Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Caring for Backyard Chickens by Elizabeth Buckingham

Backyard chickens have become a popular trend over the past few years, and for good reason: chickens are a great source of entertainment, fertilizer, and of course fresh eggs. Chickens are relatively low-maintenance and low-cost, and unlike many other types of livestock, chickens can be kept in a modestly-sized backyard. As with any animal, it is imperative that you first honestly evaluate your household and lifestyle to ensure that you can devote the time, energy and money necessary to keeping your animals healthy and safe. Although chickens require very little effort relative to other household pets, they do still require care and protection.

If you are considering a flock of backyard chickens, you must first and foremost check your city’s ordinances to ensure that chickens are in fact legal at your home. In Jefferson County, backyard chickens are not legal in every city – sorry, Westminster! – but they are legal in most. Keep in mind that the legality of your backyard flock is still subject to quantities and space requirements: in Arvada, for example, residents may not keep a rooster and must keep the chicken enclosure at least thirty feet from neighboring property lines. To avoid any unpleasant issues, please verify your city’s regulations before making any commitment to chickens. Horror stories abound about certain city residents forced to relinquish their birds, and many chicken-keepers have graciously adopted abandoned or illegal birds. A little advance research here may save you a good deal of trouble later.

As with any household pet, preparation is required before bringing chickens home. Do some reading – numerous books as well as websites exist to introduce the novice to backyard chickens. Appropriate housing, protection, food and water are the basics required for any domestic animal and as with other household pets, these can range from the simple, re-purposed and economical to the absurdly expensive. You can easily build your own chicken house and run from found, re-purposed or purchased materials, or you can buy ready-made set-ups from a variety of different sources. Again, carefully consider your own space and budget when evaluating housing options, as this will be the most significant investment you’ll make in your chickens’ welfare.

Your chickens will require easy access to both fresh water and food, and numerous options exist for both feeders and waterers. We feed our chickens pellets purchased at a local feed store, heavily supplemented by kitchen scraps and the greens they forage. Our hens love most fruit and lettuces of any sort, and they devour tomatoes. I consider feeding the chickens my kitchen scraps as a sort of pre-composting! The birds also get a few handfuls of scratch grains as a treat, and they adore their scratch so much that we have found that “scratch bribery” is the quickest way to convince them to return to the run once they’ve been let out to roam.

Chickens will require both an indoor and an outdoor enclosure; they need protected space to scratch outside as well as safe housing for nesting and sleeping. If you are able to let your birds out to run around they will gently till and fertilize any soil they’re allowed near, as well as reduce the irritating bug population – and possibly catch mice as well. One of our hens managed to snatch a live mouse as it ran across the yard; considering how quickly mice can run this was quite an accomplishment. (This hen greatly enjoyed her snack but was tormented mercilessly by the other birds who also wanted a little mouse treat for themselves.) Keep in mind that we have a wealth of predators in the area who would love a fresh chicken dinner: foxes, raccoons, owls, hawks and eagles all pose a risk to your birds, as do some domestic cats and dogs. Chickens are totally unable to defend themselves against hungry predators, so consider their safety carefully when constructing or purchasing their housing.

Fresh free-range eggs are the primary motivation for most people to raise their own birds, and numerous studies have shown that backyard chicken eggs (i.e. “pastured” eggs) are substantially lower in cholesterol and higher in beneficial omega-3s than store-bought (i.e. “battery” eggs). Many people are unaware that hens do not require the presence of a rooster to lay eggs. We collect an average of four to five eggs each day and since we do not have a rooster none of these eggs are fertilized (able to produce chicks). Different breeds will lay different color eggs; this has no effect on the egg itself but is attractive as a selling point. I am only interested in productive layers and cold-hardiness in my birds, so all our eggs are brown. Chickens will lay for a number of years, again depending on the breed; ours will most likely produce regularly until they’re five or six, though their productivity will drop off after the first couple of years. Laying also varies according to the season and other factors, and thus far we have been immensely pleased with both the quantity and flavor of our fresh eggs – if they are in fact healthier it is simply an added benefit.

After eggs, chicken fertilizer is certainly a close second in terms of household contribution. Chicken droppings are incredibly rich in nitrogen and make a terrific addition to the home compost pile. We use straw in our chicken house, and when I clean out the house I just add the straw and droppings straight into our big compost pile, which is then turned and watered as needed. Every so often we rake out the chickens’ outdoor run and add this rich fertilized soil directly to our various beds, specifically the vegetable beds. I am definitely looking forward to the upcoming growing season to find out if the chicken fertilizer makes a noticeable difference!

We purchased our flock in July 2011. Half of our hens were nine weeks old and half around thirteen weeks old; they were raised together from day-old chicks and all started laying around five months of age. First-time chicken owners might wish to purchase pullets (hens under one year of age) instead of hatching eggs or raising day-old chicks. We were happy that we bought pullets for our first round, but are definitely interested in raising day-old chicks and hatching our own eggs at some point in the future.

         Our flock consists of a variety of different breeds: we have Rhode Island Reds, Silver Wyandottes, Barred Rocks and Australorps. All of these breeds are considered excellent layers as well as cold-hardy and can withstand the metro-area winter temperatures. Breeds can obviously be selected for appearance, egg color or other factors; a little research will indicate which breeds are right for you. If you live at higher elevations, you may need to heat your chicken house in winter; our chicken house is well-insulated so we do not heat the house but do use an outdoor-approved electrical heated base to keep the water dish from freezing solid.

We’re now just over eight months into our chicken-keeping operation, and I can state for certain that we will be chicken-owners for life. We do not consider the birds to be pets and though we are not raising this flock for meat there will come a time when I will need to humanely dispatch the birds. I consider this part of my responsibility to these lovely animals and plan to butcher the birds myself as needed. (In the metro-area, alternate options are available to those who do not wish to handle this task.) I certainly knew that I would appreciate the fresh eggs and the fertilizer, but I had no idea how much amusement the chickens would provide. They are definitely not the world’s smartest creatures, but watching the hens peck, flap and scratch around the yard is considered valid entertainment at my house.

Every household is of course different, and not all may be suited for backyard chickens. If keeping a backyard flock is something you’ve given any serious thought to, I would definitely recommend you do a little more research, as you may find that chickens make a great addition to your yard and garden.