Warning: If you don’t have chickens and see no reason to get any, I might change your mind!
I just came in from our grocery store’s poultry section with five healthy, free-range, bug-and-grass fed delicious eggs with some of the deepest yolks you’ll ever see. Our grocer’s poultry section is about 30 yards from our back door where our chickens (plus one rooster named Winston Churchill) happily live.
To raise the happiest and healthiest chickens requires some up-front work. It’s my educated guess that our chickens will require hardly any real work for the rest of our years with them.
Note: If you do or ever want to have healthy chickens for eggs and/or meat, you must run and not walk to learn all you can from Joel Salatin (also search YouTube for his videos) as well as Paul Wheaton. Wheaton had a larger impact on our actual chicken pen arrangement but Joel impacted us much more on his books about long-term gardening and general animal welfare. Joel wrote a book entitled, Everything I Want to Do is Illegal (it’s from a Christian and not an immoral libertarian perspective so he’s right-on, 100%).
I would have called you crazy 14 months ago if you’d told me:
- I would have chickens
- I would enjoy having chickens
We love having chickens!
They are like pets! They follow us, talk to us, are curious about everything we do around them, and unlike our selfish dogs and cats, our chickens give us daily food!
But the Hassle!
I’ll show you in a moment how hassle-free raising chickens can be, especially if you’re willing to put a little up-front, one-time work into where you plan to raise them. The more I learn about raising chickens, the more I see that if you do it right, the long-term work is minimal.
You can see below that our ladies love us back!
“Greg, do you not know that Stores now sell eggs???”
We understand the importance of not buying “conventional” eggs at any store on earth. (See The Concentration Camp Way to Raise Chickens below.)
So for years, we’ve paid more than we should have for eggs that were “organic” and “free-range.” The problem is that the government regulates what can be put on packaging. This almost every time means that you can be tricked by food suppliers who produce unhealthy customers for the government’s healthcare system. Not just because of Obamacare; the government has been in the making-people-sick-for-profit business for decades, ever since the FDA and USDA began working together to approve unhealthy foods so people would buy more medicine.
Note: Think I’m paranoid? Mountain Dew is legal but if an American farmer in most places wants to sell healthy, raw, whole milk, he will be put in prison. That’s the same milk that people drank for 6,000 years until the USDA decided they weren’t sending enough business to the FDA’s clients.
Note: Think I’m paranoid? Did you ever wonder why one single agency includes both Food and Drug in their name? Of the tens of thousands of government offices and divisions and regulators, wonder why they refuse to separate the FDA, the Food and Drug Administration?
How to Raise Chickens
14 months makes me no expert. Jayne’s done far more research on them than I have, she’s virtually an expert now. But I have spent a long time listening to hundreds of podcasts and reading incredible chicken owners who teach the right ways to raise chickens so they are easy, happy, and healthy! And it’s true, the healthier the method, the easier it gets.
Method One: The Concentration Camp Way to Raise Chickens
The chickens that make the meat and eggs you buy at the grocery store were raised from cradle-to-grave indoors, next to tens of thousands of other birds, moving about 10 inches left and right their entire lives, from chick-to-death, standing in their own lifetime of feces.
They are fed grains that consist of:
- – Soy
- – Corn
- – Antibiotics
Chickens, like people, are omnivores. They love bugs, veggies, calcium-based things like cheese and even eggs, grass, plants, leaves, and more bugs. Did I mention bugs? Chickens love bugs!
Chickens were never designed to live on a lifetime of grains. Neither were people. You are what you eat (actually, you are what you ate) so when you eat eggs and chickens that you buy from any grocer or restaurant in the world, you are eating corn, soy, and antibiotics.
The Concentration Camp method of raising chickens is the most dangerous for the health of the chickens and for your health. For all intents and purposes I no longer eat eggs or chicken anywhere but at home where we know the source.
Method Two: Coop and Run, Slightly Better Than a Concentration Camp
In the city, and sadly even in the country, many people use a coop-and-run method of raising chickens.
My subtitle was misleading. Most of the time, the coop-and-run method produces unhealthy chickens and requires massive amounts of work if you attempt to improve your chicken’s care. But the coop-and-run method is lightyears ahead of the Concentration Camp method.
That doesn’t justify its use.
