10 Tips on How to Raise Chickens Like the Pioneers Part 1

By Melissa Norris | How to articles

Feb 03

Melissa: Welcome everybody! Thank you so much for joining us.  Lisa from Fresh Eggs Daily is joining me here today. I’m really excited to have her. She is another old fashioned gal right after my own heart.

Want fresh eggs daily from your own backyard? Awesome tips on how to raise chickens the old-fashioned way, like the pioneers did. Love the tips on which breeds to get for cold climates, how to keep them warm without lights, and the hatching out tips! I'm so excited to enlarge our flock now!

10 Tips on how to Raise Chickens Like the Pioneers

Free Daily Food Source

We’re going to be talking about raising chickens. She is a chicken and duck expert and why we’re talking about that today is because it’s a free daily food source. Free is a relative term when you have livestock. But you do get to gather eggs that you don’t have to buy at the grocery store.

We’re going to be talking about the ways the pioneers did the really simple old-fashioned techniques. What you really need and don’t need and all of that. And I’m really excited for that. So welcome everybody. I’m so happy to have you. Lisa, thank you for being on with me today.

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Lisa: Hey, I’m glad to be here.

M: Lisa, tell me a little bit about where you’re located? I’m in the Pacific Northwest so I’m on the west coast.
L: I’m in Maine on the East coast. And this is our first year in Maine, we moved from Virginia so it’s a little bit of a learning curve dealing with the cold and the snow. I grew up in New England so I’m used to it but I didn’t have chickens back then. So this is all kind of new for me with the cold. The chickens are doing amazing.

We have no heat in our coop, no light. They’re still laying a little bit, our ducks are laying. And the chickens are fine. I mean it was 6 degree this morning when I woke up. When I opened the coop door they just popped out ready to be fed breakfast. Chickens are a lot more hardy than you give them credit for. I was really nervous thinging they were going to be cold but they’re doing fine.

M: That’s awesome. How many chickens do you have?

L: I have 11 chickens and 12 ducks. Since we moved. I had about three dozen since we were moving I kinda downsized. I re-homed a lot of them and kept my favorites. So I’ll be hatching again this spring which will be really fun. So I have about a dozen chickens and dozen ducks in the coop. And one egg today. Cuz they’re slackers.

M: Uh oh, they better watch it. I always threaten mine that they’re going to go in the stew pot.

L: We don’t eat our chickens. In fact, I have one chicken who is 7 years old. She came with us. She’s slowed down a bit and she’s not as active as she used to be but she’s doing great. She’s all puffed up and staying warm. Lays four eggs a year; something like that. She still eats bugs and poops a lot so we get a lot of fertilizer from her so she’s still earning her keep.

M: That’s one benefit of chickens. If you are a gardener then you do have lots of free fertilizer available to you. We do have a question:

How big does my coop need to be for two chickens

L: Roughly you’ll want between 3-5 square feet of floor space per chicken. So for two chickens you’ll want 6-10 square feet. But honestly, if you are in the colder climates a bigger coop isn’t always better because it’s harder for them to keep it warm with their body heat. So you really want to keep the coop size at the minimum in the colder climates. So it was 6 degrees when I woke up outside and when I opened the coop up it was 14 degrees so they were able to raise the temp by 8 degrees with their body heat. Which is pretty good.

M: Definitely, that is pretty good. So Lola has a question here:

Is there a way to keep my chickens alive during winter?

I think you’ve kind of touched on. A lot of people assume that you have to have a heat lamp to keep them heated. But as we know the pioneers way back when, when we didn’t have electricity heat lamps were not a thing. Do You want to address a little bit.

Is there a certain temperature thing where you do need to provide heat for the chickens?

L: I don’t think you do. I have readers from Scandinavia, from Alaska and they don’t heat their coops. As long as the temperature gradually gets colder the chickens are able to acclimate to it. And they’re just fine. As you mentioned the pioneers didn’t have electricity.

A big difference is that their chickens lived in the barn with other animals so it wasn’t just two chickens in this huge coop. It was chickens probably roosting in the rafters of the barn so the body heat of the cows and sheep and goats was rising up. So it is a little bit different.

You can’t just say well, they didn’t have heat for their chickens because we’ve taken away the natural out of chicken keeping by putting them in our back yard. But if you keep the coop small, put a lot of straw down, a lot of insulation, give them cracked corn before bed or scratch grains they’re going to be just fine. Most animals are pretty cold hardy. The heat bothers them a lot more than the cold does.

