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Are backyard hens easy? – Adventures in Backyard Farming

Our little column on backyard farming continues, this time letting you in on the early days of tending a small flock of egg-laying chickens.

In my first piece in this column I quickly got into some of the things I’d learned — so far — from tending honeybees at home. Now let’s talk about the chickens.

Have you ever had free-range chicken eggs? I mean REALLY free-range, not the stuff labeled that way from a grocery store, where the “free-range” term merely means the chickens aren’t kept in a cage, yet are still fed mass-produced feed. I’m talking chickens likely from your local farm that are let loose upon the grass, allowed to eat it and are fed healthy feed to supplement what they eat from the yard. Even before you eat one of these eggs, with just the sight of the orange — not yellow — yolk, you know it’s gonna be good. And oh man is it. It’s just in a different league than what you get out of cartons at the grocers.

We’d been buying eggs from our CSA farm for years now, but she can’t always meet the demand. We want more! We hold the CSA eggs so precious that we only use them for non-baking needs; baking’s for the grocery eggs. So how to get more? “Get your own chickens. They’re easy,” said our CSA farmer. Seriously? Those fluttery things that you can never catch are easy? