Winter is not only a time of dreaming, reading and planning; it is a time of looking back. I want to take you back a few years ago to a time when I was struggling to grow a small garden in a very shady back yard and failing miserably. I was buying Sh*t by the bag full at the garden center to hopefully enhance my black gumbo soil and get something edible to spring forth from it. One of my number one rules in life is to never pay good money for sh*t. I naturally thought of chickens as a solution to this taboo purchase. This is a way I could have lots of the aforementioned item to add to my garden and eggs in the bargain. Win, win if I have ever heard of one.
I started looking around the internet at all things chickens, specifically people raising them on a suburban plot like I had. This is when I ran into “The Garden Girl” aka Patti Moreno. While she has moved on to bigger and better, I am sure much better paying jobs, at the time she was recording on video her small plot in Boston Massachusetts. She kept chickens, rabbits goats and had a VERY well producing garden. She also somehow managed to look gorgeous while doing all this. However, the thing I loved about her is that she made everything seem so do-able and had step by step instructions. She even built her chicken coop on video; see here. One of the advantages about living in the big city of Dallas Texas is that we are big enough to be worthy of a visit. I know! I got to meet my inspiration in the flesh. I had just one question to pose to this gorgeous gardening diva, it was; “Will a few hens really make a difference in my veggie production?” To which she answered, “Yes, unequivocally yes! You will not believe the difference in your garden when you add composted chicken manure.” With dreams of juicy tomatoes, firm green zucchini and copious amounts of green beans, I walked away from that talk, printed off the materials list, took inventory of my tools, pulled up my big girl pants and set my jaw at a determined, no one is going to stand in my way kind of angle and headed out to shop. Taking a page from Patty’s book, it was probably the tightness of my jeans, NOT the determined set of my jaw that got me great service at the home improvement store, but what ever works for a girl, right?
My husband is a bit of a reluctant homesteader, which means that he will pitch in and help when he sees, 1. that I am totally discouraged and close to tears, 2. another strong male has offered to help me and I am taking him up on it, or lastly, as in this situation, he can clearly see that I am not giving up on my crazy idea to get chickens. I kind of wished he hadn’t helped ,because his sauntering out with a glass of wine in both hands on Friday evening and screwing in a few screws hardly contributed to the forward motion of the project and then I couldn’t truthfully say that I had built my coop all by my self! It was however, more importantly, a small giving gesture that said; while he was not totally with me, he wasn’t totally against me. Sometimes it is the tiny gives and takes that makes a marriage successful. So with my coop built I was ready to get my chicks. To be truthful, as was my way, I had already purchased my chicks, which were happily chirping in the garage. Nothing like a quickly growing, pooping animal to spur a building project on. I here by solemnly swear that I will completely finish out my goat pen before purchasing the actual goats. My husband is reading this and thinking, “Goats, what goats? I didn’t agree to goats.” Hee hee! Remember honey, give and take, the emphasis on give, on your part. Although I am certain we can think of something, I have, that you could take. Any hoo back to chickens.
When you get chicks you want to get them from a dealer that can sex them. Meaning that you want only hens. I will have to tell you my rooster story some time, when I got chicks that were “straight run”. My city self asked the man at the feed store “Does that mean that these chickens never run in circles, but only run straight?” When he recovered from a laugh attack, he replied, “Straight run means, that you get what you get, there might be the occasional rooster in the mix.”
In my case, out of the 12 chicks I bought there were 11 roosters in the mix! I know! I will let that sink in for a moment. Picture me in the dead of winter, shivering in my coat trying to explain to 11 roosters that their crowing contest had to be put on hold for the time being, because my neighbor Gladys would be calling the police at any moment and I was REALLY NOT interested in explaining the whole “straight run” situation to the police nor would they be sympathetic to my situation. For people in my area Roach Feed and Seed in Garland does a great job of delivering hens. I have never gotten a rooster in the batch from them. If you go to a feed store that says, “straight run” run as fast as you can to someone that you trust that can sell you chicks that are sexed as hens. Unless of course you want a crash course in chicken killing and butchering, which is what I got. Hey they were crowing LOUDLY! I had to do something.
