Ahhh, the chickens.
If you're looking for the best and most perfect way to be a chicken keeper, I suggest you Google it.
If you're looking for a narration of the personal experience of a very inexperienced wannabe country girl, then read on! You're in luck!
Let me firstly say, I went into chicken-keeping with some pretty idealistic expectations. We bought our first flock? grouping? gaggle? herd? of chicks from a somewhat eccentric farmer lady out in the middle of nowhere in Eastern Oklahoma. We thought her rogue-ness made her legit, so, from her we purchased our coop and our chicks. She said she was very much opposed to "sexling", which basically means she would not guarantee the gender of the chicks she was giving us. Meaning, there could be some roosters amongst the hens. We nodded as though we understood perfectly what she was alluding to, and headed home with a coop in the bed of our truck and a box full of chicks in Cub's lap.
First lesson learned: You don't have to purchase chicks from a rogue farmer lady. While the experience may seem more ... organic? authentic? we ended up getting a few roosters in the mix. Our subsequent chick purchases have come with a hen-only guarantee, once from a farmer and once from Southern Agriculture (a farm store). I suggest going that route, unless you want roosters. We did not want a rooster. The rooster we had was a bit of a rogue himself, and, after attacking Naomi last summer, Dadda took him behind the shed and, uh, handled it.
Hens will lay eggs without a rooster. They are simply unfertilized. If you just want eggs, stick with hens. If you want the whole experience and appreciate the usefulness of a rooster, whatever that may be, get a rooster. However, a rooster is not necessary to, um, warm the hens up to the idea of laying eggs (turning them on? gross?).
Tossing a few golf balls in the nesting boxes works just fine.
Please note that I have hinted at the fact that we've gone through a few sets of chickens. This brings me to my second lesson learned: Free range means free range. Sometimes the range is sweet, sometimes the range is unforgiving.
In my mind, I imagined my hens (and, uh, rogue rooster) running through the yard in sunshine-y bliss, soaking up Vitamin D, appreciating the vastness of the land at their feet, relishing in the beauty of their freedom! FREEDOM!
What I did not imagine were the slew of skunks and chicken hawks that were also relishing in that freedom.
We had a pretty bad massacre with our first go-round of chickens. This happened because I forgot to close the coop one night. We let the chickens out during the day and they always returned to the coop at night. One night, a skunk got hungry. And the next day, I cried for three hours while my husband had to collect what was left of the chickens, strewn about the yard. All that survived was the rooster. After the time of mourning had come to an end, we purchased our next load of chickens.
And every night, like a good farmer/country girl/whatever, I locked the coop.
And every single one of those chickens got eaten or taken away by a chicken hawk.
After, of course, they pooped all over my patio furniture.
Is free-range bad? No. But, you have to approach it realistically. I live in the country, in Oklahoma. That means there are not a lot of trees and there is lots and LOTS of sky. Wide open sky. Wide open fields. Chicken hawks with wide open beaks. Freedom on the range can come with a bit of a cost, whether it be loss of life or desecration of beloved patio furniture. A lot of our neighbors have chickens. Some roam around freely, others are in a pen or coop. Our next-door neighbor recently lost all of his to a chicken hawk. Location, location, location, apparently.
We were, once again, chicken-less. Until a few months ago. We purchased our current collection of hens from Southern Agriculture and brought them home. We think we've maybe figured it out by now.
The chicks lived under a heat lamp in a large tupperware bin for the first several weeks of their lives. We filled the bin with shavings and kept it in our laundry room. Keeping George the Cat out of the laundry room was quite an eventful task. We checked their food and water every day and changed out their shavings every few days.
Once the chicks began to sporadically grow feathers and reached what we lovingly referred to as their "awkward adolescence" (read: UGLY) phase, we moved them into the coop. With their tupperware and their heat lamp. The nights were still chilly and the heat lamp was necessary to keep their body temperature warm. We kept a thermometer in the bin and made sure it stayed around 80 degrees. But, let's be honest: The stench seeping from the laundry room was the biggest indicator it was time for them to go outside.
Third lesson learned: Chickens stink. They STINK. Our acreage allows for the smell to waft away, but if you plan on keeping chickens in a smaller yard or condensed space, you have been warned. They smell.
It was when the chickens were moved to the coop that Cub came up with names for them: Mama, Dadda, Caleb, Naomi, and Lydia. Five hens with fantastic names, I'd say.
This is our coop. There are a few things I would like for you to notice. One: The grassy area underneath the coop. Surrounded by heavy-duty chicken wire, this little yard allows for adequate grass and bug time. Two: The wheels. This coop is mobile. Every few days, we roll it to a new place in the yard. The chickens get fresh grass and we get a fertilized yard. The second floor of the coop contains their feeding trough, nesting boxes, and the shelf where they roost at night.
For now, the chickens stay in the coop. But, we know the heat of summer isn't too far away, and we're brainstorming a way for the chickens to get more fresh air than just their little pen. But honestly, this will basically require building an immobile coop with a chicken wire roof. We have some plans and if they come to fruition, I'll let you know.
There you have it! I hope this was somewhat helpful. :)
Have a lovely day!