children, and has been published in various regional magazines and newspapers. Check out her blog, Simple Thrift-Creative Living on Less, at http://simplethrift.wordpress.com.
Last updated by Parenting NH Administrator Mar 30, 2012.