When planning your yard, consider including a chicken coop and some chickens. My chickens are champion recyclers that provide a steady supply of beneficial manure. Their presence animates the garden-even if they are not allowed in it (chickens quickly peck and eat most greens). I find chickens amusing, friendly animals; I raise them for eggs not meat. My small flock supplies the tastiest and most nutritious eggs you can imagine, delivered fresh every day. A small sample test at Mother Earth News estimates that true home-grown, free-range chicken eggs (not the commercial “pseudo free-range” eggs where the chickens only have “access” to an open pen with no greenery, so are fed the same corn-based diet) have seven times the beta-carotene and twice the omega-3 oils, and a third less cholesterol than the average super-market eggs. So I eat lots of delicious, healthy eggs with the most amazing orange yolks.
- Most laying breeds lay an egg a day from spring through fall so 4 chickens are plenty for the average family. Egg production slows for molting and in winter. A hen noticeably slows her egg production after the fourth year. (A rooster is not necessary to produce eggs and their crowing is notorious. For this reason I put my rooster in a dog crate in the garage at night. The evening I forgot to bring him in we made the local newspaper’s Police Blotter.)
- Consider heritage breeds. Besides beautiful plumage, many are more people friendly than commercial breeds. Further, some of the varieties are endangered, so you help keep the breed going. My chickens are Dominiques, Easter Egg Araucanas, and Rhode Island Reds.
- You can buy day-old female chicks from hatcheries and local feed stores. If you get fertile eggs from a friend and hatch them as I did, you can get a number of problematic roosters. McMurray Hatchery www.mcmurrayhatchery.com/ offers one of the largest selections of heritage breeds. Chicks need special care when young so before you order consult a good chicken book or go online. I have found that time spent handling young chicks makes them friendly and easier to manage as adults. My neighborhood children enthusiastically volunteer for chick duty.
- Provide a hen house to protect them from the elements. If you are not going to let them free range, they need a large enclosed coop for running around. Avoid overcrowding; provide at least 10 square feet per chicken. Install chicken wire over the top of the coop and provide solid walls and flooring in the hen house so mice can’t get the eggs; and an outer coop door with a good latch to protect them from roving dogs and wild critters. To keep out digging animals, install the chicken wire at least 6 inches deep into the ground, and extending 18 inches away from the coop.
- Situate the coop away from neighbor’s houses, as hens announce new eggs with much drama. “Mine is the best egg ever!” “You can’t believe how big this one is, come see!” Provide a perch a 3 or 4 feet off the ground for roosting at night. In cold winter regions, they need a solid hen house without drafts, and an electric light for heat on very cold nights.
- A clean supply of water is also a must. Feed stores carry containers that continuously supply clean water. I have installed an automatic dog waterer in our coop. In winter, you install the heating elements people use for their bird baths to keep the water from freezing.
- Give your flock a nutritious chicken feed, preferably organic without medications or other additives. Keep the feed clean and dry. If they are not free-ranging, provide chicken grit occasionally.
- Supplement their diet with goodies from your kitchen and garden, especially greens. My chickens get very excited when I bring them stale bread, melon rinds and seeds, overripe tomatoes, bean vines, weeds, and other kitchen and garden flotsam. Basically, I give them almost anything I would put in the compost pile-no animal products-but nothing that has begun to rot. For everyone’s pleasure, I have sorrel planted near their coop so the neighborhood children and their grandparents can harvest it and stick it through the wire to feed the chickens when they visit.
- Good sanitation is essential to keep your flock healthy and cut down on flies. Rake up the chicken litter every few weeks and apply fresh litter. Put the old litter in a hot compost pile or dig it into the garden at least two weeks before planting. Freshen nests frequently.
- Litter possibilities include ground cornhusks, peanut hulls, and straw.
Free-range chickens–a good idea because the chickens supplement their diet with insects and greens-work in some yards, not in others. If they are cooped, you can create a movable pen and move both pen and chickens around the yard as desired. I find them great at cleaning out old vegetable beds and eating the pests and weed seeds
Keeping Chickens: the Essential Guide to Enjoying and Getting the Best From Chickens by Jeremy Hobson and Celia Lewis.
Websites: www.organicchickens.homestead.com and www.motherearthnews.com.
Rosalind Creasy is a regular guest on Organictobe.org. Her newest book is: Rosalind Creasy’s Recipes From the Garden.
© Rosalind Creasy 2009