Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Chickens at Whistle Pig Hollow



Howdy howdy, friends. I know you’ve been losing sleep not knowing the intricate details of how we roll, chicken style, over here at Whistle Pig Hollow. Well, stress no more. I’m going to tell you everything you ever wanted to know about our egg-laying chickens.

Behold, the scoop from the coop:

chicken crossing

Hatcheries

We order our chickens from hatcheries and receive day old chicks in the mail. We have never had any die from traveling in the mail, which was something I was really worried about during our first order.

When baby chickens hatch, they can survive without food for a couple of days. This is because in the wild, the babies are hatching from eggs laid over a several-day time span, so the first ones to hatch have to be able to hang tight while mom continues to sit on the other eggs for the last couple of days. This also means baby chicks can survive a short trip in the mail with no food or water. The hatcheries pack them tightly into ventilated boxes for stability and warmth, and they’re off!

hatchery 1

hatchery 2

If you’re not sure whether you should hatch your own eggs, order day old babies, or buy older chickens, check out this great post to help you make up your mind.

Brooder

All baby chickens at Whistle Pig Hollow spend their first weeks in the brooder built by my husband, Farmer Dickie. That thing is secure, and we’ve never lost a baby while they were in there. (Granted, we’ve only had four flocks of babies come through so far, but still.)

The sides drop down for ventilation and the roof opens for access.

brooder

Or things can be locked down- with the roof down and the sides closed. I love this option for when the babies are really tiny and we’re having a storm. I know they are safe and dry inside and this mama hen can relax. On a typical day, the roof is closed for protection but the sides are down for air circulation.

brooder 2

At the very beginning of their life, the babies reside in a metal watering trough within the brooder (similar to this one, but we purchase locally at the feed store). That’s simply because they do not yet need all the space in the brooder. They also have a light to keep them warm, and of course enough food and waterers to accommodate the quantity of baby chicks.

The first couple of days we line the bottom of the coop with newspaper, but then replace it with wood shavings (not cedar) on day three or so. We just use the plastic feeder and waterers they sell at our local feed store (waterer top here, waterer base here, and feeder here).

Hatchery 3

Then as they get older and start to need more space, we let them run free in the brooder. We add a roost pole too so they can start practicing to be grown ups.

Brooder 1

Eventually the babies get old enough to fly out of the brooder when we open the roof to give them food/water. At that point they enter into an awkward phase we have not yet found the best way to deal with. They are not old enough to start free ranging all day (hawks decimate them), but they are no longer happy being confined in the brooder. I think we’ll try a completely covered, fenced run for the next flock- so they can have some freedom but also still have complete protection.

Hoopty Coops

When the chickens get older, we let them out on pasture all day everyday. At that point they sleep and lay eggs in an open air coop called a “hoop coop,” or “hoopty coop” as we affectionately call it. These coops are inexpensive, secure (at least against the predators in our area), and semi-portable.

original hoopty coop

new hoopty coop

Nest boxes hang on one side and roost poles are on the other side. The chickens go in every night on their own, we lock the door, hook up a portable electric fence powered by a rechargeable battery, and then each morning we let them back out.

nest boxes 2

roost poles

electric fence

For your hoopty coop reading pleasure, I’ve written an entire post on them here.

Breed and Flock Size

We currently have two flocks of laying chickens for a total of 34 chickens. Our original flock, the older girls, are now about a year an a half old, and God bless ’em, there are only six of them remaining. There were originally 26… 15 Rhode Island Reds, 10 Barred Rocks, and 1 free “rare breed,” which of course ended up being a rooster. Interestingly, the Barred Rocks were preferentially eaten by hawks over the Rhode Island Reds, so we hardly had any Barred Rocks even from the beginning. Over the months, they’ve just gotten picked off here and there, and just the other week we lost four in one day.

Our second flock is *almost* old enough to start laying. There are 28 Rhode Island Reds, but six are roosters… The roosters are just now getting to an age where they sort of harass each other, so at some point soon we’ll have to decide how many we can keep and how many go to the stock pot.

We decided to go with primarily Rhode Island Reds because they are a good multi-purpose bird. In other words, they’re good for laying eggs or they’re good as meat birds.

RIR

Feed

Our chickens subsist entirely off ticks. “Free Range Eggs from Tick Fed Hens.”

Just kidding, but both of our flocks do free range all day everyday. And before we got chickens, we had horrible ticks in our yard, but since we’ve gotten chickens- not a single tick has gotten on us. Thus, it seems they do indeed eat a lot of ticks…

During the summer months, when the bugs are plenty, we give them little to no supplemental feed other than a few table scraps and occasional bowls of extra kefir (Wondering about kefir? Read all about it here and buy your own kefir grains here). We also keep a compost bin going that breeds ungodly quantities of black soldier fly larvae, and we feed those several times per week. We see them eating all kinds of goodies such as frogs, small snakes, and mice too. YUMMY!

kefir

In the fall/winter/spring we supplement their foraging with an organic, home-mixed, ration of corn, wheat, fava beans, sometimes barley, Poultry Pro Mineral and organic-approved kelp. We also give them deer carcasses during hunting season while my husband cleans the deer, and even deer meat from the freezer for extra protein during the really cold months.

feed

If you’re interested in mixing your own chicken feed, I’ve written a blog blog post where I’ve linked to all of the homemade, whole-grain feed recipes I could find. Read it here.

Much to the Internet’s dismay, we start all our baby chickens on homemade chick starter feed. A Google search will have you believing that you must use a pre-mixed feed, at least for the babies, to be sure they are properly nourished. We have not found that to be the case. I’ll devote a whole post to this topic one day, but in my experience, chickens aren’t as fragile as the feed industry would have you believe… Like I said, we’ve never lost a chicken to anything other than dogs, racoons, or hawks. No nutritional deficiencies to be found.

