This week in the series, I’m honored to have a guest post from Rebecca, a friend and neighbor who also has an interest in sustainable living. Rebecca is an artist and designer of the web variety (and she cuts a mean head of hair). She’s also taking local food up a notch and has begun raising hens for eggs right in her own backyard. She’s been kind enough to share her story here; the ups, the downs and the surprises of the first year.
Now, on to the chickens!!
“I first tasted farm-raised, free-range chicken eggs about 3 years ago. They were the most dense and delicious eggs I had ever put in my mouth. I tried them every way – fried, scrambled, souffled, boiled hard and soft. Almost immediately, I began to plot my chicken ownership. I tried to convince my boyfriend it would be a good idea to keep them at his house (it wasn’t) and I only had a 700 sq ft apartment with no yard, so it would be awhile before my dream was realized. This gave me a lot of time for R&D. What kind of chickens do I want? What do I feed them? Where do I keep them? How many eggs will they produce?
Almost 2 years to the day of tasting perfection, I was given my first hen and a small hen house (a dog house really) by a friend who was thinning her
flock. All of my planning and scheming had panned out! Earlier in the year, boyfriend and I bought a house with a huge backyard. Someone GAVE us
a chicken AND a chicken house. We found some chicken run fencing on the cheap. Now all I needed to do was keep her alive and get her to produce.
This part of the plan worked for about 4 months. Teri(yaki) was less than a year old when we got her and went through every phase of chicken life in
those four short months: being too young to lay, eating layer feed and grazing in the yard to build up for egg production, awesome egg production
(26 eggs in 30 days!), molting and no egg production, and then death at the hands of some creature in the night. We know now that Teri was a learning experience, here to prepare us for Chickens v2.0.
Even before Teri passed to the big coop in the sky, I knew I wanted more chickens. I also knew I wanted more secure and portable living quarters for
the new ladies as well as a better feeding, laying and grazing area. I was constantly on the hunt for sheds, doghouses, children’s playhouses on sale.
I finally gave up on finding something prefabricated and bought some plans. And then changed them to fit my needs: safety, space and comfort. We moved the human-sized door, added another “trap door” attached to the run, widened the roost and laying box, put hinges on the back end of the roost box so we could open, close and clean it, and we put the whole thing on wheels so we could move it anywhere. We used a lot of recycled materials, including a yard cart formerly known as a downhill racer. We sealed the wood inside and outside the coop to deter rot and to make the inside of the coop easier to clean. We also added some pine shavings to the inside of the roost for warmth and poop absorbtion (PS – in general chicken poop doesn’t smell unless your bird is sick or you haven’t cleaned out the coop in a while). The day the coop was finished our friend who brought Teri into our lives brought us her last two hens – Freckles and Mrs. Drysdale. Two weeks later we adopted two more – Blondie and Joan Jett – from another friend trying to downsize. And, we’ve been enjoying those delicious eggs ever since!
Do as much research as you can before you become a chicken owner. Investigate your local ordinances (see link below) to see if chicken
ownership is even allowed in your neighborhood. Some neighborhoods have a ban on roosters and some on the number of chickens you can keep and the distance their dwelling has to be from your neighbors dwelling. Decide if you want to raise chicks from birth or keep more mature birds. Think about the maximum amount you want to keep. You’ll need to plan your coop to fit. Make sure your girls (and guys if you have them) will be safe and dry in whatever structure you develop. Make sure they have some grazing and frolicking space. We recently added a portable 5X10 run created from PVC and chicken wire whose design was stolen from a garden hoophouse plan you can get very freely on the internet. Think about the expense of raising them on organic feed (around $35/50lb.) or not (around $10/50lb. bag). Make sure the food and water feeders are up off the ground so bugs and critters won’t get to them. In the planning stage, the internet is your friend. Most importantly, once you start raising these little feathered dinosaurs, enjoy them!
Lessons Learned and Theories Explained:
A hen does NOT need a rooster to make eggs. If I had $1 for every time someone has asked me that in the last six months, that coop would have paid for itself. It is especially weird when females over the age of puberty ask me. Ladies, hens are the same as most of us, they just drop eggs on a
hyper-regular basis and they are bigger and badder eggs than we could ever think about dropping.
Some chickens CAN fly. Really well. At night chickens tend to want to get high, so if they are in the yard grazing and the sun goes down, chances are they will find the nearest tree limb to perch on for the evening. You will think they have gone missing, but just look up and then try to round them up and back into their coop.
Chickens molt. Sometimes twice a year. They can look like they are diseased and dying because of the feather loss and they are grouchy and stay in their coops a lot and don’t eat. This will pass. The time of year and length of the molt depends on the breed. Hens can also go broody which resembles the molting phase a lot except without the feather loss. This will also pass. Keep an egg laying/molting/brooding calendar to track who is doing what when. It will give you some peace of mind.
Keep your ladies safe. Do whatever you can to your coop to keep out predators. I recommend using 1″ welded wire all the way around your coop
(even underneath) to keep out those creatures who like to dig as well as the ones who like to use their claws. Also make sure they are safe from above. Hawks are not their friend.
Don’t expect egg production immediately. Give them time to get use to their new environment. Make sure you give them feed with a high volume of protein. Hens need protein to generate the eggshell, so if your eggshells are soft (after the first two or so laid), boost their mealtime with some worms, grubs, cheese, raw lentils or rice. Here’s a list of some treats they typically love and some that are hazardous to their health.
Some people feed eggshells and cat food to their hens as a protein boost. I don’t because it just doesn’t seem right. I might get over that one day,
but for now they are laying just fine.
Hens are the perfect creature, in that circle-of-life-and-we’re-all-revolving-around-the-earth-together sort of way. First, they lay eggs. And we eat those eggs. Then they eat a lot of stuff from the earth – worms, grubs, bugs we can’t see, vegetables, grass. Then they walk/run around your yard looking like a pterodactyl. They aerate your grass. And then they poop. And then you put the poop and the egg shells on your compost heap. And then you put the compost in the garden. And then you have 200 pounds of tomatoes. And then you feed the overripe tomatoes to the chickens. And the circle continues. A guy told me recently that he could even use the feathers in flys for his fishing rod!”
General Information about chicken ownership (including links to ordinances,
local chicken meetups, coop plans, chicken breeds, and general care)
Organic Feed Sources
Urban Chicken Owners Support Groups
If you’d like to chat chickens with Rebecca, she’s available via email here: notofsunnybrookfarm at gmail.
Thanks Rebecca, someday I will join you in chicken ownership!