Small chicken flocks, a staple of turn-of-the-century American yards, have come back into vogue over the past several years. Backyard chickens supply their owners with ready access to farm fresh eggs and small flock husbandry can be a rewarding and entertaining hobby. Chickens can lay up to one egg every twenty-four hours and a flock of three to five birds are typically more than enough to meet the egg needs of the average family of four. Like dogs, chickens come in a variety of breeds, colors, and patterns. Popular laying breeds include the White Leghorn (remember Foghorn Leghorn?), the Rhode Island Red, and the Barred Rock. The color egg a hen will lay is dependent on her breed. White leghorns lay white eggs, while Rhode Island Reds and Plymouth Rocks lay a light brown egg. Some breeds, like the, Araucana, have an expanded color palate laying blue and green eggs. This breed has earned the nick name “Easter-Egger”. One of the prettiest eggs, a dark rich chocolate, is laid by the Copper Maran hen. No matter the shell color, eggs are all the same on the inside. A white egg and a brown egg are nutritionally equivalent, though you may find yourself paying a greater price for brown eggs at the grocery store. This is because of the commonly held misconception that darker shelled eggs are more nutrient dense.
Would you like to try your hand at small scale chicken farming? The first step is to find out if chickens are allowed to be kept in your area. Some, but certainly not all, municipalities in Lake County allow residents to maintain small flocks of female birds. Roosters are typically prohibited because of their tendency to crow at impolite hours. Fortunately, there is no need to keep a rooster unless you are trying to raise baby chicks or need a solar-powered back-up alarm clock! Egg production is not dependent on fertilization and hens will lay with or without the companionship of a rooster.
Once you have determined the legality and requirements for keeping backyard chickens in your area, you will want to select a site to construct a coop. Coop blueprints and full building kits are readily available online and at local farm supplies stores. Coops should provide your hens with shelter from the elements and protection from predators such as snakes, owls, raccoons, and neighborhood dogs. Within the coop you will need to create a nesting box where your hens can lay their eggs. The nesting boxes should be easy to clean and readily accessible. Chicken feed can be purchased at local feed stores or online. It is important that the feed be balanced and meet the nutritional needs of your birds, which will vary during their lifetime. Laying hens require a good quality, high calcium feed to make eggshells, while younger birds have a higher protein requirement to support growth. No matter their age, all chickens need constant access to fresh water.
If you choose to start your home flock with chicks it is important to recognize that they require special care during those first weeks of life. Information on brooding baby chicks can be found online at https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/an182. You may choose to take your chicken husbandry a step further and incubate fertile eggs to start your flock, a process that takes twenty-one days and lots of attention to detail. The Florida 4-H Program has a lot of good information on home incubation which can be found here http://florida4h.org/embryology/index.shtml. No matter which comes first, the chick or the egg, you are going to have to practice a little patience before you can start making your own omelets. Most breeds will begin laying between 18-22 weeks of age and continue to produce an egg most days for the first couple years of life. Hormonal changes in the fall will often result in a decrease in egg production at that time. This drop off can be prevented by installing a coop light on a timer to artificially extend the day light hours on both ends of the day. Any sudden changes to temperature or exposure to stress can also result in a temporary cessation of egg production.
If the backyard chicken trend appeals to you it is a good idea to get all your ducks…er, chickens…in a row before you get started. The UF/IFAS Lake County Extension office is a great place to get research based, unbiased information about caring for backyard chickens. Meg Brew, the County Livestock Agent can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 352.343.4101, and will be happy to help answer your questions.