It might seem like the “yuppie” thing to do, but more and more cities across the United States are allowing city dwellers to raise a few chickens in their own yards. Check with your local laws first, and keep in mind that while most allow hens for egg production, few urban locations allow roosters because they like to wake the neighbors up at that crack of dawn. So know your local regulations before you go out and purchase chickens.
I purchased a dozen hens this year as day old chicks. This was really difficult to do because the local hatchery doesn’t like to sell them until they are at least a week old. If you contact them however, they might just sell them to you when they are a day old. Why did I purchase them at a day old? Because I want to raise them as organic chickens. The regulations regarding organic chicken eggs and meat are that they must be fed from day one on organic feed.
Second, don’t go out and purchase your chicks until you have built their habitat. Now we started out with day old chicks that spent their first month of life inside the house, in a large dog kennel with a heat light. However, it is important to have their habitat planned out PRIOR to getting them because they do grow up fast. We built a 5’x5’x5′ coop, where the door is always open, they only roost at night and lay their eggs within the coop. There are many kinds of coops out there, some of which are designed as mobile that you can move around the yard. Some are fixed with a caged outdoor run for them. Some are designed for a small number of hens. Some have removable trays for cleaning and on and on they go. There are tons of websites on the internet in which to research, designs, pre-built and how to raise them. Look before you leap before you get your chickens and after you get them, look before you step because they do go poo lots!
In addition to the coop we built an outdoor run where we place their food and water. It keeps other birds from eating their grain and gives them a place that is both shaded (shade cloth on one end) and sunny depending upon which they prefer. I move this run all over the yard and after a month of living outside, I moved this run away from the coop. This encouraged them to start foraging around the yard. It also taught the chickens that no matter where this run is, they can always find food and water within it. The outdoor run is 8’x4’x4′ And has a small enough opening for the chickens to come and go as they like.
We happen to have a large, elevated deck, in the winter months I will line the outside borders of the deck with bales of hay to help insulate from our snow and cold temperatures while allowing them to continue having the run of the land. The coop itself will be heated with a heat lamp in the winter and there will be another heat light under our deck to keep the water from freezing. The coop was built on industrial wheels so I will push this up to one end and they will have under the deck for outdoor access and warmth all winter. We will also keep the side of the deck partially open so if they want to run around in the yard in the winter they still have access to that as well.
Within the coop I maintain a modified deep litter method. This is where I spread 4-6 inches of organic wood shavings. Most people clean their coops out 4 times per year using this method, but I clean it out once per month. I then use the chicken poo shavings in the compost bin as brown matter to go with the green matter and it in turn creates some of the richest compost we have ever created. Not to mention very nutrient rich. We use the compost around the yard as well as make nutrient compost tea for our organic hydroponic gardens.
So what do the chickens do? Well aside for their entertainment factor, which it is amazing how much personality they each develop. They are my organic pesticide. They eat tons and tons of bugs! It is so funny to see them chase a spider down. Plus I have a pond and they love to eat the mosquitos and mosquito larvae from the pond. In the past we have had a real problem with bugs, not now, the hens just love them. When I pull weeds, they are right there to snag any worm or slug that is unearthed.
They poo, did I mention poo? OMG do chickens go poo! Everywhere! In the middle of eating, when you are holding them sometimes (if they are fidgety–what ever you do, don’t hold them–they might need to go poo). But don’t worry, the chicken poo dissolves and goes into the soil really fast. Either when it rains or the sprinklers turn on that poo will dissolve and put lots of nutrients into your grass and flower beds. However, they also like to be naughty and go poo on the deck chairs. So I am in the process of teaching them they can be on the lower deck—but they are not allowed on the “human” deck. They are slowly learning they have full access to the rest of the yard, but not the upper deck with our chairs and deck table.
They give you eggs. Some will mature early and begin laying eggs at four months. Some will take longer and start laying about six months. The number of eggs they lay will be higher in the first two years of their lives as well as in the warmer months (spring through fall) and egg production tends to drop off in the winter months. Many people supplement them with lights in the winter not for warmth, but to let them think it’s still summer months and lay more eggs. Outside of the heat light in the winter, I don’t do this, I just let nature do its thing. By the way, you do not need a rooster to get your hens to lay eggs. They will lay eggs without a rooster. All the rooster does is make them fertile so you get baby chicks. In the absence of a rooster, they will still happily lay eggs. Because egg production is highest in the first year, then begins to decline, many people with backyard flocks will remove their 2-3 year old hens and replace them. I put colored leg bands on them so I know from year to year which ones I will eat and which ones will go onto the winter as egg producers. Yes, they all have names, yes they are all pets, and yes I thank them for the eggs and when their time comes their meat. Many people ask me how many eggs you can expect from a hen each year. Well that depends upon many factors. Some chicken breeds will lay more eggs than others. The weather, their diet, their health…..all of these things will impact the number of eggs they will lay. On an average however, one can expect at least 1 egg every 3 days. Though some will lay an egg every day, and others every other day. I have a flock of 12 hens, 2 of each variety because I have no rooster. Now if I lived on a farm, I would select one breed so that I could have a good breeding program developed.
Chickens provide great meat. Some of them dressed out have white skin, others have yellow skin….again how they dress out depends upon the breed in which you have. The rate in which they grow and fatten up also depends upon their breed. Most of my hens are large multi-purpose hens that do well in cold climates. So they take a little longer to reach table weight. Some prefer just a heavy-duty, fast growing meat bird, some want leaner egg layers. I do however make my personal strong suggestion if you are raising chickens in your backyard that you not focus on just meat or egg production, go for the multi-purpose varieties. When they drop off their egg laying, butcher them out and eat them.
Chickens provide lots and lots of feathers. Now it will take tons of chickens to make a pillow or comforter. And chicken feathers are considered the “poor mans down” and in honesty, if using for pillow or comforter, you will only want to save the small downy feathers for this. However, there are lots of crafts you can make from feathers. From fishing ties and lures to dream catchers and so much more. Be creative with them. What they don’t make are good old-fashioned writing quills. If you are saving the feathers for pillows or comforters, make sure you sanitize them and store them properly. Lots of information on the internet about how to go about this. Here is an interesting place to start. http://www.oldandinteresting.com/medieval-renaissance-beds.aspx
Chickens can and will eat darn near everything from weeds, your garden, your kitchen scraps. Learn how to feed your chickens a high quality diet. Learn how to keep them healthy and what to look out for in the way of signs that something bad might be going on in regards to their health. They can be trained like a dog to do some amazing things, like my Delaware hen that now rings the “supper bell” when I throw out their scratch. It is so funny and all her coop mates come running from all over the yard to her location when she rings it.
I can not tell you how amazing chickens have been since I introduced them to my backyard ecological system, I just love each one of them. Some days I have to remind myself that one day I will eat them, but till then, they will live a very rich and rewarding life. I call it a pay it forward way of raising them. I take great care of them every day of their life and in the end they reward me with great eggs and a healthy meat.