If you’re looking to raise chickens in your backyard, you can’t go wrong with barred rocks, Jersey giants, buff orpingtons and wyandottes.
If you’re looking for the “typical chicken” — one that looks like the Kellogg’s Corn Flakes logo — you should go with the welsumer. But if you want a bird that will produce a lot of meat, you might choose the buff brahma.
That’s the wisdom that chicken expert Rachel Falco passed on to her students Saturday at a seminar called Raising Chickens in an Urban Environment, hosted by the Washington State Livestock Coalition, the Thurston County Farm Bureau and the Washington State Farm Bureau.
Falco said she has been raising chickens her whole life, first as a child in Minnesota and now at her Capitol State Forest home. During the winter season she keeps only her breeding stock, which amounts to about 100 chickens, ducks, geese and turkeys.
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“I’ve truly been doing this all my life,” Falco said. “It’s what I grew up doing.”
During the seminar, Falco went through all the basics of chicken raising: the purposes of raising chickens, their life cycles, chicken behavior, local predators, and more. She discussed the topic of egg-laying at length, even debunking egg myths.
“Chickens cannot lay two eggs in a day,” Falco said. “Anyone who says they’ve gotten their chickens to lay more is wrong.”
Why? The process of producing an egg takes about 24.5 hours.
She also spent time on the topic of strange eggs — two yolks, strange coloring or bumps.
Falco explained that two-yolk eggs are usually produced by young hens whose hormones haven’t been regulated yet. These young chickens can also produce eggs with no yolk.
Chickens can also produce wrinkled eggs if they’re squeezed or stressed, or eggs without shells if the shell gland doesn’t work correctly, Falco said. Bumpy eggs are usually the result of hens having a calcium excess. On occasion, hens can produce eggs within eggs.
Most of the time, these quirks aren’t cause for concern, she said.
Many chickens produce pigmented eggs — eggs that are brown or green. Owners should worry if the whole flock is producing eggs that are only half-pigmented, Falco said. That’s usually a sign of dehydration.
But if only one chicken produces a two-tone egg, that’s OK. It usually means she was rushed while laying.
“A dominant hen, one that’s higher on the pecking order, can rush another hen out,” Falco said.
While most of the people at the seminar were interested in chickens for egg production, Falco urged them to consider raising chickens for meat, too. She said that butchering chickens teaches children important lessons about where food comes from, and the meat is both tastier and healthier than what is typically found in stores.
The taste difference, she explained, comes from the chicken’s ability to live a “chickeny life.” That means pecking in the dirt, eating worms and exploring outside. Falco also recommends butchering chickens at 5 months old. She said commercial chicken farmers typically butcher when the birds are 6 to 8 weeks old.
Raising meat chickens can also bolster a family’s budget, as truly free-range meat can be sold locally for about $6 per pound.
“When it comes to raising birds for meat, it can be highly profitable,” Falco said. “You can make a lot of money doing it.”
Another important tip: Don’t undervalue the rooster, Falco said. Male birds keep hens safe, prevent fighting and make sure all of the hens are fed. They also warn the females of predators. She recommends one rooster per five hens for breeding purposes, and one rooster per 12 hens for protection.
“If you don’t have a rooster, it can really be a lot more work,” Falco said.
Keeping roosters also protects genetic diversity.
She urged the students to talk to their neighbors before getting roosters because they’re so loud. There is a way to prevent them from crowing: a rooster collar. The garment doesn’t stop a rooster from warning hens of danger or making other noises. It just prevents crowing.
People interested in raising chickens should also check local regulations, Falco said. She said that rules vary from community to community, so it would be nearly impossible to give a complete list of areas and their restrictions.
“It all depends on your address,” Falco said. “But the most important thing is to be a good neighbor.”