Chickens are remarkable. They produce fresh food in family-sized portions, both meat and eggs. They’re adaptable to a wide range of climates and varied purposes. Their manure, properly managed, can build your land’s soil fertility. They’re excellent foragers. And they’re easy to take care of. Once you’ve begun to raise a flock and have mastered the basics, you can learn how to improve and perpetuate your flock.
In this article, I’ll discuss these things and how they can come together on your small farm or family homestead. The emphasis here is on small-scale production. By this, I mean an individual family, an extended family or several families working together.
Improving Your Flock
When we speak of improving a flock, what do we mean by that?
Improvement can mean different things to different people. One person may care more about egg production. Another about meat. Or resistance to diseases.
Before you start trying to improve your flock, you have to begin knowing what your goals are.
Are you trying to produce all the eggs your family needs? How many eggs is that per week?
Do you want to raise meat? How many chickens do you need to harvest for meat each year?
If you want to hatch chicks under broody hens, that is another consideration.
First, begin to decide what your goals are. Then it will become more clear what type or breed of chickens to get and what to focus on improving. But also expect your goals, themselves, to become clearer and unfold over time.
Basic Goals for the Flock
Here are some of my goals for raising chickens. Yours may differ, but this will at least give us a starting point, and you can adapt from there.
- Produce all of the chicken that my family eats (30-50 chickens a year).
- Produce all of the eggs that my family eats and a surplus for hatching and for friends and family. Overall, we use about 20-35 eggs a week, depending on how much baking we’re doing.
- Keep our flock going from year to year by hatching chicks from our own flock.
Those are production goals, which form only part of the picture.
In addition, I want to integrate our chickens into our 10-acre homestead to help bring about the following:
- Improve our vegetable garden soil. Are there ways to house and use our chickens directly in garden areas to improve the soil, particularly during the off-season?
- Improve our pasture. We have about 8 acres of pasture on which we graze a horse and cows. Are there ways I can use the chickens to improve the soil to produce more grass each year for them?
- Benefit our fruit trees. We have a small but growing collection of fruit trees and vines: pear, fig, apple, blackberry and persimmon. How can we use the chickens to benefit those crops, both by building the soil fertility and organic matter and by helping control pests?
Less Tangible Goals for Raising Chickens
In addition, I have less tangible, but equally important reasons to raise chickens.
We raise chickens as a family. Several of my children regularly help care for them with me. We feed them together, discuss housing plans together and plan our hatches together. Although it’s work to raise them, it’s almost recreational and we learn a lot in the process. When we’re out caring for the chickens, we talk about many things, we also notice what’s going on in nature and take plenty of time to “smell the flowers.” An essential goal, then, is to keep our chicken raising on a scale where it continues to be enjoyable and refreshing.
Second, several close friends also have an interest in raising more sustainable flocks for meat and eggs. I want to approach what we do in a way that the things I learn can continue to “spill over” to help them. This includes advice, information and inspiration, but it also includes working together to perpetuate one or more breeds of chickens that are a good fit for our region and climate.
These are the main reasons that I’m raising chickens, and as you can see, these reasons and goals shape the scale and approach that I use to raise them.
Chickens are Very Adaptable
One of the main things that lets you improve a flock is the fact that chickens so adaptable. Here are a few of the ways they can and have been adapted from what is thought to be a common starting point:
- Grown chickens range in size from the slightly-over-a-pound Malaysian Serama to Brahmas and Jersey Giants that can weigh over 15 pounds.
- Hens, in their first year of laying, can range from breeds that lay 100 or fewer per year to breeds that have been known to lay over 360 eggs in a year. Egg size can vary greatly between different breeds.
- Chickens can live and adapt to thrive in climates as cold as Iceland and as warm as Ecuador.
- They can be raised in a wide range of housing configurations, from confinement to pastured or free-range (though they are more likely to thrive in pastured and free-range arrangements).
- Chickens vary from somewhat easy to tame to very flighty, depending on the breed.
- Some breeds are very likely to go broody and raise their young. Some make excellent mothers. Other breeds rarely set and hatch eggs and aren’t often good mothers.
