Saturday, March 16, 2024

Backyard Chickens - One Year Later

Just over one year ago we got backyard chickens. This came after almost ten years of working with the town council (i.e. badgering them) to change our town's ban on chickens. The week after the chicken bill passed, we had our chicks in a brooder in the garage. 

If you want to read about the beginning of our chicken era, you can check it out here

But here are eleven unexpected things that were learned through our journey. 

1. Easter egg hunts are real life - We had a two week period when egg production went down. I was trying to figure out why they had stopped laying, and my friend, who has raised chickens for a long time, said that they must be laying eggs somewhere else in the yard. I looked around and didn't find anything. Several days later I was checking the landscaping. I saw a chicken in the bushes, and sure enough, I found the nest with half a dozen eggs in it. This happened again yesterday, with 7 eggs from at least two chickens being found under a different bush. If you think your chickens have stopped laying, they very well could be laying somewhere else. 

2. If  you don't want the daily Easter egg hunt, consider some portable nesting boxes. I built  three of them, and placed them around the yard where the chickens tended to congregate. One gets used daily. The other two occasionally. 

3. One square foot of artificial turf works great for nesting boxes. You can find these as samples in many landscaping stores, often for a dollar or two or for free. These can be washed and brushed out, and the chickens tend to enjoy laying on them. A lot less work than regularly replacing straw. 

4. Do you remember the McDLT from the '80s? It keeps the hot side hot and the cold side cold? Raising chickens is like a year long McDLT. In the summer, we have to keep them cool (check out the article linked above for that journey). In the winter, we have to keep them warm, but we don't have to do much. Unless temperatures are well below freezing (which they are not in Phoenix), they do not need a heater. They just need an enclosed coop where they can stay warm at night. Not convinced that that is enough? Consider adding some red pepper flakes to their feed or scratch in the winter. My chickens love scratch with red pepper flakes, and they seem quite content, even in the 35 degree mornings. 

5. Chickens love interacting with people, especially if you start when they're chicks. To keep them
comfortable with people, my family and I will regularly let them eat seed or scratch out of our hands. The more you feed, pet, and hold them, the less skittish they will be around people. In fact, when I come home from work, go into the backyard, and say, "Here chick chicks", the entire flock will come running to greet me. It is fantastic! 

6. Hens need around 14 hours of light to stay productive with their laying. In the winter months, as we have fewer daylight hours, I have added a string of Christmas lights on a timer to the inside of the coop. I went from one egg every other day to three eggs per day. 

7. Chickens love treats. We have their regular feed, and I recently got some scratch to try out. It's like candy! In fact, heaven forbid I come into the backyard with a plastic container similar to the one I keep the scratch in. They will follow me around expectantly looking for the scratch. And if I don't give them a treat, they will squawk like a two year old wanting another piece of candy. Or more scratch. Or worms. 

8. Chickens typically return to their coop at night on their own, but this needs to be verified. Once, we were out a little late, and unbeknownst to me, the door to the coop had been knocked closed by one of the chickens. When I went to close up the coop after dark, the chickens were asleep in various places around the outside of the coop. I had to scoop the sleepy birds up one by one and shove them into the coop. Another time, I did a head count and one was missing. I did a cursory search around the yard and couldn't find her. Fearing having to tell my kids that one of the chickens had been eaten by another animal, I frantically searched around the yard for her. After about 20 minutes, I found her in the corner of a planter tucked under a tree. And under her I found three eggs (see #1-2 above). Nightly headcounts IN the coop are imperative. 

9. Fresh, unwashed eggs do not need to be refrigerated. Eggs have a coating called the bloom on the outside of the shell. This coating protects the egg from bacteria entering into the porous shell. Eggs will stay fresh at room temperature for about two weeks. I did get tired of our cardboard egg cartons on the counter, so I made a wooden egg holder out of some walnut scraps just to add a little class to our egg production. 

10. If you have found eggs in the yard and don't know how old they are, or if you have messed up the rotation on your counter, you can use the float test to determine the freshness of the eggs. Submerge the egg in cool water. If it sinks on its side, it is fresh (but the bloom has been washed off and you will need to refrigerate it). If it sinks but stands on its end, there is some air in the egg. It is older but still good to eat. If it floats to the top of the water, it is no longer fresh and should not be eaten. 

11. Sometimes chickens look like death. They molt about once per year. They look like phoenixes that are about to burn up. They act weird, stop laying, and look absolutely terrible. This is normal (I guess), and once their feathers grow back in they get back to their previous selves. 

There you have it. I'm sure in the coming years I will have many more things that I will learn, so stay tuned for more chicken updates. Is there anything that I missed? Add a comment below and let me know about your chicken journey. 

Happy chicken farming!