by Bonnie Azab Powell.
Cluck, cluck, cluck. Bwaak!
These are not sounds I expect to hear on a stroll in
my North Oakland, Calif. neighborhood—the usual soundtrack is more like
thumping bass, sirens, and the rattle of fast-food paper bags. And yet chickens
are pecking in backyards on practically every block, in converted sheds and
rickety but raccoon-proof enclosures.
I live, it’s mostly a matter of economics: chicken feed is cheap, and fresh,
tasty orange-yolked eggs are expensive. Around the country, though, it’s safe
to say that keeping chickens has never enjoyed as much cachet as it does now.
Some cities are more chicken-friendly than others: the Municode Library website can
usually tell you whether your city allows chickens, how many and what sex; just
find your hometown and search its code for “chickens.”
I’ve been thinking about taking the poultry plunge myself, but I decided to get some expert advice first.
these tiny-brained feathered friends are the Boston terriers of their decade,
then Gail Damerow is poultry’s Cesar Millan.
In the last 40 years, she’s raised dozens of different breeds and written Barnyard in Your Backyard and several other
animal-care handbooks. But she’s best known for Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens, now in its third edition. It’s the primer for all things chicken:
from training your birds (yes, you can, although they probably won’t fetch for
you) to keeping predators at bay to designing and building your own backyard
coop. (Speaking of coops, we’re putting together a slideshow of cool coops for
city chickens for Friday—if you’re proud of your poultry’s pad, send us a photo and caption!)
graciously consented to answer my poultry-newbie questions by phone and email
from her farm in Tennessee’s Upper Cumberland.
Q. Can chickens really thrive in a small city backyard, or do they need
real room to range?
A. Chickens can get along quite
well in a small amount of space, provided they have adequate food and water,
and their environment is kept clean. The main issue is finding things for them
to do to keep from getting bored and picking on each other (like siblings
cooped up in the back seat of the family sedan). The best chicken toys involve
food that cannot be eaten quickly—such as a head of fresh lettuce or cabbage
hung from a string so the chickens can peck at it.
Q. How big does a coop need to be?
the enclosed portion of the coop, I’d want at least 3 square feet for
lightweight laying breeds such as the Leghorn and 4 square feet for heavier,
dual-purpose (meat and egg-laying) breeds such as the Rhode Island Red. For the
chicken run, more is always better, but total living space (indoors and out) of
7.5 square feet per bird should be adequate.
Q. Is there any advantage to having four
or more chickens versus two?
are flock animals that like company. I think three or four would develop a more
comfortable social order, unless the facility isn’t big enough for the one
lowest in the pecking order to get away from others. (As long as you have at
least two chickens, one is always lowest in peck order.)
Q. Can chickens and raised vegetable beds
co-exist happily in a backyard?
the garden is in, the chickens will need supervision so they don’t eat or scratch
up emerging seedlings or peck holes in ripening strawberries or tomatoes, etc.
Also for safety’s sake, fresh chicken poop should be kept away from root
crops for 120 days prior to harvest, and from other crops for 90 days, although
people who raise chickens (who are around chickens, handle them, clean the
coop, etc.) are less likely to be affected by potential poultry pathogens from
Q. Are people better off building a simple coop with a run, or
buying one of the pricy ready-made models like the Omlet Eglu?
a tough one. Some of the ready-made models are nice, but some look a little
iffy, especially for times when chickens don’t want to be outdoors, like during
several days of torrential rain or in freezing cold weather.
the other hand, I’ve seen chicken shelters built by people who shouldn’t be
allowed to use a hammer. You have to think about an awful lot of things, not
the least of which is the safety of the chickens (no protruding nails, good
ventilation but not drafty, insulation, predator proofing, etc.), as well as
how to efficiently position the feed, water, perches, nests, and doorways. Lots
of different styles of chicken coops have been designed, but none is perfect. I
have lived in the same location for nearly 30 years and have lost track of how
many times we’ve remodeled our chicken housing; we just finished remodeling our
layer house in mid-June. People always ask me for the definitive coop design,
but there is no such thing.
[Readers, if you disagree and think you’ve um, nailed it: send us a photo of your coop for Friday’s slideshow.]
