Getting Started with Chickens
Is your site suitable for chickens?
Are you legally allowed to keep chickens at your site? You can find the city’s ordinance about keeping chickens in residential areas here:
You also need to make sure you clear your project with your school’s administration. Many campuses in Central Texas have successfully raised chickens, but it’s important to review the unique needs and resources with all involved parties, including administrators, parents, and teachers.
Preparing your site
You should plan to have at least two chickens, as a single chicken will feel lonely on its own. Well-cared for chickens will lay an average of 5-6 eggs per week. Before purchasing eggs or chickens, determine what will happen to the eggs that are laid each week. Having fresh-laid eggs at your disposal is a wonderful thing; but too many eggs can become an inconvenience.
Chickens will need a safe, temperate, and dry place to sleep, as well as a secure enclosure. Chickens fare much better in the cold than in the heat, as they cannot sweat to regulate body temperature. This is of particular concern during the hot and dry summers characteristic of Central Texas. Be sure to select a site that will provide ample ventilation and access to shade to keep your chickens comfortable all summer long.
While chickens will come home to roost in the evening, it’s important to take precautions to protect them and their eggs from crafty predators such as racoons and rats. An outdoor run, attached to an enclosed coop is highly recommended for school environments as it will keep the chickens close to the coop and safe 24/7. You should plan for at least 3 square feet per chicken inside the coop and 8 or more square feet per chicken for the outside run.
In addition to a secure enclosure, chickens require:
Nesting boxes, at least one for every two chickens. Nesting boxes should be at least 18 square inches and can be made out of wood or plastic. These boxes provide a safe place for chickens to lay their eggs in, protecting the eggs from predators and mishaps while creating a reliable place where you can collect eggs rather than hunting for them all over the coop. Be sure that the boxes are near a door for easy access.
Perches for the chickens to roost on at night. Perches are usually made from rounded pieces of wood that are about 2 inches in diameter. Provide at least one foot of perch per bird. Perches should be placed one or more feet above the ground and 8 inches away from the side of the coop to provide enough space for the chickens to comfortably rest at night.
Bedding or padding for the ground and nesting boxes. Wood shavings and straw make great bedding and keep chickens warm and dry, especially during the cooler, wetter winter months. Cover the entire floor of the coop with bedding, as well as the bottom of the nesting boxes.
Waterer(s) to provide sufficient fresh water year-round. Poultry waterers typically hang from a hook or beam in the coop and have a lip around the base from which the chickens drink. Place waterers in the run (near a door, for easy access) rather than the coop, to prevent the coop and bedding from getting wet. Water evaporates quickly during hot, Texas summers, so be sure to have enough waterers to keep your chickens well hydrated. Chickens can survive for a few days without food, but ample fresh water is a necessity.
Feeder(s) for the coop to keep feed dry and out of reach of wild birds and animals. There should be enough space around the feeder for all of the birds to eat at the same time. Hopper-type feeders will allow the feed to fall into the trough as needed, which is ideal for a school environment where you may not have the time for feed the birds twice a day.
Feed storage container, preferably metal, that will keep the grain dry and safe from predators.
You’ll also likely want waterproof shoes or boots that you don’t mind getting dirty, a shovel for cleaning out the coop, a bucket or scoop for transferring feed from the feed bag to the feeder, and a nearby spigot or hose so that you can easily fill up the waterer.
Chickens will naturally come home to roost at dusk. However, unless a teacher or parent plans to lock up the coop at sunset, it’s a good idea to keep a stash of mealworms on hand that you can use to train birds to return to the coop when you need them to.
Planning to build
Chicken coops come in so many different shapes and sizes; this is your chance to get creative! At the very minimum, chickens require a secure shelter where then can roost and lay eggs safe from predators, strong winds, rain, and direct sunlight.