M: OK. So you’re suggestion to give them cracked corn or scratch before bedtime, what is the reasoning for that? Is it to help keep their metabolism up because as they eat then their body has to break down the food?

L: Absolutely, yes. Exactly.

M: We have another question:

Is there a breed that you would suggest over another breed?

L: *laughs* In general or for the cold? For the cold, there are cold hardy breeds. You want to stay away from Mediterranean breeds, Andalusians and leghorns, real small bodied, chickens with huge combs. Cuz their combs can get frost bit. They don’t have a lot of body mass so if you’re in a cold climate you really want to go with the really big bodied girls: Buff Orpington, Australorps, or you know a chicken that’s got some meat on her because she’ll be able to stay warmer.

I also think that the black breeds like the Jersey Giants, Australorps. Marans, they absorb the sunlight like any black surface does and I think they stay warmer also. Whereas the Mediterranean breeds are white or light gray so they’re not going to stay as warm. You can’t go wrong with an Australorp.

M: I never thought about the feather color. I don’t know why but that’s a really good point. I love that. We have here, my Buff Orpington. She’s my favorite. I call her Buffy. She’s the best little bird. And then I’ve got a Silver Wyandotte and she is so pretty with the black and white. The darker makes so much sense that they would attract the natural heat.

As far as egg production wise are there certain breeds that tend to be better layers where you get more eggs per bird than other breeds? 

L: Well, you do. They have the production breeds that have been bred purely for production. The red black, the leghorns are pretty much what the commercial egg farms use because they’re such good producers.

But in general any chicken that lives in a stress free environment, has a good diet, gets fresh air, and exercise they’ll lay almost every day. Some of my blue egg layers are a little finicky in that. In the nice weather pretty much any breed is going to lay eggs every day. I wouldn’t go for who’s going to lay the most eggs but more what type chicken appeals to you. Temperament, like you said the Buff Orpingtons are such sweet chickens. Egg color, if they’re good for your climate.

M: Awesome. So, we started out with baby chicks and I did not have good luck with the chicks. We went and got a whole bunck of them. They raised fine but we free ranged them. We live out on almost 15 acres and have natural predators where we’re at. Out of 18 chicks we had 1 than made it out to egg laying at about 5 months old. So I stopped with the chicks and actually took the year off, took the winter off and gave that hen to our neighbors who had an existing flock and coop.

Then I went and purchased some year old layers and started our flock fresh again the next spring. They were so much more street wise and getting eggs right away. That’s still the flock that I have today. They’re 4 years old now. So I’ve had much better luck personally with that.

Do you have any advice when you’re starting out with the chicks integrating them into an existing flock?

I’ve never taken itty bitty babies and put them in a flock that’s already established.

Are there any guidelines that I need to watch out for in regards to that?

L: Yeah, chickens are not really welcoming to newcomers because they taking their pecking order to seriously. They will literally kill new chickens especially when they’re small. Going back to the pioneers they didn’t have incubators or hatcheries that they could mail order so they hatched chicks under their hens.

I’ve done both, I’ve done the incubator, I’ve bought baby chicks and hatched under a hen. If you can get a hen to sit on eggs it’s fast. She keeps them warm, she turns them, the humidity. You don’t have to worry about anything. Make sure there is food close by. When they hatch, she keeps them warm, shows where food is, teaches them threats by making a noise.

And the best thing is she introduces them to the flock. When I hatch eggs I usually use a dog crate on the floor of the coop so the rest of the flock sees egg, sees them hatch. They see the baby chicks. And then after a week or so I just leave the door of the dog crate open and the mother hen will lead her chicks out into the run and everybody knows. If other chickens come too close the mother hen will peck them or chase them away. The integration is seamless whereas if you try to bring new chicks or pullets or 8 or 10 week olds into a new flock it’s like a massacre.

You have to separate them with fencing for weeks. It’s just awful but if you can hatch them in your coop under a hen it’s amazing. It actually happened by accident the first time I was cleaning out their little dog crate and I had left the door open and I was going in to get something and the mother hen literally marched out of the dog crate down the ramp into the run with her baby chicks behind her.

They were tiny, they were like a week old and I’m thinking they’re going to be killed so I had to run around to the gate to the run and went inside and they were just pecking around in the dirt, the mother hen was scratching around, the other chickens were curios but they weren’t bothering them. It was amazing and I even had a rooster at that time. He didn’t bother the chicks at all. The pioneers definitely knew what was going on when they hatched under chickens.

