Published July 18, 2022

Chickens-Key to Self-Reliance

Written by
Charlene Nelson
| The Dakotan

Even though I've had chickens for eight years, I've never recommended raising chickens as a part of prepping or self-reliance, until now. Today's food prices are increasing at nearly three times the rate of wage increases. Recent avian flu outbreaks have triggered the destruction of millions of chickens. The result is, once moderately priced chicken meat is becoming increasingly more expensive and in some parts of the country, there are serious egg shortages. It may be time to rethink the importance of having chickens as part of your food plan. [Insert hyperlink: https://mydakotan.com/2022/05/should-you-get-food-storage/]

Is it Legal?
Most cities today allow residents to keep chickens in their backyard. If your city doesn't allow it, now is the time to present your case to the city council and get a reasonable backyard chicken ordinance passed. Every city ordinance is different, so check with your city to see what the requirements are. Ordinances typically will ban roosters, limit the number of chickens you can have and require you to keep them penned.

Are chickens right for you?
Chickens are flock animals. That means they are happier with lots of friends. Two is the minimum, but four makes for a happier flock. Four chickens will give you 15 to 20 eggs a week, plenty for a family of four.

Keeping chickens is surprisingly easy and inexpensive. The biggest demand is space. For four chickens you'll need about 60 square feet, about the size of a small backyard garden. The next big investment is their food and shelter. They'll need a coop, a feeder, a waterer and a nice bed of straw or dry leaves.

They require far less time and money than a dog or cat. It will take just five to ten minutes of attention a day, to check food and water and collect the eggs. If you have young children, this is the perfect job for them. They'll learn invaluable lessons in caring for animals and the connection humans have with their food.

Chickens don't make a lot of noise, certainly far less than a dog. And if you manage the bedding in the coop well, they do not smell.

But the best part of keeping chickens is that, once they start laying eggs, they quickly pay for themselves.

Choosing a breed
Ask ten chicken owners what their favorite breed is and you'll get ten different answers. They are all lovely animals, each with different endearing characteristics. You may look for characteristics like egg production, egg color, how cold hardy they are and if they can also be used for meat.

I look for heavier birds that continue to lay well during our frigid winters. I've had good results from the Wyandottes. They are calm birds that tolerate our winters well. There are several Wyandotte breeds, each with different colors and feather patterns.

The Australorp and Orpington breeds are also good layers that do well in our area. Beilefelder has become a popular breed in our area but I'm not convinced yet that it does better than the Wyandotte and Australorp.

Raising Chicks
Once you decide what breeds to get, you'll need to order your chickens. There are three ways to get chickens:

(1) Order them online. There's a wide variety to choose from and the prices are often cheaper than other sources. However, once you factor in shipping, it may not be such a great deal. Most nurseries have a safe and healthy guarantee so you don't need to worry about the chicks dying in transit.

(2) Local farm and feed stores. In the spring most local farm and feed stores have chickens for sale. This is usually the cheapest source of chicks you'll find. But farm stores limit their stock to the top-selling breeds. If you want an unusual breed, you may be out of luck.

(3) Local hatcheries. Local hatcheries tend to be a bit more expensive than the online mega-nurseries, but you can be assured that the chicks and their mommas have been raised humanely. They also tend to stick to breeds that do well in our area plus you'll get lots of personalized attention.

Early spring is the best time to start chickens. Depending on the breed, it takes 14-18 weeks before the chicken is mature enough to lay eggs. The easiest time to get them all grown up and mature is during early spring. That doesn't mean that you can't do it now. Just know that if you get chickens now, they will start to lay eggs in November. That's when our cold weather starts to set in and it can be a stressful time, especially for a young hen who has just started laying.

You can keep baby chicks in just about any space that is not drafty and is out of the way: on an enclosed porch, the laundry room or a room in the basement. They just need a large box or enclosed area that is at least two feet high, to prevent them from getting out. I put a bit of chicken wire on top of the box to keep them from escaping and keep the curious children and pets out.

For the first week their brooding box needs to be kept at 95°, so you'll want a heat lamp or a heater that cannot be tipped over. Each week lower the heat 5°. Once they lose their down and grow true feathers, they won't need the extra heat.

Baby chicks are small and easy to handle. But they grow quickly, getting noticeably bigger every day. By the time they're four to five weeks old they'll be taking up a lot of space and making a big mess. That's when it's time to move them into the coop.

If this seems like a lot of information, it is. There's more chicken information than will fit into a column. But you'll find a whole encyclopedia of chicken how-to on the internet. If you think raising chickens might be a good part of your self-reliance plan, start reading up now and learning all you can so you can be ready to go next spring.

Next week I'll write about setting up your chicken's home and getting them off to a good start.

Questionnaire to help you choose a chicken breed: https://www.mypetchicken.com/chicken-breeds/which-breed-is-right-for-me.aspx
My favorite source of chicken-raising information: https://www.mypetchicken.com
North Dakota Hatchery: https://www.woodburyhatchery.com/
Check BisMan online sales for individual breeders who sell.

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