P. Allen Smith: Backyard Chickens
How to Start Raising This Untraditional Pet
With the increase in food prices, food borne illness and the growing concern over health issues, it's no surprise that chickens are serving as new, family-favorite pets.
photography by Hortus Ltd., Jane Colclasure, Mark Fonville and Kelly Quinn
For me, the chicken came before the egg. To be more exact, my love of poultry didn’t come from a love of fresh eggs, but rather from one brown Leghorn that I spotted running around Main Street as a young child. I caught her, brought her home to be my pet, and that’s when I began to realize how rewarding it is to raise backyard chickens. Today, I raise about 650 birds and seven breeds of chickens in an area I call Poultryville; and I like the egg just as much as the bird.
Raising backyard chickens is a rising trend across America. With the increase in food prices, food borne illness and the growing concern over health issues, it’s no surprise that chickens are serving as new, family-favorite pets. I developed my passion for poultry early on, but even with minimal experience you can have your own, much smaller, version of Poultryville.
Choosing Your Chicken
When it comes to raising backyard chickens, it’s like having any other pet. Each chicken has its own personality and style, and if you feed, protect and love it, it will give you far more in return. Aside from the laughter and enjoyment I get from my chickens, there are numerous benefits to raising poultry. Hens lay approximately one egg every 24 to 26 hours, but beyond the fresh eggs, I think the more flavorful meat is a great bonus, and chickens offer free fertilizer and serve as the ultimate recyclers for kitchen and garden scraps.
When it comes to choosing the right chicken for your backyard, common sense plays a big role. First, check into city ordinances. How many birds can you have? This varies from place to place, but in my hometown of Little Rock we can have four hens per home with three square feet of floor space per bird, and they must be kept at least 25 feet from the nearest neighbor. Are you allowed to have roosters or only hens? Roosters tend to make a lot of noise, but don’t worry if you can’t have roosters, you’ll still get fresh eggs from your hens. Do you need a permit? Some cities require them, so be sure to have your paperwork taken care of before you invest in chickens.
A Member of the Family
Next, consider the amount of space you have. Each chicken requires three to five feet of space to roam, and you’ll also want a coop, or house, for them to escape the elements and predators. If you don’t have much space in your backyard, I recommend bantams, fondly called bantys, which are small-sized varieties of chickens.
Finally, determine what role the bird will play in your family’s life. If this is your first year to raise chickens, I recommend you start with just a few, all of the same breed. If you have children, select a breed that is calm and gentle in temperament but has a wacky appearance, such as Silkies, Cochins, Houdans or Orpingtons. If you’re looking for a big impact, you can’t get a better bird than the Jersey Black Giant. If you’re looking for a good layer, white Leghorns are the way to go. I am particularly fond of heritage breeds, and I think the best all-around backyard birds are Buff Orpingtons and Silver Laced Wyandottes.
Once you’ve decided what type of bird you want, the next step is actually acquiring these birds. By far the least expensive and easiest way to get them is buying day-old chicks through a mail order service, but as cute as these chicks are, there are problems with mail ordering. It’s impossible to sex a chick that young, so you may end up with a dozen roosters that you cannot keep. They’re also young and fragile, so you’re likely to lose a few birds. Furthermore, you will have to feed and raise these somewhat demanding babies for eight months without seeing any eggs. However, if you’re willing to put in the time, this is a great choice.
Another option is to buy pullets, or young female chickens. They will reach egg-laying stage in a matter of months, and they don’t have such a high mortality rate. Finally, you could just buy adult chickens. They will certainly be pricier than chicks or pullets, and there is a risk that they haven’t led free-range lifestyles up until you adopt them, but they are significantly easier to maintain than chicks or pullets. Wherever you choose to buy, make sure the source is reputable to avoid bringing sick or diseased birds into your flock.
Coops, Food, Nests and Runs
Keeping chickens means keeping them safe and comfortable. While you can buy coops in a multitude of shapes and sizes, the only real requirement is that you have one. A good coop will include two-inch roosting poles about two feet off the ground with a floor of bedding underneath. The total length of the roost should provide six inches for each bird; if you need more than one roost, put them 12 inches apart. Remember, while there needs to be plenty of ventilation, it’s essential that their home be secured against severe weather and predators.
Nesting boxes are another feature I recommend, especially if you’re keeping chickens for the pleasure of a fresh egg omelet. Four hens can share one box, and if you line the nests with straw and place a plastic egg in the nest, hens will be encouraged to sit back, relax and lay their eggs.
Another way to encourage egg production is to prevent outside stress. Add a run, or wire-enclosed outdoor space, to allow the chickens safe access to the outdoors. An added bonus here is that they will forage and dust themselves to stay clean and free of mites, a problem you want to avoid. And forage they will … all chickens enjoy scratching in the dirt to round up bugs, seeds and worms to eat, so your back yard will take a beating. While scratching, they pick up enough calcium-rich sand to help in the digestion of their food and the production of healthy eggs, but if they don’t have access to the outdoors you will need to provide a supplement. You can also sprinkle a type of feed called “scratch” on the ground; your birds will come running, and the corn and grain mixture will supplement their diets with vitamins and minerals.
Healthy Birds Produce, Healthy Eggs
Chickens require fresh food and water every day. During winter, make sure the water is not frozen, and in the summer, when consumption is higher, be sure to replenish water frequently. If you have mostly hens for fresh eggs, providing them with lay pellets (15 to 18 percent protein, completely balanced) will keep them producing a steady supply of eggs. There are different rules for labeling meat and eggs when they are being sold, but I find it’s easiest to raise my own chickens and eggs as organic, free range and cage-free when I simply give them the food and space that seems fair.
The benefits of raising chickens far outweigh any costs, and I can’t recommend it enough. Now go get yourself a few birds and enjoy fresh omelets for years to come.