So for anyone interested, here's the story of our backyard flock:
In May of 2012, we picked up a bakers' dozen of pullets; adolescent birds. We made the decision not to get chicks for two reasons. One, it is much harder to keep them alive, and as it was our first experience with keeping poultry we wanted to keep things as simple as possible. Secondly, most chicks are not guaranteed to be female (even though they have been sexed), and we didn't want to run the risk of obtaining a rooster just yet! And another bonus to purchasing older birds is that they are that much closer to egg-laying maturity.
Once we had decided to not purchase chicks, our next dilemma was what breed(s) to get. Our local supplier has a myriad of breeds to choose from: layers, roasters (ones preferable for eating), and hybrids, and it was our job to do the research to find our which ones fit best for us.
We eventually settled on two breeds: Rhode Island Red and Barred Plymouth Rock. The Reds are the quintessential chicken with bright reddish-brown plumage with touches of emerald green on the neck. Other than their white feathered cousins, they are probably one of the most recognizable breeds. The Rocks on the other hand have beautiful white and black barred feathers, with the softest underbelly feathers I have ever felt.
We selected them for a few reasons. They are productive layers, yet are both large enough breeds to eat; they are quite cold-hearty; and are quite even tempered and even pleasant to be around. (In fact when you walk near them they "squat" with their wings splayed out so you can pet them!) They are also both brown-egg layers, which didn't matter one iota to us but seem to go over well with our friends and family.
When they first arrived they were pretty ugly. They had just begun to molt, and ran around looking like awkward, naked, little dinosaurs. And not in a good way. We kept them penned in a small run made of wood strapping and chicken wire with an access to the main coop at night.
A note on the coop: Chris built a 10X10 shed in our back yard, and in the back half is where we put the coop. It was made as a simple box that was about 10X4 feet, and only 3 feet high. (We still have space at the front of the shed for storage as well as the alcove above the coop.) On the back side of the shed the bottom opens up into two large doors (one with a smaller chicken door on it) so cleaning the coop is as easy as opening the doors and raking the straw outside. There are two other smaller doors inside the shed that lead to the nesting boxes where we collect the eggs.
In July, we had the backyard fenced and placed another fence surrounding the shed where the chickens have their run. It is nicely shaded by two maple trees, and gives them ample space in the warmer weather to forage for roots, bugs and plants (though they usually have all green things removed and eaten in a matter of weeks!). They do not go outside in winter not because of the cold we've discovered, but because they do not like snow under their feet!
It was not until September when we started receiving our first eggs, and once they all started producing we picked up an egg for each of them everyday!
We were told they would decrease production in wintertime, but for that first year that was not the case. We continued to receive one egg per bird right through the winter months, so much that we started selling them. It wasn't until this past year that we've seen a decrease: this winter we only received one egg for every three birds a day.
Because of that, and because our birds have developed a case of cannibalism (they've started eating their own eggs), we will be replacing them with a new flock and culling the two-year-olds this autumn.
Overall, this has been a wholly enjoyable and informative experience. We did have some moments of sadness when we lost four birds to the dogs, but the boys have a chance to truly see where their eggs (and soon their meat) come from, and we haven't had to purchase eggs in almost two years. Not only that, but we've been eating the largest, most delicious and most orange eggs, more full of flavour than I thought was possible. We also know that there are no additives or hormones given to the chickens, and that they enjoy a healthy, active, lifestyle. I believe very strongly that if your animals are not just healthy but happy, also, than it translates to better tasting, and better-for-you, food.
I do not know that we've saved money by raising our own chickens. Between the initial cost of the coop, the feed, and supplies, we may be breaking even (unless of course you are paying over $5 a dozen for free-range, organic eggs. Then perhaps we're doing better!), but it is 100% worth it to know what it is we are eating, and the experience that goes along with it.
Chickens really are self-sufficient: once a day to bring them food and water and collect the eggs, and the rest of the time they are left to themselves. The coop is cleaned out every few weeks (less so in the summer when they spend most of the time outdoors), and kitchen scraps can be fed to them whenever you feel like it (they LOVE tomatoes!)
I would highly recommend doing the research to see if owning a backyard flock is right for you. There are so many ways to house the coop (think chicken tractor) that needs only a small space, and the rewards are definitely worth it!