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Rural Living for November 19, 2009

Raising chickens

by Carol Dunn

HUERFANO- Perhaps the first farm animals people think of raising when they move to a rural area is chickens.  A small flock can provide a family with plenty of eggs, and a dual-purpose breed can also provide meat.  Some of the dual-purpose breeds suited to Huerfano County’s temperature fluctuations include : Delaware, Brahma, Australorp, Buckeye, Plymouth Rock, Orpington and Wyandotte.

    Chickens need clean water every day.  Use a galvanized poultry water “fountain.”  If you do not heat your henhouse/coop, and many people don’t, you will need a heater base to keep the water from freezing in winter.  Feed your flock cracked corn and a multiple grain scratch mix.  Add egg-layer crumbles for laying hens.  An average chicken will eat about ¼ pound of food per day, including bugs and grass if they free-range.  Chickens enjoy table scraps, but avoid potato peels and peaches.  After you use eggs, crush the egg shells and scatter them in the chicken yard as an extra source of calcium for layers.

    In our area, chickens need shelter from the weather and predators, including raccoons, skunks, weasels, coyotes, foxes, bears, hawks and owls.  Any cracks or openings in the coop larger than the width of two fingers should be covered by chicken wire.  Chickens want to perch at night, so they need a rod in the coop 2-3 feet off the ground.  The coop should provide each chicken with about three square feet of space.  If the flock is crowded, the birds become aggressive.  Chickens that are lower in the “pecking order” of a crowded flock are likely to have many of their feathers and also pieces of skin picked off by more dominant birds.

    A rooster is required if you want fertile eggs, otherwise he is not needed for egg production.  Hens prefer to lay eggs in an enclosed box.  It needs to be about a cubic foot in size, lined with straw, with a front entrance oriented away from sunlight.  A typical hen will lay an egg every other day.  As the days shorten in the fall, most hens will stop laying.  You may be able to avoid this if you place a light bulb on a timer in the coop to artificially lengthen the days to 12 hours of light.  Strong wind, cold temperatures and snow also affect egg production.  If you have a hen that cracks or eats eggs, cull her from your flock.  This habit is expensive to you and can be learned by other chickens.

    Eggs should be gathered every day and refrigerated.  Commercial egg farmers are allowed 30 days from the day an egg is laid to get it to the store. Then, the store has another 30 days to sell the eggs.  USDA suggests eggs be discarded after five weeks in your refrigerator.  So, your home-grown eggs will be usable for 13 weeks.  If your eggs are really dirty, wash them gently with water.  You can use an antibacterial dish detergent or a small amount of bleach (a USDA recommendation), but egg shells are slightly porous, and cleaning agents could influence the taste of your eggs.

    For instructions on butchering chickens, see: www.backwoodshome.com/articles2/grim79.html.