It’s the season of baby chicks. Chicken people are planning their flocks for the coming year, and people who are considering chickens are seeing baby chicks showing up in the stores.
I did my very best research before we became chicken owners. I had wanted chickens for years, so I had plenty of time to read books and research online. Mostly, all the information out there is the same, and some of it’s really good.
But there are so many things I wish I had known going in. I think there’s a lot of information that seasoned chicken farmers forget to tell us when we’re just starting out. Even after just 3 years with our chickens, I’m already thinking of things I’ve learned and then forget to tell others about.
But, as we begin another baby chick season, I wanted to put together a list of some key lessons I’ve learned—some of them hard lessons. My hope is that it can help others who are considering chickens.
- Getting chickens that are awesome layers can come with some health costs.
When you’re researching breeds, sources often do not tell how you much variation there can be within a breed. And, if you’re like me, when you’re researching a chicken breed for egg-laying potential, you are really just thinking about egg laying potential. While some people do keep chickens just as pets, most people who raise chickens are also in it for the eggs. They’re extremely nutritious, and chickens are very generous to us.
However, what I didn’t know is that chicken breeds that have been bred to be extreme layers also sometimes come with health problems associated with being a layer that can lay at commercial levels. Even within a breed, such as Rhode Island Reds, the hens we started with, there can be great variation. I wish I would have looked for a heritage version of the RIR. Our girls have laid like commercial layers, and they’ve struggled with some genetic issues as a result.
- It’s going to be really hard to take a vacation again.
Once you start adding farm animals to the equation, it can be really difficult to find friends to take care of everyone and everything if you want to take a vacation, especially if it’s for more than a few days. Keep this in mind and plan carefully. Think about people you know and trust to watch your chickens if you like to travel. Our family hasn’t taken a vacation since we got our chickens. I’m okay with this, but it’s something to be aware of.
- Chickens hide their health problems.
Chickens are very easy to care for—until they’re not. And the issues come from the fact that chickens will hide their health problems. They don’t want to get picked off by a predator, so they’re extremely stoic. This can make it difficult to diagnose health issues in your chickens.
- Winters can be tough on your flock, but it’s not as bad as you might think.
If you live in the north, all you have to do is get breeds that do well in the winter. You don’t have to heat the coop, and you don’t have to keep them cooped up and never let them outside. In fact, never going outside is one of the things that makes winter so difficult for your chickens. They’ll start to go stir crazy. I’ve seen this on blizzard-like days here in Maine. When the girls can’t go out, it’s hard on them mentally. So we shovel the snow and get the outside as soon as we can.
If your chickens don’t like walking on the snow, put down leaves for them to walk on and scratch around in.
Key problems in winter are ventilation issues, coop fires, and chickens hurting each other from being literally “cooped up.” I know there’s an urge to “baby” our chickens. I feel the same way, but I’ve seen what works best for our girls. They have tough feet and thick feathers.
With that said, I’ve seen reports of chickens losing feet and combs from this year’s deep freeze in Maine. If temperatures really dip, depending upon your coop set up, you may need a plan B, and that plan B shouldn’t be using a heat lamp. I’ve seen story after story about coop fires from heating lamps.
- Predators are going to stress you out.
Predators are an issue, and they come from overhead and on the ground. Neighborhood dogs are also a serious issue for many backyard flocks. Keep your chickens in a fence with plenty of space to run around if you can.
- Chickens are wicked smart and very social.
I figured chickens were smart, but I had no idea how smart. They are social, interactive, have friends, and have chickens they don’t like. They solve problems and know people. If you’ve never had chickens and are thinking of getting some, you’re going to be highly impressed—and highly entertained. They’re also downright funny.
- No matter how many chickens you start with, you will want more.
This is just a reality. Start preparing for it and try to be reasonable about it with yourself. You want to be able to care for your chickens well. If you’re over-extended with too many animals, how will you care for them? I totally understand wanting more. We started with 17 and now have 22, but that’s really our max for our coop and our lives. When we’ve tried to add more than that, things have gotten tough. Be aware of your limits and think through those urges to want more chickens.
- It’s difficult to research care for chickens because even the “experts” disagree.
I’ve seen people have knock-down drag-out fights on chicken forums over the best ways to care for chickens. Even the “experts” will disagree quite a lot to the point of having completely opposite opinions. It’s also tough to find research on the web about chickens because so much of the research focuses on chickens as a part of the food industry. Find someone you can trust who’s been raising chickens for a long time. It’s my best advice.
- Genetics are important, so hatchery chickens you order online can be risky.
I’ll never order online from a big hatchery again, though I know this is how a lot of people get started. It’s how we got started, but I quickly saw genetic issues coming up. I’ve learned that it’s best to buy your chickens locally from someone who has a good reputation for breeding for the healthiest birds. The best way to do this, if you’re new and don’t know any chicken breeders, is to join online chicken groups on Facebook in your state or area.
- You’ll fall in love with your chickens in ways you can’t imagine and will learn so much about animals and nature that it may change you as a human.
I knew I wanted chickens, but I had no idea how much I was going to love them and how much I was going to learn from them. Being close to my chickens has made me a better person. I’m kinder and more open minded. I’m thankful to them for the food—and the wisdom.
I know I have so much more to learn, but I’m making progress. I hope you find this advice helpful to you or someone you know. Others will disagree and that’s okay. See number 8. But I hope my list will at least help start a conversation as we start chick season
What do you wish you had known before you became a chicken person?