Notice the dirt floor of this coop in the photo above? It looks as though it might have some hay tossed down which doesn’t help their lack-of-food diet plight except to provide a little composting of the massive amounts of poop.
Remember, chickens love bugs, grass, many weeds, and veggies. I learned from Joel Salatin that chickens instinctively eat bugs, healthy grass, and healthy vegetation first. If you don’t move their coop-and-run to a fresh area in a day or two, they will begin to eat the less-healthy grass and vegetation that remain. If you keep feeding them traditional “chicken feed” (corn, soy, and antibiotics), they will eventually eat the grass and weeds and vegetation they instinctively know is poison because poison grass is better for their health than most chicken feed and they know it.
Finally, a week later, they’re left only with dirt. Chickens living on dirt is akin to you being hungry, ordering carryout, and getting only the cardboard containers. No food exists.
This is why the “run” part of a coop-and-run is extremely unhealthy. You’re giving your chickens 1 to 2 days, or perhaps a week if the run is large enough, to eat healthy vegetation and bugs they find on the floor of their run. Then what’s left is only bad – even poison sometimes – but they’ll eat that to the dirt if it’s the only vegetation they can find. It takes about a week for them to forage what little, unhealthy greens remain. (By now, all the bugs are gone and they only get the one or two that might crawl in from the sides once in a while.)
But your hassle level is high due to clean-up if you take care of your birds. Your hassle level is high if you bring them fresh grass, bugs, and more grass all the time.
Chickens poop. A lot. This was the biggest shocker to my system when we first got them. Man they poop a lot!
In the picture to the left, it would perhaps take a week or ten days before the 12 birds would eat all the bugs and healthy vegetation. You can build a coop-and-run with a large run like this and have healthy, happy chickens for up to two weeks. Oh boy!
(Full disclosure, we kept ours in such a coop-and-large-run for most of this summer until I had the time to finish our Best-Practice run which I’ll discuss shortly. Jayne was always manually supplying our ladies with grass, veggies, “scratch,” scraps, wheat, and other goodies. Still, they didn’t get all the bugs they needed and fresh grass and weeds that grow in which they scratch is always best. And we didn’t like the hassle any more than our chickens liked their living conditions!)
Having a coop and run if you feed them only chicken feed means your chickens will eat a diet they were never created to eat. This is the saddest part: they will instinctively search their whole lives for fresh grass and bugs and find none. This is what the majority of well-intentioned but ignorant chicken owners with coop-and-runs do to their birds. Their chances of illness are high – not as high as the Concentration Camp method – but their risk of dying or needing antibiotics are high, and my question to you would be this: Why wouldn’t you just buy “organic, free-range” eggs at the store instead of going to this hassle to raise unhealthy birds that will produce unhealthy food for your family?
You can improve the situation. The reason I don’t like this method, even if you improve it, is the MAJOR HASSLE FACTOR.
To raise healthy chickens and eggs in a coop-and-run method, you must constantly feed them grass clippings when you mow (what do you do in the winter months when you don’t mow?), you must constantly compost their dirt run floor by adding wood shavings and dry leaves to counteract the sky-high levels of nitrogen in the dirt they live in, you must constantly provide vegetation (quite easy if you toss them your table scraps and if you eat vegetables and fruit and have other scraps they like), and if you are serious about wanting healthy eggs to eat then you’ll find a way to provide them with bugs. (My friend Rich Bryda convinced me to get a mealworm farm. Coincidentally, Jayne was already researching it. Mealworm farms are fairly simple to grow. We’re going to start doing that to supplement their winter feed.)
Instead of manually trying to turn an unhealthy, high-maintenance coop-and-run situation into a mock-up of free-range by doing all of the above every day of their lives, you can move your coop-and-run every day or two. In most city backyards this is a wasted effort and impossible because the grass in the first dirt area will not be back by the time you’ve used up your whole yard and are ready to begin the rounds again. Plus, once grass begins growing, you do not want chickens to eat it until the grass is 7 to 9 days old because otherwise they destroy the grass and it won’t grow back. Your entire yard will look like the dirt floor of your coop-and-run.
If we lived in a city once again, we would have to do the coop-and-run method if we chose to have chickens. But we’d be out there composting daily with leaves, grass clippings, vegetation, and anything else we could scrounge from somewhere, we’d constantly be taking home food scraps from every restaurant we ate at, we’d constantly be cleaning and turning the dirt floor, we’d have to supply bugs somehow, and it would be a daily chore that could consume an hour or more.
