What you need to know about raising backyard chickens

Guestpost by Rachel B. on May 24th

Backyard chickens are all the rage now. With the downturn in the economy and the recent egg recalls, people are flocking (pun intended) to local feed stores to get their own fluffballs with beaks and legs in hopes of supplying themselves with omelets from their own backyard.

Before you make the leap into backyard poultry raising, there are some questions you need to ask yourself:

Is it legal?

Many cities allow people to have small backyard flocks of hens. However, there are just as many communities that don't abide chickens. If you belong to a Home Owners Association, chances are your bylaws state you cannot have chickens. Always check. If you want chickens and live in an area they're not zoned for, you can work on changing the rules. Find like minds in your community and take the subject before the city council or homeowners association. Get it on their agenda. Educate them about the benefits of raising chickens at home.

Our Chicken Coop

Photo by furtwangl. Used under Creative Commons license.

Will my neighbors be OK with them?

It's important to find out what your neighbors think; after all, they know where you live. Now's the time to ask them what they think, discuss their concerns, and offer up bribes eggs.

Where do I get chickens?

There are several places you can find chicks. The best places are feed stores that get their chicks from reputable hatcheries and online hatcheries such as McMurray Hatchery. Adult hens are often on Craigslist and sometimes in animal shelters. Adults are more expensive, so I usually go with chicks — though they take more work. When purchasing your chicks, make sure that they have been vaccinated for Marek's disease.

What about roosters?

You do not need a rooster. Hens produce eggs regardless of whether there is a rooster or not — they just won't be fertilized. Fertilized eggs aren't any more nutritious, so unless you're planning on producing your own chicks, there isn't a reason for getting a rooster. Furthermore, many communities don't allow backyard roosters because they're so noisy.

How do I know all the chicks I buy are hens?

When ordering chicks, you'll want to get pullets instead of straight run. Sexing of chicks is 90% accurate, so there is a chance that you may end up with a rooster. With the newfound popularity of backyard flocks, local animal shelters are now seeing an influx of roosters. As a responsible chicken owner you need to plan ahead: instead of dropping off unplanned roosters at the shelter or setting them free, find a farmer who is willing to take it or put it in a soup pot when it just begins to crow.

What do I do when the hens stop laying?

This is similar to the unplanned rooster problem. Hens live up to 12 years, but only really produce eggs between six months old and two years old. Then their egg production usually drops significantly. If you want to keep the eggs coming you'll need new hens — and a plan for the old hens. We don't have the space or money for hens that aren't producing so ours go into the stew pot, though old laying hens are tough and must be cooked for a long time to be edible. This isn't something everyone is willing to do. You can also keep old hens and live with less eggs or find someone that will take them. It's a bad plan, however, to take them to shelters that have limited resources. Doing so gives chicken owners a bad rap.

Our Chicken Coop

Photo by furtwangl. Used under Creative Commons license.

How much room do I need?

You definitely need to know if you have enough room. Most cities require a chicken coop be at least 20' from any occupied residences. You also need to make sure that you can provide 2-3 square feet per hen in the coop with an additional 4-5 square feet per hen for the outdoor run. More space is always better, especially if you plan on introducing more birds at a later date.

Backyardchickens.com is a fantastic resource for all chicken owners, so give it a look for more information when you're planning your flock.

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About Rachel B.

Rachel is an urban farmer with a strong desire to DIY everything, even if she doesn't need to. She and her husband are six months into their year of not buying food from grocery stores and restaurants. They raise chickens, ducks, turkeys, rabbits, goats and bees on their urban lot.