Harvest Creations: My first month of Backyard Chicken Keeping

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You know how you just marvel over how your child (or niece or nephew, neighbor’s kids, your grandkid) grows so fast? Multiply that by four when it comes to your chicks. No, not the girl you picked up at the bar last night, honey! Your future fresh-egg layers. Chicks. Pullets. Hens. AKA The Girls.

This is what they looked like when we brought them home on March 2nd:

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This is what they look like now:

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They grow fast. What you learn about being a chicken keeper grows fast, too. What I’ve learned so far about raising chickens:

  1. Your brood incubator probably needs to be twice as large as what the “experts” say.
  2. Put bedding heavier in the corners because the scratching and pecking seems to be concentrated there.
  3. Handle your chickens often – this isn’t something outside of what the experts say, but they are not afraid of us any longer (even if they bitched when I had to transport them to “cleaning box”).
  4. My neighbors reacted surprisingly cool to our journey into becoming poultry keepers.
  5. You need to build your permanent coop faster than you think.

Musing over the past month of keeping The Girls (which you superstitiously must call them so they don’t get any ideas on becoming a rooster), I have decided that chickens are a gateway to building things. It’s kind of like when some comics talk about how smoking weed leads to making a bong or pipe out of anything and everything. As a backyard chicken keeper, you’re constantly trying to figure out how you can cheaply make your own coop, feeder, waterer. Why? Because buying a commercial pre-built coop – or waterer or feeder – is  expensive! Remember, I’m a freelance pen monkey; it’s feast or famine around here. So, cheap it needs to be (not cheep!).

In our area, a coop that is large enough for two hens costs about $450. We have 8 hens (hopefully, we’ll know in a couple of months for sure). So a coop to house our brood would run about a cool grand, easily. We also noted that they weren’t very well made or had good ventilation or good cleaning access. So, we decided that while The Girls were in the brood incubator we would build their eventual future home.

We wanted to keep costs down so we tried to reclaim as much as we could. That drove the plans. What also drove the plans was the space we had to keep them in. We started with an old bunk/loft bed that went through four of our 5 kids. We gleaned old hinges, etc. We did have to buy hardware cloth, a few 2 x 2s and roofing materials. I’m thrilled with what we ended up with, for sure. A few lessons include:

  1. Take into account that you’ll need to access framing when you mount the hardware cloth. We had to slow down on construction because this was time-intensive because of how we framed our coop. Also, hardware cloth is easier to work with in sections as opposed to the whole roll.
  2. Hinges are the devil’s work, and frakking expensive, too.
  3. If we could do it from all new lumber, we’d use a lot more 2x2s and 7/16” exterior-grade plywood. It would cut the weight down by more than half, making our goal for it to be more mobile. It’s hefty right now, but no windstorm is going to knock it down either.
  4. You will drag out all your cool tools that you haven’t used in a while. Don’t have cool tools? Better find a buddy who does. You’ll need ‘em.

Here’s the coop building in a picture slide show:  http://bit.ly/1e9mubV

In total with the cost of the chicks, the feed, wood chips, hay, heat lamp bulb, containers to store aforementioned materials, and (again, why are these so expensive!) hinges, our initial chicken investment was $369.80. Still cheaper than pre-fab equipment. Our waterer cost us a dollar (I’ll do a blog post on that later). Our feeder, $5.99.  The roofing material was the most expensive – but we needed it to hold up to Western Washington wind storms and rain. Regardless we saved about $750 by doing it ourselves. Obviously this doesn’t include our labor, especially that of the lead architect, engineer, and foreman, my husband. It was a labor of love – or rather, for his love that he did it. Regardless, our coop gives us obnoxious access to help clean and get the eggs, or lay feed, all the things you need to do to make backyard chicken-keeping as sanitary and safe as possible for both humans and poultry. Most prefab stuff doesn’t have that. I have fellow backyard chicken keepers that have done prefab and end up mod’ing their coop extensively.

At the going rate for organic, cage-free, well-cared-for-and-loved pullets’ fresh eggs, that means my Girls need to lay about 61 dozen eggs (and yes, I plan to keep track) for me to get back what I put into it. That’s just their value as egg producers. They also have given our family a bit of a project we all contributed to, taught my children a few things, and given my husband and me hours of enjoyment just watching their stupid butts. And stupid they are. Adorable. Loyal. But stupid. There is no such thing as a smart chicken, I read once while preparing to become a backyard chicken keeper. How true that is. However, two in my brood are smarter than most in the lot, and two of the eight are dumber than the lot.

There will be further mods to the Coop DeVille, as we’re calling it (every backyard chicken keeper makes a pun on their Coop name, it seems). We already made one – access to the below (another blog post down the road). Additionally, we plan to carve out a Coupe DeVille-shaped window to give The Girls more light. We also are trying to make ours more of a mobile/tractor coop. Currently we move it with a tow strap and a dolly. Further investment will be made in order to more simply move it around the yard. Right now it will get moved once a week. Also, I’ll be making some more decorative accompaniments, to include some herbal hanging baskets around to keep flies down. (Yes, there will be another blog post).

Maybe this whole backyard chicken keeping is a foolish man’s folly. Maybe I won’t get my return on investment. I don’t feel that way right now. But if you’re thinking about getting chickens, be sure to understand you’re going to be building things (unless you have the cash outlay to just pay someone like my hubby to do it for you). Our chicken coop was our gateway drug. We’re building a duck pen now, as we’re also rescuing a mated pair of ducks. So far we’ve spent a little bit of gas to pick up an old dog house to mod into the Duck pen.

Guess I better go set up another spread sheet.

While I do that, won’t you tell me about your backyard chicken experience? What have you learned? If you’re considering it, what questions do you have?

Let’s talk chickens…or ducks.

The last day in the brood incubator. Time to be real hens in the Coop DeVille.
The last day in the brood incubator. Time to be real hens in the Coop DeVille.

 

Gry Ranfelt

Only thing is that during winter they don’t really lay a lot of eggs.
And then in the summer they lay so many you’ll have to give them away, ahaha.
Also: Less food waste. Chickens eat EVERYTHING!

CaszABrew

Agreed. They love kitchen scraps, and they’ll get lots more once harvest season starts coming. Right now I still have them on medicated feed in addition to scraps. They have a few more weeks of that. They are so incredibly healthy right now, I’m so happy. But, also surprised because I got 8 chicks after everyone said there would be attrition. We still could lose to predators, but our coop is pretty solid in that regard, but my area is very heavy with predators — Bald Eagles, Hawks, Owls, Raccoon, Opossums, Coyote, and the occasional cougar and bear. So although the Coop DeVille is heavy, it’s pretty predator-resistant, we believe. I suppose it’s being tested now. Thanks for visiting my little corner of the web here.

Darian Carson

Did you draw plans first and know exactly what you wanted? Can you close the bottom off at night when they are roosting and keep them warmer (and probably safer too) that way?

I’m keeping an eye on your progress and my sister-in-law’s (who is not doing as well so far). She had a fire in her turkey shed and lost two turkeys. They think the heat lamp blew over in strong winds (they’re in WVA), but luckily they saw the fire in time to save all the others and most of the turkey shed. [YIKES!!] Her 12 year old son was pretty bummed–he was pretty attached to the turkeys. They have chickens as well.

I’m looking forward to your next post!

CaszABrew

Yes, the ramp is the dormer door. So every morning and night I have to open and close it. The pully string pulls it closed at night. We looked at lots of plans and had an idea of the materials we had and how we could make it work. No plans exactly. Just tried to make it as large as we could with what we had.

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