I am looking to get started with chickens on our 5-acre north Florida homestead. Mainly for eggs and garden help at the moment. I would prefer to establish a system that is as hands-free as possible (may have to leave them alone for a couple days from time to time due to job requirements) and my ultimate goal would be to free-range with 100% of diet coming from foraging but, I understand that this may be a stretch with the predator pressure in my area (hawks, raccoons, opossum, snakes, rodents, cats, etc...).
Does anyone have any recommendations for raising chickens in this area/climate? Which housing set-up has worked best for you (ie. tractor, coop/run)? What breeds performed the best? Should I consider a different type of fowl over chickens? Best strategies to supplement diet? etc.
Please share any failures or successes that you think I can glean from. I am new to this and am grateful for any advice or resources that will help me avoid "newbie" mistakes.
Chickens generally can handle cold better than heat. So even with a heat tolerant breed water will be key for your location, especially if you want to be able to leave them a few days at a time. We set automatic waterers for our birds. Get a food grade 5 gallon bucket with a lid you can use multiple times (some lids are basically single use). Install horizontal nipples around the base (they leak less than vertical nipples). I used 5 nipples around the circumference. Then use a drill or whatever works for you to cut some slots so you can install a stock tank valve. Drill a hole through the lid to pass a hose through and attach the hose. I'll post a picture later when I get the chance.
You'll have to train them to the nipples, and with horizontal nipples they'll need to be probably 3 weeks old before their beaks are strong enough.
For feed, get a 3-4" PVC pipe and a 45° coupler and a cap. The cap blocks one end of the coupler, pipe goes in the other end. Add feed to the pipe and the birds can eat from the 45° part of the coupler. Best to keep it under cover as it's hard to keep the feed dry otherwise. That can easily hold several days of feed so you can leave and know they'll be fine.
Edit to add: Should have said 45° T rather than coupler.
I keep a small flock of mixed standard size chooks and they handle the heat just fine but the preditor issue is always present. I keep mine penned and let them out a few hours before sunset and close em up at dark. Partly for the fact that they'll eat my fruit and veges I grow, and partly for the preditor problem. A neighbor kept a few hens that roosted in a tree near his house and some got picked off by creatures of the night, but 3 lasted a few years till a stray dog got them in the daytime. As for mine, all the white and light colored ones get picked off, the darker colored ones seem to have more longevity. I'm raising some Dominique hens now to see how they'll do... The older hens (with one rooster) are a mix of turken, barred rock, RIR, and Cochin bantam. The roo is big and hansome an does a good job of protecting them. An so far has not been aggressive to me. The preditor problem is always present. Everything loves chicken. A fox is my biggest issue. It checks regularly. I have 4 catahoula dogs that are excellent livestock guardians but that dam fox can jump the fence and snatch a chicken an be gone while these dogs are asleep, it only comes at night.... Usually when it's raining or windy or some other kind of noise distraction. Almost always a young one that wont do the death scream. When the chooks all go in the coop like their supposed to there's no chicken dinner for the fox. So... Obviously, the self feeding doesn't happen I just buy layer food for them, but they do get a good bit of supplemental food from the garden, my cooking, also I keep a couple milk goats so there's occasionally 'chicken cheese' ... (clabbered milk) and they clean up any slaughter residue when we harvest a critter... I would imagine that leaving them to free range without a secure sleeping arrangement they wouldn't last very long. I know of old timers that keep/kept game hens that survive fairly well but them getting eggs daily doesn't reliably happen due to hens hiding the nests, roosters, and hens being aggressive, etc...
Nighttime protection is key. Chickendoors.com has automatic doors that open/close at sun up/sundown. If the chickens are locked in coop for a couple days, then let out a couple hours before sundown, they will get back in coop on their own after that.
Do that and keep enough food/water inside to last while you are gone.
I have no enclosed fence paddock, just a small coop/run and the chicken door. When they are out they have full access. I dont recall any daytime incidents. Raccoon, skunks, foxes come out at night. If there is a weakness in your coop, they will find it.
I have had no heat issues in central tx with chickens.