M: I don’t currently have a rooster, just have my hens. If I didn’t want to get a rooster in order to fertilize the eggs in order for my hens to lay and hatch them out. Could you order live eggs from somewhere and then put them under her if you have one who wants to naturally set and is inclined? Is that a possibility?
L: Yes, that’s what I do. I generally don’t have a rooster. I ended up with a few because I’ve hatched them. I’m not a huge fan; they create so much drama they rip up the hens. So I just buy fertilized eggs. A lot of the hatcheries and breeders sell them. You might be able to find them at a local farm, check Craig’s list.
M: Awesome. I’m doing that this spring. I’m so excited cuz I‘ve never hatched my own before. This is going to be fun. I don’t know this like I do for pigs and cattle.

How long is the incubation period?
L: Its 21 days. If you want to use a hen, use one who is going broody. She won’t want to leave the nest, you’ll thing she’s sick because she just wants to stay in the next. When you pick her up you’ll notice that she’s pulled out her breast feathers because she’s used them to line the nest.

Give her a couple days to make sure she’s willing to sit, put some fake eggs under her or unfertilized eggs. Just put something under her to make sure she’s really dedicated to it. Once you’re pretty sure she’s going to sit and that it’s not just a whim that she just didn’t want to get out of the nest. She’ll sit for longer than 3 weeks.

Generally it’s the peeping of the baby chicks that snaps her out of the broodiness so don’t feel you have to get the eggs under her right away. I’ve had one for a 1.5 -2 weeks before I’ve gotten the eggs under her, then she sits for the 3 weeks.
M: I do. My Buff Orpington actually every spring she gets broody. She sits on my eggs. She’s always sweet until then and then I try to gather the eggs. She doesn’t want me to take the eggs and will peck me. She definitely lets me know she’s not happy. They’re unfertilized so they won’t hatch. I’m really excited for this.

I know that a lot of times people don’t want the rooster so if you go to buy live chicks, especially in the spring time around here, especially Easter, the feed stores will have them. But most people don’t want to get a bunch of roosters because they want hens for the most part to start their flock.

How do you check when they’re young if they’re a rooster or a hen? Is there an easy way to tell?
L: Not really. That was actually one of the things when you’re talking about pioneers and old wives tales that there are so many theories. If you drop a hat, like a baseball cap, the hens will move back and the roosters will rush it. Kind of like pregnant women you can take a gold ring on a string if it circles it’s a hen if it doesn’t it’s a rooster. Just crazy things like that, that don’t really don’t work.

I imagine the pioneers sitting around without Netflix or internet or anything just sitting around coming up with these things to see if they work. Basically in the first couple days you can check their feathers. The hens and roosters will feather out differently on their wing feathers. I’ve found that the roosters tend to be smaller and raggedly. If you have one that is kind of looking like it has mange or something that might be a rooster.

Their legs are stockier. And their stance is more masculine. For the most part you’re kind of just guessing. The professionals can vent sex them. You know look at their little baby parts and tell if it’s a male or female but it’s internal. So unless you really know what you’re doing that’s not something you can do at the feed store.
M: I think that, at least when my own when I started them as chicks, that they start producing eggs around four months.

What is the average age chickens began producing eggs?

L: 18 weeks is probably the earliest that you’ll see for an overachiever. 20-24 weeks is more normal. And it’s forever.
M: Do they have a peak period? And what is the lifespan of a chicken?

L: About 10-12 years. I think every once in a while there’s a rooster that’s 16-20 years old. I’ve read, and I don’t know if it’s true, if you don’t light your coop to force them to lay during the winter. If you give them a break during the winter it gives their bodies a break so that they’ll live longer. They don’t have as many reproductive issues.

Things like that so that’s another reason I don’t light my coop and deal with fewer eggs in the winter. They need that natural break. They’ve just come into new feathers so I’m not going to force them to lay thru the winter. I just wait until spring when everything picks up again. They only lay well for maybe 3-5 years. But after that, as I had mentioned with my Charlotte who is 7 years old, she still eats bugs, she eats ticks, she provides fertilizer, you know so, we’ll just keep feeding them until they keel over dead one day.
M: So your egg production is about 3-5 years old is when you’re going to get your egg production and after that you can decide to keep them as pets or for fertilizer.

You don’t butcher or raise chickens for meat then?

L: No

M: We do, but they’re not my laying hens. We do raise meat chickens; about 25 a year. That’s what gets my family of four thru the year. I have not butchered any of my laying hens. One, they’re older and I know the meat would be tougher.
L: Exactly, That’s my justification too. They just feel stringy and chewy anyway.