Most feed stores now have a policy that they allow a minimum of 6 chicks to be purchased at a time. This is to discourage the impulse Easter buy of chicks for your begging wide eyed children. I have to admit these yellow fuzzy sweetly chirping chicks are HARD to resist! It will be A LOT easier to resist that impulse buy when I tell you that these chicks you will be taking home need sub tropical temps of 90-95 degrees and they poop constantly. Not a situation that is easily duplicated by your 4 year old clutching a warm fuzzy chick in his hands. However if your city only allows 3 hens you have to plan ahead about what you will do with the other 3. If you want to avoid the whole chick raising process you can buy “pullets” which are young chickens almost ready to lay eggs. I know in my area they sell them at Northhaven Gardens in Dallas. I am allowed to have as many chickens as I want in my city so I will plan on raising a new bunch of chicks every 3 years or so. It is worth my investment to get set up with all the needed stuff to raise chicks, but it might not make sense if you are only allowed to have a few chickens.
I nailed together a few boards in my garage, making a 4 x 4′ space for the chicks to grow up in. While you are purchasing your chicks get a bag of wood shavings to put at the bottom of the brooder area. It is called a “Country Boy” at the feed store. Just so you can throw that out there like you know what you are doing. I also, thanks to my reptilian loving son(well really loves any living creature), had a ceramic heat device. If you are not lucky enough to have a child that loves all living breathing creatures, you will need to buy a heat lamp complete with a bulb. This means that your chicks will be under bright light 24 hours a day to keep them warm. You can buy a red bulb to warm them at night without the harsh brightness of the regular bulb. However it is only a few weeks before Texas Spring temperatures come up and you can introduce them to the outdoors, so do what you can, using what you have. An outdoor temperature reader is a must at this point as you DON’T want to cook the poor things or leave them chilly. Starting at 95 degrees you can reduce the temperatures by 5 degrees every week until they have their full feathers, at which time they are ready to go out in the coop. If you forget to buy a thermometer don’t panic. You can tell by how the chicks are acting if they are too warm or cold. If they are in the corners obviously trying to get away from the lamp, they are too hot. If they are huddled together in a big clump under the light, then they are too cold. Running around happily eating or napping and they are just right. It always occurs to me that it is damn hard to duplicate the process of raising young that God so easily put into place!
It is at this point that I need to introduce you to the half hitch. It is a knot that boy scouts are familiar with, but the average city girl might not be. It is a miracle of string that allows you to raise the heat lamp up and down therefore adjusting the heat. I looped the string up and around the rafters in my garage then used this knot to raise or lower the lamp according to the temperature reading on my thermometer. Just in case you don’t have a boy scout handy here is a tutorial on how to do this handy knot: Two half hitch knot video For me the rule was to crack the garage door in the day time and turn on/lower the heating device at night.
Put the bulb/heater to one side of the pin so that the chicks can escape the heat if they need to. This cooler side of the bin is also where you will put your waterer (up on a brick so it will not get wood shavings kicked into it) and your chick feeder. You should be able to buy both of these when you purchase your chicks. You will also buy chick feed. This will be a growth starter feed to help with chick growth. It is not easy to find a starter feed without antibiotics but you will not be getting your first egg until much later when you have switched to feed without this addition, so it will not be in the eggs you are eating. My opinion is that a small backyard flock probably doesn’t need the addition of antibiotics but you will pay premium price for feed with out it.
I have to just pause and say here that there is NOTHING like the sweet chirping of baby chicks! It is maybe one of the sweetest sounds I have ever heard. My kids LOVED them and it was a big treat to take them out a little bit at a time to introduce them to the grassy backyard world. We found ourselves turning off the t.v. and tuning into the chicken channel every Spring/Summer evening. Add a glass of wine to that and you have yourself some serious countrified entertainment in the middle of the city.
Mr Freeze, at Roach Feed and Seed, told me to watch out for pasty butt. While Scott Freeze has passed on from earth to heaven, he has left the feed store in Garland in good hands and I am confident that they will welcome your silly city girl or guy questions. They offer a laxative, if you will, to help with this pasty butt problem, but I have found that if you are diligent in checking your new babies’ butts you can skip this medication. If you see a plugged up butt, just run the wee bum under warm water for a bit and wipe. Good as new! I mean we are talking about a few chicks here, not one thousand in number. If you have been a mom or dad, you have certainly have dealt with worse and can handle this.
Just a warning here that all young things run with wild abandon and then collapse just as suddenly. If you walk out and see that some of your chicks look, well, dead, not to worry they will be up and running again with boundless energy in just a minute. Pause take a deep breath and watch in wonder. This is one of the most fun, amazing, learning experiences my family has ever had. It forever changed the way we think about the food on our plate. Watch out, it might just change the way you think as well.
Check back as I will tell you my favorite breed of chickens for a backyard flock in a few days. In the meantime I am excited about the coming of Spring and new beginnings!