Judy DeHaas never thought she'd spend her mornings gathering eggs. As a photojournalist for the Denver Post, the Denver resident hatched an unexpected passion for backyard chicken farming when she met a local urban homesteading guru, Sundari Kraft of Heirloom Gardens. Kraft's multi-plot urban farm cleaves close to local terroir, narrowing its focus from Community Supported Agriculture to Neighborhood Supported Agriculture, reasoning that shareholders should be able to walk - not drive - to pick up their allotment of food.
Visiting Kraft's home to work on a story, DeHaas was struck by the lack of fuss and mess she'd been led to associate with urban chicken faming. "You're inundated with propaganda about what you have to have to farm eggs, " she says. "It was amazing how easy it was. Not out of control at all. You just have to feed them good food and keep them warm. You don't have to have a rooster, and you don't have to walk them like dogs."
Having grown up "unattached to food," DeHaas was determined not to let that extend to her 4-year-old son Theo. Together, they raised five chickens from chicks, rather than older pullets, and it's his job to harvest the eggs every day - two of which he eats, scrambled. They both appreciate the connection with the Earth - and each other. "I don't have to go to the store, and I get to spend time with my kid."
When she's away from home, friends pitch in. In exchange for feeding the chickens the organic or all-natural chicken feed and tending to egg harvesting, the chicken sitters have free roaming privileges through DeHaas' organic vegetable garden.
Josh Kilmer-Purcell and Brent Ridge of Beekman 1802 Farm agree with DeHaas about the unexpected ease of small-scale chicken farming and recommend it to anyone with a backyard. Vigilance, they say, is key for both preventing salmonella and other infections, and keeping the hens constantly laying eggs.
Says Kilmer-Purcell, "There are no precautions other than gathering the eggs every day and using them quickly. Eggs must be gathered regularly, or the hens will become 'broody.' If there are too many eggs in a nest, they will begin setting on them to hatch them – and stop laying any more."
"Maintenance is simple, simply provide a small coop with nesting boxes, a feeder, and waterer. Fresh water must be provided every day. The floor can be covered with shavings and should be cleaned out every couple of weeks - or coarse sand, which acts like kitty litter, which can be scooped daily. The smell is negligible if the coop is kept clean, especially if chickens are allowed to roam the yard during the day."
And it's inexpensive, to boot. "Chickens are very efficient – especially free range, where they can find a great deal of their protein from insects. They will return to coop on their own at night and cost pennies to buy as chicks."
Don't have a yard where chicken can hunt and peck for insects? No problem. The Eglu company makes design-forward, urban-friendly chicken houses so even city slickers with a postage-stamp sized lawn or balcony can get cracking on harvesting eggs at home.
Previously – Backyard chicken farming makes a comeback
See all egg recall information on Eatocracy and full coverage on CNN Health
With urban flocks on the rise, it’s important to ensure that backyard flocks get quality care and consideration. Unfortunately, factory farms yield few clues as to what hens really need to thrive in a more natural environment, for a normal life-span. Here are a few key factors to keep in mind before committing to years of backyard flock management.
Tip #1: Protecting urban chickens is costly but required. Chicken wire is not predator proof. Hens are extremely vulnerable to predators like hawks, eagles, raccoons and dogs. Raccoons can reach right through chicken wire to eat hens through the wire, and often work in groups. Eagles and hawks don’t pick up hens and fly away with them, they just take a piece. Roomy coops with hardware cloth on all sides, top and bottom can provide safety for urban hens.
Tip #2: Roosters are now illegal within the city. When hatching chicks, what will you do with all the male chicks? There is no local or state agency to help with animal control issues for urban flocks. Two roosters will fight and injure each other. Factory farms and hatcheries routinely grind up male baby chicks while they’re still alive. It is difficult to acquire hens without taking part in the cruelty that male chicks face. Ask before you buy, “What happens to the male chicks?”
Tip #3: Hens may get sick and require veterinary care. When a hen is sick, do you know where to go for urgent treatment? It is important to ensure that even backyard hens are free from suffering and neglect. Basic veterinary care for infections, parasites or injuries can start at $80 and run into the hundreds of dollars. Birds are much better than dogs or cats at hiding illness, so it is critical to get them care quickly. Are you prepared to ensure your birds don’t suffer?
Tip #4: Chicken feed attracts rats and chicken droppings attract flies. Cleaning and maintaining urban coops on smaller lots can be difficult and time consuming. Flies and rats bring parasites and illnesses with them that can infect hens and other household pets. Rat populations can easily get out of control and damage homes.
Tip #5: Hens don’t lay eggs every day. Many urban farmers get hens to ensure their families have humanely-raised, fresh eggs to eat. But hens have natural cycles that change as the seasons change, and sometimes they don’t lay eggs. Laying an egg every day takes a lot of nutrients, especially calcium. Poor nutrition or poor breeding can cause many hens to be prone to reproductive cancers and other maladies like prolapse and egg binding.
Tip #6: Hens crow too. While not anywhere near as loud as roosters, hens crow too. Hens cluck in the morning quite early to be let out of their predator-proof nesting areas. In the summer when days are long, the hen crows can begin at 4:15am. Neighbors will tend to think you are illegally keeping roosters if they hear crowing. Also, some hens cluck loudly when they lay eggs. It is important to keep in mind if you have close neighbors.
