With over a half-billion eggs recalled last month because of salmonella contamination, raising backyard chickens is a great way be in control of your own food supply. And “Eating local” is the ultimate hands-on approach to sustainability by reducing the carbon footprint of industrial agriculture.
Considering feed and maintenance, don’t expect huge savings — you’ll probably just break even. But as Patty Khuly, a small-animal veterinarian in Miami, and author of FullyVetted, a blog on pet health at PetMD.com, so eloquently said, “What I’ve netted from raising chickens can’t possibly be processed by the likes of an Excel spreadsheet.”
What your backyard endeavor will net you is a plentiful supply of protein-rich eggs year-round, eggs from range-free chickens blessed with that old-fashioned country flavor city slickers only experience on a week-end trip to a farm house in Vermont. And if you grow a garden, the perfect source of of garden fertilizer — chicken excrement — is only a few steps away.
Last year, Kathy Lohr at NPR quipped, “Urban hens are hip. Across the country, city dwellers — attracted by the idea of having fresh eggs, a new hobby or even unique pets — are keeping flocks. As an interest in neighborhood chicken rearing continues to gather momentum, Backyard Poultry Magazine may replace Good Housekeeping as the nation’s new center piece for popular mainstream reading by cocooning homebound diehards.
There are web sites, coop tours, and in Atlanta, notes Lohr, there’s even a class called “Chicks and the City.” The class, offered through a community garden’s education program, teaches everything would-be urban chicken farmers need to know.
But as Lohr points out, some give up on the idea because they realize raising chickens may be more demanding than they first thought. So let’s take a look at what’s involved, so you, dear reader, can make an informed decision as to whether you should become your own egg supplier.
“What you want to provide your chickens, at a minimum, is a place where they get inside from the weather that is ventilated, that gives them a place to roost and a place for them to lay their eggs,” says chicken Instructor Jonathan Watts.
Don Hoch, from Wisconsin, was determined to make a coop as cheaply as possible, so he salvaged 2x4s, plywood, windows, doors, and anything else he found. He was able to obtain a lot of material from shipping crates.
He found four antique windows at a flea market, and after bartering with the vendor paid $30 for all of them. He made the frames for the windows with more salvaged lumber, and bought a set of French doors for the entrance at a rummage sale for $5.
Don secured 2x6s for the floor joists, as well as walls, trusses, a roof, nesting boxes, and three dog pens he salvaged to make the outdoor runs. The whole enterprise cost Don $700. No one needs a chicken coop nearly as fancy as Don’s, but he demonstrates what one can accomplish with patience, a little know-how and creative effort.
A chicken coop can be fashioned from a $200 multi-purpose storage shed from Wal-mart. It is important, however, to have an outdoor caged-in run to protect chickens from predators, and allow them sunlight and a place to walk and roam freely.
The standard rule for coop size is about 2-3 square feet per chicken inside the henhouse and 4-5 sq/ft per chicken in an outside run. See Dennis Harison-Noonan’s “Chicken Coop Building Instructions”. The approximate cost of materials for his coop is around $350.
Where To Get Chicks & Care
Local Feed Stores may supply chicks in the Spring. If not, feed store employees can direct you to a hatchery or poultry breeding farm. There are several types of egg-laying chickens on the market. Good egg layers are Rhode Island Reds, Leghorns, New Hampshires, Plymouth Rocks, and Wyandottes. Egg-laying capability of chickens is strong for the first year or two and then begins to decline.
First 60 Days of Care/Courtesy of Backyard Chickens.com:
* Young Chick Brooder – Can be as simple as a sturdy cardboard box or a small animal cage like one you’d use for rabbits.
* Flooring – Pine shavings work best
* Temperature – 90 to 100 deg. for the first week, decrease 5 deg. per week. A 100 watt bulb pointing in one corner (not the whole brooder) works well.
* Food & water – chick crumbles / starter & a chick waterer
* Play time – Play with your chicks when young to get the use to being around people.
* Outside time – Section off an area in your yard where the chicks can explore, scratch, etc. Make sure you can catch them when it’s time to come in.
* More details: Raising Chicks.
Once feathered out you’ll want to move your chickens into a chicken coop where you’ll supply your chickens with feed — a combination of maize, soy, rice bran and cereals — and water. There are a variety of automatic chicken waterer and feeders on the market, or you can toss down a scoop of feed each day as you check for eggs, but you’ll still need an automatic poultry watering system.
According to Lionsgrip.com, chickens will consume 30% of their calories from grass, if allowed to truly “free range.” And chickens need animal protein, because chickens are omnivores.
“A normally-maturing chick (i.e., breeds which mature in about 6 months, such as egg-layers) will eat about 2 pounds of starter feed in its first 6 weeks of life…Factors influencing feed consumption include, but are not limited to, breed type, how much they exercise, climate, wind, humidity and precipitation, the caloric and nutritional density of the feed, and how much natural feed supplementation they obtain.”
To ensure your chickens receive protein, and also make use of food you may have otherwise thrown in the garbage, many chicken owners place meal leftovers in a bucket, and at the end of the day, dump the leftovers into the caged-in run area of the chicken coop. May as well check the water and feed, and see if there are any eggs while you’re out there. And remember, if you live in a seasonal climate, you may almost resent going to the coop for eggs in the freezing snow.
Chicken Laws and Ordinances
Urban areas currently allowing chickens as pets include New York, Chicago, Albuquerque, Baltimore, Portland, Phoenix and Seattle, among others. BackyardChickens.com and its members have compiled a database listing hundreds (eventually thousands) of cities’ chicken laws and ordinances. See map here.
Chickens Are Fun
Chickens are fun and each chicken has a unique personality. Chickens actually do have a literal pecking order and it’s fascinating to watch them socially interact. As Kerry Mundt notes, “The concept of a ‘pecking order’ was coined back in the 1920s by biologists who discovered that backyard chickens maintain a hierarchy with one chicken pecking another of lower status. In the absence of a rooster, one particular chicken will dominate all others.”
If you’ve just taken the step to acquire backyard chickens or are about to do so, says Mundt, be prepared for a short period of intense fighting between your new pets. This fighting determines whether a chicken is dominant or submissive and therefore where they sit in the pecking order.
I like the way Patty Khuly, our veterinarian friend, explains her love affair with chickens: “So it is that sometimes I sit, pondering my chickens and wondering why the heck it is I didn’t enrich my life — and, indeed, the world at large — with them any sooner than I did. Given all that self-congratulatory sappiness, is it any wonder this hen-mistress is feeling completely unsurprised that the country is in crisis over its egg supply?”