Raising Chickens (the Pet That Pays for Itself)
The Joy of Chickens as Pets
Pets are great and most of us have grown up with cats, dogs, guinea pigs/hamsters, maybe some fish, or if you live in the country even a horse. They offer companionship, entertainment, unconditional love, and help teach responsibility.
I have had pets in one form or the other as long as I can remember. The first pets my family had were a dog named Skipper and a Galah parrot named Cocky. Pets come and go but there isn’t a part of my childhood where we didn’t have at least one animal as part of the household.
However owning pets, although very satisfying, can also be expensive. The initial purchase of dogs and cats (especially if they are purebred) can be quite prohibitive particularly if this includes their immunization shots etc. Then on top of that there may be other veterinarian bills such as de-sexing (especially important for cats if you don’t want to quickly attain a house full), health problems, injuries etc.
One pet, however, that is comparatively inexpensive to purchase as well as in its ongoing care is the humble chicken (foul, poultry, chook depending where you come from). Prices can vary depending on whether you purchase day-old chicks, point of lay pullets, or roosters and whether you buy them from a produce store or breeder. The particular breed itself can also be a determining factor.
Eight Essential Tips for Buying and Raising Chickens
- Keep your eye out for advertisements for “Ex-Battery Hens for Sale.” These hens may be past their ultimate egg laying stage (which is two years old), but you can be assured they are still reliable layers of at least three or four eggs per week, and they will be worth the price. Besides, you will be giving them the best home they ever had and a happy retirement.
- Join local “Buy, Swap and Sell” groups on Facebook and monitor those and also newspaper classifieds for “Poultry for Sale or Giveaway.” I managed to purchase ten x four day old chickens for $2.00 each, and a month later saw an advertisement for “Assorted Poultry to Giveaway."
- If you wish to breed more chickens the easiest way is with a rooster. Most poultry farmers find they have an excess of roosters from a batch of chickens and sell them off cheaply. If you live in a town or city you may not be allowed to keep a rooster (check your local council regulations). If you can have a rooster, make sure to ask the seller about its temperament. You don’t want the trouble of having one that is aggressive and attacks you every time you approach the hens.
- If you can’t keep a rooster you can still breed and raise chickens by purchasing fertilized eggs and placing them under one of your hens or incubating them yourself. You can purchase an incubator if you have the funds or make sure you keep the eggs at a constant temperature and turn them twice a day. However I feel this is a lot of trouble to go to (See next tip).
- Acquire at least one or two bantam or Silky hens as they just love sitting on eggs and are great mothers. You will need these if you wish to breed more chickens, especially if you have purchased ex battery hens (bred to be laying machines not mothers) which will lay but not go “broody” or sit on eggs until they hatch.
- Have a cage, coop, or run set up before you take possession of the chickens. You need to have somewhere to put them, even if you intend for them to free-range most of the time. They take time to settle into a new home; will need somewhere to be housed at night and to lay their eggs. It is too much trouble trying to do it afterwards.
- Make sure the chicken coop (if fixed/permanent) is close to an adequate water supply so the chickens have clean water every day. We have a rain water tank that is filled by the runoff from a nearby shed and a hose running from that to the chicken coop. Here in Queensland, Australia, cane toads are a problem as they get into the water at night and poison it. It is therefore essential that you change the water each morning or your chickens will die.
- Buy a bag of “layer pellets’ or “mixed grain” if your poultry are full grown, or “chicken mash” if chickens less than a month old. I have fifteen chickens of various sizes and a 20 kilogram bag usually lasts about six weeks and costs around $15.00 (that’s $1.00 per bird.. not bad). * For newly hatched chickens, up four weeks of age, I make up my own mash by boiling rice and rolled oats into a porridge and then mixing in “mixed grain with sunflower seeds.”
Becoming a Chicken Farmer
After this initial set-up, you are ready to go as a chicken farmer or, as I call myself, a “cackleberry farmer.” It may take the chickens a week or two to settle in, and I recommend keeping them caged for this period. After that you can start letting them out to free range during the day, or if you have a portable coop just move it around.
Soon you will be pleasantly rewarded when the hens commence laying for you, and you will find that the value you get in eggs will soon pay for and exceed your initial setup costs and also more than cover the ongoing price of chicken food. We are currently getting on average six eggs a day from six hen's of laying age so every one is paying its way. This is more eggs than we can eat so when we accumulate more than three dozen we start giving them away or selling some cheaply to friends.
* Before you do this however I advise to check your state or country regulations regarding the sale of home grown eggs. In some places it is now illegal to sell "back yard" eggs due to health concerns. Though you are allowed personal consumption of the eggs your hen's produce, and I have heard of more people suffering food poisoning from eggs and chickens served at restaurants, fast food outlets and the like than from backyard farmers.
No longer will you have to throw food scraps in the trash as chickens will eat almost anything (apart from onion and citrus fruit skins). Basically whatever your dogs and cats won't eat, and you don't recycle into compost, will be eagerly devoured.
When Chickens Hatch
If you do have a rooster and some bantam hens, you will find that you regularly have a hen going broody (clucky) and sitting on a nest of eggs. In around 21 days (a typical incubation period), you should be the proud owner of a new batch of chicks.
Bear in mind it is unlikely that all eggs will hatch (usually between 50-75% success rate). Sometimes the hens will try to sit on more eggs than they can accommodate.
When the chickens finally hatch, I usually leave them in the cage for at least five weeks, until they are big enough to risk releasing to face the big bad world and hopefully fend for themselves. By this time the mother hen may also have lost interest in caring for them.
It will probably take at least this long for you to find out if they are hens or roosters. Ideally it is recommended you have no more than one rooster per 10 hens, but we have four roosters and only fifteen hens at the moment and they are all happy. Our roosters have grown up together and have never fought yet.
If you do find yourself with too many roosters you have a couple of choices. Turn the odd one into the Sunday roast (if you have the stomach for killing, plucking and gutting), or try to sell or give them away.
Chickens Can Be Pets
Although chickens are often thought of as just a farm animal and may not be considered the conventional pet, I find they can be exactly that. If you feed and interact with them from the time they hatch they can become very tame. They are more intelligent than many people give them credit for; they have individual personalities and are good entertainment value. Give them each names to suit their personality (as long as you don’t intend eating them. Never name your food!) We have one hen that is so tame it regularly comes inside the house to lay an egg, so we don’t even have to go hunting for it.
One particular aspect I love about raising chickens and having them as pets is the variety you can create by breeding your very own unique poultry. You could call them "designer pets."
So, if you want a pet that is not much trouble, is faithful and doesn't stray, helps keep bugs under control, weeds gardens, consumes food scraps, and even pays for its own feed keep by providing food for you, then consider raising chickens (the pet that pays for itself).
Popular Breeds of Chicken
Old English Game
What is your favourite pet after reading this article?
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
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© 2016 John Hansen