Tip #7: Each hen has a unique personality. While some breeds have specific characteristics, every hen is her own chicken. Some hens will attack and injure less dominant hens, especially if space or food is limited. Other hens will eat their own eggs. Some will chase other household pets or pluck out their own feathers. Those are some of the negative personality traits, but hens can also be wonderfully caring and charismatic. Hens are interactive, emotional and talkative. Hens like to play and explore, and enjoy small, new changes in their environments. Share a cob of corn or sliced grapes with hens as a treat. Move slowly, talk softly and interact daily to earn their trust.
Because hens are easy to hatch and cheap to buy, they are often treated as disposable animals. And hens that no longer lay eggs are considered useless. But when it comes to suffering, all animals are created equal. With proper care and attention, hens can live up to 10+ years. Before becoming responsible for the care and happiness of any living being, do all the research you can, and be wary of anyone who makes urban chicken coops seem simple and easy. It is a years-long commitment with daily, required care.
We love our chickens. When my beagle passed away this fall we converted the 75 x 75 dog pen to a chicken yard.. The chickens keep it clean (no weeds) and provide us with relaxing enjoyment after long workdays. This morning I am sipping coffee eating fresh eggs and biscuits, watching the chickens scratch (country two step), while the humming birds buzz around. We keep 9 hens,no rooster (Roosters get to rough with the grand kids). They don't make much noise and despite comments otherwise are not nasty if you give them room and keep a small flock. My grandson and I had fun building the 8 x 8 coup and cedar nesting boxes. We have kept chickens for several years now enjoying the many beautiful breeds, and the various colors of egg shells (blues, greens,pinks, browns, whites...). Our friends love them too, every one always asking for eggs, and each contributing back in their own way.
We chicken-sat for a neighbor last week. It was surprisingly easy. I'd been on the fence about chickens (oh god no – not more responsibility), but it wasn't a hassle at all; their dog was more work.
Thanks for the link to the eglu. I came across it years ago, but haven't been able to remember the name to go look it up.
I think back yard chicken farming is great. Its a great learning experience for kids and a wonderful hobby. However, I don't like the false sense of security people have with backyard chickens. Digging around in the dirt to eat insects and coming into contact with wild birds is how chickens get Salmonella and Campylobacter in the first place. Organic, free range, and back yard eggs and chickens are no safer than those from intensive farming operations. The key to food safety is proper sanitation and cooking in the HOME!
uhh... wrong. Do some more research.
We have backyard chickens and they're super easy to care for, much like cats, only I like them. We got them as chicks and it's been cute watching them grow. Now we have Buddha Palm, Dirt Diver, Short Bus and No Name to entertain us in the evening with their antics. And the eggs are amazing.
Great idea, and good advice given here! Now to find a nearby chicken farm and to convince my significant other to allow a coop group on his land, b/c I haven't got a space for it, so far. That could change. Thanks for the good article; it gives just the right amount of info and motivation. I think we'll be seeing alot more home coops in the future around some neighborhoods.
Excess eggs can be taken to local food banks and co-ops. Also, I've actually given a dozen fresh eggs to a restaurant as a tip while traveling. Bought from the local health food store, I thought I could cook in my rented room, but was mistaken; so I brought them with me to give away to my favorite breakfasting place. Waste not...and they were pleased too.
Save a chicken! Eat a vegetarian!
@ The Onion
Get it right! Its....
Save a chicken! Eat a PETA!
Although, you may want some exlax or some Pepto afterwards.
Great article! As the owner of http://www.BackYardChickens.com and co-author of the book "Raising Chickens for Dummies", I’ve seen a huge surge in the trend toward families raising their own small flock of egg-machines.
People are realizing that chickens are a multi-purpose pet! They are relatively easy to care for, eat the bugs and weeds in your backyard, generate fantastic fertilizer, are fun to watch, and of course they provide you with eggs, one of nature’s best foods!
Also, people want to be a part of the grow-local and self-sufficient movements. Unfortunately most of us can’t (or aren’t inclined to) raise cows, pigs, etc. or grow acres of food, but what suburbanites can do is raise a handful of hens. Backyard chickens allow us to participate in these important movements without having to change our zip code.
Of course, at the end of the day, who wouldn’t want a pet that makes you breakfast?
Chickens are NOT egg machines. They are living, breathing, vulnerable, sensitive and wonderful feathered creatures who deserve to be treated with respect. Just because they are cheap does not mean they are disposable.
My husband and stepdaughter have chickens at our house now. We have about 6 acres in Texas. We have four hens and one rooster. The rooster is becoming mean and attacks my dog sometimes. Anyhow, the whole "egg business" is quite interesting. My husband who grew up on a farm said there's nothing to it and it would be a great way for our daughter to learn how to take care of something. I sell the eggs at my place of business and each penny we make pays for feed and then the rest my daughter is saving in her piggy bank. She took some of her egg money to the movies this weekend. She paid for her own M&M's. It was quite cute. She couldn't believe M&M's cost $4.00. Little does she know what lies ahead!
I grew up with chickens in the backyard, before they were called free range. The down size is that they are disgusting animals and you have to clean up after them and if you don't keep up on the clean up it all goes down hill fast. I grew to dislike opening the coop to get the eggs and clean them, eventually had more eggs than we could eat. But they were fun to play with.
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