Chickens in Your Backyard

by Susannah Morris

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Do you have fond memories of hatching chicks in elementary school? Do you hate paying for eggs at the grocery store? Do you enjoy organic and natural food? If you answer yes to one or more of those questions, read on.

Benefits of Owning Chickens

There are several advantages to a backyard flock, especially for city-dwellers. Several chicken breeds produce eggs almost daily, so even with just a few hens you may never buy eggs at the store again. Chickens are fun to keep, really; watching them interact and do their daily chicken routine is amusing. Their activities include dust-bathing, foraging, and running across the yard for absolutely no reason. If you have children, keeping chickens will teach them responsibility and respect for farm animals. Additionally, visitors may bring their children to see the chickens or offer to trade their home-grown veggies or homemade cookies for a dozen eggs. If you are a gardener, add chicken manure to your compost for a nitrogen boost.

Preparing for Chickens

Although chickens may be raised for meat, small urban flocks are better suited for egg production because you do not need a rooster. If you must keep a rooster, some neighbors may be bought off with an occasional gift of eggs. Of course your first course of action should be to check your city code regarding poultry. In Austin, for example, you may keep two chickens in a yard, but if you have three or more, they must be kept in a coop more than 50 feet away from your nearest neighbor. Also check your neighborhood's deed restrictions for any rules regarding chickens.

If you want to start a flock, the first step is to build a coop. Chickens may be set free to roam the yard during the day, but should be locked up at night to keep them safe from urban predators such as possums, stray dogs, and raccoons. If you do not want them roaming around your lawn, you may want to look into building a chicken run or a chicken tractor. A chicken tractor is a mobile coop that will allow the hens to keep your yard bug-free and well-fertilized. (For chicken coop instructions, see resources.) Make sure your coop has a roosting spot, nest boxes for laying, and room for a feeder and waterer.

Buying Chickens

The fun part is choosing your chicks. Many feed stores carry chicks, or you may order them from hatcheries such as Murray McMurray's or Ideal Poultry. Chicks are offered for sale as "straight run," which should represent a 1:1 male to female ratio, or "pullets," which are females only. There are many breeds to choose from, and it is nice to have a variety. Some of my favorites are Barred Plymouth Rock, Black Australorp, New Hampshire Reds, and Americaunas (they lay green eggs!). Day-old or very young chicks should cost around $2 or so. It will be about six months before they lay eggs, and the eggs will be small at first. Egg-laying may slow during winter months and when the hens are molting. Did you know that hens with red earlobes lay brown eggs and hens with white earlobes lay white eggs?

Caring for Chickens

There is some equipment required for raising and keeping chickens. We raise our chicks two at a time in a dog kennel with a bare light bulb (for heat) and paper towels covering the floor. They will need a feed trough and waterer, which may be homemade or store bought. You will need a feeder and a waterer of appropriate size in the coop as well; I've heard of people using a large can in a hubcap as a feeder! Be creative and build your own equipment so that your egg operation isn't running in the red.

Have your friends and family bring you empty egg cartons so that you can give away your eggs. Finally, scratch eggs off of your grocery list!

Save on your pet's medications at 1-800-PetMeds.

Resources for the backyard flock:

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