Spring Cleaning – Chicken Edition

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Pretty much no matter where you are, it’s now fully spring (and if you’re in Kentucky, Derby Day generally is when you know to set your plant starts outside). The air is warming up and your tender crops are usually safe by now from any polar vortex coming through. This is a time when I think back to Chaucer and the beginning of his epic tales:

When April with his showers sweet with fruit
The drought of March has pierced unto the root
And bathed each vein with liquor that has power
To generate therein and sire the flower;
When Zephyr also has, with his sweet breath,
Quickened again, in every holt and heath,
The tender shoots and buds, and the young sun
Into the Ram one half his course has run,
And many little birds make melody
That sleep through all the night with open eye

Your own little birds are ‘maken melodye’ right about now, aren’t they? I know mine are. The happy little clucks and purrs of my birds as they scratch around in the new grass is a wonderful thing to hear after such a brutal winter. It really struck me this year that this is probably how folks in past centuries felt in the spring; a huge sense of relief and almost giddiness now that the hardest part of the year was over. There’s a reason why spring is immortalized down through the millennia as an almost magical time of year.

Paris in April. May Day. Twitterpated. It’s hard not to get lost in all the joy of this new season. Especially knowing that summer is coming in (you folks out there who are middle English literature nerds like me are probably laughing loudly at this point) with trips to the beach and lazy days splashing in lakes. Fireworks. I’m seriously excited here!

But before all the play days and fun time, there’s a whole heck of a lot of work to do.

Every time the season changes there is work to be done. By the time spring comes around your coops are probably a dirty mess, possibly damaged by the winter weather, and the honey do list gets longer and longer.

  • Get inside the coops and scrub every available surface with a mixture of white vinegar and hot water. About half and half usually does it. And if you happen to be making lemonade or something similar, my wife usually tosses the used lemon halves in the hot water to soak overnight before adding vinegar and straining them out so you have a solution that is cheap, effective, and anti-bacterial. Use this to wash and scrub EVERY inch of your coop, inside and out. I usually make and use about a gallon of this stuff. The vinegar smell evaporates after a few hours and leaves just a clean coop. While you do this, it’s good to have your hens sunning themselves somewhere in the run. Make a point to scrub the walls as well as the nesting boxes.
  • Check over the coop for any repairs that need to be made or items that need to be replaced. Are the sticks you used for perches beyond a good scrubbing? Did the wind blow off part of your coop roof? Did the chickens scratch holes through anything? How about their feeding and watering equipment? Does it need to be replaced or will it survive another season?
  • Is the temperature above 35 degrees fahrenheit at night yet? If so then it’s time to retire the heat lamp until late fall.

Now that you have the spring cleaning done, it’s time to take a look at your chickens and make sure that they came through the winter healthily.

  • Look at their legs and nails. Do their legs look scaly and dry? How about their nails? If they’re always in the grass they won’t grind down naturally so if the nails look too long then you may need to take care of it.
  • Feathers? Do you need to clip their wings again? What about the appearance of the feathers themselves? Are they still smooth and glossy? Have they lost feathers anywhere? Check at this time for parasites like fleas and lice as well.
  • Do any of the chickens have watery eyes or a crust around them? A normal chicken’s eyes should be bright, shiny, and curious.
  • Are they acting funny? Kind of laying around or changed behavior suddenly?

Follow up on any and all concerns about your chicken’s health with a vet (or an old farmer who knows chickens works well, too).

Taking one day out to accomplish all of this is very much worth the investment. Generally, unless your flock is very large, it’ll only take you an afternoon to clean, repair, and check the health of your birds. You will save time and money in the long run and your chickens will thank you.


Chickens in the Garden: A Match Made In Heaven

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To those of us who love gardens, weeding and pest control is generally pain more than pleasure. Our first few years gardening was a constant exercise in finding new and innovative ways to avoid weeding or spraying anything nasty on our plants.

We tried wet newspaper first (no one told us that it would blow away!). Then raised beds with the lasagna method. You know, layering wet newspaper, straw, and a manure/topsoil layer then letting it ‘bake’ for a few months under sheets of paper stapled to the edges before ripping it off to plant. The soil turned out awesome. Too bad horses eat a lot of seeds. We introduced more weeds to our garden, but my wife got some great new wild herbs that way and we found that lambsquarters are an excellent ‘wild’ food source. We’ve intentionally grown a bed of it every year since and that soil grew the biggest, sturdiest weeds you ever saw and enough zucchini to choke a horse. If horses ate zucchini. Do they?