All of this adaptability has led to hundreds of different breeds of chickens being developed over the years. This proliferation of breeds is no accident. Breeds were each developed for specific purposes and regions.
This points toward two conclusions when it comes to raising and improving a flock:
- You’ll have the best results if you start with chickens that are already a reasonably good fit for your climate and goals. You’ll have the fastest results with the fewest disappointments.
- By developing your own line of chickens, whether that’s an existing breed or not, you can further adapt your chickens to better fit your goals, climate and management style.
It Takes Active Involvement
Your flock won’t naturally improve by themselves in the ways that you want. It requires your participation. If you let your chickens breed haphazardly, the results won’t likely take you toward your goals.
You can expect chickens produced from an unmanaged flock to tend toward mediocrity in their egg laying and meat production. And it’s also likely that the more aggressive roosters will be the ones that reproduce more frequently, naturally passing on their aggressiveness to their offspring.
To improve your flock, you’ll need to have and follow a breeding plan. More on this shortly.
Ways You Can Improve Your Chickens
What we’ve already discussed about adaptability gives us some good ideas as to what we can adapt for practical and aesthetic reasons.
- Average weight at maturity
- Growth rate — how fast does the chicken reach processing size?
- Plumage color
- Average egg laying rate
- Temperament or disposition
- Activity level and foraging
- Broodiness and rearing of young
- Longevity of laying
- Resistance to disease
- Overall health and vigor
- Heat or cold tolerance
There is no perfect chicken that excels in every area. Instead, there are trade-offs. A chicken that grows more quickly and puts on more meat tends to not lay as prolifically as others (even within her same breed). An extremely active forager may not be as calm and friendly. It’s also important to maintain a balance between various traits.
This is why, again, it’s important to consider why you’re raising chickens and what you’re trying to accomplish. From there, you can choose a breed or type of chicken that’s a good fit for your goals. Then begin to adapt your own line to become an even better fit, while perpetuating them and raising them for food.
How To Improve Your Flock
There are two aspects to improving your flock. One focuses on the care that you give your chickens. That’s essential, but it only carries you so far.
The second aspect is slower and more long-term but carries us farther. That is, to adapt your flock through selective breeding. Selective breeding involves allowing your chickens to mate to produce fertile eggs, then hatching those eggs. But more than that, it involves being selective. Selective in which chickens you pen together to allow those matings. Selective in which eggs you hatch. And selective in what you look for in the offspring and which offspring you keep as breeders or cull for meat.
Selective breeding requires a plan. It’s a long-term project. For the first few years, you’ll largely be learning. Even if you already know quite a bit about genetics and breeding, you’ll be learning the tendencies of your breed, of your flock.
Over the first 5-6 years, you’ll develop a distinct line of chickens. And by following a breeding plan, you’ll be able to maintain that line for many years to come.
A Balance between Uniformity and Diversity
Two things that have to be balanced in a breeding plan are the need for improvement and uniformity and the need for diversity.
As you develop some very good chickens, you want to be able to produce more and more that are like your best chickens. That’s where uniformity and improvement come in. Those are achieved mainly through line breeding. But line breeding is a form of inbreeding. And if it is carried too far, inbreeding leads to problems. So it’s important to also maintain diversity. That is done by keeping more than one family line. Your breeding program will then involve breeding within a family line (line breeding) and crossing of two family lines (line crossing).
This is an area where it is very helpful to have additional families involved, where each maintains at least one family line.
If you are able to start with sufficiently good birds and follow a well-designed breeding program, ideally this will allow you to maintain diversity while improving your flock. And because you are maintaining diversity, it will allow you to perpetuate your flock without the need to bring in breeding stock from other sources.
Selective Breeding and Food Production Fit Together
Following a breeding program can fit together very well with raising chickens for meat and eggs.
It doesn’t take a lot of chickens to start working on improving a breed. All you need is a pair — male and female — though I would recommend starting with at least a trio.
Although that approach can work, you may find it difficult (and expensive) to find an excellent trio of starting stock. Instead, I think a better approach is to begin with as many straight run chicks as you can raise, and then select enough from those to form several family lines.
