Keeping Backyard Chickens

by Marissa L. Tomasic

Keeping chickens is fast becoming a popular practice for suburban home owners.  Fresh eggs, pest control and nutrient rich waste are a few of the benefits that lure new participants into this age-old tradition.  Even if you've never kept livestock before, keeping chickens is an easy, fun and educational way to begin.

Before you get started, consider the benefits as well as the drawbacks.  Keeping chickens serves as an interesting and educational pastime and can teach us a lot about bird behavior as a whole.  Observing your flock over the years may even endear you (or your children) to the point of attachment, presenting a challenge when it comes time to butcher or replace old hens.  Chicken droppings make excellent fertilizer, but if the waste is not properly managed it will smell badly and attract flies.  Caring for your chickens takes a small but consistent time commitment; a few minutes a day is sufficient for feeding, watering and collecting eggs, but care must be provided every day of the year, year after year.

So you've considered the work and the rewards of keeping chickens and are ready to begin.  What will you need to get started?  All you need for supplies is housing, chicks and feed.  Housing keeps chickens sheltered from the elements and protected from predators, as well as providing a place for them to sleep and lay eggs.  Chicken coops need to have a few basic components:

* Roost or Perch: Chickens need a "shelf" or perch in the coop raised above the floor to feel safe and stay dry.

* Nesting Box: Hens need a space about the size of a shoebox (at minimum) to lay eggs.  One nesting box for every four hens is sufficient.

* Run: A run is a fenced or caged in area where the chickens can be safe when they aren't in their coop.

* Feeder & Water Trough: Feed should be in a hanging or freestanding container in the coop or in a covered section of the run, although some prefer to scatter feed right on the ground.  A shallow bucket or trough for water can be placed anywhere the chickens can access it.

* Litter & Bedding: Materials like wood shavings or straw serve two main purposes: to protect freshly laid eggs from cracking and to absorb waste and odor.  Pine shavings are ideal, as they are more absorbent than hay or straw.  A coop should have at least 2" of bedding on the floor and in the nesting boxes. 

This year we are carrying a beautiful chicken coop made by the Wooden Wonders company out of Unity, Maine.  The Lightfoot Chicken Coop is designed to look attractive in your yard and to provide functionality that will make keeping chickens easy and fun.  Take a look at this great new chicken coop here.

Chicks can be purchased remotely and shipped by U.S.P.S. or they can be purchased locally.  Ordering chicks online or through a catalog gives you a greater variety of breeds to choose from, but there is almost always a 25 chick minimum order size so the chicks will be able to keep each other warm

during shipping.  Locally, chicks are sold individually at Agway stores (there's one in Littleton), Tractor Supply Company (the closest one is in Leominster), Erikson's Grain Mill in Acton until April 17, and at O'Connor Hardware in Billerica by special order in June.  Chicks should be purchased in spring so they have time to develop physically by the time fall and winter arrive.  Do a bit of research on the breeds you are interested in.  Breeds are generally classified by their use, such as meat breeds, egg breeds, dual-purpose breeds or exhibition breeds.  All hens lay eggs, but egg breeds like Minorca, Ancona & Leghorn will lay the most: about 20 dozen eggs in their first year, about 17 dozen in their second year and so on.  The egg production of a hen depends on many factors like breed & strain, weather and how the flock is managed.  Short winter days (14 hours of daylight or less) will cause laying to stop.  Hens also lay less or stop laying altogether during molting, an annual process in which they lose and re-grow their feathers.  Add a few new chicks to your flock every year or two to keep egg production steady.  Older, lazy hens should be removed and made into soups or stews.

Chickens are omnivores, and not very picky ones at that.  They will eat almost anything you give them, including table scraps which can be an economical way to supplement their feed.  Be sure to never give them spoiled food, and avoid feeding with strong tasting foods like garlic, which will affect the flavor of the eggs and meat.  Baby chicks need starter feed, which is higher in protein and lower in calcium than adult feed.  Never feed chicks adult feed; the higher calcium content can damage their kidneys.  Chicks can transition to adult feed around 16 weeks of age.  There are also different feed formulas for egg breeds or meat breeds.  A good local source for chicken feed is Erikson's Grain Mill in Acton.

Once your backyard chicken set-up is complete, a bit of maintenance is all that is required to keep a healthy and productive flock.  Make sure fresh, clean water is provided every day.  Keep the floor of the coop dry by adding new wood shavings or hay over any wet areas.  Clean out the inside of the coop weekly, and do a soap & water deep cleaning once or twice a year.  Put droppings and soiled bedding into the composter to turn this waste into valuable, nitrogen rich fertilizer for plants and vegetable beds.  Make sure to wash your hands every time you come into contact with the coop, the chickens or their eggs.

Pest control is another wonderful benefit that chickens provide for their keepers.  Allowing your chickens to roam around your yard will help reduce the number of ticks and mosquitos around your home.  If your yard isn't enclosed, you can try to train your chickens to "come" by throwing feed on the ground to lure them.

Keeping chickens, just like any practice that enables us to observe and learn from plants and animals, allows us to participate in the beautiful and bountiful ritual of life.  With a little preparation and know-how, you can learn this hobby and have fun in the process!  

(photo credit: themagiconions.com)