Image courtesy Scott Sayre

Image courtesy Scott Sayre

The complete guide to raising backyard chickens

Everything from choosing your chickens to the necessary equipment you need.

  • Wednesday, April 7, 2021 10:05am
  • Life

The following provided to the Courier-Herald by Chickens and More magazine:

The last ten years have seen a massive boom in backyard chicken-keeping, which has only been accelerated by the recent lockdowns, and the trend shows no signs of slowing in the years to come. More and more people are turning to backyard coops as their window into a healthier, locally sourced food supply, as well as the joys of chicken-keeping and animal companionship. However, keeping chickens is a complicated (and expensive) endeavor, that raises questions from what kind of breeds to get (and where) to how to make sure your new egg supply is safe to consume. We’ve answered these questions below, specifically for aspiring chicken keepers in the region of Buckley, Washington.

NECESSARY EQUIPMENT

Outfitting a new flock of hens is often both the most expensive and the least exciting part of chicken-keeping, but it’s also, obviously, extremely important. Making sure the hens have the proper equipment – coops, runs, feeders, waterers – is often the easiest way to ensure your flock will remain happy and healthy over a long period of time.

Chicken coops come in a wide variety of options – plastic versus wooden; homemade or pre-fab; with attached runs or without. While all of these options have their pros and cons – plastic coops, for instance, are more durable, while wooden ones are easier to repair – choosing among them can often come down to a matter of personal preference, or be based on logistical factors like space and pricing. Owners might also consider add-ons like an automatic door, which can significantly reduce the amount of work it takes to let the chickens out or in the mornings and at night. One thing Washingtonians in particular need to keep in mind, though, is the wetness and high humidity of the region, as this will affect the durability of their coops, especially wooden ones. Those building their own coops might want to opt for pressure-treated lumber, rather than a sealed wood; pressure-treated wood is much more durable in high humidity/rainfall areas, but those building with it should be careful of leaching toxins into the ground.

Once you have your coop, it’s time to outfit it with a feeder and a waterer. Like coops, these come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and materials, all with their own advantages and disadvantages. Trough feeders are ideal for chicks and bantam birds, while automatic feeders can be great for busy chicken owners who don’t have the time to monitor and fill the feeder multiple times per day. As for waterers, they generally come in either plastic or metal – plastic is cheaper, metal more durable – and the most common type are gravity or hanging waterers. However, like feeders, these need to be refilled frequently, so some folks might opt instead for an automatic waterer, with the understanding that these more complex systems can require significantly more maintenance.

CHOOSING YOUR CHICKENS

Chickens, like dogs, come in many shapes and sizes, and some chickens, like some dogs, are more suited for beginners than others. I know when I first started, I was enamored of so many beautiful breeds with unusual feathers or striking colors, and was a little disappointed when I was talked down to a flock of “boring” Rhode Island Reds. This, however, proved to be the right choice; the flashiest hens are also often the highest-maintenance, which makes them less than ideal for a first-timer. Instead, good beginner breeds are usually a little more sedate, but hardy, regular producers who tend to get along with humans and with each other. In addition to the aforementioned Reds, Australorps, New Hampshires, Delawares, and Plymouth Rocks are all ideal starter hens, combining high egg production with a sturdy constitution and personalities literally made for small flocks and farms.

Of course, breed isn’t the only factor when it comes to determining a hen’s personality. Individual quirks and tendencies have a lot to do with it, but the other big factor owners can control is their upbringing; generally speaking, the younger you get your birds, the more likely they are to bond with you. Hatching from eggs can be a delicate process and not necessarily recommended for beginners, but starting with chicks is often a great way to ensure the birds are well-bonded with their owners. The other option would be starting with pullets (hens between 4-16 weeks old), which requires no specialized equipment or transition into adulthood.

Those looking to buy chicks and pullets can try the Tractor Supply in Enumclaw ,the Buckley Farm and Feed, or search for local farms selling off some birds. Chicks and eggs are also often available for delivery through the mail, which will allow a wider selection if the local options don’t have the breed you’re looking for. If you’re willing to drive a bit more, rescue hens are also an option – older hens who are considered “spent” by the industry, but will continue to lay eggs at a regular rate in a backyard setting – from places like the Animal Place Sanctuary in Vacaville, California.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

Do I need a permit to raise chickens?

While local regulations vary, people living in Pierce County do not need a permit to raise hens on their property; however, the number of hens and other livestock/small animals they can have is dictated by the size of their property. Anyone living in an urban area is also not allowed to keep roosters.

How do I safely clean and consume my eggs?

This is a very real consideration for chicken keepers, as both the birds and their eggs can carry salmonella and other diseases that range from the merely unpleasant to the potentially fatal. Washing hands before and after touching the birds and cutting down on petting and cuddling are the best ways to avoid catching salmonella directly from the bird herself, while eggs should be carefully inspected and cleaned before consumption to ensure they’re safe and ready to eat.

How long will my chickens live?

This can dependent on a lot of factors, like size, breed, and living environment, but chickens generally live between five and 10 years. In general, chickens live longer the fewer eggs they produce, and smaller birds also tend to have the longest lifespans – in both cases because their bodies are expending fewer resources on a daily basis to produce eggs or support large amounts of muscle mass. Rehoming chickens ranges from difficult to nearly impossible – local shelters almost never take them, and specialized rescues can be hard to find – so anyone looking into chicken-keeping should know they may be signing up for a decade-long commitment.

While these are far from the only questions that will come up during the long and wild ride that is raising backyard chickens, like parenting, there’s no way of fully knowing what you’re getting into when you get your first flock of hens – either the stressors and conundrums to the immense pride you feel when serving your first batch of farm-fresh eggs. Whatever happens, though, keeping chickens is sure to be a rich experience and, hopefully, a delightful and delicious adventure.


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