Forget backyard gardens full of homegrown tomatoes, salad greens and herbs: the next step in urban (and suburban, and rural) home gardening is keeping your own chickens. Hen husbandry is so popular that you can now find a chicken sitter to watch over your brood while you're away—just like you would for pets you don't eat.
Robert and Hannah Litt of Portland's Urban Farm Store may be the country's foremost experts on helping beginners start their own brood at home. Their new book, A Chicken in Every Yard: The Urban Farm Store's Guide to Chicken Keeping (Ten Speed Press, 2011), is the ultimate starter manual for anyone looking to raise their own sustainable and local birds. From helping you figure out if you're really ready for chickens, to detailed and easy-to-follow instructions for choosing breeds, building coops and keeping your hens healthy, the Litts' beautifully illustrated book answers pretty much any question that might pop up about home chicken keeping. TakePart got some tips from Robert, who also answered a few of our readers' questions.
How much work is there to raising chickens, compared to pets—like dogs and cats?
Well, at our house we have dogs and cats and fish and now, of course, chickens as well. I would say chickens are most comparable to a cat. Maybe even a little less work than a cat. You put out food and water for the chickens. You need to change the litter in their coop—but not as frequently as most people would change a litter box. There is more initial work, because you don’t need to build a house for your cat. But as far as the ongoing daily maintenance, feeding and cleaning, it’s similar to a cat. Chickens tend to take care of themselves. A dog is definitely more work.
What are the most important things you tell customers who come into your store and say they’re interested in jumping into backyard chicken keeping?
It begins with making sure chickens are legal in their community. From there, think about your neighbors and be considerate of them. If they have already been complaining about your dog making noise, they are likely to be very curious about what you’re doing with the chickens. You are likely to have to follow all the rules and really keep the neighbors in mind.
Once you’ve determined that you can have chickens, and that your neighbors are going to be accepting of them, the basic things you want to keep in mind are that the chicks need to be indoors when you first get them for six to eight weeks, and you need the proper accommodation for them. Usually during that six to eight weeks, you’ve got enough time to create a suitable and secure outdoor area for them that includes a house-like coop structure and secure run.
When can people expect to start seeing eggs?
Usually the chicks are three days old when they arrive from the hatcheries to the feed stores—most people will be buying their chicks from feed stores. There are feed stores on the edges of most cities and in the country. They get chicks usually during a chick season—from February to May or so. Maybe June, depending on where you are in the country. We pretty much have chicks year round here at our store. Because the chicks are so tiny, they need the supplemental heat and the protection of a brooder indoors. They will be in that brooder for about two months, and you have to treat them like indoor pets that you keep safe from your other pets and kids.
Then they go outside into the coop-and-run setup that you’ve built for them. They’ll start laying eggs at about six months, give or take, depending on the breed. They’ll lay almost an egg a day through the egg-laying season—which is when there is enough light and warmth in your area; it could be almost all year round. Or it could be six months that you have a good laying season. They’ll continue to lay strongly for the first two years. Then it starts to drop off about 20 percent a year. By the time you have an old chicken—maybe four or five years old—they are barely laying at all. You will have to decide whether you are keeping them as pets or whether you want to be more of a farmer about it and eat them—or otherwise replace them with stronger layers. Most people will just get new chicks every two or three years so there is a continual renewal of the flock and there are always eggs being laid.
Do you recommend a number of chickens to start with?
Chickens are social animals; so you cannot have just one chicken. The minimum flock size is two. But we recommend that you have a flock of three. It is a better social dynamic for them. They like to form a little hierarchy, with one chicken in charge, and another chicken as sort of a first lieutenant, and then a more subordinate chicken. So three is a nice number to have a sort of basic social unit. And also three is a good number, because if you do happen to lose one of your chickens to disease or to a predator, then you’re not left with just one chicken by itself. Three seems to be the magic number for most home chicken keepers.
How much space do you need to keep chickens at home?
As a broad rule of thumb, for three chickens I would like to see being able to devote a 10-foot by 10-foot space to them in your backyard. So it doesn’t take a lot of room. Keep in mind—and no one wants to copy them—but in a factory farming situation, you have two chickens in a space the size of a piece of paper. That’s way too little space for them obviously. If you could have the whole back yard to devote to them to wander and forage, that’s even better.
