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homestead free range chickensRaise Chickens for Farm Fresh Meat and Eggs
by Staff Writer

Adding poultry to your homestead offers not only the benefit of farm fresh chicken and eggs, but also the peace of mind that you know where the food came from. Building your flock can be very entertaining and rewarding, but it isn't likely to be profitable. A niche market does exist for those looking for free range or cruelty-free poultry products, but success is by no means guaranteed. In my opinion, the best reason to grow a flock is because you want to provide meat and eggs to your family and friends. The addition of poultry to your homestead also brings you one step closer to a self-sufficient lifestyle.

Once you have decided to keep poultry on your homestead, you'll need to determine if they will be free range or kept in a coop. Free range birds benefit from a greater variety in their diet, which means you spend less on feed. Predators are the largest problem with the free range philosophy; your flock can disappear very quickly due to foxes, coyotes, raccoons, and other furry predators. Even free range birds need a sheltered place to rest and (hopefully) lay eggs. Having boxes prepared is no guarantee that your birds won't try to hide the eggs in a place of their choosing. Every day will feel like Easter as you wander the woods and fields looking for that hidden nest.

The other option is to fashion a coop to keep and protect your flock. Since the birds won't have as much room to forage, feed costs will be higher. On the plus side, losses to predators should be less and eggs are much more likely to be waiting for you in the conveniently located nesting boxes. You will need to spend more time and money maintaining the coop and changing out the straw and pine shavings from the floor, but it will make great mulch! Birds can be let out of the coop during the day and easily lured back at night to roost with the aid of a little feed. I find this approach to offer the best of both worlds if you have the acreage and tolerance to handle birds running freely around your property.

all natural brown eggs One of the first things to consider before ordering fertilized eggs or hatchlings is the best species for your area. Some species do better in warm, temperate climates while others can survive in cold, hard Canadian winters. Once you have a breed in mind, you can begin searching for your flock. There is no shortage of companies willing to sell you fertilized eggs and day old hatchlings, and you may be able to find adult birds available for sale locally. All three options are viable, but we recommend the purchase of day old chicks. If minimum quantities are too great to buy online, check with your local feed store; they may have chicks available in the spring.

When your chicks or hatchlings arrive, have a box lined with pine shavings (not sawdust) ready for them. A clean water dish
and feeder should always be available to the rapidly growing birds. Dunk each bird's beak in the water, but allow them to pull away. This will help get them started drinking and feeding. A 100-watt light should be placed to one side of the box so that side will be warmer than the other. This will allow the chicks to find a spot in their comfort zone. The hatchlings need to be kept at approximately 90 degrees F for the first week of their life. The temperature can be decreased by 5 degrees each week until the chicks begin to feather out. At this point they will be able to handle mild weather.

Your young flock is quickly growing in your tidy coop -- so where are the eggs already? Pullets (females) will begin to lay small eggs at approximately 8 months of age. Don't fret; the eggs will grow larger as the bird continues to mature. Healthy adult birds will typically lay one egg per day, but environment, age, and stress can affect this so take care of your birds. While roosters are not required for egg production, they do fill an important role in chicken society. They guard the flock and are required if you want fertilized eggs; this is only necessary if you want to incubate your own eggs to replenish your flock. Eggs should be collected every day so they can be enjoyed fresh, but also to keep your hens from becoming broody. Once a dozen eggs or so have been laid in a nest, the bird will choose to incubate the eggs until they hatch. I know this is only a brief introduction into the world of poultry, but I hope to expand it eventually.