Over on my friend and neighbor's HenCam.com (which is a fantastic resource for all things chicken-keeping related, and voted one of the internet's best time-sinks by Country Living and BBC or some such), I shared some thoughts on what we're doing about our flock of chickens this year, and why.
Since it is a natural follow on to my last post, I thought I'd reproduce it here as well.
How many new chicks to get this year has been the topic of much conversation at our house lately – we’ve just put in our spring order (chicks arrive in April). The primary purposes of our flock are to 1) provide a living lesson in business and the care of animals for the children (they sell the eggs) and 2) to keep me amused.
Whether you're an old hand at chicken-keeping, or just thinking about getting a couple of birds for the first time - knowing why you're getting them should certainly be an important part of your breed selection.
With our goals in mind, I always am looking for: a) a steady supply of eggs, and b) a good variety of hens (both egg & feather color).
I’ve got a no [boys/feathered feet/feathered heads] rule, just because I’m a low maintenance (i.e. “lazy”) kind of chicken farmer. (Roosters make noise that annoy me/the neighbors. Feathered feet and the crazy feathered-headgear birds like Polish hens are high maintenance in care/trimming to keep healthy that I'm not willing to invest time in).
I’ve also generally shied away from bantam (think: miniature chickens) breeds because I feel bad about the kids selling smaller eggs.
To maintain a flock of around 25 reasonably productive hens, I’ve found that we need to order/replenish about 5-10 hens a year.
Predators generally account for about 2/3rds of our loss (hawks, raccoons, possums, fisher cats) (but mostly hawks), which is just part of the life and risk that comes with free-range chicken keeping. Plus: while we have been lucky/careful enough to avoid any other serious issues, we always lose a couple per year to other natural causes (egg bound, cancer, etc).
Then there was the rooster that showed up in last year’s order. He ended up on the dinner table (see the “no boys” rule above).
Chickens can live to be 15+ years old with a luck and a (more than) a bit of care, and our oldest hens are about 4 years old. But they start to slow down in laying after a while, and because of their vulnerabilty to anything with a beak, claw or teeth and their tendency to go from perfectly healthy to death's door with very few indicators, the numbers of backyard chickens that make it into the 5+ age range are definitely a minority. We've also always been pretty pragmatic about our hens: they're not pets; they're production livestock. So with the rare exception that displayed a bit more personality, we take very few extraordinary measures to extend the lives of our birds. (e.g. none of them have ever been crated for a trip to our veterinarian).
This year, the Critter and I settled on 10-ish as the magic number. I have bought small lots of pullets (young hens just about ready to start laying) from local(-ish) folks (my bride’s preference), but I was looking for a little more variety this order. And I kind of like getting them as chicks. The kids love that part of the process. However, this limits the places I can order or buy the hens to a very few sellers unless I find someone to share an order. I figured I’d go ahead and try MyPetChicken.com – I’ve heard mixed reviews, and the cost/chicken is relatively high, but they do offer vaccinated chicks and have a respectable selection, so I’m willing to give it a try.
I think we’ve had around 15 different breeds at this point. I don’t like to have just 1 of any bird generally, so that was a factor as well. We spent some time talking about which chickens had been our favorite and why, and which we were willing to try out and ended up with the following:
- (2) Silver spangled Hamburgs (we just lost our last one to natural causes a couple of weeks ago. We’ve had 5 or 6 over the years. They’re not very friendly – they don’t even socialize well with other chickens – but they are pretty to look at.
- (1) Rhode Island Red (great bird, but a little dominant, as you mentioned)
- (1) Australorp (Always try and keep a few of these in the flock)
- (1) white Plymouth Rock (we haven’t had an all-white hen in a couple of years. This was a special request from the Critter. We’ve got another RIR, so this will be the only ‘single’ in the flock)
- (2) silver Lakenvelder (We’ve never had these before, and selected them just because they looked pretty in the catalog)
For the first time, I’ve also ordered a couple of Golden Sebright bantam hens. We’ll keep back the smaller eggs for our own consumption, and I thought it’d be fun to mix it up a bit.
This will take us up to 30 birds total, but I’m planning to re-design and build an expanded coop this summer. Plus, my experience is that you lose up to 10-15% of chicks in the first 6-9 months (they get sick/die after shipping issues, or they're bred weak, or other random chicken issues). Combine with expected attrition of the current flock, and this should keep our numbers relatively steady on average, and the birds happy.
By the way, introducing new birds to an existing flock is a bit of a trick. (We lost a couple of adolescent hens to bullying from the older girls before we got the hang of it). Terry's got a good reference with some ideas here. I'll post our method (which has consistently worked for the last 3 batches of new birds) later in the spring.