On the list of American dreams, owning a home usually takes the number one spot. The number two spot may very well be occupied by the dream of owning a small farm. Yes, the statement may sound comical, but perhaps it’s the thought of fresh farm produce from livestock and poultry that you raised, combined with a true love of animals that makes this such an appealing dream for many Americans. Dreamer beware though, starting and owning a farm comes with its own unique challenges.
Farm ownership has its ups and downs much like any new opportunity or investment and it takes time and experience to make the effort successful. Many aspiring owners start with raising chickens. You can purchase chicks for around a dollar apiece in the Spring from most farm supply stores. Add to the purchase a bag of feed, a heat lamp and a rearing pen with chicken wire, and you have covered the basics of getting started. But what many fail too consider is that mother nature can become the biggest obstacle and can cause the most problems for your flock.
Many new chicken farmers allow their birds to free range, which is a more humane way to raise them requires less feed and can produce heathier fowl. But fail to build an adequate coop for them, and they will begin laying eggs anywhere they want. As a result, your property becomes the scene of a perpetual Easter egg hunt, only no one knows where the eggs really are. It may seem like an interesting challenge for you or your children to search for the eggs on a daily basis, but after a few weeks of shifting nest locations, the novelty wears off and you only find that you have no eggs. Even if the chickens themselves appear happy and content knowing that you will search and never have breakfast. As a rule of thumb, each chicken requires three square feet of coop space and the coop must be cleaned regularly.
Another commonly overlooked threat is the “chicken hawk”. While there really is no avian species identified as a chicken hawk, there are three species of hawks in Pennsylvania who have been known to dine on chicken. Now beyond the cannibalistic first impression from that statement, specifically the Red-tail Hawk, the Coopers Hawk and the Sharp-shinned Hawk have this craving for chicken. While many books and articles claim the occurrence of hawk attacks on chickens is “rare”, this author has first hand experience which suggest that “rare” is actually not so rare. Even a foot wide opening in the top of a pen or enclosure is large enough for a Red-tailed Hawk to obliterate a flock. If you find you are missing birds with no evidence of a ground attack by way of a feather trail, suspect an attack from the sky. Don’t be surprised if the culprit returns a few more times to ensure he or she has taken advantage of the contained meal opportunity your enclosure provides.
Attrition is another issue that you need to be prepared for. Regardless of how well you build a coop or how much feed you give them, attrition will happen. Roosters will attack each other. Smaller birds will be forced away from food and water supplies. When purchasing fowl, plan on a 30-40 percent loss based on survival of the fittest. As far as enclosure material, a simple wire mesh or chain-link fence enclosure and building on a site away from wooded or forested areas should protect your birds from the stray cat, fox and occasional snake assault. Taking the time to build an adequate rearing area will save you from a ton of heartburn later.
This article is the first in a series on small farm ownership.