A-Z Gardening in Zone 3-4

For the organic gardner struggling in the short season climate

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The Backyard Chicken Flock

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Having a flock of chickens and gardening go hand in hand.  The chickens not only eat a lot of garden and kitchen scraps and provide manure for the garden and they also lay eggs.  Chickens you raise yourself will provide you and your friends and neighbors with wholesome and delicious eggs.  Because they eat bugs, worms, grass and scraps from the garden and kitchen their egg yolks have a dark orange color and are higher in nutrients than eggs you get from the store , they taste different too.

Chickens  need to have water and  laying mash available at all times and need to be fed scratch grain and oyster shells daily.  I usually give them one grain scoop of scratch grain with some oyster shells added to it a day. The oyster shells help keep their egg shells strong. Most feed companies have organic chicken feed.

I have had a flock of chickens since 1968, they came with the farm.  I keep a small flock ranging from between 13 and 20 birds.  I prefer Rhode Island reds and Buff  Orphington breeds.  Rhode Island roosters are the very gentle and will not fly at you or attack you when you go into the chicken yard to collect eggs.  Buff Orphington’s are the best mothers although Rhode Island reds are very good mothers too.

When we first started keeping chickens we didn’t pay much attention to the breed of rooster.  We learned early on that some breeds are very aggressive and protective of their hens.  They can be very dangerous especially to children as they will fly at you with feet forward at your face and can cause serious injury.  We have had a number of roosters, until we discovered the qualities of the Rhode Island Red,  that we had to take a good sized stick with us to fight off the rooster while collecting eggs.  One time my late husband hit the rooster so hard that he thought he killed it.  It laid there for a while, than got up.  We dispatched that rooster soon after as he had become much too dangerous to have around.

You do not have to have a rooster with your hens for them to lay well.  You only need one if you want to raise your own chicks.  One rooster for up to thirty hens is enough, more that one and they will fight and disrupt egg laying. I raised my own chicks for many years.  To raise chicks you put five to nine eggs, it has to be an uneven number, one for her to put under her breast,  under a broody hen. It takes twenty one day for chicks to start to hatch.  The last few years I have been buying chicks and putting them under broody hens to care for them.  You’ll know when a hen gets broody, that’s when she wants to raise chicks, when she refuses to get off the nest.  A hen will sit on a nest for months some times.  The only way you can break up a set, ( a broody hen) is to move her to another location.  A hen will stop laying eggs when she has been broody for a while.

Broody hens will accept chicks that they did not hatch as long as they have been sitting on false eggs.  When the chicks arrive at the Post Office, see picture above, I put them in a cardboard box with a 25 watt light bulb for heat and some chick starter food and water until it gets dark.   Then I remove the false eggs and put the chicks under her. When she hears the chicks peeping she will start to make low clucking sounds to them.  You can raise chicks without a hen in an incubator.  If you already have hens it’s much easier this way and they will be able to eat grass and bugs at an earlier age.

It’s good to keep a flock of hens going by starting your own eggs or buying chicks every year or so.  The life span of a chicken is about five years although I have had some that lived longer.  Hens that are three years old or older will not lay eggs every day.  The older they are the fewer eggs they will lay a week.  That’s why it’s a good idea to raise your on chicks at least once a year in order to keep the flock young.  You always have replacement hens and a new rooster when you need them.  Extra hens and roosters can be sold or if you are disposed, you can eat them.  For me it’s too much work to prepare them for cooking and because they are free range they tend to be  tough.

Free range means not in a cage, they don’t have to be let loose all over the place.  I have my hens fenced in a very large yard.  I used to let them range free in the spring and fall, however, the first thing they would head for were my flower gardens.  After a few years of trying unsuccessfully to keep them from digging up my flowers, I penned them in.  Now everyone is happy.