A Newbie’s Perspective on Raising Chickens by Adventane, in Northern Virginia

More than fifteen years ago my wife and I began collecting a year’s supply of food.  Once we’d collected almost 20 cases of food in #10 cans, we pretty much let the matter slip from our thoughts.  It wasn’t until about six years ago that we began to realize that we didn’t really know what we had, or how long it might last.  That led us to thinking about what else we needed, and eventually we stepped with full intent into the prepping mindset.  We recently moved out of the urban shadow of a major US metropolis and into a small ‘Mayberry’-type town.  We found new friends, one of whom has a flock of about half a dozen laying hens.  After hearing his occasional story and anecdote over the months, my wife got it into her head that we needed to also do something like that.

Now whatever the reader might think of me or my masculinity for bowing to my wife’s wishes in such a crazy idea, let me only say that you haven’t known her for as long as I have, and one of the most important things I’ve learned is that she can be truly inspired by God.

At first I moved slowly.  We don’t have the land for raising flocks of chickens, and I don’t know yet if it’s even permitted in our town.  However, I did some reading and some internet searches and learned a few things.  While I was doing that she was actually working on the project.  She spoke frequently with friends about our/her plans until she found a nearby family that had the land and might just be persuaded to join in her reckless scheme.

We met to discuss the matter, sharing what little we all knew, and honestly, some of it was laughable.  But not letting ignorance stand in the way of progress, the two wives decided to go ahead and order a small flock.  Then they told us husbands that we’d better get moving on putting together a coop and a protected yard.  Not much can motivate a man more than the concern of disappointing his beloved, so we men-folk got started.  So here are the details of our joint effort, and some lessons learned.  (Full disclosure; I have no financial interest in any products or businesses that I may name, and will receive no compensation for any positive reviews.)
Our Girls, The Hens

Our wives ordered a flock of a dozen Sussex hens.  They are a reliable laying breed with good cold weather resistance, and this was useful, as we can have snow on the ground for about half of the winter days each year.  They were shipped together and were a month or two short of their standard laying age when they arrived, but I understand that gives them a little time to finish maturing and to become acclimated to their new home.  They are docile birds, (ours are brown in color,) and tend to greet us when we enter their yard, sometimes following us and pecking gently at shoelaces or socks.  They are still nervous at being picked up, but rarely struggle when I do it.  I’ve been told that our friends’ children can pick them up and sometimes even cradle them on their backs without the girls getting frantic.

They lay brown eggs.  The first ones laid were small, slightly larger than golf balls, but now they are all normal in size.  A few are double yolks, but this is rare.  They do have a slightly stronger flavor than store-bought eggs, but not as strong as the wild goose eggs that I’ve sometimes found in this area.

When they arrived we saw that they had all undergone de-beaking, or beak trimming.  This has become a common practice with laying hens, as it removes about 20 or 30% off the tip of the beak.  This reduces the severity of any injury if pecking occurs within the flock.  This hopefully prevents the hens from eventually descending into cannibalism.  The job done on our girls’ beaks appeared to have been a little rough, but I’ve seen no evidence that it causes them any current discomfort.  When they’ve taken food from my hand it’s felt like tapping my palm firmly with an index finger.  A sharp beak would probably have felt more like getting poked with a pencil point.  That is only supposition, however.  I cannot offer more of an opinion either for or against the process of de-beaking in domestic fowl.

Our friends’ oldest son takes care of most of the daily feeding and watering.  My wife and I come by when our schedules permit, which averages 30 to 60 minutes twice a week.  We try to let the girls out to scratch in the field.  The daily care is done mostly by them, but we help out where we can.  Let’s be honest; a 12 year old boy probably has a lot of other things he’d rather do than farming chores, so it’s only fair that we help out without complaining.
Their Shelter

