About three hens will provide a family of four with plenty of eggs, but before you start salivating over the thought of fresh, Sunday-morning scrambled eggs, it's important to understand what raising backyard chickens entails. And if you don't find your lifestyle friendly to home-raising poultry, don't feel bad. You can do the next best thing and buy your eggs from local small-flock poultry farmers who let their chickens live more natural lives outside (compared to filthy, factory-farm cage conditions). You can even join organizations like the Society for Preservation of Poultry Antiquities or the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy to support the cause. "Everyone doesn’t need to keep their own chickens, but by supporting each other, we can create stronger local food networks that will serve all of us better," says Heinrichs.
If you can cope with chicken poop on a regular basis (it's an amazing addition to your compost operation!) and are truly drawn to the idea of raising backyard chickens, read on to see if you have what it takes—even if you only have a teeny yard.
Prepping for poultry
• Is it legal? Depending on where you live, it might be illegal to raise backyard chickens to provide food for your family. If it's against zoning regulations in your area, start showing up at town hall meetings and try to get things changed to support local food production.
• Do the math. You don't need to build an extra bedroom or anything, but if you want to raise chickens, you should ask yourself, "Am I willing to share my home with a handful of chicks for four months?" At an event sponsored by the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture
and Greener Partners last month, backyard chicken keepers Amy Johnson and Chris McNichol, of Media, PA, laid out the details on raising a few chickens in a small yard. (As a side note, Media is America's first Fair Trade Town.)
Johnson and McNichol recommend purchasing newborn chicks that will arrive at your home (you can order online or from a local feed mill) when just a few days old, which will helps the chicks establish a pecking order, and become used to having humans around. The type of housing you'll need depends on how many chickens you're going to house. "Don't keep more chickens than space allows," urges Heinrichs. "Figure a minimum of 1½ to 2 square feet per chicken inside the henhouse, and 8 to 10 feet of yard outside." Bigger is better. Chickens need space to stretch their wings and interact socially with each other.
• Plan a henhouse. Even before you order chicks, make sure you have your henhouse set up in a good spot. You can find plans for smaller, more urban- or suburban-appropriate houses online. (If you have a small yard, you probably won't be looking for a tractor-style movable henhouse popular on farms.) From there, you can build one yourself, or hire a local carpenter. Coops can range in dimensions from rabbit-pen size to storage-shed size, and can cost between a few hundred dollars to $10,000-plus. No matter which model you choose, McNichol recommends a few basic rules of thumb:
Make sure the floor sits at least 2½ feet off the ground to prevent rotting (the area underneath also offers shade to hens outside during warmer months).
Opt for knotty cedar for the floor; the rest can be made out of pine.
Avoid using pressure-treated wood, which is bad for your backyard environment.
Make sure there are adequate grates on the top of the house to insure proper air circulation.
Make sure the coop has a door for hens on one side, and a human-size door on the other end, so people can easily clean it.
Make sure the design includes a long horizontal flip-up door so you can easily harvest the hens' eggs.
Don't place the coop near a neighbor's home, or under your home's windows.
Consider placing the house against a garage to provide more insulation for the coop.
• Use existing structures, or splurge.Even if you don't have much extra space, consider what existing structures and space you have, such as a play structure or space beneath a deck or staircase that could be appropriate, says Heinrichs. For those with a little money to burn and limited space, the Eglu has become a popular and convenient solution. (But it’s one that will run you more than $650.) "It has the advantage of being ready out-of-the-box when you are," says Heinrichs.
• Predator-proof your run. Because birds are most vulnerable at night, make sure they spend their nights locked up in a secure henhouse. But the outside run area, where birds can forage and bathe in the dirt to prevent mites, must be secure, too. "Don’t overlook ground-level protection. Critters will dig under fencing," says Heinrichs. Find out what predators range in your area, so that you can guard against them successfully. McNichol and Johnson suggest burying chicken wire or hardware cloth at least 12 inches down around the perimeter of your fence. Use berry netting on the top of the run to deter aerial attacks from hawks and owls.