But if you’re in the city, this is your choice if you want healthy eggs and happy chickens.
Yech. My allergy to hard work means I wouldn’t do it. I’d return to buying the lie-to-me-and-I’ll-act-as-if-I-believe-you “organic, free-range” eggs.
Method Three: Completely Free-Range – The Chickens Were Thrilled… Until They Were Killed
Letting your chickens run free is obviously not possible in the city.
The truly free-range method certainly appears to be the least hassle. We have friends who use this method successfully. This means your chickens have no coop, no fencing, no anything.
The problem for most people is four-fold:
- Not enough land for truly free-range (always true in cities)
- Danger from predators (see below),
- They poop everywhere! This means on your porch. This means on your cars. This means on your house. This means on your doorstep. This means on your driveway. This means on any tools you happen to leave outside for an hour or more. We could not let our dogs outside once because they would get their paws coated in poop! This hassle factor is completely unacceptable for us.
- Your truly free-range chickens will find a safe place to lay their eggs. You probably won’t find them! If you ever do find an egg or two in a hidey-place, you won’t know how old it is and you’ll have to toss it.
Still, free-range all over our acreage!
Our chickens were thrilled… until they were killed. – Truly free-range in a non-city area is the most unsafe environment for the birds. We speak from experience, because we would let ours out of their coop-and-run during the day when we first got them, thinking truly free-range was the answer before we learned the truth about raising chickens safely and healthily.
One day a single stray dog killed 80% of our birds within a single minute. Jayne saw it happening and yelled for me but we couldn’t scramble in time to do anything about it except bury the dead afterwards. Our friends who free-range don’t seem to have this problem but they live much closer to a highway and in a more densely-populated area. Their location surely keeps the predators more at bay.
The Best of the Best! Happy Chickens and Happier Owners
We’ve landed upon a solution that is best for us, adapted from Paul Wheaton who’s taught us so much.
We developed a “paddock system” for our chickens and I have only a few finishing touches to put on it before it’s final.
Here is a diagram of our chickens’ new home. All the straight lines are made from fencing:
The individual runs are each large, about 50 x 15 feet each.
This is all done with t-posts and farm fencing. The angled lines are gate-fences. Only one “run” or “paddock” will be open at a time, the others will be sealed off.
You might recall that you don’t want chickens (or cattle if you have cattle) eating new grass. Grass needs time to mature and grow. If they eat it too soon after it’s grown back from the last eating, the grass will get shorter and more stunted each round and eventually be unacceptable.
Every nine days, I will close off the currently-open paddock and open the one next to it. This means they will have fresh grass and vegetation that have 30 or more days to grow between cycles. It also means – and our chickens told me thanks so much!!! – that fresh bugs will be ready for them all the time! In 7 to 9 days, they will eat all the bugs and about 30-35% of the vegetation so it’ll be time to move them to the next one.
Health factor: 100%!
Cost: After purchasing the fencing (the cheapest fencing available is this t-post-based fencing I used, and it’s so easy to do that I did all the work myself (Jayne helped once in a while and I’m grateful! But for about 80% of this, I did it by myself. If I can do this, you can do this)), our chicken costs will be greatly reduced, especially by next Spring. Here is why: No matter how you raise chickens, you need to supplement with chicken feed of some kind. In the dead of winter with snow and ice on the ground, you have little choice. In addition, throughout the other months you need to supplement with it but obviously isn’t incumbent upon you to get chicken feed without antibiotics and without GMO stuff, etc. You can find it. (We plan to make our own feed someday by the way.) Still, with ample bugs and vegetation that the paddock system will constantly provide free of charge, your chickens will only eat the feed for sustenance if they’re in their nighttime coop and get hungry or if they just want something different (rare).
… this is the big thing: After rotating the chickens through these “paddock” runs throughout the late fall and winter and early spring, the ground will be well-fertilized without being over-fertilized with nitrogen from their poop. Things will grow exceedingly well in the paddocks! Next spring we will plant all sorts of vegetables as well as some fruit trees such as mulberry trees that chickens l-o-v-e. Th veggies should grow well because the chickens as they move from pen to pen will eat any bad bugs, fertilize and scratch the top of the soil to layer in their nitrogen-fertilizer poop, and after 2 to 3 years, the fruit trees will begin supplying a tremendous amount of food and bugs for the ladies to enjoy. Us too! We’ll eat the middle layers of fruit, the chickens can have the low-hanging fruit, and the birds can have what’s on top.