Our partner was able to collect scrap lumber from his job and used that to build the coop.  It measures about 6 feet square with a 7 foot ceiling.  A single light bulb is always on, as we understand it helps the girls in the laying process if their day isn’t too short.  I expect we’ll turn it off in the summer time.   There are enough laying boxes for each of the girls to have their own, but we’ve seen that they tend to share.  We’ll frequently find three eggs in one box and four in another, indicating that they aren’t territorial.  They like to clump them together.  There are three horizontal perching rods inside, each about 3 feet long, for them to sleep on at night.  Access is via one  door for us and two for the girls.  Two are recommended in case one of the girls tries to block one in a dominance display.  The coop itself was built on stilts.  This provides protection from rodents that would otherwise nest under the floor, and it also tends to keep smaller children from climbing up inside without  adult supervision, as the first step is about 24 inches.  This entire structure was built in one side what may have been an old horse stable; it measures about 13×20 feet and is open on two adjacent sides.  This provides some wind protection, but even better rain and snow protection, as the coop was built under the existing roof.  This gives the girls some room for scratching and exercise.  Due to the slope of the land, some rainwater tends to flow in under the walls.  I’m working to improve the drainage so the girls don’t have to walk in muddy areas.

I was in charge of the fencing, and my wife and I dug about 30 feet of a 2-foot deep trench before finding out the high cost of the fencing I’d had in mind.  (I’d read that extending the heavy fencing deep underground would deter almost all digging predators.)  After apologizing and filling in the trench, I rigged electric fencing around their little yard.  I used single-strand wiring and an 8-foot grounding rod, and ran two lines in an alternating horizontal pattern starting at about one inch above the ground level and ending about 6 feet up.  The strands are 2 inches apart lower down, and the spacing increases after every few strands, so the upper lines have an 8-inch separation.  Above the final strand is a 2-foot gap to the roof, but I figure no predators will be able to jump that.  Electrical power is available to the stable, so that is used to power the system.  I chose a Dare Products Enforcer, model DE 60.  It’s rated to cover 4 acres of fencing, and provides .15 joules of kick.  I usually test it each visit by touching one hand across two wires and getting snapped.  I once tried touching the soil and a wire with opposite hands, and the jolt across my chest was more like a fist-punch.  I’ve not tested it that way since.

The wires are strung on the outside of the 6×6 beams that support the roof.  I rigged a 24-inch width of standard chicken wire around the inside of the beams to prevent the girls from reaching through and getting shocked.  However one day I was inside scattering dry grass and they were outside when one of the girls took off like a shot, quite angry and loud.  Seems she’d gotten a little too close and learned for herself what the yellow wiring can do.

The other two walls of their enclosure are old 4×8 plywood panels, and in most places they don’t quite extend to the ground.  This would have offered an easy entrance to any predator willing to dig for a few minutes.  Rather than slap wire fencing vertically on the wall, I laid it horizontally on the ground under the wall.  The fencing is 2”x4” welded wire, 18 gauge I believe, 3 feet wide.  About 4 inches extends into the chickens’ yard and the rest is outside, staked down in several places to prevent it from being dragged or tripped over.  Any predator digging at the base of the wall would have its efforts immediately frustrated.  I expect that some ground cover will grow up through it in the spring, helping to both hide and anchor it.
We purchase 50-lb sacks of layers crumbles, and they currently cost about $16.50 each.  ‘Crumbles’ is a mixture of rough-ground grains and has the consistency of cornmeal.  The girls have no problems with the feed, meaning they’re showing no evidence food fatigue.  I’m contemplating getting an extra bag of scratch grains feed.  Crumbles feed only gets lost on the ground when I’ve scattered it for them.  ‘Scratch’ consists of whole grain kernels, which will be easier to see and will provide them some variety.  Over the new year’s holiday I was delayed several days in getting a fresh bag.  That meant our friends had to find makeshift food, and it wasn’t fair to them or the girls.  The extra bag of scratch grains will provide a backup food source, and it has a longer shelf life than the crumbles.

The food is currently stored inside a galvanized steel trash can to remove the risk of attracting rodents. We suspend their feeding and watering trays about 8 inches off the ground for the same reason.

The water supply is susceptible to freezing, and one of the mornings I visited I had to chip the ice off the surface.  Since then I rigged a 60 watt bulb inside a half-cinder block, and set the water tray on top instead of suspending it.  It’ll keep the water warm enough, but the red glow from the plastic tray is kind of spooky.  It is intended to only be used when cold weather threatens, as it did for about a week recently.

