Editor’s note: Midwest Messenger Correspondent Barb Bierman Batie has 52 years of experience with raising poultry, starting on her parents’ farm in Northeast Nebraska at age 10. She has hosted workshops on raising and showing poultry for local 4-H clubs and taught a beginning poultry course at her area community college learning center.
Somewhere between the second and third week of life, those cute little fuzzy chicks that arrived from the hatchery begin to radically transform. They start getting feathers on their wings and as those feathers begin to cover the rest of the body, the fuzz starts dropping off. About three-four weeks of age, they look downright awkward and homely.
Welcome to what some poultry producers call the “teenage stage.” In addition to gaining a new set of primary feathers, at this point you can begin to tell the difference between males and females. Young males are called cockerels and will show larger combs. Females will have smaller combs and be smaller in size with more muted coloring in their feathers. At this stage they are called pullets.
It is important that their feed contain 18 percent protein to help them grow strong muscles and develop good structure. However, make sure the feed contains no more than 1.25 percent calcium, as too much calcium may have a detrimental impact on their growth. Look for a complete starter feed when checking labels; they provide just the right balance for your growing birds.
If you have chosen broilers to use for meat, it is important to remove the feeders at night starting at about two weeks of age. If left with the chicks overnight, they will continue eating around the clock and gain weight so fast their legs will be unable to support them. Today’s meat breeds are bred to grow and gain weight quickly, but as in humans, too much of a good thing can lead to disaster.
Adding a multivitamin supplement to water during these weeks is recommended to help provide necessary nutrients for this rapid growth. Follow the directions on vitamin packets carefully, as concentrations will vary from company to company for dilution.
By five weeks, most broilers have reached the optimum four- to five-pound range desirable for butchering for meat. If you have never butchered before, there are several methods for home butchering and there are plenty of YouTube videos and articles by experienced backyard poultry enthusiasts. Research these options to determine what will work best for you.
Once the meat birds are gone, for pullets the next growth stage occurs at around 16-17 weeks of age. At this time it is prudent to switch from a starter-grower feed to a layer concentrate with at least 16 percent protein. To ease the digestive transition between feed types, mix the feed half and half for four to five days and then gradually convert totally to the layer concentrate. In addition, if you have been feeding crumbles, then choose a layer concentrate in crumbles. If you have been feeding pellets, use pellets as that smooths the transition.
At about 18 weeks, the coveted first egg arrives and the pullets may now be called hens. Some breeds lay earlier than others so if there aren’t any eggs until 20-22 weeks, don’t be dismayed. From then until about age 18 months, it will be business as usual and that is when the first molt occurs.
During molting season — which usually happens in the fall as the days become shorter — your flock will take a break from laying eggs and shed feathers for several weeks. This is a purely natural occurrence but means egg production is greatly reduced.
Because protein is a key nutrient to keep a flock strong during molt, it is prudent to switch to a feed with 20 percent protein at this time. Feathers are 80-85 percent protein and a higher concentration is required to produce the next set of feathers. Once the birds start laying again, you can switch back to a layer feed to meet calcium needs for strong eggshells.
A good supplement to help birds produce strong eggshells is oyster shell. It can be placed in a shallow can in one end of the feeder or anywhere that is easily accessible to your birds.
Having your own eggs is one of the best parts of raising your own poultry and why the backyard poultry movement has gained such momentum. One thing to note is that eggshells have a “bloom,” a natural coating that protects the egg from bacteria. Avoid washing eggs if you can, and if there is a small spot, rub or wipe it with a rough, dry cloth. Highly soiled eggs may be washed in warm water and scrubbed with a vegetable brush. Cold water will cause the egg to shrink and possibly draw in bacteria.
There is nothing quite like a farm fresh egg. Eggs purchased in the grocery store have usually been on the shelf for at least a month and although once in refrigeration they keep quite well, the yolks and whites do gradually start to degrade and don’t stand up as well in the frying pan.
Raising chickens is a good way to teach youth responsibility. It is much cheaper and requires less space to raise a half dozen chickens than a few sheep, hogs or cows. Many youth join 4-H or FFA to learn more about livestock and part of the fun is getting to show their animals at county fair.
Instructional manuals are available in either program to assist youngsters in learning about all the growth stages, the parts of their animals, and all the feed and pen requirements already discussed in this series. They will learn you have to wash chickens before the fair, how to treat and heal bruised combs from fighting roosters, how to keep lice and mites at bay and how to get that special shine on their birds’ feathers before a show.
The hardest part with small flocks is they are more than likely to become family members, just like your pets. Parting ways isn’t easy, but the hard fact is hens will stop laying sometime around three years of age. For optimum production, it is best to only keep hens for 18-24 months and then either turn them into chicken soup or retire them.
Keeping yourself and your birds healthy is always job number one. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention note no matter how hard children may beg, live poultry should never be left to wander inside a home, especially the kitchen. Do not let live poultry in areas where food or drink is prepared, served or stored.
Don’t snuggle or kiss the birds, touch your mouth or eat or drink around live poultry. Always wash your hands with soap and water right after touching live poultry, because birds carry harmful germs such as Salmonella. While it doesn’t make the birds sick, it can cause serious illness when passed to humans.
It is also advisable to clean equipment used to care for live poultry outside, such as cages, feeders or water containers. Set aside a pair of shoes to wear while taking care of your poultry and keep those shoes outside of the house or in a special mud room away from living quarters.
Chicken ranching has its ups and downs. There will always be varmints that crave the occasional chicken dinner — the neighbor’s dog, or even your own, may chase a poor hen until she nearly dies from fright; and some birds think it fun to stray far from home, never to be seen again.
But in the end, you have meat and eggs for the table, no more than a short walk away.
Resources used for this series and for presentations to youth and community college classes include: “Choosing and Keeping Chickens,” by Chris Graham; “The Joy of Keeping Chickens,” by Jennifer Megyesi; “Pure Poultry,” by Victoria Redhed Miller; “The Backyard Chicken Bible,” by Eric Lofgren; “The Beginner’s Guide to Raising Small Animals,” by Carlotta Cooper; “The American Standard of Perfection, 2001,” by the American Poultry Association, Inc.; “Flocking Together,” by the 4-H Cooperative Curriculum System; “Guide to Chickens,” from GRIT magazine; “Chick Brooder” and “Chickens Winter Prep,” field guides by the editors of “Hobby Farms” magazine; www.mcmurrayhatchery.com; www.hobbyfarms.com; and www.grit.com.
Barb Bierman Batie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.