The first farm animals we acquired were a couple of dozen New Hampshire Red pullets. New Hampshire reds are a dual-purpose heritage breed. They are good foragers, hardy, and are suitable for both meat and egg production. We built a "chicken tractor" that safely contained the birds, and gave them both shade and roosting spots. Every few days we pulled the structure to a new section of pasture. This worked pretty well, but we decided we preferred the chickens to roam more freely and preferred to avoid the daily labor of moving the tractor. So we let the hens use one of the stalls in the barn and wander where they liked. That was a mistake. That many chickens are just too messy and destructive to allow them to wander freely.
The next batch of chicks we got were a mix: Buff Orpingtons, silver-laced Wyandottes, Light Brahmins, and Black Australorps. The Australorps were gorgeaous, but incredibly dumb. The Buff Orps turned out to be good foragers and layers, and the Buff rooster as nice as you could want. He always looked out for the hens and mades sure they knew when some special food was around. He even survived being nabbed by a coyote, with only some feather loss to show for the attack.
After the chicken tractor and free-roaming experiments. we decided to give the chickens a base of operations, a chicken coop. It is insulated, has nest boxes and roosting poles, electricity for water heaters, lights, and a heat lamp on a timer (which we use only in the coldest nights of winter). The coop has a full-size door for human access and two guillotine doors for chicken access. We use electrified mesh netting to define areas for the birds to graze and to keep many small predators out. Sometimes we extend the netting down into our small orchard to give them better grazing and control insects. One summer we used an inexpensive small greenhouse kit and shade tarps to act as a coop within the orchard. Another grand experiment that proved less than ideal. High winds wreaked havoc with the greenhouse, and we abandoned it after that year.
The coop seems the best way to keep the chickens. In the fall, we can give the birds access to our garden, in which we spread raked leaves and old hay bedding. They do a good job of breaking it down to enrich the soil. In hindsight, we should have provided a southern access to the coop for the chickens. During our long winters, this would have given them a suny and occasionally snow-free are to congregate. Ideally, I think a coop would be mounted on an old trailer so that it could be moved by tractor from pasture to pasture during the growing season when electricity is unnecessary. The mobile coop would give the birds more access to grazing and spread that good manure around.
Why have chickens, anyway? Eggs! The best eggs you will ever eat. Eggs fresh from the coop are a completely different food than what you can buy in the store, even from one of those fancy crunchy-granola places. The yolks stand proud and are brilliantly colored. The whites hang together instead of spreading out. And the flavor...the flavor is just remarkable. Do you know how old those eggs are in the supermarket? Weeks old in most cases, less than two if you are lucky. After eating farm fresh eggs for a while, it is really, really hard to go back to store-bought eggs. At one egg per day per hen at the peak, with twenty or so hens you get overwhelmed with eggs for a while. I took the excess into work to sell cheap or give away.
We did slaughter and process a bunch of birds from our first group once they were pretty much spent for egg laying. Not being real farmers, we decided it just wasn't worth the effort and mess. Now the spent hens just retire. Our oldest hen is eleven years old.