We should get to the place where the paddock system and its hen-powered vegetation will supply about 90% of the food they need, maybe 100% for many months of the year. The trees and veggies on the ground will give us produce as well. Others we read about who use this say they only supplement with feed in the dead of winter and the rest of the time their ladies ignore the feed. Again, we will probably begin making our own next year and it will have ingredients they were designed to eat so they will like it and our homemade feed will be good for them, even better than the about-as-healthy-as-we-can-find retail stuff we now use to supplement.
Their Nighttime Coop
One place where I went against Paul Wheaton’s suggested paddock system is that our coop stays put in a fixed location. We got a metal building from Lowes and retrofitted roosts and nesting boxes inside it. The ladies always go there at night. The man-about-town rooster Winston Churchill goes with them to protect them and to keep them as well-fertilized as they let him get away with.
In the daytime, the ladies go back into the coop building, often one-by-one, to lay an egg.
The building is a hassle in that we must go out there at night to close it up once they all go to bed on the roosting bars inside the building. In the morning, Winston Churchill starts crowing long before we’re ready to let them out but we must go out there and let them out as close to sun-up as one of us can manage for them to be fully happy.
In addition, we are about to drop into the coop floor a bunch of wood shavings and some dry leaves. Doing this adds carbon-based molecules to counter the chicken’s nitrogen-based poop. In theory, every morning they will scratch all this around and dig, combining it for us so we won’t need to do anything except about every six months take out the beautiful, rich compost that should be formed and add new wood shavings and leaves.
Paul Wheaton wants a movable chicken coop in each paddock so the coop is always over fresh ground every 7-9 days. This is just too much work in my opinion. He is correct that the ground around the coop building gets to be dirt after several days but even so, we are not at all limiting the chicken’s access to fresh bugs and grass and weeds and leaves due to the open always freshly-opened paddock available at that time.
Another Way We Will Reduce Hassle to Virtually Zero
With our paddock system, we will have reduced the human hassle factor to twice daily when we go let them out and put them up at night for safety, plus the time to get eggs if we decide to get them earlier than when we close up the coop building. We can buy an automatic chicken door that opens and closes on a timer or is light activated. At $200-300, you won’t see us doing that.
A great way to eliminate most of that work – again, the “work” only involves opening and closing their coop right now – (and making sure they have fresh water and scraps and food until the paddocks produce their gardens next spring) – but we can and will eliminate the work of opening and closing their coop building next spring when I put electric shock wire around the outside, near the bottom, of the outer perimeter fence. This will keep climbers such as raccoons and coyotes away. We also plan to put “hardware cloth” along the bottom foot and a half and fold it out a foot at a right-angle so that possums, some raccoons, and other digging predators cannot dig their way in to get eggs and birds.
Once I do that next spring, it’s my thought that we won’t have to close the coop each night or open it in the morning. The wire and hardware cloth should protect them well, even at night with an open door on the coop.
Now convincing Jayne that the ladies will be safe enough with the electric wire and hardware cloth won’t necessarily be simple. And her concerns for the safety of the birds might still be justified. But what the electric wire and hardware cloth does do for us, if nothing else, is it lets us leave for a day or or two at a time with things much safer than without those precautions. As it is now, if you don’t run a Concentration Camp chicken farm or a poison-grass coop-and-run, you have to let your birds out in the morning and close them in when they go in at night. The electric wire and hardware cloth makes it much more extremely difficult for predators to get in if we take a vacation for a few days and leave their coop door open.
If Paul Wheaton is correct, and he’s the paddock expert, the electric wire is all one needs as long as one has a farm protective outdoor dog. We have an outside large dog and she works to scare away predators at night. But we still might choose to manually open and close the coop’s chicken door daily for the most part out of extended concern since we live in the middle of virgin forest with all sorts of wild and dangerous critters all around us.
Go And Do Likewise
Although they are basically on autopilot now, by the middle of summer next year, our chickens will be virtually hassle-free. We’ll go out to get eggs. I plan to have a fresh-water supply system (many are available at surprisingly inexpensive prices), and the only real work is closing one paddock gate and opening the next every seven to nine days.