Raising Backyard Chickens

chicken and egg
My dream is to be able to raise chickens in our backyard so that we can have fresh eggs .  My boys love 2 poached eggs on a piece of wheat toast nearly every morning for breakfast.  Consequently I find that I am always running to the market to pick up another dozen.  Anxiety fills my my body and my stomach gets a little queasy when I am staring into the refrigeration apparatus that displays all the different brands of eggs.   I want to make sure that the eggs I purchase are free range and the chickens have been taken care of in a humane way, but how do you know?  I cross my fingers and hope the chickens that are providing my boys their breakfast, had plenty of space to roam and were treated well and not pumped full of antibiotics and steroids.  I have witnessed on the Internet and read so many horrific articles about how poultry farms treat their chickens. It breaks my heart to know that most of the chickens that are factory produced are kept in massively crowded conditions with no access to fresh air and often not even enough room to take a single step and they spend their entire lives like this! There has been salmonella outbreaks on numerous occasions. I don’t want to make the mistake and feed my family one egg that could cause illness that maybe life-threatening.

Sea Breeze Organic Farm

chickens

On my quest to find out how to raise backyard chickens I was lucky enough to visit Sea Breeze Organic Farm in San Diego and was given a private tour.  The owner of the farm, Stephanie Claughlin who was a childhood friend of my husband’s family, had graduated college with two advanced degrees, was a gold broker, taught high school and was the CEO of a futures trading company  with an office in the World Trade Center when she opted for a completely different way of life.  Stephanie and her husband Kendall Cook, which she refers to as the “enduringly patient one”,  purchased a coastal piece of  property in San Diego and decided to become organic farmers. Stephanie set up their business on a 2 acre lot with a quaint one story house and followed her dream brick by brick, garden by garden and chicken by chicken. Sea Breeze Organic farm is now a sustainable farm filled with  organic veggies, fruits, flowers, herbs, 2 corgis, 2 goats (I thought one was a sheep because it had so much hair), lots and lots of chickens and 1 very large turkey. They have a CSA program which you can be a member of if you want.  CSA stands for “Community Supported Agriculture”, and once you become a member and pay your monthly bill you get a bag full of fresh, in season, pesticide free produce.

goat and sheep

Miss Tofu the Turkey

Well let’s start with the biggest of the birds, “Miss Tofu the Turkey”.  Miss Tofu was given to Stephanie by a 4-H student that couldn’t take care of her anymore.  Of course Stephanie couldn’t say no and took Miss Tofu in like she has done with a number of her chickens.  Curiously I  asked her if Miss Tofu laid eggs for her and she responded with a affirming nod. Can you imagine the size of Miss Tofu’s eggs?  I bet you only need one for a large omelet! Stephanie says although large in size, they taste just like regular chicken eggs. There are 2 major turkey breeds that are bread for their meat. The white and brown and obviously, Miss Tofu is of the white variety.  These turkeys have been selectively bread to grow big juicy breasts for companies like “Butterball”. Once the turkeys get to a certain size , their breasts are so big and heavy that their spindly little legs can’t hold their weight making them cripple. Because of their extremely large size they have to be artificially inseminated in order to breed them. It is hard for Miss Tofu to get around, poor thing, but somehow manages to greet us when we entered the coop. Turkeys love companionship and Miss Tofu snuggles up to your leg and makes a purring sound when she wants to be petted.   Male turkeys are not so friendly they are always trying to show off and be the boss.

turkey sitting

The Chickens

Stephanie has happily rescued many forgotten chickens giving them a happy home. Unfortunately people will think raising chickens sounds like a great idea and lose interest over time.  Her concern with the new ordinance that has recently passed allowing people in San Diego County to raise chickens in their backyard, is that people won’t fully understand how to take care of their chickens.

