Chickens are very easy to keep and are just essential the the complete plan. Chicken are omnivorous, so they eat about everything. Eggs, particularly the yolks are a super-food. Eggs from pasture-raised chickens are much richer in vitamins than those raised without.The are also a good source of omega 3 fatty acids, including the ready-to use DHA form. Free-range chickens, without pasture will produce eggs with more Vitamin D (from sun exposure), but otherwise they will be about the same.
An ideal chicken diet would consist of insects, larvae, fruit and some seeds. If chickens are allowed to roam the pastures freely, at least for a few hours every day, they will find more than you think, especially if there is manure and mulch under the fruit trees.
As far as housing, chicken houses need a few design particulars to function well. It’s better to have a smaller house, that you don’t enter – it’s just nicer! So, in that case you need three doors, a little door for the chickens to use, a big door to clean the house, and a lid/door to hunt eggs. The chickens also need a roost, and of course, nests. Nests don’t have to be anything fancy, about 1 per 3 hens is adequate.
If you live in an area that has raccoons, you HAVE TO secure them at night, or they WILL eat your chickens. And that means totally. They can be fenced, but there must not be any holes larger than 5”, and the inside of the fence has to be lined with rocks, concrete pavers, etc to prevent them from digging/pushing under. You could bury the fencing also, but it will rust out fairly quickly. You can just close them in their house at night, if you don’t want to secure the pen. Hawks can apparently be a problem during the day, but that hasn’t been a major issue in my experience.
My favorite breed is Brahma bantams. Brahma chickens have great personalities, they friendly, smart, obedient and unaggressive. The standard brahma is huge, so the bantam still makes a nice-sized chicken with a nice-sized egg. They do get broody a lot, which is good if you plan on hatching your own chickens.
FACTORS THAT AFFECT EGG PRODUCTION
Chickens lay best when they receive about 15 hours of light daily. To maximize production
naturally, chickens should have a secure south-facing “porch”, which allow sunlight from east to west. Chickens should have all-day access to sunshine so they can sun at will. This ensure vitamin D.
Losing feathers and regrowing them is called molting and occurs every year when the days get shorter. During molt there will be a steep decline or halt in egg production. Estrogen stimulates egg production in the hen and also retards feather growth: When chickens molt, levels of estrogen decrease, greatly reducing egg production to allow feather production. Roosters also molt and will be less fertile during this time. While there are a number of juvenile molts, the first major molt occurs in autumn when chickens are 16 to 18 months old. The molting process may take anywhere from 2 to 7 months with 3 to 4 months as the norm. Late, fast molters only take 2 to 3 months in total. An early, slow molter could take more
than half the year! Chickens who begin to molt earlier will generally take longer to go through the process, and produce fewer eggs per year. Chickens who begin to molt later will molt more quickly, regrowing feathers at the same time they are being lost. These chickens produce more eggs in a year. When hatching, elect late—molting hens and roosters to increase this trait in the next generation. If you see a featherless chicken running around, she is a hard, fast molter and a good hen to breed. The regrowing feathers are called blood feathers and are very sensitive. Avoid handling chickens during molt, as it is painful and increases stress. While molting, chickens behave strangely: they will seem shy and retiring. They will be somewhat tired, and uncomfortable and require more food and rest. This is not a time to stress your chickens in any way. There are sometimes additional molts and partial molts. You may see a small molt in some of your flock, and a dip in egg production, in late spring or early summer. Intense stress, resulting from encounters with predators, insufficient feed or water, or extremes of temperature, can also trigger a partial or full molt depending on the time of year.
During molt, chickens build up their nutrient reserves. Even though they are not laying, it is critical that they have a high quality diet during this time. Feathers are 85% protein.
The year following each molt, hens will lay fewer eggs, but these will be larger and of better
quality. In their second year, they will lay 70-90% of the number of eggs they laid in their pullet year. Following their second molt, in their third laying year, they will lay 60% of the eggs they laid in their pullet year. Chickens are individuals as much as any other animal. Some will lay for two years, then retire. Some will keep laying up to 5 years, then slow down/stop. And some will just slowly decline steadily over the years.
of the bird itself will really affect laying life. Supposedly, all birds are born with a finite number of ova. How they dole these out is dependent on their breed and breeding. Some hatcheries breed for birds who turn out their eggs daily (in which case, they run out of ova quickly, such as at the two year mark). Some breeders breed for steady laying, in which the hens dole out their eggs more slowly, which results in them laying for several years longer. Hens have been reported to still be laying fairly well at six and even nine years old.
DIET AND DIGESTIVE SYSTEM
Chickens have one of the most efficient digestive systems in the animal kingdom.
Chickens are omnivores — meaning that they can eat meat (grubs, worms, the occasional mouse) and vegetation (grass, weeds and other plants). A small bit of saliva and digestive enzymes are added as the food moves from the mouth into the esophagus.
From the esophagus food moves to the crop, an expandable storage compartment located at the base of the chicken’s neck, where it can remain for up to 12 hours. The food trickles from the crop into the bird’s stomach (the proventriculus and the gizzard) where digestive enzymes are added to the mix and physical grinding of the food occurs.