Waterer and Feed Trough

As I mentioned earlier, for our baby chickens we just use the little plastic waterers and feeders you can buy at your local feed store (waterer top here, waterer base here, and feeder here).

For our grown up chickens, we use the nipple waterers and love them.We find there is no water waste since the chickens don’t kick dirt into the waterer, and there’s even no evaporation, so the waterers don’t need to be refilled as often as other watering systems we’ve tried. You can easily make your own for cheap- see the directions here.

DIY Collage

Farmer Dickie built our feed troughs. The older girls’ is designed for free choice eating and has little divisions within the trough to separate the feed components, and the newer flock just has one big trough. We keep the feed troughs and the waterers in the hoop coops so the chickens can come and go as they please.

 inside coop

Lots of chicken enthusiasts add apple cider vinegar (buy some here– be sure to get the good kind “with the mother.”) and garlic to the chickens’ waterer to prevent illness, but we never have- only out of sheer laziness. Maybe I will make it a 2014 resolution! (PS- if you choose to add apple cider vinegar to the water, be sure you are NOT using a galvanized metal waterer- I’ve read the vinegar can leach metals into the water and it’s not healthy for the chickens!)

Vaccinations, Medication, and Parasite Control

Nada.

Coming from the hatchery we made sure NOT to have the chickens vaccinated. No need for that in clean conditions as far as I’m concerned. And no medicated feed either. If an animal needs a continual supply of medicine in its food, something is wrong.

As far as parasite control- the chickens give themselves dust baths. We keep their coops clean, their diets healthy, and that’s about it. 

dust bath 1

Nothing has come up thus far that has required any intervention on our part, but we do keep food grade diatomaceous earth (DE) on hand just in case (buy it here). If anything requiring more than DE came up, I’d consult one of my favorite homesteading ebooks, Natural Homestead by Jill Winger. She has a section of the ebook devoted to natural parasite control.

Natural Homestead

Winter Preparations

Nature made fowls to live in the open. She provided cock and hen with generous garments of feathers; arranged for constant replacement and repair; heavier underfluff of soft warm down for cold weather wear, a complete new outfit at least once a year, nearly perfect protection from both heat and cold as well as from storms. Housing them is an artificial condition wholly for Man’s convenience…

The excerpt above is from the book Fresh Air Poultry Houses, which is really the model for the open-air hoopty coops we use. It’s old and it’s interesting. I really enjoy reading old school accounts of how things were done before everything was overcomplicated like it seems to be today.

fresh air poultry houses

All that to say, winters aren’t typically too crazy here in middle Tennessee. We add an extra tarp on the outside of the hoopty coops to make sure it’s not too “open air” and that’s about it. 

This will be our first winter with the nipple waterers so we’ll have to see how that goes. At the most, I’d think we would add a floating heater to the bucket when really cold temperatures were expected.

Egg Layer Fate

After a couple of years, the egg production really slows down and chickens start to lay less frequently (although the eggs get larger as the hens get older). On paper, old laying hens will become chicken soup. But in reality, they just get eaten here or there in the “wild” (that would be our yard) and may not really even live to the age where they need to be culled.

Long Term Goals

  1. Continue to tweak our feed recipe. I want to experiment with grain-free chicken feed, and I’d also love to experiment with fermentation and sprouting– both of which I believe would enhance the nutrients available to our chickens.
  2. Always have a new flock ready to start laying come fall. This year we were off with our timing of when the new flock would start to lay, and because of that we’ve had a pretty scarce fall/winter when it comes to egg production. Typically in the cooler months and shorter days, chickens lay fewer eggs and they also lose their feathers (molt). The molting process uses energy and you see a drastic drop in egg production with that as well. So you need a brand new up and coming flock to pick up that slack and start laying eggs!
  3. Chicken proof my flower beds! Our older girls, the ones who reside in the front yard, have done a number on the measly little flower beds I have in front of our house. I will not give up though! I plan to read the book Free Range Chicken Gardening: How To Create A Beautiful, Chicken Friendly Yard and then get to work.

And so there you have it. The scoop from the coop at Whistle Pig Hollow!

I LOVE having our own eggs, and the chickens are quite endearing too. I think everyone should have chickens! Plus, check out the visible difference in eggs from our chickens vs the highest quality pasture-raised eggs I could buy…

eggs

Do you have chickens? Do you love them?

~Ashley

PAID ENDORSEMENT DISCLOSURE: To support my blogging activities, I may receive monetary compensation or other types of remuneration for my endorsement, recommendation, testimonial and/or link to any products or services from this blog. Thank you for supporting our efforts at Whistle Pig Hollow!

Comments

  1. AMAZING post!!! Wow…so much information in one place! And, I’m in love with the Natural Homestead too, it’s a great homestead reference. 🙂

  2. Thank you so much for this awesome post. I’m converting my newly acquired suburban yard into the best little inner city farm I can and this has definitely provided me with useful info to apply to my new flock. Thank you!!!

  3. Great set up. I am in full agreement about no medication and no supplements. The only supplement I have given was ground up egg shells! And when I took over an old coop I put some DE in the bedding just to make sure. My girls are the best and I look forward to when I have to space being able to have meat birds in additions to my Layers.

  4. Thanks for this! I’m a new chicken keeper and I over-think it, I think. (say that 10x fast!) It is nice to hear your easy going ways and even better to hear that they work!

Trackbacks

  1. […] over at Whistle Pig Hollow has given the complete A-Z on chickens – from chicks, […]

Speak Your Mind

*