Lastly, we set aside our aversion to plastic and started laying landscaping fabric down covered in mulch and planting through it. It’s works okay, but weeds still pop up in there and drive us bananas. But not nearly as bananas as all the bugs make us.

Fortunately, chickens prove to be a delightful solution when you make a controlled introduction to your garden.

The key to success here is a few of things: timing, age, and direction.

Timing (age of plants)

  • Before planting your garden, let the chickens in to scratch, peck, and loosen the soil.

  • Added bonus to letting the chickens get the garden ready: manure!

  • There is an assumption here that you are NOT using chemicals in your garden as they can hurt you, your plants, and any chickens pecking around in there. Even stuff like Bt is coming out now as possibly harmful to humans. Think about it this way: Bt blows up the digestive system of bugs who eat it. GMO’s are infused with Bt so the plant makes its own pesticide. GMO’s are linked mainly to digestive disorders in humans among other things. Therefore, not using Bt on my plants makes some vicarious sense to me!

  • Ensure that the plants are old enough to be picked or scratched at gently by a chicken; it needs to be obviously different from the little picky weeds coming up.

  • When ‘chicken training’ I usually start things off by pulling weeds for a week and tossing them into a pile so they start eating those and getting a taste for them.

  • Once plants start to bear fruit or if you are growing green leafy vegetables, then you may want to run netting around these to keep the chickens out of them.

  • By the time you are ready to start harvesting, the plants are usually big enough to help keep weeds down anyway.

  • Growing a special area just for the chickens is great.

    • oats

    • chard, spinach, lettuces

    • millet

    • beans

  • Chickens can help glean your fields and garden after the season is over.

Age (of your chickens)

  • Any chickens you ‘ask’ to be a weeder in your garden should be a couple of months old.

  • Start them fairly young and you can ‘train’ them to avoid certain plants.

  • Guineas are great for weeding a garden because they’re so small.

Directing your chickens

  • Light netting over garden to prevent hawks from swooping down.

  • Protective caps and other barriers over any tender, young plants.

  • If the chickens start to dig up plants, then put a barrier around it, eventually you will be able to determine which areas are best for the chicken-powered weeding.

  • Generally chickens love to peck at fully formed fruits, vegetables, and green leafy stuff so keep this protected after a certain point. It’s really easy to put in stakes and then wrap some netting around it so you can still get in there and weed it yourself if needed, but by this point it usually isn’t required to weed if you plant close together.

  • Brassicas and other cole crops are usually very safe and very sturdy to be weeded by chickens as are most nightshades. They may peck, but they usually don’t eat much of these.

  • Chickens will eat any and all pests in your garden. So if you are having an infestation of, let’s say, Japanese beetles, then you can still dust wood ashes on the garden and let the chickens go to town on those fellas. The wood ashes won’t bother the chickens and your squash plants will thank you.

  • Down side is that they will eat ANY insect, even beneficial so make sure to encourage the beneficials and even purchase extra lady bugs, etc. if necessary.

For many people, chickens are just glorified egg layers or meat birds until they really get to know them. The benefits of owning chickens number in the hundreds. Aside from production as food, many ethical vegans and vegetarians are starting to keep chickens for the joy they bring. Even better, they are also now making them help-meets in the garden in a completely symbiotic relationship that I can’t help but admire and respect (even though I do eat chickens myself). While the chickens are helping with some of the hard work of weeding, they are feeding themselves and having a great time doing it. Weeding is true chickentainment for both you and the chickens!

How to purchase chicks by mail-order

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Since spring is almost here, many people are ordering chicks. But for first-timers are quite confused as to all the different terminology used and such. I found some great videos for you all to watch that will hopefully help dispel questions and concerns first-timers may have.

And as a sweet bonus today, a picture of subscriber Ted Johnson’s grandson Micah with one of their hens.


Easy Fall Projects Even YOU Can Do!