M: With the meat chickens we’ve got them for that set of time, there are 25 and we feed them. We treat them humanely but I don’t name them. But my hens have names and we interact with them. So that would definitely be a lot harder too. I keep my two flocks separate.
L: And you mentioned earlier about your first batch where they all got killed by predators. Older hens make really good broody hens. They’ve been around, know what to eat, what to watch for. So if you use your older hens to sit on eggs, she’ll be perfectly happy. She’s probably not as active as the younger hens anyway. And I’ve read that older hens are actually better with their success rate because they have the experience. So that’s another reason why you shouldn’t eat your older hens.
M: That is so key and that’s funny in my book in the livestock chapter, I recommend if you’re just starting out to get some older ones first. And now I’m going to introduce the babies with the Momma and have her sit on the live egg.

How do you encourage the chickens out of an egg drought after molt and the cold winter months?

L: They’ll just start laying automatically once the days start getting longer. You know just recently the days are starting to get longer and now I have a second hen start laying. Not every day but maybe every third day she’s popping an egg out. Just keep feeding them layer feed, give them fresh air and exercise. And when the days get longer they’ll start laying again.

M: That’s a good point.

“Do I raise Cornish X for meat birds and where do you buy them?”

Yes, I have raised them; I generally buy them from a hatchery. It’s a small family hatchery called Hoover’s Hatchery. They ship them as baby chicks in the mail to us. It has to be a minimum of 25 chicks but I believe they can split it between meat breeds and laying hens. Check out our post 10 Tips for Raising Chickens for Meat

This year I may try some of the dual heritage breeds which are meat chickens but they’re not the Cornish game cross but they’re also laying hens. I’m not sure yet. We really like the meat and fast growing quality of the Cornish cross and we haven’t had any issues. We just treat them like we would our regular birds and we haven’t had any problems with organ failure or legs breaking due to them getting too heavy. I’m not sure which breeds will do this, we’ll probably do some of the Cornish cross but we may bring in some of the heritage breeds.

As far as the meat birds if anybody wants to know more about raising meat birds, usually your feeds stores in any towns around will usually get some meat breeds in when they get the hens in in the spring time. I do recommend though, a lot of times, even with the chicks they’ll sell out quickly. SO put your request in ahead of time. Usually they’ll order extra for you and then you can pick them up there when they get their shipment in if you don’t want to go thru a hatchery or yourself or having them come in the mail directly to you. Usually there are a couple options to do that as well. I have two blog posts on raising chickens for meat and butchering them yourself because we do all of that on our homestead.

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Resources for Raising Chickens 

I’m so grateful for Lisa coming on.  I want to share how we met.  Lisa emailed me because she saw my book on Amazon, The Made from Scratch Life and she had ordered.  Then she found my website and found we had so much in common.  So this is my first time officially meeting her; seeing and hearing although we’ve been communicating via email.  Lisa is also an author.  I’m going to let Lisa talk about her book.

L: My blog is about raising chickens naturally, not necessarily like the pioneers did it but it’s as naturally as possible.  I wrote a book in 2013 Fresh Eggs Daily: Raising Healthy Happy Chickens Naturally.  Then followed that up with Duck Eggs Daily; Raising Ducks Naturally If you have any interest in either chickens or ducks, if you already raise them or learn a little bit more about how Melissa and I both raise them; doing them more naturally.  Using more herbs and natural remedies then you might want to pick up a copy.

Help for growing your own food in The Made-From-Scratch Life

  • Create your own custom heirloom garden with planting and harvesting charts. Trouble shoot common gardening problems with natural solutions. Discover the many benefits of growing your own food, with solutions if you don’t have a large yard or any growing space.

How to get my families heirloom Tarheel green pole bean seeds for free

If you order the book by February 8, 2016 (hello, $38 worth of free bonuses already) then you’ll get instructions on how to get our bean seed for free (sorry, it’s for my readers of the new book due to I only have a limited supply of seeds), but first come first serve!

Be sure to pre-order The Made-From-Scratch Life now to guarantee your copy arrives on time, plus get exclusive access to over $38 in FREE digital bonuses, including exclusive access to The Made-From-Scratch Life Workbook, our 30 Days to Preparedness: Old-Fashioned Skills to Increase Self-Sufficiency, our 5 Day Bonus Fast Track e-course, and The Amish Canning Cookbook Sampler! 

About the Author

Melissa K. Norris inspires people's faith and pioneer roots with her books, podcast, and blog. Melissa lives with her husband and two children in their own little house in the big woods in the foothills of the North Cascade Mountains. When she's not wrangling chickens and cattle, you can find her stuffing Mason jars with homegrown food and playing with flour and sugar in the kitchen.

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