Grow Your Own

Tips for Raising Chickens

raising chickens

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. Here are her tips to raise a healthy flock.

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?

Franchesca breaks down the best breeds for color, beauty, or dual-purpose uses on her website.

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.

Rainbow Eggs from Alchemist Farm

Artisan Producers, Farming, Foodshed, Healdsburg, Nonprofits

Grow Your Own Chickens

raising chickens

Grossly caged with thousands of others, bred to grow quickly and end hugely, kept indoors, denied the most basic rounds of procreation and recreation, the industrialized chicken is one sad bird, indeed.

But with the groundswell of interest in backyard chicken-keeping, there is hope for the chicken in the form of the Sustainable Poultry Network (SPN), a small coalition of some 80 members across the United States who are committed to resurrecting and strengthening heritage breeds.

At HomeFarm we love our chickens and used to avidly await the postal carrier’s late-winter arrival, packed with newborn chicks. Not only is this old-fashioned delivery system due to disappear per food safety regulations, it’s not the best way to start, extend, and maintain a local flock.

Sophia Bates used to get her chicks in the mail too, and her original flock of Barred Plymouth Rock chicks came via post all the way from North Carolina to the Philo Apple Farm, where she works with her family business. But no more. Nowadays, she breeds her own chicks according to SPN’s core values and trades them with other members of the network.

“We’re all trying to localize our food systems,” Sophia says. “Chickens are the ultimate small homestead food source and we all still have to get our chickens from Iowa — how localized is that?”

Sophia will be at SHED on Sunday, April 19, to sell her chicks direct to you for just $6 each during our Spring Hoedown second anniversary party.

While every chicken, given the chance, has the innate desire to peck the ground and forage for food, the modern industrialized bird is rarely given the chance to do so (don’t let the term “free range” fool you) and, moreover, is now ill-equipped to utilize the food it forages, Sophia says.

Birds raised by SPN’s standards are intended to spend their days outside eating directly from the ground, just as chickens have always done. They’re also bred to grow more slowly, have stronger bones that adequately support their weight, and have long happy lives. All of this makes for a tastier bird and a far superior quality of egg.

Sophia sells her heritage breed chicks as “straight run,” meaning that the sex of the newborn bird is still unknown. Hens may last you a good four years before heading to the stew pot; cockerels can be harvested at 16-18 weeks for a delicious meal.

“Everybody eats roosters,” Sophia laughs. The average chicken-eater just doesn’t know it. Harvested before they grow a full comb and begin crowing, cockerels fill many an American pot.

Having completed just her first breeding and hatching season, Sophia is enthusiastic about SPN and its “slow poultry” methodology. Among the organization’s tenets is the careful breeding of heritage birds to reintroduce genetic components once common to farms but not desirable in large operations.

“The industrialization of the food system really brought on a new wave of chickens,” Sophia says. “The Sustainable Poultry Network is a group of people who are interested in reinvigorating the genetics from the heritage breeds. They’re still around, but people haven’t been selectively breeding them; we’re finding the best genetics that exist now and trying to bring them back to where they used to be at the end of the [last] century.”

Among the great things about chickens is that a generation can be eclipsed in about 12 months, so reintroducing favored old-fashioned genetics can move swiftly. The type of chicken she raises is an example. “Barred Plymouth Rocks were a main industry bird around WWII,” Sophia says. “Things change with chickens so quickly because you can breed a generation in a year.”

People being people, “pretty” chickens of varying colors remain more sought-after than white chickens like the Leghorn, an egg-laying master found in most large operations. Sophia’s Plymouths exemplify “pretty” with their black and white feathers and bright red head markings. But they’re more to her than just a landscape enhancement.

“Raising your own birds is such a nice easy step towards self-sufficiency,” she says. “It’s a really satisfying, gratifying thing to keep backyard birds and it’s an amazing step toward creating your own food.”

Want to get skilled up? We host a backyard chicken keeping workshop on Saturday, April 4, with Nick Rupiper, the “Chicken Guy,” that will give you all the basics.

Meet Sophia Bates and her chicks on Sunday, April 19, at our Spring Hoedown, an afternoon party to celebrate our second anniversary.

SPN hosts a day-long Sustainable Poultry Production workshop on Sophia’s Apple Farm on Thursday, April 9.

Farming, Foodshed, Healdsburg, HomeFarm

On HomeFarm: Spring Has Sprung

While the calendar doesn’t have it slated until 3:45pm this Friday, spring has already spread out her finery at our HomeFarm in the Dry Creek Valley. With this exciting shift comes the usual flurry of work that farmers have been engaged in throughout the centuries. As do all who tend the Earth, we’re preparing for the growing season ahead, amending our soil with compost, pruning our trees and vines to do their best through harvest, and making sure there’s plenty of forage for the bees and chickens as they grow their hives and flocks. (more…)