The Chicken, or the Egg?
Deciding the answer to this question is the critical first step, before you actually get the chicks. Consider whether you really want to raise meat birds. They’re very different from egg-laying hens. You’ll have a lot (usually 50 or more, although you could just raise a few) of fast-growing birds, which means a lot of poop. And perhaps the biggest question to answer is: can you handle saying goodbye in a relatively short time? Whether you slaughter them on-farm or take them to be processed, if you’re a new farmer, you will need to face this reality, or be a vegetarian farmer. It’s up to you, but don’t agonize it after the fact: it’s considered cruel to let meat birds live longer than a few months as they are heavy-breasted and can die of heart failure if they grow too big.
Some breeds can be used either for meat or for egg production. Assuming that you aren’t looking to invest in a huge broiler facility, our discussion on chickens will focus mostly around how to produce fresh eggs. You may or may not want to use the chickens for meat once their laying cycle is done, but by then they are literally not spring chickens anymore, and not as tender as they might be, so you’d want to think about this too, before slaughtering your previous egg layers for meat consumption.
Should you get a rooster?
Contrary to popular misconception, you don’t need a rooster for your hens to lay eggs. A rooster is needed to fertilize the eggs, to hatch them into baby chicks, but hens will lay just as many eggs whether there’s a rooster around or not. Some farmers would rather keep an all-female flock, and urban or suburban homesteaders may not have a choice, due to zoning laws that forbid roosters.
When you keep a rooster, you have to be careful about broody hens (who will sit on the eggs, hoping they will hatch), because the eggs will start developing into baby chicks if fertilized. You can use the broody hen to hatch eggs, but this involves some decision making and supervision, so that the eggs you eat aren’t the ones she’s sitting on.
Some farmers prefer to have a rooster, because he does offer significant protection for the flock. He will guard against predators and sound the alert if there is any perceived danger. We prefer to have a rooster because we think the girls get along better… but that is personal preference.
Pros of Having a Rooster:
Roosters will protect their hens from predators, keeping them safe by keeping them together and sounding the alert if a predator approaches. He will also defend them bodily against an attacker! They also complete the natural order of the flock. Chickens naturally live with males and females mixed, so you’re allowing your hens to live as “normal” a life as possible with a rooster in the mix. And owners have reported that roosters will break up “hen fights,” (think cat fights with feathers), find and give treats to their girls, encourage egg-laying, and even monitor the nest boxes.
Roosters are iconic farmyard animals, and they are gorgeous to look at in many cases. They also have a lot of personality (think of the terms “cock of the walk, “ or “cock-a-hoop”). Many folks find that roosters are very entertaining and interesting creatures to have around.
You will need one if you want to naturally hatch baby chicks. My granddaddy Parker raised natural flocks, and the roosters were good daddies to their babies and took care of the mother hen too.
Cons of Having a Rooster:
One of the biggest cons of having a rooster is that his presence may violate your local zoning laws. obviously, if your city or county doesn’t allow them, don’t get a rooster! You’re just asking for trouble.
Even if your local laws don’t prohibit them, remember they can be noisy. Yes, they do crow, and yes, in the morning, and yes, at other inopportune times as well. Think of how you will like this when it happens, and also about your neighbors’ reactions, especially if you live in close quarters.
Roosters can also be aggressive. They have spurs on their ankles that can break skin. You need to stay on top of “training” them that you’re the BIG rooster, so they respect you, and you might want to think about it if you have small children or lots of farm visitors.
They can “wear out” hens. Mating between a rooster and a hen is, of course, a natural process, but if you have too many roosters and too few hens (one rooster can “take care of” up to 30 hens), your hens will start to show the wear: (backs rubbed clean of feathers, for example), they’ll be just plain worn out. So keep your rooster to hen ratio in the healthy zone!
Next week…fun facts about breeding hens