The girls

This week we have a treat for you. As increasing numbers of people are getting involved in the “urban farming movement,” raising backyard chickens is becoming part of the equation. We have a member who not only has her own flock in her Northern California backyard, but is eager to share what she’s learned about raising them. So, here’s Suzy Dannette Brown on her “ladies”:

I certainly am no expert but this year I have been learning a lot about caring for chickens. The first thing I would say about raising them is, “Don’t be afraid to ask questions!” There never is a silly question. Of course, everyone has an opinion, so listen, but do what your gut feels is best for your flock.

How did I get into raising chickens? Well, I’ve wanted them since we bought our home in 2000. I have friends who have chickens and the thought of having fresh eggs sounded great. Dave, my husband, kept saying, “When we level the back part of the lot I’ll build you a coop.” I knew that was going to be a long time coming so I just kept on dreaming. Then last summer my next-door neighbor, who had a flock, moved to Modesto. The first thing I learned about chickens was that they can’t survive a move from one climate to another. So we inherited five lovely ladies. And so our journey began.

Today our flock includes one New Hampshire Red, one Rhode Island Red, two Black Sex-Links, and our newest one, an Americana. And the eggs we get from them are marvelous. The two reds lay brown extra large to jumbo eggs. The Black Sex-Links lay medium to large brown eggs. And our Americana lays blue or green eggs. And, by the way, if you’re going to raise chickens you must have at least two; they’re flock animals and won’t thrive alone.

I love raising my ladies; they are fun and bring me joy. People say chickens are not that smart. I will argue that they are very smart, at least about some things. For instance, they have a sophisticated flock hierarchy that involves eating order and leadership while roaming the yard—hence the phrase “pecking order.” I learned quickly that the sweetest hen you have can become the BIGGEST BITCH to new flock members. So properly introducing hens and chicks into the flock is so important.

For information on introducing new hens, chicks, and pullets to your flock go to the website Fresh Eggs Daily, a blog/website that is packed full of useful  information that is very simple to follow. They espouse the strategy of isolate, segregate, acclimate, and integrate. This is how I introduce new members now. In fact I am now trying to introduce my eight-week-old chick, the Americana, to the hens. We are in the segregation portion of the process. I am thinking maybe this weekend I will integrate her with the ladies. She seems ready, and a little lonely.

Amelia (aka Peep Peep)

Amelia (aka Peep Peep)

Feeding the Ladies
So, what do I feed the hens?

Well, as a personal chef you know I’m going to give them nothing but the best. I bring all my veggie scraps home for them to eat.

Chickens LOVE:

  • Herbs
  • Lettuce
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Spinach, kale, chard
  • Pumpkin/Squash seeds
  • Sweet potato skins

I give them fresh veggies every day. They also get a mix of organic laying pellets, a natural supplement to help the hens molting, mealworms and dried crickets, scratch blend (organic scratch, sunflower seeds, and dried fruit), and oyster and egg shells.

Once the little peep peep is integrated with the flock the laying pellets will stop for 14 weeks and they will get organic grow crumble since lay pellets have a high calcium content that chicks shouldn’t eat.

And, they always need fresh water.

To Name or Not To Name?
Well we tried not to name the ladies for the longest time. But then something happened. We would be talking about the chickens and could not differentiate between them. So now they have names, but we truly don’t consider them pets. However, I warn you. Chickens are livestock; the elements will kill them. Predators will take them. It happens and there is no way around it. I had a coyote take two and a neighbor dog take two.

So, even with that in mind, we have Sarah, Rhoda (of course), Phyllis and Flo, and Amelia, our new Americana peep peep.

How to Protect Against Intruders
I don’t have a fenced yard so I have to keep an eye on them when they’re let out of the hen yard—our enclosed open area attached to the hen house—to roam free. But I also have strategies in place to protect them, even when they’re in the hen yard, that I highly recommend.

I find that sprinkling cayenne pepper all around the outside of the hen yard and  house is effective. Skunks, raccoons, and some other rodents don’t like the smell and will stay away. This won’t guard against coyotes, however. They will stalk your house to learn your routine. So you have to be smarter than them and make sure that your chickens are completely enclosed when you’re not around to watch them.

If snakes are an issue in your area, you need to make sure that your fencing holes are less than one inch in diameter. Snakes will take the eggs and the chicks.

Coop

Rats and mice are a part of chicken raising. Rodents stress the chickens, will steal the eggs, and may harm your hens. I’m still working on how to eliminate this threat, but here are a few tips:

  1. When building your hen house and safe hen yard place one-quarter-inch metal fabric down as a foundation and make sure you run it up on the foundation board. This will keep the rodents from burrowing under the yard.
  2. Around the entire bottom of the fencing place the same metal fabric all around. This will help keep rodents and other intruders out of the hens’  safe zone.
  3. Keep your hen yard clean of debris. I rake the yard once a week to keep  uneaten food out of the yard. This will attract the rodents.
  4. NEVER leave food out; when I first got my hens there was a hanging feeder full of pellets. That is just a 24-hour buffet for the rodents. Only put out what the chickens will eat that day.

These things won’t totally stop the rodents but it will help keep them away. I live in the forest; this is part of my life.

Of course, there is another means of protection: get a cat!

Chicken Hawks and Other Birds of Prey, Plus Weather
Our current hen yard is covered, not only with chicken wire but also with opaque filon panels. We will be adding an unpaneled yard so the hens can bathe and bask in the sun. It is important that they have sunshine, and they like to look up in the sky to check for predators. But be sure to keep it covered with chicken wire.

Chickens don’t like mud and puddles, so make sure you have a dry spot for them during wet winter weather.

We’ve spent a lot on the hen house and caring for the ladies. We will never get that back in eggs. The joy these ladies bring our family is spectacular. I am having fun. Dave loves gathering the eggs and seeing who laid today and who didn’t. Watching the hierarchy is amazing. They play follow the leader, which  is funny to watch. The hens are sweet and some of them love a good butt scratch and neck rub. But the chicken bath is my favorite thing to watch.

Until next time! Be happy with your chickens!

Eggs

APPCA member Suzy Dannette Brown is the owner of The Brown Bag Personal Chef. She lives and works in Northern California.

Do you have chickens? Do you want to raise chickens and have questions for Suzy? Be sure to leave a comment!

Not an APPCA member? Now’s the perfect time to join! Go to to personalchef.com to learn about all the benefits that come with membership.

Note: Photos courtesy of Suzy Dannette Brown

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