• Pick good chicks. So, you have all of your chicken housing and run space in order. Now to the fun part: the chicks! Chickens are social beings, so make sure you get two or more. If you go to a local feed mill to buy your chicks, you want to look for energetic, peeping chicks, not listless ones with watery eyes. And try to get them sexed…if you want eggs, you need females. You can also order chicks online at places like MyPetChicken.com. There, you can also learn more about different breeds.
• Raise them right. You can raise 2-day-old chicks inside your home for the first three or four months, before they're ready to head outside. You can order an expensive brooder to raise chicks, but for three or so chicks Johnson and McNichol say you can do it on the cheap, and just as effectively, by using Rubbermaid containers with a screen and a heat lamp on top. You'll also need a baby-chicken watering device, available online or at a local feed store, and specific baby-chick food, preferably nonmedicated and organic. Cleanliness is important to preventing disease, so line the bottom of the container with newspaper, and clean it twice a day. (Don't use toxic chemical cleaners.) Keep a heat lamp six to eight inches from the top of the container. If the chicks stay huddled in the middle all the time, move the lamp a little closer—they may be cold. If they seem to huddle away from the lamp in a corner, it's probably too warm for them, so pull the lamp away a bit. Your chicks will want to roost at some point while they're inside, so poke untreated wooden dowels into the side of the container for them to stand on.
When your chicks are three to four months old, they are considered pullets and it's time for them to go outside to the henhouse. However, just like plants, you can't shock their systems by putting them out all day all at once. "You want to harden them off like a little greenhouse seedling," explains Johnson. Put them outside in their fenced-in run for a few hours each day, and then bring them back indoors. Do this for a week before letting them outside full-time.
• Supply the staples. Opt for galvanized water containers, and make sure you clean them out daily. Pullets and hens also need grit to help aid in digestion. When your pullet reaches hen status (at age 1), make sure you buy organic hen feed with calcium. You can also grind oyster shells into their feed. Your chickens will enjoy treats like lettuce, watermelon rinds, pasta, and oatmeal, too. Just make sure you never offer anything spicy, spoiled, or sour. And feeding them garlic or cabbage, or any other member of the brassica family, can result in stinky eggs.
• Train them. You can train your chickens to head back into the henhouse by associating a bell or clicker with going-inside time. Use a broom to corral them inside. Then, reward them with mealy worms or bread. They'll get the drift.
• Urge proper egg-laying. Place a wooden egg in the nest boxes to encourage chickens to lay in the proper spot. Otherwise, you'll find eggs all over the place. At about 5 or 6 months old, your pullet will start laying small, misshapen eggs. Soon, the eggs will start looking more normal and will arrive on a more regular basis. Hens lay about an egg a day in their prime. Some people install heat lamps to coax year-round production, while others allow hens to go through their natural cycle, and look forward to the first eggs of spring after a dormant winter (one of the reasons that eggs are associated with Easter and other springtime festivals).
• Clean up! You'll want to put down fresh straw in the chicken coop every week, mucking out the previous week's waste, which you can use in compost (it's high in nitrogen). During winter months, pack extra straw down to keep the chickens warm. For general bedding, Johnson recommends putting down about 1½ inches of cedar shavings on the bottom, followed by packed straw on top.
• Enjoy the eggs. Johnson says eggshells contain a natural barrier that keeps bacteria out of the egg. Usually, using a dry cloth to wipe off any dirt or poop is all the cleaning they need; if they look really nasty, coat them in cooking oil and wash them off. Refrigerate eggs you don't use right away, and remember to wait at least three days if you want to hard-boil eggs—fresh eggs don't boil well. "The feeling of participation in creating local food may be reward enough, but sharing your own chickens' eggs at the office has an enviable cachet," says Heinrichs.