Thursday, December 30, 2010

Raising Backyard Chickens

 The number of people raising backyard chickens is on the rise. Are backyard chickens a novelty or a trend of the future? Many cities and suburbs around the nation are taking up the chicken debate and passing ordinances to allow chickens in urban areas. What is the draw to chickens? For many it is simply an extension of their desire to become more sustainable.

Back in the 1800’s chickens foraging freely throughout neighborhoods was the norm. For many people choosing to raise chickens is a part of a desire to be less dependent on others to supply their food. Home gardening has increased with the drop in the economy. Chickens often fit into a more sustainable life style. Chickens are very beneficial pets. Chickens are great at eating insects from your garden, they supply you with fertilizer for both your lawn and garden, and they give you eggs! You can’t say that about a pet dog or cat.

Unfortunately chickens are not always accepted by others as dogs or cats tend to be. Before deciding if raising backyard chickens is for you, there are several things you need to research and take into consideration. Although many cities are becoming chicken friendly, others are not. Before you start your venture you need to check your local city ordinance to see if chickens are allowed within city limits. Some cities have specific requirements as to coop placement, number of birds you can have, and the size area in which you keep them. Some also require you to notify neighbors and apply for permits. Many do not allow roosters. If your city does not allow chickens as pets you can become active in changing the regulations. Many groups have worked together to get the city ordinances of many cities changed over the past few years as the novel idea of backyard chickens has taken off. was started by a web developer, Rob Ludlow, from California whom has chickens as pets. He started the web site as a source of information for other chicken enthusiasts as well as a social outlet to gather tips and information from other owners.

Once you have determined that you are allowed to have chickens within the city you need to consider what breed of chicken is right for you. There are many tools you can choose for selecting chicken breeds. Mother Earth News recently launched a Pickin Chicken iPhone/iPad app. Henderson’s Chicken Breed Chart is loaded with information on various breeds including how well they lay eggs, the size and color of their eggs and also their personalities.

When choosing chickens as pets you want to look for docile birds that adapt to well to living in confinement. You want a breed that can be handled easily and isn’t going to make a lot of noise to upset the neighbors. If you choose more than one breed of bird you need to do research on how well they will get along with other breeds.

While researching the various breeds of chickens available you should also look for a reputable hatchery. Iowa has several hatcheries you can choose from. Some require you to purchase more birds than you will want, so you may try to find a group to place an order with. Hoover’s Hatchery was recommended to us and we were able to go together with two other families to meet the minimum requirement for shipping. You can also purchase birds from a local farm store in the early spring; however, the types of breeds available are limited.

If you are new to raising chickens, before you place your order for birds you should do some research on how to care for the animals. We found the book Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens extremely useful. It contains information on a wide range of topics regarding raising chickens. It’s one of the most complete resource books we have found.

In preparation for your birds you need to decide where you will keep them. Many people getting birds for backyard pets choose to order birds in the spring and keep them in the house until they get four to six weeks old and develop their feathers. If you are going to keep them in the house where will you keep them? Baby chickens need frequent care and cleaning up after. They not only need food and water, but require heat and light for warmth.

Feed for you chickens is something else you have to consider. Chickens require different types of food depending on age, and purpose. If you are wanting your hens to lay eggs as they get older, you need to make sure they receive laying rations of food. There are many brands of feed. Some companies also produce organic feed for chickens. If your local supplier does not stock organic feed, and it is something you are interested in, just ask if it is available to order. I found Theisen’s can order organic chicken feed for me and it doesn’t cost much more than non-organic. The organic feed I use is a complete mix which means I do not have to give them a calcium supplement as I would normally have to do if I used non-organic varieties. Be sure to look at the label of the feed you choose to make sure it is age appropriate. Age varies by brand. Many have a starter for newly hatched chickens, and then you progress to finisher and finally layer, unless you plan to use the birds for meat. If this is your plan then you need to use broiler feed instead of layer.

Working on a coop is something many people do while the chickens are being housed indoors. Once they have gotten old enough it’s time to introduce them to their new home. There are many things to consider when building your coop. Does it have access to electricity? Is it easy to clean? Does it have enough space to house the number of birds you plan to get? Do you have an area for an outdoor run? If the weather is cooler, how will you keep them warm? Insulating your coop will help to keep them cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter.

Coop placement is another consideration. Some city regulations require coops be a specified distance from neighbors. Placing the coop where you can keep an eye on your chickens is a good idea. It also makes it more convenient when gathering eggs and taking care of them if it isn’t too far away from your house. Although you may not have the predators within the city such as coyotes to worry about, you do have neighborhood dogs and cats that would like nothing better than to make a meal out of your chickens. Making sure your coop is fenced heavily will help. Do some research on ways to make your coop more predator safe. Locking up your birds at night is another good way to help keep them safe.

Your chickens will help clean bugs from your yard. They will eat extra produce from your garden and in turn supply you with eggs and compost! Living in an urban area you need a place to dispose of their manure. It’s not a good idea to place it directly onto garden beds because it can harm the plants. Instead, place their manure into a compost bin to decompose. Having more than one bin is a good idea so you can alternate using them. While one is composting, you can continue to add items to the other one. A more detailed article on composting chicken manure can be found at (

Whether you choose to use organic feed, decide on a breed that will lay white, brown, or even Easter colored eggs, I’m sure you will find your chickens will bring you extreme joy. Each chicken has his or her own personality and watching their personalities evolve is exciting. They will follow you around the yard, jump to get a treat, come when called, and as we have found, even mimic the sounds of other animals. We have one that can bark like a dog and recently another one has picked up on it as well. They also have started to make a sound like a cat purring.

Holding your chickens and paying attention to them from day one will get them used to your care and contact allowing for more of a bond than you could imagine. Growing up in the country we had chickens, but never as pets. I had no idea how attached I could become to a chicken until we got them. The rest of my family included. Watching them grown and develop has brought us more joy than we could have expected. Being allergic to dogs and cats is one of the main reasons we opted for chickens. Now we choose chickens. Not only are they beneficial to our garden, they don’t bark and keep us up at all hours like the neighborhood dogs do. In addition we get to eat fresh eggs every day! You can’t say that about a dog or cat!