Stephanie sells eggs at Sea Breeze Organic Farm and they are fresh, beautiful and of course delicious!  They come in an array of pastel colors. and can be more expensive than the free range eggs you get in the supermarket.  But I promise you there is no comparison and it’s well worth the extra cash.While I was at the farm I visited her girls, that is what she calls her chickens.  There are many varieties and they all lay a different color egg depending on the breed.  She has one breed called “Americunas” that lays the pale, greenish, turquoise eggs and they have been said to have 10% less cholesterol and calories. Martha Stewart loved the color of the egg so much that she named a paint color after this chicken.

chicken eggs

Stephanie has a variety of heritage breeds that she is very proud of.  These heritage chickens are chosen for their friendliness, hardiness, personality, unique sounds they make,  beauty and the beauty of the eggs they lay. Each breed is valued for different characteristics for instance one of her chickens have lots of feathers around it’s feet and that breed is known for turning “broody” which means it always wants to hatch an egg which causes the chicken to stop producing. The abundance of feathers around it’s feet gives her extra insulation while sitting on her eggs. These chickens are not chosen for the amount of eggs they will produce but for the uniqueness of the breed and it’s barnyard genetics. Unlike the commercial growers your chickens will become your pet just like your dog or cat.

I asked her if she had a favorite and she said it was a hen she calls “Grandma”.  Grandma visits Stephanie in her art studio on the property everyday and in turn gets a special treat.  The studio is filled with her watercolor  paintings of her farm’s ocean view and gardens which cover the walls floor to the ceiling.

Chicken Poop Compost

One chicken will produce 1 cubic foot of chicken manure every 6 months. If you have a veggie garden you can compost your chicken manure and turn it into black gold.  Added to your soil, it makes an amazing fertilizer.  Shavings, saw dust, straw or dry leaves can be used to make the chicken’s bedding with which controls the odor and pests.  The manure and bedding should be  dumped into the composting bin daily or pretty frequently.  Your compost will be ready once it is dark crumbly and sweet smelling like soil which can take from 45 to 60 days. You will just need to make sure it is fully composted before you put it in your garden. Chickens are good for eating grasshoppers and grubs off of your lawn but  but they do like to scratch and could also cause some damage to your vegetables and flowers if unsupervised. Stephanie has put fencing around all of her vegetable gardens to keep her girls out. This way they are free to go where ever they want.

chicken grass

Taking Care of Your Chickens

I was eager to find out how hard it is to raise chickens.  I have heard they are relatively inexpensive once you have your chicken coop and pen set up.  Of course you will have to have the time it takes to care for them. Stephanie filled me in on what it takes to care for your chickens.  First of all most people don’t take in to consideration maintaining  their chickens health can be costly.  Sometimes your chickens will succumb to questionable blights and if sick, good animal husbandry standards dictate taking them to a knowledgable vet or seeking the solution and cure.  This can be costly. If you are already a pet owner you know how those vet bills can become crazy expensive.

Feeding chicken is really pretty simple.  Chickens will eat pretty much anything you give them so you will have a lot less trash for the land fills.  Remember what you feed them you will eat later so it is best to give them chemical free organic diet.   Chickens love to eat  grass but grass doesn’t have the sufficient calories that a Chicken needs if you want them to lay lots of eggs.  For a little treat, Stephanie is growing grass in a raised bed for her girls. Covering the raised bed is wire mesh so the birds can eat the grass and weeds once they grow to a certain size.  This protects the grass because the chickens will destroy it in one day.

Chickens require 16% protein in their diet to get good egg production.The best thing you can feed a chicken is grains and fish meal along with some table scraps.  This will ensure lots of nutritious eggs for that morning omelet. They also love insects and worms and will eat their own eggs if they are cracked. Stephanie feeds her chickens certified organic meal and mealy worms and since they are free to roam around the property they get plenty of bugs, grass and weeds too.

chickens eating

Chickens can’t go long without water so you have to make sure there is enough.  A large, deep bowl will make sure they won’t run out of water too quickly.

chicken drinking

Housing the chickens properly is important and you need to make sure you have enough room for you chickens.  First you will need to find out how many you will need to feed  your family. Each breed lays their eggs differently so find out which ones you would like to have and figure out how many you will need. You might want to consider getting a coop that has a little extra room in case you change your mind and want more chickens.

chicken coop

At Sea Breeze Organic Farm the chickens have lots of room to spread out and the coops are well organized with nesting boxes, ladders and perches, dirt floor and an outside area completely fenced in for protection from predators. You will need at least 1 nesting box for every 4 – 8 hens.  If there are 8 to 10 eggs left a nest then the hens could go “broody”.  This is when the hen will try to hatch the eggs and will stop producing eggs up to 21 days so remember to collect your eggs as soon as they lay them.

