(BPT) - As more Americans choose restaurants that take pride in buying from local farms and cooking in season, many families have brought these farm-to-table values home with them. That may feel like the latest trend to emerge from the culinary world, but its roots run deep on family farms; the benefits of growing your own food and living "backyard-to-table" have been practiced there for generations.
A backyard-to-table lifestyle has countless benefits: saving money at the grocery store, living more sustainably, knowing exactly where your healthy foods come from and spending quality time with your family - to name a few. And, for families seeking to grow more of their own food, it's important to know the appeal raising backyard chickens plays in living this movement year-round.
"Many people begin exploring the backyard-to-table trend by raising their own vegetables, fruits and herbs, but you don't have to stop there," says Lisa Steele, top-selling author of "Fresh Eggs Daily" and "Duck Eggs Daily," and creator of the popular backyard chickening website FreshEggsDaily.com.
"Raising your own flock of backyard chickens provides a reliable source of wholesome eggs, and chicken droppings provide excellent fertilizer for the garden," Steele says. "From the coop to the garden to the kitchen, it's a fun and rewarding way for families to spend time together, and raising poultry teaches about a sustainable lifestyle."
Spring is the perfect time to start a backyard flock, Steele says. Tractor Supply Company, the nation's largest rural lifestyle retailer, celebrates the arrival of spring with its popular Chick Days event in its stores throughout the country. You can visit nearly any Tractor Supply location, see and select live chicks to begin your flock, and get all the equipment, feed and advice you need to successfully cultivate the baby chicks into an egg-laying flock.
The chicken experts from Tractor Supply offer some tips to get you started:
* Before buying chicks, prepare. They're babies and will need special care, including a "brooder guard" to help keep them warm. This can be as simple as a cardboard box or circular cardboard fence. Add a heat source, such as a 250-watt infrared bulb placed 18 inches above the ground. Disinfect the area with chlorine or ammonia and spread a few inches of wood shavings on the ground. The day before bringing chicks home, turn on the lamp to ensure the litter is thoroughly warm.
* Poultry require clean, fresh water at every age. A 1-gallon chick waterer refreshed regularly will provide plenty of hydration for a small flock.
* Keep the lamp on 24 hours a day during the first week the chicks are in their new home, and then gradually reduce the amount of light to 12 to 13 hours per day.
* Pay attention to how the chicks behave. If they crowd into the corners of the brooding area, away from the lamp, they may be feeling too warm. If they chirp a lot and huddle under the lamp in a pile, they may be feeling cold.
* At 6 weeks old, chicks should be ready to move in to their chicken coop. You can purchase a wide selection of chicken coops and hutches from Tractor Supply and TractorSupply.com, or find detailed instructions for building coops on the Tractor Supply online Know How Central.
* Chicks require different kinds of feed than adult birds. Until they're about 8 weeks old, chicks should eat a special chick "starter feed" with more of the protein that young birds need (available at all Tractor Supply stores). Feed them following the bag directions, but only buy a month's supply at a time to ensure the minerals and vitamins stay fresh.
* Between eight and 18 weeks, your flock should be eating "grower feed." A grower formulation helps a young hen develop into a reliable egg layer. At 18 weeks, your flock can transition to adult feed. To encourage egg production, a feed with 16 to 20 percent protein is recommended. "Layer feed" contains calcium so eggshells stay hard.
In about 24 weeks, your flock will be established, and your family can begin enjoying fresh, wholesome eggs every day. As well, home gardeners will enjoy the natural pest control and outstanding fertilizer chickens naturally provide. Truly, for Americans looking to live more sustainably and embrace the backyard-to-table movement at home, backyard poultry is the next big thing in food.
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