Below is a guest post from my friend Alice, who raises chickens in her suburban backyard.
Backyard chickens have been in the news more and more over the last several years as families look for ways to be more self-sufficient, and as people discover how fun and easy keeping chickens is.
Unless you are buying the more expensive eggs at the grocery store (organic, local, free-range, cruelty-free, or cage-free varieties) raising chickens for eggs isn’t cheaper than buying eggs at the store, especially if you use coupons and watch sales. However, I think it it’s worth it anyway. Backyard chickens can be a very expensive hobby if you make it that way (there are some really elaborate coops available!) whether you buy them pre made or make them yourself. You can see a website with some fun pictures of coops here. It can also be done for relatively little cost, especially if you can scavenge materials!
The benefits are a great supply of fresh eggs, knowing that your chickens are well cared for and free of disease. (Researching how factory chickens are kept can turn you off eating eggs from the grocery store altogether!) Chickens also provide great pest control. Just let the chickens loose near any kind of bug nest in your garden and watch them- they’re better than any insecticide, and healthier too. We also use their droppings as fertilizer for the garden (chicken manure mixed with bedding you keep in their pen makes a great fertilizer- we built our coop to fit in our raised beds, so we can just rotate it through and add the “fertilizer” directly to the garden) not to mention the hours of entertainment just watching them. If you get them as chicks and hold them regularly, they’ll even sit on your lap and eat out of your hand. Chickens are also great garbage disposals. They can eat nearly any food scrap!
The first thing to do if you’re thinking about getting chickens is to find out whether they are legal. You can do this by reading the ordinance online or calling your local zoning department and asking. If chickens aren’t currently allowed, you can read on how to go about changing the laws in your area here. It’s also a good idea to talk to your neighbors and make sure they are okay with chickens next door. Hens do not crow like roosters, but can be noisy at times, particularly when they are startled, or sometimes to announce a newly laid egg.
Once you find out you can have chickens, you’ll want to buy or build a coop of some sort, and an enclosed pen to protect them from other animals. We built a small coop, with a nesting box and feeding area off to the side, and put the whole thing in a dog run. We cut a hole in the dog run to allow the nesting box area to stick out, so we can feed the chickens and gather eggs without going into the pen.
Once your chicks are old enough to move outdoors, you’ll want to use wood litter (like in a hamster cage) inside their hen house. Piled thick, the litter keeps odors down, and the chickens cleaner. Chicks often do not start to lay until fall or even the next spring, so be patient. The first couple of eggs will be tiny, but are so rewarding.
Some people keep chickens as pets, and continue to care for them after they have stopped laying. Most chickens lay fairly well for several years, and after that egg production slows down. Other people plan on eating the meat once the chickens are no longer producing (meat from older chickens is tough and is best used in soups or meals that are cooked for long periods of time). Another option is to list your chicken for sale (or for free) in the classifieds for someone else to take home for dinner. That’s a good option for those who don’t want to run a chicken retirement village but don’t want to deal with killing the birds either.
Raising chickens has been a great way to teach my children where their food comes from. They understand that meat we eat comes from animals that have died, and have gained a greater appreciation for their food. The kids love gathering eggs every day, and trying to catch them after we’ve let them out for a bug round-up.
If you are interested in learning more about keeping chickens, there are multiple discussion forums and websites with information about the specifics on how to keep chickens. A great place to start is the Backyard Chickens Learning Center.
Alice, mom to three boys and one on the way is a fellow couponer and frugal by nature. She enjoys natural and organic foods and enjoys teaching her kids where food really comes from. Her back yard features a vegetable garden, mini fruit orchard, play areas for her kids and of course, the chicken coop. She's slowly building up a suburban homestead, and teaching her boys to value the world around them. Visit her at http://isagoodone.blogspot.com. She'll willingly take any questions you have regarding raising chickens!