Ag Matters column: Keeping a home flock

Keeping a small poultry flock can be a fun and rewarding experience for families interested in producing their own food. Chickens can be easily kept by just about any member of the family and require a minimum of work and investment. A small floc...

Keeping a small poultry flock can be a fun and rewarding experience for families interested in producing their own food.

Chickens can be easily kept by just about any member of the family and require a minimum of work and investment.

A small flock of chickens is typically kept for eggs or meat, but along with other types of poultry also make great 4-H projects, pest patrol (they love all bugs, including wood ticks), or simply for the joy of having colorful animals around the home that also provide healthy, nutritious homegrown food.

The first decision to make is whether your flock will produce eggs or meat -- or both. Once that decision is made, selecting a breed is the first task.

Although some breeds are considered dual purpose, breeds are typically divided into two groups, those best adapted for the production of either eggs or meat.


Most store-bought eggs have white eggshells, but most farm flocks are comprised of breeds that produce eggs with brown shells.

Brown egg layer breeds tend to be more colorful, more docile, and hardier and are a better fit for small flocks.

Although some layer breeds can be used for meat production, most chickens destined for meat production tend to be a crossbred, typically a Cornish-Rock cross that lives to eat -- and gain weight.

Some of the fastest growing crosses can be ready for the freezer in as little as eight weeks.

The slower growing crosses may take 10-12 weeks, while a dual purpose breed takes up to 20 weeks.

Getting started is as simple as a trip to your local hardware store, grain elevator, or feed store. Most of our area communities have someone that sells day-old chicks. If not, they can be ordered and delivered through the mail or purchased in your nearby town.

Newborn chicks require additional heat, since their mommy is not around to keep them toasty warm nestled under her wings. Typically a simple heat lamp and a small pen is all that is needed to get started.

The chicks should be brooded at 92-95 degrees for the first week, followed by a reduction of 5 degrees per week until a steady 70 degrees is reached.


Once the birds get larger, they need about 2 square feet of space, and up to 4 square feet when they reach the age to lay eggs - typically at about five months. A corner of the barn, an unused garage or even an abandoned playhouse can be adequate. Chicken housing design is limited only by your imagination.

Most small flock owners use a completely balanced feed ration. However, most flock owners utilize table scraps, garden waste, and whole grains available on your farm or from a neighbor to supplement purchased feed. During the summer, chickens allowed to roam will find about one-third of their ration from grass, weeds and bugs.

These pigment rich feeds create a darker yolk richer in omega-3 fatty acids and carotenoid,s both of which are beneficial to human health.

In fact, a recent study in Pennsylvania found pastured chickens produced eggs that contained 10 percent less fat, 34 percent less cholesterol, 40 percent more vitamin A, and four times as much omega-3 fatty acids compared to standard values reported by the USDA.

As Martha would say, "This is a good thing."

Waterers and feeders can be purchased or made with the most basic carpentry skills. The investment in equipment can literally be nothing if you can scrounge up makeshift feeders and containers for waterers.

If you would rather purchase these, the investment is minimal, typically less than $50.

If you would like to have maximum egg production during the winter, laying hens require at least 14 to 16 hours of light each day.


This can be accomplished with a simple timer and a small light bulb. So as you look at housing options, consider the need for electricity for light, as well as a small heater to keep the water from freezing in the winter.

Predators may be your greatest production challenge. Chickens allowed to roam will head for the chicken coop for roosting as the sun begins to set, but you still need to protect them from various critters.

The most common predators are skunks, raccoons, raptors, weasels and foxes -- as well as domestic dogs. Indeed, protecting your chickens from someone's meal will be a primary concern and should be high on your "to-do" list.

Keeping a small flock can be rewarding on many levels, but will be most evident when you begin to eat the fresh eggs or meat. You'll marvel at the flavor of free-range eggs and will wonder when commercial chicken lost some of its flavor.

If you would like to learn the basics of keeping a small flock of chickens and other poultry, join us on Saturday, April 5. The Polk County Extension Service, along with the unassuming local poultry expert, Ronnie Roed (a colorful, yet docile Norwegian rooster in the barnyard of life) for an afternoon of "Poultry 101." This free event will be held in the basement meeting room of the Municipal Building in McIntosh, Minn., beginning at 2 p.m.

For more information, contact me at the Polk County Extension office in McIntosh, or at the Clearwater County office on Wednesdays. Our toll free number is 800-450-2465. If e-mail is your thing, contact me at .

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