Raising a flock of backyard chickens results in the most rewarding of pets — especially if its members are the multi-colored heirloom hens favored by Franchesca Duval, head hen wrangler at Alchemist Farm.
Franchesca breeds rare heirloom chickens and sells fertile hatching eggs from her farm in Sebastopol. She’s also a modern-day backyard chicken evangelist, encouraging everyone who’s interested to start their own rainbow flock from chicks.
On a recent visit to SHED, Franchesca assured workshop participants that anyone can raise a healthy flock if they set themselves up for success by following these steps:
1: Select The Right Breeds
To pick the perfect breed for your needs, begin by identifying your goals. Do you want pets? Reliable egg producers? Chickens for meat? How about a designer flock of specialty egg layers? Do you have small children at home and want to breed for temperament?
Hens are social animals, but if you’re limited for space, you can keep a healthy mini flock with as few as two birds. You can mix breeds in the same flock if you brood the hens together. All heritage breeds are better at foraging and live longer than industrial breeds. They will thrive on your kitchen scraps and by foraging the grub in your backyard.
2: Keep Your Chicks Happy
To raise chicks into thriving chickens, they need food, water, a heat source, and a safe container with bedding. The brooding site can be anywhere, just make sure it’s protected from predators and the elements.
Use a safely secured red bulb that is approved for poultry as their heat source. Feed chicks 20% protein feed until they are six weeks old. Chicks prefer mash, not pellets.
Franchesca recommends Hunt & Behrens in Petaluma for their house-milled livestock grain.
If you’re hatching fertile eggs, Franchesca suggests purchasing an inexpensive incubator that keeps the eggs warm and at the right level of humidity while simulating the rocking and rotating motion eggs would naturally get in a nest.
3: Set the Coop Up Correctly
Make sure you have a safe home ready for your chicks when they reach six weeks of age. At that point they’ll have swapped out their chick fluff for chicken feathers and will be ready to move into the coop.
There are several pre-made coops on the market that can save you time and money. Consider the costs before If you decide to buy or build a custom coop. Keep in mind these tips for a happy chicken home:
- Make it predator-proof. Cover the coop and chicken run with aviary wire (which has smaller and tighter gauge than chicken wire), stapling the wire every ½ inch around. Bury the wire two feet under the perimeter. If the land doesn’t allow you to dig that deeply, you can place the wire six inches down and run it underground for two feet.
- Make sure there is plenty of shaded area so the birds can regulate their body temperatures.
- Give the hens a comfortable place to roost, choosing round roosting bars over square ones, which can hurt their feet.
- Invest in a solar-sensitive auto coop door so you don’t have to be home every evening to close up the coop.
- If you have the space to allow the birds access to pasture, you can use a portable fence. You also might want to trim their wings, a painless process that keeps them from flying too far from the coop.
Most of all, enjoy your ladies! Raising chickens is a happy domestic pursuit that results in fresh eggs and good company. We wouldn’t be without our flock.