Contributing Editor: Will Johnston
Raising chickens in the backyard is an easy, painless way to enjoy fresh eggs and get the benefits of raising chickens. Chickens are entertaining companions, competent weeders if you let them free range in the garden, and leave plenty of fertilizer for other growing things. They’ll eat bugs and provide excellent pest control. In fact, for anyone with a reasonable bit of room (and it doesn’t take much) and a cooperative city government, a couple hens are a window into a more sustainable lifestyle.
In the beginning it was not in my plans to raise chickens, I had never thought about raising chickens, nor had I ever known anyone who raised chickens in an urban environment. But divine intervention happened one day in the form of a question. “Hey, do you want to get some chickens?” asked my partner Nancy.
Not having ever thought about it, and realizing that a simple yes or no answer was all that was required, I hesitantly said “yes”. What the heck, I told myself, it might be fun, and the grandkids would certainly enjoy them.
Now, a couple of years later, the enjoyment I get from watching their antics and eating the fresh eggs is worth the small amount of effort one puts forth preparing to raise chickens in the backyard. Not to mention the joy the chickens bring to the grandchildren. Each of the chickens has a name, and the first item of business when the grandchildren come to visit is to run out to the chicken coop and check for eggs.
Initially, before the chickens began to produce eggs, the grandchildren’s lament was “No eggs, just poop.” But now they proudly bring in the eggs they collect and have a better understanding of nature.
If you decide to raise chickens in your back yard, there are a few things you will need to consider:
First, do you have the space? A coop needs to allow at least two square feet per chicken and they will also need a secure run allowing at least three square feet per chicken (the bigger the better – particularly if they won’t have a chance to free range safely). Their coop doesn’t have to be anything palatial, but some care will need to be taken to ensure that it is dry, free of drafts and safe from urban predators. Take it from me, you will want to make it as strong and secure as possible to keep out the wiley raccoon and more common dogs and cats. Unfortunately, we have learned the hard way that raccoons are very resourceful and clever when it comes to going after your chickens. What started out as a reasonably adequate chicken coop is now a “chicken fortress” designed to keep out the most determined predator. As for the cats who are also eally clever we made up an automatic cat feeder and that keeps most cats away from the coop.
Additionally, chickens enjoy being able to free range, but if they are not in a secure area, and/or you are unable to keep an eye on them, it is not always safe for them to do so (as previously mentioned, predators, including your local neighborhood dogs, and especially raccoons, can make their presence felt very quickly). If you are able to free-range safely then nothing in your garden is safe – they will eat / dig up / dust bathe in everything! If they can’t free range safely then they will need a secure pen – fresh air and exercise is as important to a chickens well-being as it is to our own.
Secondly, do you have the time? Chickens need relatively little care, but they do need to be locked into their coop safely at night to protect them from the urban predators, and let out again in the morning. They also need fresh water and feed every day regularly. This is easily accomplished with feeders and water containers you can purchase at any feed or pet store. The coop should also be cleaned out regularly.
Thirdly, cost. In terms of the monetary cost of feed and bedding, hens usually more than pay for themselves with their eggs (not to mention the enjoyment they bring as pets). The cost of buying or building a coop and run however, may take a few years for them to ‘earn’.
Finally, you need to determine how many chickens you think you would like, have the space for, and can look after. Chickens have a group mentality so having at least two or three is better than having just one. With most egg laying breeds you can expect to get four to six eggs per week from each hen (this number will probably decrease as they get older). You don’t need to have a rooster to get eggs but if you want one then the normal ratio is one rooster to every ten hens.
You will also need to check your local ordinances on keeping chickens before building or buying your coop. Even if you are allowed to get chickens, it may be a good idea discuss your plans first if they are very close by – particularly if you are thinking of getting a rooster. In our neighborhood here in Portland, Oregon, our neighbors have commented on how much they like hearing our hens throughout the day as they roam our back yard.
A couple of other thoughts:
Mice and other rodents love the chicken feed as much as the chickens do. Use a metal can or heavy plastic bucket with a lid to ensure no intruders have access to the feed. Some people recommend a metal container as they have experienced squirrels eating through plastic containers.
I would also recommend nesting boxes in your coop. These are not necessary but if you want an easy way to find your eggs I recommend either making them or purchasing your preference of style from your local farm supply store.
In the beginning it may seem like a lot to get prepared for your chickens, but once you start raising your backyard chickens you will reap the benefits that chickens bring to your backyard. Once your flock is established, daily chicken care is minimal.
Today we have three hens. I thoroughly enjoy feeding, watching, and tending to my flock. Not a day goes without a cackle from the hens in the morning and a visit to the coop to expectantly collect their eggs.