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When fall comes around it’s a great time to do some of those little projects that get put off during the spring and summer. Now that you’ve harvested all or most of your crops for the season, you have the time to turn your attention to things which can be done in advance of next year. A little work now means less for you in the spring!

Having chickens can be a big blessing when it comes to your garden. I’m not only talking about all the free manure but also how chickens will take care of that summer bug problem for you without needing to spray them with anything, organic or otherwise. Then the chickens leave little presents for the plants. Something for everyone.

However, we’re not all able to let our flocks run willy-nilly as we would like. In urban and suburban areas where yards may be a decent size but we still have to worry about neighbors, a chicken run is a better solution than letting them run around as nature originally intended.

An easy project to do for the fall months is to build an enclosure around your garden beds to ensure that chickens don’t run into neighboring yards or otherwise out of bounds. I can tell you from experience that chasing a chicken through your neighbor’s back yard is both funny and embarrassing. Especially in these days of Facebook and Youtube.

There’s another tip for you, don’t forget to clip their wings!

Anyway, you can purchase garden fencing from any local home improvement store fairly cheap. A lot of it is recycled, which helps, and plastic fencing is usually sold in rolls so it’s a matter of putting posts at the corners and a couple in the middle for support. Then wrap the fencing around and staple it in place.

I do suggest making actual gates, one on each end if you’re making it a rectangular enclosure. So two solid posts with swing gates or even child latch lattice ones. The latter worked quite successfully for us for a couple of years until the weather finally got to it. As cheap as they are, it worked for us to just replace it. You can also get a small metal gate door instead if you want to spend the money.

We had one gate coming down the path from the house, and the other gate connecting our garden to the end of the chicken run. After spring planting had passed and the bugs came out in force, we let loose the girls to have all the squash bugs, slugs, and whatever else they wanted to eat. The plants were grown, so they wouldn’t scratch up the seeds (that’s what chipmunks are for) and they really weren’t interested in more than an occasional peck at a broccoli leaf or a bit of spinach. Why would they when there were such fine specimens all over the plants?

Previous to this, we had dusted our squash plants with wood ashes, set out little beer traps for slugs, oil traps for earwigs… Wasn’t really necessary any more after the chickens were connected. Weeding, watering, and harvesting are hard enough without pest control, so build an enclosure and let your flock run free next year. This idea works really well with our mobile coop plans and the Chicken Fun Run, however the enclosure you build can be modified to adjust to any coop you want. You can even build it to connect to a greenhouse!

If you build a garden enclosure, drop us a line. We also love pictures!

Incubating and Hatching Chicks

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Incubating and hatching your own chicks is an interesting an educational journey, rewarding and beautiful. If you do not have a hen laying fertilized eggs, one can order fertilized eggs from a hatchery or purchase them locally from a farmer with a rooster (and, of course, a flock of hens).  Now that you have your eggs on the way, what next? Read on and discover the basics of incubating and hatching chicks.

The Importance of Incubation

Within 7-10 days after they are laid, fertilized eggs must be incubated in order for the chicks to develop and hatch. After 10 days, the likelihood that a chick will hatch quickly deteriorates. In this short period of time before incubation, such as when the eggs are shipped from the hatchery to your house, the eggs should be kept in a secure carton at 50-60 degrees Fahrenheit (with a range of 40 to 70 degrees). If the eggs must be stored for 3 or more days before incubation, rotate them daily. For best results, arrange for your eggs to arrive 1-2 days before incubation.

Choosing the Right Incubator

There are a wide variety of incubators for sale, both online and at your local farm supply store. If you have the time and some basic construction ability, you can also make your own incubator. A box, heat lamp, thermometer, and reflector shield are all you really need to make an incubator.

Buying your first incubator may lead to the most success, as your temperature gagues are already in place and there is less guess work. Your incubator will control humidity and will maintain the necessary temperature of 99-102 degrees Fahrenheit. Ventilation can be adjusted too.

The Incubation Process

Place your eggs into your incubator on their sides and turn them three times daily. The chicken incubation period lasts about 21 days. The last three days, the eggs won’t need turning.  It may be beneficial to place a cheesecloth under the eggs in the last few days before hatching to make cleanup easier. Once the chicks begin to hatch, wait until they have dried off and fluffed up before removing them from the incubator. Clean and sanitize your incubator completely before putting it away so it will be ready for your next hatching experience.