The gizzard is why chickens do not need teeth. It is a muscular part of the stomach and uses grit (small, hard particles of pebbles or sand) to grind grains and fiber into smaller, more digestible, particles. From the gizzard, food passes into the small intestine, where nutrients are absorbed. The residue then passes through the ceca, a blind sack along the lower intestinal tract, where bacteria help break down undigested food. From the ceca, food moves to the large intestine, which absorbs water and dries out indigestible foods.
This remaining residue passes through the cloaca where the chicken’s urine (the white in chicken droppings) mixes with the waste. Both exit the chicken at the vent, the external opening of the cloaca. The digestive, urinary and reproductive systems meet in the cloaca.
Protein- Commercial Layer Mix is 16% protein; so at a consumption rate of 3 % otmces (100g) each hen gets about 16g of protein. This would be for high production breeds which lay 200 eggs per year. If you reduce that by 25% for breeds averaging 150 eggs per year you have about 12g.
Calories- A large chicken needs about 280-300 calories per day. Besides the protein, the balance is made of carbohydrates and fat. Commercial layer mix has most of its calories from carbohydrates, with only 3.5% of calories from fat. However, any natural protein source will have more fat than that, and will make a healthier bird.
Calcium- Chickens can be expected to lay about 115-150 eggs per year. To do this, chickens need a prodigious amount of calcium. Commercial layer mix contains 3-3.5% calcium and a chicken will typically eat about 3 % ounces (100g) per day, so 3,000-3,500 per day. This would be for high
production breeds which lay 200 eggs per year with extra heavy shells. If you reduce that by 25% for breeds averaging 150 eggs per year you have about 2,600 mg (2.6g) per day. However, I have had production rates of about 104 eggs per year feeding back eggshells and about 450g from food. The calcium in raw greens, fruit, and BSFL, is probably much more bio-available than the calcium which is added to commercial feed. If 450g is sufficient for 100 eggs, then 700g should be sufficient for 150 eggs. Feeding back the eggshells is absolutely essential, as they will provide about 2/3 of their calcium.
The calcium content of a commercial eggshell is approximately 1.7 -2.5g. (average 2.1g), natural raised will have somewhat thinner shells, as commercial feed is made to produce extra heavy shells to minimize breakage. Chickens also need a minimum of 155mg of non-phytate (non-grain) phosphorus per day. Grain source phosphorus can be up to 100% unusable due to phytate; however organic acids, such as citric acid, found in fruit increases its usability.
ALTERNATIVE FOOD SOURCES
A BLACK SOLDIER FLY LARVAE
Black soldier fly larvae make an ideal chicken feed supplement, they are high in fat as well as protein. They eat decaying organic matter, from weeds, to manure to kitchen scraps, but do not feed on carion or diseased animals. Therefore, they are clean. Actually, their presence will stop ordinary flies – That’s why they’re called “soldier” flies. They also reduce the presence of salmonella bacteria. BSF L contain about 5 grams of protein, and 4.5g of fat per ounce. Their season starts about mid-April and fizzles out in November.
To raise black soldier fly larvae, you need some sort of container, a tray of some sort is best, since it is the surface area that counts. Add organic matter of any kind, manure, kitchen scraps, grass clippings, weeds or whatever and add some water and cover. You must make/allow some holes near the top so the flies can enter and lay their eggs. They lay their eggs on something suspended over decaying organic matter, so some weeds or something on top work well. However, if you don’t add that, they will lay their eggs on the inside of the lid and on the sides of the container. Some types of organic matter are better than others, if it’s slow, a little cracked corn will really get things going. However, if you add grain, it won’t be pleasant when you empty the container in the fall. Rotted grain smells bad! It’s quite care-free, but you do have to keep them fed and watered! It should be located out of direct sun. If the container is in the chicken yard, they will self-harvest; otherwise you can collect them by placing a plastic flower pot with some wet grain in the container, and leaving it there for several hours. Then you rinse and feed to the chickens. They get beyond excited! If the weather is very dry, you may have to make some ramps for the larvae to migrate out on.
Any protein source that you’re going to throw away, makes good chicken food. You can soak scratch grains in the whey from cheesemaking, this adds minerals and some protein. Also egg whites, if you don’t use all of them.
The fruit portion of their diet can be provided by whatever kind of fruits are plentiful and easy to grow, even it they’re not the most tasty for human consumption. Mulberries are great in some parts of the country; in California, olives make a nice automatic feed source. Of course, pumpkins, squash and the like also work fine for the carbohydrate portion. They don’t have to be cooked, just cut open.
Of course, just some scratch grains are the simplest way to add the seed portion of their diet, but you can also plant some grains, and let the chickens harvest them.
GREENS – 2g of protein per ounce,
EXTRA MILK, EGGS
The equivalent of l oz. of “meat”, would be l cup of milk, or l egg.
Small fish contain 28-40% protein. Tilapia fry could be used at about the same rate as black soldier fly larvae. Tilapia fry are available from April -Oct.
These supply the chickens from January to April.
A superb source of protein about 7g per ounce. They seem to appear more in the Fall, about October, and will be drawn to moisture. They help bridge the gap between bsfl season and the worm harvest in January.