By Kim Robson
Have you ever toyed with the idea of raising a few chickens on a bit of land? If you have some yard space and want healthy, farm-fresh eggs to eat, it’s well worth considering. Many communities’ zoning laws now allow a small number of chickens. San Diego’s City Council voted unanimously last month to amend municipal codes, making it easier to start a farmer’s market or community garden, or to raise bees, goats, and chickens. Kids love chickens, and charging them with their care instills a sense of responsibility. They are funny, silly creatures — very entertaining to watch. They all have their own personalities. Once your flock increases, which will happen if your hens manage to successfully hide their eggs from you, you may have more than enough eggs for your household. You can sell them to grateful neighbors or get a booth at the local farmer’s market. Not a bad way to pick up some easy cash!
Throughout history, chickens have been an important part of well-rounded family farms, more or less a necessity. They eat table scraps, weeds, and bugs, and in return they give protein- and vitamin-rich eggs and meat, as well as nitrogen-rich fertilizer. It’s a very efficient system for us. But what does that entail for chickens? When we bring animals into our lives, we take on a responsibility to give them the best lives possible.
Do you have enough space to give them a healthy life? Well, depending upon budget and space constraints, the possibilities are almost endless. Consider local predators, climate, location, and feed. Chickens need the same things we do – food, water, and shelter. They require daily care and supervision, and it is crucial that chickens have plenty of fresh water at all times. Automatic feeder/waterers can be the simplest option. Give your chickens enough space to live comfortably. My neighbor, Randy, has homemade coops that can house up to 50 birds but currently keeps only 24. He allows his chickens to “free range,” which means they roam around during the day and put themselves into their secure coop at night. One of my blog friends, Lauri, has a chicken coop that her hens ignore in favor of a small tree, even in snow! Mother Earth and Hobby Farms magazines are great resources for chicken coop plans, and of course there are some very attractive and clever coops for sale.
Do some research about predators, types of feed, and breed behaviors. Find out which predators exist around your area, how they hunt, and how to protect your birds. Randy has found that an enclosed 60″ high wire mesh fence keeps out large predators at night. It’s important to know how and when to introduce new birds into your flock, when to not introduce new birds, and how to help the flock become cohesive after the introduction of new members. For instance, one rooster is fine. Three or more roosters are fine – they will figure out their pecking order. But two roosters will kill each other.
Consider what you’ll do with older chickens when they stop laying. “It’s easy to think of them as pets, and you or your kids may not want to butcher older birds. Very often, Mother Nature takes care of her own: some die naturally from various maladies,” Randy says. He keeps a few of his older ones around just for fun – “They’re still mighty good at ‘roto-tilling’ the yard.”
Randy’s chickens (20 hens and four cocks) eat a 50-lb. bag of organic feed about every eight weeks, at a cost of $15 per bag. Considering that organic free-range eggs cost between four and five dollars per dozen, that’s a serious bargain. Currently, his farm, RK Ranch, is humanely approved three ways: as an Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) farm, a Federally-recognized designation; as a California Certified Producer, with state-approved farming methods; and at the local level, as a San Diego County approved producer.
Trust me, once you’ve tried farm-fresh eggs from happy chickens, you won’t want go back to commercially produced eggs. They simply aren’t in the same league! Not only do farm-raised eggs come with a negligible carbon footprint, but they are also nutritionally superior, richer-tasting, and more colorful. Chickens that are allowed to roam on pasture (instead of being confined to cages all their lives) produce eggs that have the following qualities:
So what are you waiting for? Get your 2012 chicks online now, and you’ll have a rewarding new hobby, and some adorable new birds, not to mention your own source of delicious eggs!