What Next?

Newly hatched chicks must be kept warm and safe. A cardboard box serves this purpose quite well. The chicks will need access to water, not too deep because they can drown, and food. A heat source is very important and a heat lamp and a thermometer will serve your purposes well. A light bulb works well too. For the first week, chicks need a constant temperature of  90-95 degrees Fahrenheit. Reduce the temperature by 5 degrees each week after that until your chicks thrive at room temperature.

During this time, keep your chicks warm and fed. Keep their water clean, keep away predators, and make sure that eager little hands don’t handle them too much. Keep out drafts. Clean their living area. After four weeks, your chicks shouldn’t need the heat lamp any more and may be ready to join your regular flock. Keep an eye out for your growing chickens, keep them safe, and watch them thrive.

Raising Free-Range Chickens

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Free-range chickens are all the rage. If you check out the organic eggs at your local supermarket, the container will likely read “cage free” or “free-range.” There’s a growing market for free-range meat of all types. Free-range is touted as the natural way to keep chickens and it certainly is purely organic if done right. It also poses a range of risks one must be aware of before committing to the free-range movement.  Free-range may bring to mind idealic images of chickens roaming free in a green field, the sun shining brightly. Unless you’re a small farmer, however, that’s likely not the case.

What Exactly is “Free-Range”?

If chickens are raised free-range, it ideally means that they are allowed to roam freely and are not confined in a cage. While a large yard or pasture may still be fenced-in, these birds are allowed a considerable amount of exercise, sunlight, and opportunities for foraging. This is wonderful, in theory. The US Department of Agriculture, however, merely requires that meat chickens have access to the outdoors to be labeled as “free-range,” meaning that they may have access to dirt or gravel. There’s no requirement that a “pasture” be available.  Small-scale farmers are more likely to be truly free-range, allowing their birds plenty of space to roam. If you want truly free-range eggs or meat, make sure that your poultry comes from pasture-fed flocks.

What are the Benefits of Free-Range?

True free-range hens that have access to a healthy environment and eat a natural, healthy diet produce more nutritious eggs than their factory-farm counterparts. Rather than eating grain alone, free-range birds are able to dine on grass and bugs too. This does a lot for their eggs. Mother Earth News reported that pasture-fed, free-range chickens produce eggs with 1/3 the cholesterol and ¼ the saturated fat as their conventional counterparts. They also  have more vitamin a, vitamin e, and omega 3 fatty acids. Free-range chicken meat is higher in protein, higher in good fat, and lower in bad fat than conventional chicken meat. These chickens are also free from unnecessary antibiotic consumption, a true problem in factory farms. Free-range, pasture-raised meat and eggs taste great too.

Considering Free-Range Birds

Ideally, free-range chickens are allowed to wander as they please. Depending on where you live, this could be idealic or dangerous. If you live in a city, you simply can’t allow your birds to wander down the street and into your neighbor’s property. Predators are also a huge threat. Make sure that your birds have a safe place to take shelter from predators and inclement weather and don’t put your chicks out while they are still very young. Free-range birds can be healthy and natural, but they can also be an easy meal for a lurking predator or run over by a passing vehicle.

If you have the space, free-range is absolutely the way to go. Just make sure that you have the vegetation to sustain your flock and adequate protection. Even free range birds must have a clean coop to come home to at night. Keep away from hormones and antibiotics and keep a careful eye out for danger. Your flock with thank you.

Five Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Chickens

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Chickens have been kept for millennia. Millions of us eat them regularly. There are thousands of chicken articles out there on the internet, hundreds of chicken-related books line library and bookstore shelves, and backyard chicken magazines populate many grocery stores. With the increased interest in raising chickens, the amount of information out there is astounding. Yet here are some interesting facts you may not know about chickens.

1. They Were Built for Speed

Chickens are known for meandering around the yard more than they are known for sprinting, but chickens are actually quite speedy on their feet. According to the Museum of Natural History, chickens can top out at 9 mph for short distances. This is handy for escaping predators… or backyard chicken farmers trying to urge the birds back into their chicken run.