The girls like a variety of foods, and kitchen leftovers are sometimes much appreciated.  “Sometimes” refers to both the food and the delivery method.  For example, they don’t like carrots.  Same with an over-ripe zucchini.  The ignored a half-apple someone tossed in, until it was stepped on; then the girls loved the resulting mush.  They love breads, but tossing in a three-inch heel from a stale loaf of french bread was useless.  They can’t eat it until it’s broken up, and they need us to do that for them.  I heard that chickens like raisins, but so far ours don’t.  We’re still learning.

Obviously, we’re trying to make this a working partnership, so finding faults or making recommendations for changes has to be done… diplomatically.  Only the condition of the water and feed get promptly mentioned to the parents if we find them empty.

Our Sussex hens are quiet birds.  They’ll ramp up their chatter when they hear someone approaching, because they’re curious to see who it is.  They seem to get along well; I’ve seen a few brief instances of pecking between some of them, but so far there’s not a bird who stands out as either the alpha or the omega.  They sometimes scare my 5-year old grandson when they get close, but he’s getting used to them and asked to see them when he was last at our place for a sleep-over.

As mentioned, we let them out occasionally to scratch in the surrounding field.  Their enclosed yard isn’t overly large, so they’ve scratched up what little vegetation there was.  I make an effort at each visit to pull up several handfuls of long grass from the surrounding field and scatter it in their yard.  It was originally intended to help soak up the puddles that sometimes formed after the rain.  Instead I found that the girls also enjoy eating it!  It also now provides a place to hide other food/treat items that they can discover as they satisfy their instinct to scratch.

Our area has its share of predators.  Raccoons and foxes are probably the most prevalent.  Before I had the electric fencing finished and charged up a neighbor’s dog got into their yard on two separate days.  Fortunately he wasn’t large, and he seemed more interested in the birds as entertainment, rather than food.  After the fence was activated there have been no problems.  However I have seen footprints of a large canine around the fencing.  This may be why we had our greatest loss.

I previously mentioned the gap I’d left above the electric fencing.  I stopped at that height because it became unwieldy for me to stand on a chair on the damp ground, and besides, no predator would jump that high, right?  The mypetchicken.com web site says that Sussex chickens are not prone to flying when mature.  Perhaps the girls weren’t yet fully grown (although they were already laying regularly,) or perhaps some of them didn’t read the web page, but several of them showed a tendency for escapes.  They stayed close to their yard, fortunately.  At first I thought the fencing had been shut off or the wires had been loosened.  After it happened again  my daughter and I trimmed several of the primary flight feathers on one wing of each bird, so that they would be unbalanced if they tried flying again.  It wasn’t  enough; we had yet another escape.  Eventually I resolved to block the gap above the wires with a few more rows of horizontal twine, and see if that kept them in.  I didn’t act soon enough.

Just before Christmas I got a text from our partner saying that 3 of the birds had gone to heaven.  Several patches of feathers outside showed where they’d been killed and partially plucked.  It was a needless loss, due to my procrastination.  After that I promptly ran the twine above the wire, and we’ve had no more escapes.  The feathery patches are still there, and they provide a sobering reminder of my need to be a more faithful steward.
What the future holds

We’ve discussed ordering a few replacements, but from what I’ve read the addition of new birds to a flock frequently results in pecking and a period of anxiety.  Another option would be to rent a rooster and see if any of our girls want to brood.  That’s a process I’ve only read about so far, so I can’t offer anything on the subject.  I do understand that a broody hen will need to be isolated from the rest of the flock for about 2 months, until the hatched chicks are at least a month old, and that she’ll not produce again for a few months after that.  Right now that step is only in the discussion phase.

Either way, the size of the coop is sufficient that we might keep up to 20 birds.  All we would need to add would be a couple more roosting perches.

Sussex hens aren’t bred for eating, but I realize that that will be the intended finish for our girls some day.  I’m not looking forward to that because, frankly, I’ve grown rather fond of them.  Perhaps we’ll sell them to a neighbor, or maybe I’ll have to man up and do the deed.  Either way, I’ll need to prepare for it, so that I can harvest the girls as humanely as possible.