Q. Your books do, however, offer a sketch
for a good workable coop.
on page 78 of the current edition of Guide
to Raising Chickens is my concept of an ideal 4-by-12-foot stationary
chicken house for a small backyard situation such as an urban one [above]. It comfortably
fits four chickens of a large breed, five to six of a light breed, and up to
eight small bantams. It’s completely covered and has platforms at three levels
designed to prevent boredom by offering a variety of environments. The upper
one-third is entirely enclosed and is where they sleep and lay; the middle
one-third is open-air and is where they eat and drink; the final one-third is
at ground level to provide an area for scratching and dusting (kind of like a
sandbox play area) from which the chickens can be let out to roam.
like the upper 4×4 living platform high enough to be cleaned, and eggs
gathered, by a person standing up. (My husband is 6’ tall and gets tired of
banging his head on low overhangs.) The upper and middle platforms have slat
floors, although in really cold weather the upper platform should have a piece
of plywood added to keep out night time drafts. If the two upper platforms had
solid floors with bedding, the chickens could use the underneath part as a run,
but the platforms would have to be cleaned often—at least once a week.
the slats, poop falls beneath the upper and middle platforms, into an area
protected by hardware cloth (also called welded wire or rabbit wire; everyone
calls it something different) to keep the chicken from scratching in the poop.
By occasionally tossing shavings onto the poop, odor and flies are kept to a
minimum and cleaning doesn’t need to be done until the accumulation becomes
offensive. The front wire panel is removable for when the accumulation needs to
be cleaned out. Don’t get me started on this, but… you could easily modify this area to accommodate a worm bin.
bottom 4×4 section might be considered a run. It could be bedded with wood
chips, shredded paper, dried leaves and grass clippings, etc., but I prefer
sand the chickens can dust in (they will dust in the bedding, but it’s not as
good for getting rid of parasites). Chickens do need a place for dusting, so
don’t forget that part in your plan.
Q. Chicken poop makes great fertilizer, I
hear, once composted. How much waste we are talking about per week?
depends on what’s used for bedding, how much, how often changed, etc. And also
on the moisture content of the manure. A good guesstimate is approximately a
pound of poop per week per chicken. Since they “go” all night
long, a lot will be piled beneath the perch—in my plan, it accumulates
beneath the upper platform. The rest will be spread around the run and trampled
into the dirt/sand/grass.
Q. If I feed my chickens kitchen scraps,
about how much grain do I also need to feed them per bird for optimum laying?
grain at all, please, unless it’s sprouted. Grain tends to make hens fat, and
fat hens don’t lay well. About two pounds per week of layer ration, such as
Purina Layena, per hen. It’s possible to feed chickens without using commercial
rations, but you would need to bone up on the nutritional properties of
available feedstuffs and the nutritional needs of chickens.
Q. How many eggs will a hen lay over her
laying breeds start laying at about 18-22 weeks; others at 22-24 weeks. We’ve
been talking here about the “average” chicken, but to be precise we
would need to know what kind of chickens: bantams (which are very popular) need
less space, eat less, and lay smaller eggs; lightweight breeds (so called layer
breeds, and I assume what we’ve been talking about here), or heavy breeds,
which are generally more sedate and less flighty than the layer breeds, but
need more space, eat more, and lay fewer but bigger eggs.
or young chickens, will generally lay through the first winter. After that,
hens generally stop laying as day length decreases in the fall, unless provided
with lighting to augment natural light for a total of 15 hours per day. So on
average—again, depending on the breed, feed, and management—a hen lays
about 240-250 eggs per year; pretty good would be 300 per year. After each year
of laying, the number of eggs decreases and the size increases.
caveat: fat hens don’t lay well, so an overfed hen will produce fewer eggs and
will stop laying at a younger age. People with just a few hens tend to pamper
them by overfeeding carbohydrates, which chickens love. Table scraps such as lettuce
leaves and other vegetables are good; more than the occasional bit of stale
cake or Wonder bread, or excessive amounts of grain, is bad.
Q. City dwellers are used to paying $4 to
even $8 per dozen for eggs from chickens raised on pasture. Will my backyard
eggs be as tasty, and will they end up being more economical, even if I opt for
will seem tastier because they come from your own hens, and they will be tastier because they’re fresher (what could be fresher than from nest to frying
pan?). The economics depend on the price of the feed, how much the price can be
reduced by judiciously feeding kitchen or garden scraps, and how many eggs the
hens lay. Using averages, let’s do the math: A hen eats two pounds of rations
per week or about 100 pounds per year, during which she lays about 240 or 20
dozen eggs. At $4 per dozen, the break-even point for the cost of layer ration
would be $80 per 100 pounds. The all-natural layer ration I use costs about $25
per 100 pounds. What’s not to like about raising your own hens?
DC’s Common Good City Farm: ‘Museum farm’ or real deal?
Keeping up with Jones Valley Urban Farm
Breaking Through Concrete: Stories from the American urban farm
View full post on Grist – the latest from Grist