Generally, only about 10-20% of your chickens will be good enough to keep as breeders. Starting with 30 or 50 or even 100 chicks lets you be very selective about which chickens you keep for breeders, and raising them from chicks helps with the learning process.
Once you’ve gotten your starter stock and then narrowed these down to just a few to start a family line, the next step is to separate these chickens from all others and wait several weeks so you can be sure that the eggs are pure in regard to breeding.
Next, you gather and hatch eggs. In this region, March to May is the best time to hatch.
The chicks that you hatch will grow to maturity in about 6-7 months. March-hatched chicks will reach maturity in September to October. You’ll want to hatch enough chicks to select the best as breeders. Selecting and keeping the best as breeders is how you will improve your flock.
Determining the Size of Flock that You Need
To determine the flock size that you need, consider how many eggs you want to produce each week. Suppose you want 35 eggs a week. Suppose also that you’ve chosen a breed that lays about 5 eggs per week. From this, you know that you’ll need about 7 hens in your flock. You can adjust your flock size to give you just about the right amount of eggs.
Next, let’s consider how many chickens we need for meat
Suppose you are feeding a small family, and you use about 30 chickens per year. That’s slightly more than one chicken every two weeks. To supply enough chickens for meat, you’ll need to hatch at least 30 chickens per year.
If you keep your main laying flock size fairly constant at about 7 hens, you’ll be processing about 30 chickens per year for meat. Some of these will be from this year’s hatch — chickens that you are culling because they’re not good enough to keep for breeders. Others will be chickens that you’re retiring from your breeding and laying flock — older hens and roosters that aren’t as productive anymore. As mentioned in my other seminar, I recommend replacing about 1/3 of your laying flock each year to keep them productive.
If you have friends and neighbors who need chickens, you might consider hatching more, say 50 a year. Once I started raising a breeding flock, I’ve found that there are a few people each year who would like some of my chickens, so it’s always been helpful to have extras.
As shown, you can adjust your flock size based on how many eggs you need, and you can adjust how many chickens to hatch each year based on how much meat you need and how many chickens you plan to sell or give away. While you’re working to improve your breeding flocks, you’re producing the right number of eggs and the right amount of meat for your family.
This was a very brief introduction to the topic, but I hope it makes clear just how well all of this can work together. And again, it can work on just about any scale, whether you’re just needing to feed one or two people, or whether you’re trying to provide for an extended family of 30+ people. You simply adjust the flock sizes and the number of chicks that you hatch each year. And, of course, you’ll need plenty of housing to raise them in.
Integrating the Flock Into Your Homestead
You can use chickens in ways that benefit them while also benefiting your homestead. As mentioned earlier, chickens are valuable for improving the soil. If allowed to free range, they can also cut down significantly on various garden and orchard pests. Let’s look at several approaches.
Building Soil Fertility in the Garden
There are a couple of different ways you can use chickens to improve your garden soil.
One of the best approaches is called the “deep mulch method”. Basically, house them in a portable shelter with an open floor, placed on an area of your garden that you’re wanting to improve.
Now the chickens can scratch, peck and drop manure directly onto the ground. Next, add straw every so often. We usually get bales of wheat or sorghum straw each year, which works well. You can add about a one-inch layer at a time. The chickens will spread this around inside their pen, and they’ll drop manure directly on it. Once the bedding material gets somewhat soiled, add another inch or so of straw. Continue to do this every week or so until the bedding has built up into a thick, compacted mat about 4 inches deep.
Now move the chicken pen over a few feet, keeping the manure-laden straw in place. Let the straw and manure decompose for several months, and you will have a weed-free (unless you have Bermuda, but even it will be weakened), heavily fertilized area that’s ready to plant. Usually, the soil texture beneath the straw will be very nice and crumbly by that time and will be easy to work with.
Chickens also help to clean up garden areas at the end of the season, once you’re done harvesting. Electric poultry netting is useful for this purpose. It is easy to set up and can enclose a large area.
If you plant a cover crop in unused garden areas during the offseason, particularly winter, chickens can eat this down and speed up decomposition, helping you get your garden ready to plant. Poultry netting or portable bottomless housing both work well for this.
