Homestead chickens: Lessons learned (Part 1)

Winter chickensWhen my wife Moira and I decided to raise homestead chickens we already had a fair amount of working knowledge. Building on a foundation of experience stemming from keeping backyard chickens for the last few years, we made the next step to raising a full on homestead chicken flock last year. That ‘step’ actually turned out to be a leap.

We learned quite a few lessons during the transition from backyard chicken hobbyists to homestead chicken farmers. Factors such as flock health, care and security all increase comparatively when the numbers of birds climb northward.

Add the fact that our Maine homestead is in a remote area of the central highlands, issues such as weather and predators also played a significant role. Here is the first installment of a three part series on what we learned and how we adjusted.

Pets or poultry

20161103_130125By far, the biggest difference in raising poultry in a homestead setting for meat and eggs versus keeping a backyard chicken flock is getting used to the idea that these birds are not pets. Backyard chickens frequently end up with names, endearing them to us much the same as our indoor pets.

In a backyard flock that isn’t an issue as most backyard birds are treated as pets and unlikely to see the business end of the butcher knife any time soon; the eggs are mostly a byproduct of keeping a small flock.

In a homestead flock however, the intended purpose is food and sustainability. These birds are raised to feed us and developing too much of an attachment can cause a lot of emotional strain at processing time. While that is bound to happen to some extent, keeping the birds anonymous helps.

The compromise we found was to name the roosters solely for identification purposes – they usually get culled first to keep the hen to rooster ratio correct. The hens all get named ‘George’ in a nod to former heavyweight champion George Foreman naming all of his sons after himself.

It may sound corny, but it works for us.

Interaction and stimulation

Chickens get bored; keeping them active and stimulated helps to keep fighting and pecking to a minimum. While you can never eliminate all chicken shenanigans, keeping them busy ensures that the only pecking is the natural type to establish the ‘pecking order’.

I throw a few intact hay bales around the run every month or so and let the birds have at them. They waste no time in jumping on them, tearing them apart and spreading the hay about the run area. This provides exercise while keeping the mud, snow and ice covered and reinforces their foraging instincts – especially during the winter months when grass and soft earth are hard to come by.

20160721_185420Interacting with the birds as chicks and later as pullets makes for easier handling as the birds mature into roosters and hens. Chickens spook easily. Moving stubborn hens on or off roosts, broody birds off of nests or snatching up excess roosters all get easier when the birds are used to human interaction.

Regular proximity to the flock also means the occasional peck or bite. After a George took a swipe at my wedding ring while I was filling the feeders, I learned to wear gloves every time I enter the coop or run at feeding time. The Georges also like to peck at boot eyelets and absolutely love to make sport of untying Moira’s shoes for her.

Our alpha rooster jumps up on a sawhorse roost when I fill the feeders to watch his hens and lookout for their safety while they eat. He likes to snatch my shirt back once in a while with his beak if I hang around longer than his liking. We’ll talk more about roosters later.

Water and feed

Chickens drink a lot of water. A backyard flock of six to eight hens or so can get by with the water fonts typically sold at your local hardware store. When you keep a homestead flock of 60 birds though, you need to start thinking in terms of gallons.

Through trial and error I have learned some basic must do’s when it comes to watering poultry. First, you have to get the water off the ground. Chickens will find a way to knock it over, roost on it, poop in it or fill it with bedding if you do not.

20161215_120932My solution was to make my own waterers out of five gallon buckets and commercially produced chicken nipples. I use four nipples per bucket, making water stations capable of handling 16 – 20 birds each. These buckets get hung by sections of chain with an s-hook attached from a bracket mounted to the outside of the hen house.

Second, keep the water out of the coop. Keeping the water outside may seem counter-intuitive, especially in winter, but the benefits outweigh the cons. Chickens will fly into and try to roost onto hanging waterers inside the coop and the result is a soaking wet floor, contaminated water or no water at all. It is imperative for flock health to keep the coop dry but chickens don’t know that.

I also use a bucket de-icer with a built in thermostat to keep the water from freezing during the winter and swap out buckets daily to keep the water fresh.

Laying hens eat a lot of feed. They expend a lot of energy and nutrients making eggs. While we supplement them with leftovers and garden scraps, they still need a feed that will provide the right amounts of calcium, protein and other ingredients to maintain regular egg production.

20161215_121254A homestead flock of sixty birds can easily devour 150 lbs. of feed a week. That was a huge eye opener. We mix in lower cost cracked corn and scratch grains with regular layer feed to stretch out the amount of higher cost laying hen feed we use per week. It works very well and the corn gives the hens a boost in energy during the frigid winter months. Of note, our hens prefer the mix over straight feed and lay at full strength all winter long.

Next week in Part 2, I’ll talk about flock safety and predators; our losses to coyotes, foxes and a near miss with a black bear coming out of hibernation hungry for chicken. I’ll also discuss roosters, how many to keep and eggs – lots and lots of eggs.

John Floyd

About John Floyd

John is a Registered Maine Guide, an NRA Certified Instructor and an NRA Certified Range Safety Officer. He is a former Staff Sergeant in the U.S. Army and was honorably discharged after an 8 year career in 2003. John is the owner of Tucker Ridge Outdoors in Webster Plantation, Maine.