2. Those Clucks and Crows Mean Something

Dr. K-lynn Smith and Professor Chris Evans of Australia’s Macquarie University claim that not only are chickens intelligent and social, but they can also adjust what they “say” depending on who is listening (http://www.globalanimal.org/2011/03/23/cluck-you-chickens-arent-dumb/11446/). Chicken noises are a language of their own, indicating their desires and intentions. Impressive, huh?

3. Eggs Come In Ridiculously Small Sizes

The smallest chicken egg was recorded in 2011 at 2.1 cm long, or about the size of a penny. Check out a picture at: http://www.worldrecordacademy.com/nature/smallest_Egg_John_Spencer_Russell_Egg_sets_world_record_112451.html. The egg seems to have been a fluke from “a normal size chicken.” Not much of an omelet from that egg!

4. Eggs Can Be Unnaturally Large Too

Look Eastward to China for the largest egg on record. Three times the size of the average chicken egg, the record was set in 2009 with an egg from China’s Heilongjiang Province. This egg was 6.3 centimeters wide, 9.2 centimeters long, and weighed 201 grams. For a picture, check out: http://www.worldrecordacademy.com/nature/largest_chicken_Egg-world_record_set_in_China_90261.htm. The chicken’s breed is not listed.

5. We Thought 7 Billion People Were a Lot…

There are approximately 19 billion chickens on Planet Earth today. That’s about 3 chickens for every person alive. That is impressive! China raises more chickens than any other country on Earth. What’s the environmental impact of this gigantic chicken population? Now that would be an interesting article.

Are Chickens Intelligent Beings?

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Are chickens intelligent beings? Hens are often portrayed as idiotic, pooping and eating at will and often in the same place. Hens in literature are flighty and silly. Yet science offers a different perspective. Recent studies suggest that chickens are a whole lot smarter than they’re given credit for being.

These Are No Dumb Animals

Poultry are often considered inferior in the intelligence department, but Dr. Ian Duncan, Professor of Poultry Ethology at Ontario’s University of Guelph, disagrees. “These animals are poorly understood,” he’s quoted in an interview by United Poultry Concerns, Inc, “This is revealed by such behavioral indices as their complex social relationships, and their many different methods of communicating with each other, both visual and vocal. Chickens… are far more intelligent than generally regarded and possess underestimated cognitive complexity” (http://www.upc-online.org/thinking/sentient.html).

There’s Some Serious Communication Going on in the Coop

Dr. K-lynn Smith and Professor Chris Evans of Australia’s Macquarie University claim that not only are chickens intelligent and social, but they can also adjust what they “say” depending on who is listening (http://www.globalanimal.org/2011/03/23/cluck-you-chickens-arent-dumb/11446/). In an article published by Global Animal Magazine in 2011, Dr. Smith states that chickens who live in “an environment where they must compete for food, shelter, and mates can be as cunning as humans.” Clever chickens who can outsmart their fellow chickens have the best luck (aka the most food, best place to live, and the girl). Chickens are able to use sounds and gestures to communicate information about their environment. That is pretty smart!

Who Is Smarter, You Dog or Your Dinner?

In an amusingly titled article, “Was Your Meat Smarter Than Your Pet,” ABC NEWS presented some interesting studies on animal intelligence (http://abcnews.go.com/WNT/Science/story?id=771414&page=1#.UbPaIhPD_Y8). In an English study, a sheep was proved to be able to recognize human faces, a pig was taught to use a computer, and chickens easily learned how to adjust the thermostat in their coop.

Chickens, it turns out, are a whole lot more complex and intelligent then they are commonly believed to be. This may give you a new perspective when it comes to your personal flock. Do you think your birds are intelligent beings?



Raising Chickens in Cold Climates

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Many chicken breeds are remarkably resilient, but extreme cold climates can wreak havoc on your flock. No one wants sick birds, frozen combs, or frozen birds. What can one do to protect their chickens from the elements?

Keep Those Birds Cozy

Your first line of defense against cold temperatures is your chicken coop. Add some insulation to keep temperatures steady. Make sure that there is still plenty of ventilation! Check for leaks. Add extra straw or wood shavings for bedding. Just as people like to snuggle under a blanket for warmth, chickens enjoy a nice, thick litter 6-10 inches thick to burrow into for warmth on cold days.