I noticed a few of the chicken taking their wings and throwing dirt on their backs and found out that they do this to get rid of mites.  There is Silica in the sand and it slices the mites killing them.  In the winter they snuggle up to each other to keep warm.

chicken in the coop

Commercially  grown chickens need to be debeaked so they won’t attack each other.  Chickens are bullies and tend to pick on each other in a crowded space which can sometimes result in death, hence the phrase ” the pecking order”.  This is a cruel process which happens right after the chicken is hatched. The tip of the chicken’s beaks are electronically burned off preventing the development of the sharp point of the beak. This is called “blunting”. Stephanie doesn’t do this to her chickens there is enough room and the chickens naturally work out their pecking order.

Some people purchase fertile eggs and hatch them in an incubator.  It is fun for the kids to watch but remember you never know what you are going to get and approximately 50% of the chicks will be roosters which might be problematic as to what to do with then when they reach maturity.  Roosters will fight each other and literally rape one or two of the favorite hens almost to death and somehow find the most vulnerable to do so to. It might be wise to purchase chickens already hatched.

Chicken Laying Eggs

Once your baby chicks hatch you will have to wait 20 to 26 weeks before they lay eggs depending on the weather and the time of year. Chickens lay their eggs according to seasons.   So in the spring you could get up to 1 egg per chicken every 24 hours and in the winter time it slows down considerably. Winter months are shorter in day light and colder which is not ideal for chick raising so they take a rest.

Commercial hens are controlled by artificial lighting and some even put a rose colored cataract into their eyes to increase production. Sadly when egg laying diminishes, they become Campbell’s Chicken Soup.

Spring will bring an increase in egg production giving chicks increased probability of surviving. Off spring in old or wet conditions is not conducive for survival. So it would be better to purchase your chicks in the spring.

chicken

Egg Terms and Facts

Free Range or Free Roaming means hens are able to run around outside in a field or in a pen.  Large commercial operations house 1 to 2 birds and sometimes more to a small cage.  Ninety eight percent of commercial operations are cage raised according to the United Poultry Producers.

I always wondered why most of the commercially grown eggs are white and the reason is that the consumers seem to like white eggs.  Leghorns are the best egg layers and the commercial growers use them because they are smaller and consume less food.  Most people assume that the brown eggs are farm raised but this is not so.  Nutritionally they are the same.

Another interesting fact I learned is that Grade AA eggs is the rating of the egg due to the air pocket at the top of the egg.  This is determined by “candling” a process passing a bright light through the shell of the egg.  White eggs are easy to candle and brown are more difficult.  The smaller the air pocket the stiffer the white and the higher quality.  Because the shell is porous the white can evaporate over time increasing the size of the pocket.  Commercial eggs are sprayed with a fine mist of oil to prolong shelf life.

chickens

Farm Eggs vrs. Store Bought Eggs

After a little research the consensus is store bought eggs have a thinner shell, are rubbery in texture and the yolk is yellow in color.   Farm raised eggs are thick shelled, orange yolks, rich and creamer. Hmmm, I think I would go for the farm raised eggs.

Predators of Chickens

If you want to raise chickens you will need to protect them from all the predators in your surroundings.  In the day hawks, cats and dogs can harm and kill your chickens.  During the evenings watch out for fox, opossums, skunks, raccoons and coyotes.

I would love to raise chickens for their eggs!  Now I just have to convince my enduringly patient husband and try to talk our homeowner’s association into changing their CC&R’s so I can get started!  For now I will just have to purchase mine from  Sea Breeze Organic Farm. That will give me a chance to visit Tofu again and maybe this time I will get to see one of it’s eggs!

chickens nesting

I want to thank Stephanie Claughlin and Sea Breeze Organic Farm for letting me wander all over the property taking pictures of the farm and their pets and educating me on the art of raising backyard chickens.

If you would like to visit Stephanie’s website and be a member of her CSA her website address is http://www.stepheniefarm.com.

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  • http://twitter.com/coastalfamily5 Coastal Family

    We are so inspired by your post!!!! Cody is actually pushing to get a coop now! I hope we do, but not sure I am ready to take that plunge yet. :) Sea Breeze looks amazing!