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How to Raise a Hen: The Idiot’s Guide

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posted by Susie Middleton

You’d think I’d know better, but once again I’ve signed up to write an article on something I know almost nothing about: Hens. First, I suggested to my editor at Edible Cape Cod that I write about “following the egg trail” on Martha’s Vineyard—how I got to know the island by hunting for fresh eggs. She liked that idea. Would she like an egg recipe, too?  Of course. And some egg photos? Oh, definitely.

“Stop, Susie. Stop right there,” a little voice said. But no, I had to add, “Say, Dianne, do you think your readers would also like to know how to raise their own hens?” Now this she got really excited about. Turns out she’s been harboring the hen-raising fantasy herself, just like I have. Do it all, she told me.

So there I was last week, deadline looming, wondering how to get the hen-raising CliffsNotes.  If I were smart, I would’ve picked Maryellen’s brain before the busy season came upon her. But fortunately, I had a backup: two of the smartest eggheads on Martha’s Vineyard, Katherine Long and Tom Vogl. Katherine’s a retired librarian, Tom a retired biophysicist, and together they raise hens and sell their Up Island Eggs in West Tisbury.

Katherine and Tom obliged me with the big picture tips, so I’m practicing my brevity by passing them along to you. I’m sure there are a few of you, like me, who’ve been bitten by the homesteading bug. If having your own fresh eggs is part of that vision, here’s what you’ll need:

1.  Baby chicks. Order them from Murray McMurray Hatchery. Minimum order: Two dozen one-day old chicks, shipped through the U.S. Mail. Expect to lose one or two.

2.  A brooding area. Warm place in the basement with heat lamp, water, and feed, to keep chicks until they’re old enough to go outside. Must be safe from household pets, too.

3.  A sturdy coop. Cool coop plans are also available from Murray’s. A coop needs two things: boxes for the hens to lay eggs in, and a shelf, pole, or other elevated area for nighttime roosting. Bonus features: outdoor access to laying boxes for easy egg removal; outdoor access to litter area for easy cleaning.

4.  A varmint-proof yard. The coop should open onto a covered, fenced run (12’ x 24’ is a nice size).  Hens need to peck in the dirt (grit aids digestion) and take dust baths (for healthy skin and feathers). The run absolutely must be varmint-proof (raccoons are the biggest problem on the Vineyard; foxes and coyotes elsewhere). It’s best to bury serious mesh wire about 18 inches deep.  If possible, allow hens access to a fenced grassy grazing area during the day as well; grass means nutritious eggs.

5.  Feed and water. Tons of water. Katherine and Tom’s 70 hens drink 6 gallons a day.  See Murray’s too, for watering systems, and for healthy feed. Katherine recommends adding ground oyster shell for essential calcium.

Intrigued? Katherine and Tom will give chicken consultations on request if you want more details. Or you can just wait a few years for my next book, which I think might have to be on eggs and chickens.

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