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A brief guide to raising chickens

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By Mark Scohier, Staff writer

These days, people are becoming more concerned about where their food comes from and how it’s produced.  Many, with the fear of growth hormones in their food, pesticides on their fruits and vegetables or the realization that some agricultural practices can be harmful to the environment, are turning to producing as much food as they can at home.  
“Generally speaking, home food production has increased in the last 10 to 12 years,” said Levy County UF/IFAS extension agent Anthony Drew.
People, more and more, want to know what they are eating and where it comes from, he said.  In small-scale home food production there is usually very little to no economic benefit.
Amy Gernhardt, who lives just outside of Cedar Key, is one of those new breeds of people who have an interest in home food production.  She started raising chickens for eggs and meat about six years ago.
“I had never raised chickens before,” she said.  “We were basically looking at ways we could have a more sustainable lifestyle.  Chickens seemed to be a good way to do that.”
It wasn’t easy at first, she said.  Predators were constantly picking off the fowl.  “Once we built a pen, completely enclosed, we were able to get a handle on the chickens.”
Drew said predators can be a big problem for people wanting to keep chickens, especially if they are frequently allowed to run loose in the yard.  Hawks and other predatory birds, raccoons, skunks, weasels, foxes, opossums and even snakes, who prey upon the chicks and eat the eggs, can all be an issue.
Gernhardt’s chicken pen measures about 16 feet by 30 feet, she said.  It’s completely covered in chicken wire, even on the bottom, which prevents predators from digging underneath.  She keeps about 17 chickens in it, though she admitted the size of her pen is a bit bigger than most people would have for that number, especially if they are allowed to roam free.  But even if the birds are allowed to roam free during the day, they need to have a coop where they can be safe from predators at night.
Other than housing accommodations, another factor to consider if wishing to raise chickens is the type.
“One of the breeds, in my opinion, that is well-adapted and a large breed that will do meat and eggs are sex-linked chickens,” Drew said. Sex-linked chickens are a breed that, when chicks, exhibit different coloration depending on the sex of the chick.
“But there are many different breeds that are acceptable,” he said.  “It just depends on what you’re after.”
Gernhardt said she mostly keeps Wyandottes, Rhode Island Reds, White Leghorns and Astralorps, the latter being good egg layers well adapted to warm climates. She said she’s lost some of the Wyandottes to hot weather in the past.
Food is another consideration.  Gernhardt said she spends about $40 a month on a high quality chicken feed, which is hormone and antibiotic free.  But, she added, “Good, fresh water is the main component.” Water dispensers or containers should be cleaned regularly.
Drew said there are lots of brands and types of chicken feed.  Selection depends on whether you’re using the birds for their eggs or for their meat.  Chickens that lay eggs also need a source of calcium in their diets such as oyster shells, though Drew said many of the high quality feeds on the market already contain calcium.
And, of course, if the chickens run free they will find lots of things to eat in your yard or on your property.
“Chickens are wonderful natural biological control agents of all kinds of critters,” Drew said.  However, he added, they can also wreak havoc on your landscape if permitted to get near gardens, shrubs or flowers.  That can also be an issue if you have neighbors, and it’s a good idea to check the zoning laws where you live to make sure it’s legal to keep chickens on you property.  Most homes within city limits are not zoned for such activity.
Drew said it’s also recommended that people wishing to purchase chicks buy them from a certified hatchery to reduce the risk of health problems, especially if you have an existing flock.  
“Avoid going down the street to where you see chickens for sale.”
Despite all the concerns and preparation it takes to be a successful small-time chicken farmer, there are many rewards, according to Gernhardt.  She said she prefers the taste of her homegrown eggs to that offered in stores.  She uses the chicken manure as fertilizer and the chickens help clean her garden at the end of each growing season.
She also enjoys watching the chickens interact with each other, she said.
“We’ve got a rooster that will get oak leaves from the trees and give them to the hens.  Now that’s a good chicken.”