Some chicken owners put a tarp over their coop to keep out drafts they may not even be aware of. Keep those birds warm! Not only can too much cold and dampness lead to frostbite, but stressed out birds stop laying eggs. If snow and ice keep your birds cooped up inside, indoor artificial lighting may help them continue laying and may reduce stress.

Make Fresh Water a Priority

Chickens drink a lot of water. In the winter, water freezes. It’s easy to overlook this and so important to keep fresh, unfrozen water available to your birds. Temperature-triggered outlet timers work wonderfully. Once the temperature falls past a certain point, a heat lamp turns on to keep the water from freezing. They switch back off once the temperature raises to keep the coop from getting too hot. How great is that? Heater bases are also commonly used to help keep water from freezing.

Vaseline Your Birds

This may sound crazy at first, but multiple chicken sites recommend applying Vaseline to your chickens’ combs and wattles to keep them from catching frostbite. Catch your bird, apply a layer of Vaseline to its comb and wattle, and allow it to continue on its daily business. It’s a simple and inexpensive solution to a very big problem.

Do Not Use a Heater or Close off Vents

The craziest question I’ve heard about keeping chickens through the winter is, “Should I use a heater to keep the chickens warm?” Please don’t. It’s a huge fire hazard and you can cause your chickens great harm. With a bit of common sense and some basic precautions, you’ll be able to keep your flock toasty and warm throughout the winter without risking burning the coop to the ground.

Another common misconception is that one should close vents to keep the chickens extra warm. While this may make sense in theory, it creates a whole new problem. Along with heat, you also trap in humidity. Humidity leads to frostbite. Smell will quickly become overbearing if ventilation is cut off for long too. Warm but well ventilated is the way to go.

Some Breeds Fare Better Than Others

If you live in a cold climate, keep in mind that some breeds are more cold-weather hardy than others. Wyandottes, Orpingtons, Plymouth Rocks, Buckeyes, Dominiques, and Sussexes are a few breeds that do well in cold places. Birds with large combs are much more susceptible to frostbite. Chickens with thick, heavy feathers generally do better in cold climates.

With a bit of planning and some simple preventative measures, your chicken flock will thrive during the cold months.

The Truth About Roosters

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If you order or hatch a batch of chicks, you’re likely to end up with a mixture of hens and roosters. While that may be the natural outcome, many backyard farmers prefer hens to roosters. Some cities even ban roosters! Loud, aggressive, and territorial, roosters don’t offer many of the benefits of their egg-laying, quieter female counterparts. Do you want a rooster in your backyard? Here’s what you should know.

If you want fertilized eggs and therefore a larger flock, a rooster is a vital part of your farm. He’ll also serve as a watchful eye, keeping the hens safe from most predators.  He will cry loudly to warn the flock from dangers. In fact, crowing is one of the rooster’s most distinctive features. Crowing begins around the time he is 4 months old and continues for the duration of his life, multiple times a day. The belief that roosters crow only as the sun comes up is a farce. Roosters crow whenever they feel like it. They crow to claim territory, assert dominance, or just because it appeals to them in the moment. The noisy nature of the rooster is one main reasons why they are not allowed in many towns.

While a rooster is not required for a hen to lay eggs, it’s required for her to lay fertilized eggs that will hatch into new chicks. This is a fantastic benefit. You most likely won’t want more than one rooster for a small flock, however. He’ll provide adequate fertilization and protection. Roosters can be aggressive and territorial, especially toward other roosters. They can also be aggressive toward people and other pets. Their beaks and spiny legs  can do a lot of damage, so be careful! Poultry live in a social hierarchy, and a dominant male will make it well known that he is the head of the coop.

What’s one to do if they end up with a handful of roosters along with their hens? Egg-producing facilities kill males shortly after hatching. There’s no need to be that cruel. If some of your chicks are male, raise them for meat or list them for sale in the classified ads. There may be someone else in your area who would like a rooster. Raising dual-purpose birds will give you excellent layers as well as meat birds. If you order a fair quantity of chicks, expect a good portion of them to be male. It’s best to have a plan beforehand.

Roosters have been vilified in modern culture, but they can be very rewarding and wonderful animals to raise. Do your research, use common sense, and keep the number of roosters in your flock low. Raising roosters is a whole new experience.