Before you begin planning to build or purchase a ready-made coop, determine if there are any existing outbuildings or sheds that could be adapted into a chicken house. If you are lucky enough to have an existing structure that can be used to house your chickens, be sure that there is ample ventilation to prevent respiratory problems and sufficient natural light to promote regular egg production. You’ll also need to cover any glass windows with wire netting to prevent birds from flying into the window and breaking the glass and/or hurting themselves.
If you decide to build a coop, select a fairly level site with plenty of room for both a coop and a run, and space for your students to gather and observe the birds. The site should have plenty of shade from nearby buildings or trees and should be protected from the elements. Next, you’ll need to determine the size and shape that best meet the unique needs and existing resources on your campus. Coops can take the form of a sturdy A-frame that has a triangular shape and sloping sides that come to one point, or a rectangular shaped coop with a flat roof. Coops are usually constructed using a combination of wood, wire netting, and corrugated tin or bitumen[?].
You should consider covering the floor of the coop and run with wire netting that is secured to the sides of the coop. This prevents predators from digging under the sides of the coop and invading. It’s also a good idea to have lock to the coop and run doors to prevent curious students and neighbors from disturbing the chickens.
The following resources offer step-by-step instructions and plans for constructing chicken coops:
Budgeting for materials, supplies, and chickens
Once you have decided what kind of shelter and enclosure you are going to build, you’ll be able to start creating your budget. You will need to include prices for all of the building materials for the coop and run, including the perches, nesting boxes, waterers, feeders, feed, and personal items such as boots, shovels, and flash lights. Be sure to determine what type of chickens you want and at what age you’d like to purchase them, and then include this in your budget.
Home Depot or Lowes will have all you need for construction, and their employees are helpful for budget creation. If you take a building plan to Home Depot, they have a department which will create a budget for the project for you.
Callahan’s is a good local general store for a wide variety of equipment, food, and farm medical needs. View information specific to chickens at http://callahansgeneralstore.com/category/chickens/
Find eggs or chickens
Once you have prepared a site, built or adapted a coop and run, and created a budget, you’re ready to bring your chickens to school!
There are a wide variety of chicken breeds to choose from. Each one is adapted to distinct climates and, much to your students’ delight, different breeds lay different colored eggs. Bantams are miniature chickens – about 1/3 of the size of a standard sized chicken – that lay smaller-than-normal eggs.
It is fun to select several different breeds, to expose your students to the variety of sizes, shapes, and colors that characterize the chicken species. Breeds that are well adapted to the warm climate of Central Texas include heavy breeds such as Marans, Rhode Island Red, Sussex, Australorp, Plymouth Rock, Cochin, and Brahma hens. Light breeds – which are more nervous than heavy breeds and tend to lay more eggs and eat less food – that thrive in warm climates include Leghorn, Ancona, Andalusian, Minorca, and Spanish hens.
Most campuses opt for all female chickens, as roosters are often aggressive and their crowing can be a nuisance to neighbors. Hens will lay eggs with or without a rooster presence; a rooster is only necessary to fertilize an egg so that it can become a chick.
If you decide to hatch fertilized eggs, you’ll need additional classroom equipment to incubate and hatch the eggs. For more information on hatching and brooding chicks, visit http://www.extension.umn.edu/food/small-farms/livestock/poultry/hatching-and-brooding-small-numbers/
When you pick up your chickens, bring a pet carrier or sturdy cardboard box with holes in the sides and a thick layer of bedding (shredded paper or straw) on the bottom.
We recommend buying point-of-lay pullets which are adolescent chickens that are old enough to begin laying right away and can be straight into the coop. However, if you decide to purchase young chicks, they will need to be sheltered inside the classroom until they are old enough to survive the elements in their outdoor coop. You will need to set up a temporary shelter for your chicks ahead of time, with small waterers, feeders, bedding, and a heat source such as a small heat lamp or 60-watt bulb. Leave the heat source on overnight, but be sure to provide ample ventilation so that they chicks do not get too hot.