Building Soil Fertility on Pasture
When you’re raising animals on pasture, of the keys is to get the grass to regrow more quickly and more thickly after it has been grazed.
I’m definitely no expert on intensive grazing, but from what I’ve seen, this happens best when you put the livestock on the area for a short time, but with a high density, then move them off of that area and onto a new area quickly, letting the first area rest and recover.
If you leave your chickens on an area too long, they defoliate it and manure it heavily, and it takes longer to recover. If you instead let the chickens onto an area for just a day or two, let them graze it down and manure it, then move them, the grass tends to regrow more quickly. The same is true with horses or cattle.
A pasture that regrows quickly means more food for your other livestock to eat, which reduces your feed costs or can enable you to sustain more livestock.
There are several approaches to housing that work well for this. I use 10′ x 10′ portable hoop coops to move chickens around on pasture. These can house up to about 15 grown chickens comfortably and can be moved by hand.
Another approach is to build an “egg-mobile” on a trailer frame and surround it with portable electric netting.
Building Soil Fertility in the Orchard
For an orchard, similar to a pasture, we don’t want bare soil because that can lead to water runoff, erosion and the loss of nutrients. So we want to move the chickens regularly before they defoliate an area. Depending on the size of the orchard and the spacing of the trees, small “chicken tractors”, larger hoop coops or egg mobiles can work well.
The approaches described above for use in the pasture and orchard are known as “rotational grazing.” Chickens are “rotated” from one location to the next in a sequence of moves that eventually brings them back to their starting point. Again, this allows grass to recover and leads to healthier pasture.
A rotational pattern of grazing also helps to break the parasite cycle, since parasites won’t have time to reproduce and reinfect the chickens (or other livestock) before it’s moved to a new location.
It also benefits the health of the chickens. Chickens thrive when kept on fresh forage daily. Our chickens prefer the new grass over their own feed, and we have very few problems with illness or parasites when rotating our chickens in this manner.
Tools for Rotational Grazing
In summary, equipment that works well for rotational grazing include:
- Electrified poultry netting. It is available in 160′ (and smaller) sections. It’s useful for containing a large number of chickens. The netting takes about 30-45 minutes to set up or move, so it’s not the type of thing you’d want to move daily, but it lends itself to portable “yards” where you keep a flock for several weeks at a time. It’s not predator proof, but it does help to contain and protect the chickens (usually) during the daytime.
- Hoop Coops — The hoop coops that I use are about 10′ x 10′. They can contain about 15 mature chickens or a larger number of growing chickens. The white tarp provides shade in the summer but lets in diffuse light all year long. The open front and back give good summer ventilation, though some additional protection is needed at times during the winter.
- Chicken Tractors — “Chicken Tractor” refers to portable, bottomless chicken coops. There are many different designs. I prefer using a rectangular coop that’s 2-3′ tall, 3-4′ wide and 7-8 feet long. It’s smaller size lets you use it in areas where a hoop coop would be difficult to maneuver. The smaller size also lets it conform better to uneven ground.
- Egg-Mobiles — A coop built on a trailer or wagon. These are easy to move and can house medium to large flocks. They work well with electrified poultry netting to provide a portable “chicken run”.
By hatching and raising chicks from your own flocks each year, you can keep your flocks going without having to purchase chickens from other sources. By selectively breeding your chickens and keeping several family lines, you can improve your flocks and keep enough genetic diversity that you can perpetuate your flock indefinitely.
All of this goes hand-in-hand with food production. Your breeding flock will also be a laying flock. You’ll be renewing your flock each year by replacing some of the older, less productive hens with younger, more productive ones. Since you only want to keep the top 10-20% in your breeding flock, you’ll be culling plenty of chickens, both young chickens from this year’s hatch and older chickens that you’re retiring from your breeding flock. You can scale the operation to put just the right amount of meat and eggs on your table.
It’s best to think of chickens (and everything else on your homestead) as part of a larger whole. Then your chickens can be raised in ways that benefit the rest of your homestead — ways that go beyond meat and egg production.