By Christy Swift
Photography by Charissa Greubel
Chickens are all the rage these days (or should I say “range”?). Whether it’s for self-reliance, farm-fresh eggs, teaching the kids responsibility, or just for fun, if you’re flocking onto the chicken bandwagon, here are the top things you need to know from some local chicken experts.
First things first. Different municipalities have different rules about whether or not you can have chickens, how many, and if you can have noisy roosters or must limit your flock to hens. Check your local ordinances and homeowner’s association rules for requirements before getting started.
Have a coop ready.
Wauchula mom Sierra Redding Prescott got a surprise when her three children each brought home two chicks, given to them by a friend. She used a Rubbermaid tote at first, but as the chicks grew, they had to build a proper coop. “We have a horse barn, and we turned one of the horse stalls into a coop. Then we bought what looks like a dog run off Amazon.” Chickens should have constant access to fresh, clean water and feed. Make sure they have shade from sun and rain and aren’t overcrowded. They also need grit (small stones or ground up oyster shells) to help them digest their food. You’ll need a heat lamp for chicks, even in the summer. Once they are laying, they’ll need nesting boxes—about one nesting box for every three to four hens.
Secure your chickens at night.
Your chickens can free range or peck around in their run during the day, but they must be secured at night to be safe from predators. “Raccoons, bobcats, and hawks are the biggest predators,” says Brittany Nickerson Thurlow, who runs Nickerson Cattle Company with her family in Zolfo Springs. She also runs a hatchery, selling eggs to buyers who want to grow their flocks. “Chickens like to be high up at night, so they need something to roost on. I use a bar or ladders in my coop. The door needs to be shut, and the coop needs to have good ventilation, especially in the summer, so they don’t get too hot.” If you’re able to have one, Brittany recommends keeping a rooster, who will protect his brood.
What do you want from your chickens? If you’re looking for big egg producers, Brittany says the Rhode Island Red produces up to 300 large eggs a year and the Leghorn (a white chicken with a red comb) is another good choice. For meat chickens, you’ll want the Cornish Cross. “That’s the bird you buy in the grocery store. It’s fast growing,” Brittany says. The Red Ranger is also an option, or, if you’re looking for a higher-end meat chicken, she recommends the Bresse: “Allegedly it’s the most delicious chicken in the world.” The Bresse is a good egg producer as well, making it a dual-purpose bird, as is the Turken (those are the ones with the naked necks). For show chickens, there’s a wide variety of options. Thirteen-year- old Paysleigh Pickle from Arcadia took home several awards at Agfest 2021 with her Bearded Belgian Mille Fleur D’Uccle cock, but her 4-H leader recommends larger breeds for showing, like Orpingtons, Brahma, or Cochins.
It’s not just about the eggs.
For a backyard situation, Brittany says most people want a combination of a nice-looking bird that also produces eggs and has a good personality. “Orpingtons are hardy and beautiful. They come in a variety of colors and have a good nature. The Wyandotte is pretty, and they are decent layers. They come in different varieties. The Silver Laced are black and white. Then there are the Blue Laced Reds. ‘Blue’ really means ‘gray’.” If you want an overly friendly chicken, she recommends the Speckled Sussex. “They are hardy and super personable, but also super annoying—they are all up in your business. I love it!” The Speckled Sussex have a deep rust color with white flecking and green intermixed. For chickens specifically for kids, Brittany recommends little Bantam breeds, like Silkies and Seramas: “The chickens are smaller and easier to handle. They’re docile, easy to keep up, and hardy.” Not all roosters are mean, but some can be, so if you’re combining kids and roosters, beware!
Or maybe it IS all about the eggs?
Sometimes it’s not egg quantity people are looking for, but color, and Brittany is one of those people. The Ameraucana and Cream Crested Legbar lay blue eggs, she explains. The Maran lays a dark brown egg. Olive eggers lay a green one. A mix of breeds can give you that coveted “rainbow” egg basket.
How young do you want them?