We also took a few questions from our readers on Facebook. Vicky asks, “How do you handle whiny neighbors who don’t want chickens next door while still being a good neighbor—and the peace offering of eggs didn’t work?” Or, similarly, Robert would like to know, “Do you have any recommendations for changing city ordinances that prohibit chickens, or is the only option moving to a more enlightened area?”
The main answer to both of those would be: education. What people fear the most when you talk about having chickens in your yard are things that are probably really more bogeyman than reality.
First of all, they think chickens are going to smell. They may have seen or smelled a poultry farm in the country at some point where they keep many thousands of chickens; those indeed do smell. But in a backyard situation, your neighbors will not smell your chickens. There will be no odor.
The other thing people are concerned about is noise. It is important to let your neighbors know that you will not be keeping roosters. They are the ones that make the vast majority of the noise that we associate with chickens. A flock of three hens will be barely audible. And certainly much more quiet than any neighborhood dog that barks even occasionally.
Talk to the neighbors ahead of time, give them your phone number, and let them know that they can contact you if they have any concerns. Just be very open and assure them that you will take care of anything that might come up. You can say that with some confidence, because it is unlikely that you will have to do anything. The chickens are much less of an impact than your neighbors imagine they will be.
Lisa is asking, “Should I be concerned about bird-borne disease?” And Vicki wants to know, “How do I make city folks less afraid of bird flu?”
There is no bird flu in this time in any wild bird populations. Any outbreaks that have occurred have been very isolated. And they usually occur in more of a factory farming situation, where there is a very high density of birds in one place and where there is airborne feces stirred up by all these chickens in confined buildings. These are conditions that wouldn’t occur in a small home flock situation. You wouldn’t get that kind of density. It’s not a conducive environment for the spread of bird flu.
Bird flu would have to come from wild birds, and usually wild bird deaths and epidemics are monitored by the health department. So there would be a lot of warning if there were wild birds dying of bird flu. Then you could take certain measures to protect your flock: you would put a cover over your whole run or make your chicken run inaccessible to wild birds.
Any time you have an animal that is in contact with its own feces, you definitely want to wash your hands after coming into contact with any of the animals or the equipment. And you don’t want to be snuggling with the birds or kissing the birds, or letting them touch your face or anything like that. It’s not that they are particularly disease carrying or anything. I just always recommend caution to be on the safe side.
Andy wants to know, “How do dogs [or cats] get along with backyard chickens?”
Cats are easy ones. As soon as the chickens are full-sized, which occurs after three months—there’s about a month of vulnerability after they’ve moved outside, and they’re certainly vulnerable when they are inside and small—after they’ve grown up to their nearly mature size, they are actually fairly intimidating to cats. We have only heard of one incidence where an alley cat took away a full-grown chicken. Generally cats are not a threat to a full-grown chicken at all. Chickens have beaks and claws and they fluff up and they look fairly intimidating.
Dogs on the other hand, are actually a danger at any life stage to the chickens. They will need to be either gradually introduced—there are certain training methods you can use to get them to ignore the chickens—but if you have a very aggressive dog, or a dog that is of a hunting breed, you may need to permanently keep your chickens within a secure run that will keep your dogs and chickens separated. Stray dogs in your neighborhood are also definitely a threat; so you will need to make sure your outer garden fence is tall enough and has no areas where a dog could get under and scoot over. Dogs are very effective killers of chickens.
I know beginners have the option of building the Taj Mahal of coops or something much simpler. But at a minimum, what is someone going to be spending to get started?
Your budget for your chicks will probably be somewhere in the order of $75, including buying the chicks and the lamp and the bulb and the feeder and the water and some sort of brooder accommodation and feed. Maybe $100 if you are buying more than three chicks. For the coop, I would budget a minimum of $200. But you can save some of that money by finding recycled material or building very efficiently.
It’s a little bit of an initial investment, maybe about $275 or $300. I would say if you are able to budget about $500, you might be a little more comfortable. Or, if you are very handy and resourceful, the whole thing, including the chicks, can be done for maybe $175.
If you divide that amount by what a carton of eggs costs, you can see that you really have to be in it for the long term before it starts to “pay off.” But there are a lot of other benefits in terms of sustainability and the value of a pet that aren’t really quantifiable. There are also ongoing expenses of feed and litter and straw and making repairs on your coop. I would probably budget another maybe $25 a month for upkeep on a small flock.
Interview edited and condensed.