No farm of any size is really complete without a bunch of chickens running around messing everything up, and ours is no exception. Having never kept chickens, the entire experience has been a new one for us. Before we could get the actual birds, we had to have a place for them to live. Since we only have two acres and no real barn or coop, we had to get creative. The only possibility was the tractor shed. It’s about 50 feet from the main house, open on the bottom and front, with no door. It looked like this:
Dave set to work on turning it into a functional coop. He added chicken wire along the bottom, installed shelves with individual compartments for sitting, and added timber for roosts.
He also added a window on the opposite wall so that the chickens could really benefit from the southern exposure and get more sunlight each day.
He installed two large wooden doors at the main entrance. We lined the compartments with hay for warmth and to give the birds a place to lay.
Lastly, and most importantly, Tatum made a sign that we hung over the doorway. When it was completed, it looked like this:
As for the birds themselves, we decided to start simply with a flock of established hens that were already laying, and then expand from there.
We found someone in a nearby town selling 16-month-old Rhode Island Reds for $2 each. We thought this seemed like a surprisingly low figure and drove out to investigate.
Once there, we had our answer. These birds had been slated for factory farm use. They’d even had their beaks cut! We almost left right then and there, but realized that by taking some of these birds, we’d be offering them a chance at a better life. It seemed irresponsible NOT to take them. We took 12 and drove home. Here they are in the back seat of the car :
The birds settled in easily in their new digs. For the first couple of nights, we chased them around in order to put them away at night. On the third or fourth night, we were out later than usual and when we got back they had all put themselves in! So, needless to say, we let them do THAT part of the job now.
Within a day or so, we started collecting eggs. We could tell immediately from the quality of the eggs that these birds had not been raised on organic feed. The yolks were pale and the white-to-yolk ratio was too much white and not enough yolk. We quickly set to remedy that! We have fed these birds only organic pellets and organic, locally-grown cracked corn. We’ve let them have some of our compost both from home and from applewood but, more than anything, we have let them roam freely around our two-acre farm (and our neighbors’ land) from around noon until dark each day. Within three weeks we saw their feathers become more luminous and brightly colored and the eggs were completely transformed! We now have a wonderful yolk-to-white ratio and the yolks themselves are bright yellow-orange. Totally delicious!
But, of course, we couldn’t stop there. Within a couple days of getting the Rhode Island Reds, we were off to Greene County to buy two Black Copper Marans from a friend of a friend. These birds are highly prized for their dark chocolate-brown eggs. Also, they happen to be quite beautiful. The woman who sold them to us wasn’t sure of their sex, but felt that at least one of them was a rooster. They are two weeks apart in age, and when we got them, they were four and six weeks old and looked a bit silly:
We kept them separated from the rest of the flock until they were much bigger and could protect themselves. Once they were big enough, they ventured bravely out and have been a beautiful addition to the flock. It took ages to determine the genders, but (sadly) they both are roosters. The older one has started crowing in the morning and has developed a full comb and wattle, as well as brilliantly colored feathers. The younger one is developing more slowly, but is hot on the bigger one’s heels. Because having two roosters in a flock can not only be noisy, but also engender aggressive behavior, we are most likely going to look for someone to buy one of the two from us. Maybe we can trade for a Black Copper Maran hen… Fingers crossed! Here’s what they look like today:
You would think that we’d be happy with 14 chickens, right? Wrong! Next, we found an incredibly beautiful Golden Laced Cochin for sale. She was already four months old when we got her, so we were able to integrate her right away. We named her “Favorite Hen” because Laura immediately favored her over all the others. If we had it do over again, we would’ve gotten two Cochins at the same time so that Favorite Hen would have a partner throughout the day. The other birds tend to pick on her a bit and she spends a lot of her time hiding in the goldenrod. She’s timid, but when we are able to pick her up and pet her, she is downright snuggly (and incredibly soft)! Here’s Tatum snuggling with Favorite Hen:
Finally, we took a day trip to the Mohawk Valley Poultry Swap with our friend, Jesse. Tatum wanted to go so that she could get a bunny; we wanted to go to see if we could find a Cochin friend for Favorite Hen. Within minutes, Tatum found an adorable Dutch bunny that was half black and half white, which she appropriately named “Cookie.” Within minutes of finding the bunny, Laura found the Cochins she’d been looking for. The only issue was that instead of the Cochins being around the same age as Favorite Hen, they were only a week and a half old! Irresistible. They are a different kind of Cochin as well. These two are Bantam Splash Cochins. Here’s Jesse and Tatum, with Cookie and one of the new chicks on the ride home:
The chicks lived in our house under a heat light for a couple of weeks while their feathers came in. Once they were starting to feather, Dave built a portable chicken tractor for them. This allows them to be outside and have the opportunity to scratch and peck, without endangering them (from other chickens, the dog, the cat, hawks, etc.). The tractor might have been our first real mistake, however. One of the chicks got very sick one day. She was droopy and lethargic and we were sure she was going to die. We read everything we could about what might have happened and learned that she likely got something called coccidiosis. It’s fairly common in chicks, especially when they are exposed to a larger flock. While we had them protected in the tractor, we didn’t realize that just the proximity to the rest of the flock could be potentially harmful. Also, while we were washing our hands after handling them, we hadn’t been conscious of washing our hands BEFORE handling them. So, we were doing a couple of things wrong.
Happily, we were successful in nursing her back to health and they are both really thriving today. Once they were both fully feathered, we moved them in with the flock for good. They are still very small, so they are now using the crate within the coop that the roosters used before them. They hang out in the portable chicken tractor every day and really seem to be thriving. Yay chickens!