Another decision to make is what age to get your flock. You can obtain purebred eggs from places like Brittany’s hatchery, Stoner Lane Farm, via Facebook and incubate them yourself. Or you can buy already- hatched chicks from local feed stores or breeders. You can get pullets (young hens that aren’t laying yet) or mature hens. The younger you get them, the better opportunity for bonding with them, but the greater your chance of heartbreak because…
This is a lesson Sierra discovered the hard way (her husband actually called her the Chicken Grim Reaper). “We started out with six baby chicks and I lost one. My son was devastated. Then they got older and bigger and we were doing good and another one got sick. It went limp and wouldn’t get up,” she recalls. Chicks (and chickens for that matter) can die for a number of reasons, including worms, mites, and even just the heat. “Summer is the hardest time of year to raise birds,” Brittany says. “It’s hot and moist and they get a lot of respiratory issues. They’re also slower to lay in the heat.” “Keep them hydrated and out of the sun,” Paysleigh suggests. “Once poultry gets sick it’s often too far gone to save them.”
Keep costs down by offering scraps.
Chickens need their feed, but they also love kitchen scraps! There are a few things they shouldn’t eat (like avocado, dry beans, and onions), but they’ll love your soggy old grapes and vegetables and your watermelon rinds. If it’s hot, fill a pie pan with scraps and a little water and freeze it for a chicken “popsicle” that will also keep them cool. They also like corn and mealworms for treats.
Clean the coop.
Unfortunately chickens are not a “set and forget” pet. You don’t have to keep it spotless, but you can stave off disease by keeping their coop clean. Use a wire brush or paint scraper to get rid of dried chicken poop. Keep their nesting boxes full of fresh hay or bedding and sprinkle diatomaceous earth on everything to ward off insects, especially mites. If you do get a mite infestation, treat it promptly with an insecticide recommended for chickens (Brittany and Paysleigh use Adams brand). Be sure to follow the instructions on the label and pay attention to egg withdrawal periods so you know when it’s safe to consume eggs again.
Give them a “dust bath.”
Chickens can help keep themselves clean and mite-free if you give them an area to dust bathe. A small area filled with a combination of sand, wood ash, and diatomaceous earth is all you need. Sometimes the chickens will actually make a dust bath themselves, and you can throw in a handful of diatomaceous earth to complete it.
Don’t wash eggs.
Eggs have a natural barrier on the outside, but once they get wet, they can absorb bacteria, Brittany warns. Pick them up every day (every three days minimum) or embryos might develop if you have a rooster. You can keep unwashed eggs on the counter for two weeks. If eggs are dirty and n
Quarantine new flockmates.
If you bring new chickens into your flock, keep them separated for at least a week in case they are sick or show signs of parasites. Sometimes bringing new “girls” in can cause strife (it’s not called a “pecking order” for nothing). If you can keep the newcomers in a pen where all the chickens can see one another during quarantine, it will help them get used to each other before they co-mingle.
That first egg can be hard.
If your young hen suddenly becomes limp and lays down, but still has her eyes open and doesn’t appear ill, Brittany says she might be egg-bound. “Sometimes when she’s a new mama, her body is figuring out what’s going on, and an egg gets stuck somewhere in her reproductive system.” Brittany advises that you soak the hen in a warm, Epsom salt bath, then put her in a cage by herself. Usually she’ll lay the egg within four to five hours.
Soft shells need calcium.
If eggs are soft or the shells are weak or translucent, it means the hens need more calcium. “Put out a bowl of oyster shells,” Brittany recommends. “They have them at the feed store. They’ll eat it as they need it or you can start offering it to them as soon as they start laying.”
Feather loss can mean they are protein-deficient.
If you see your birds starting to lose their feathers, Brittany says it’s usually one of two things. “Either it’s molting season—once a year they lose their feathers and new ones come in. Or they’re protein deficient. Get them black oil sunflower seeds or feed them raw eggs.” It may sound awfully close to cannibalism, but Brittany stands by the practice. “I crack it in there and they love it. They fight for it!”
For more tips on raising chickens, join a local chicken community on social media. Happy flocking!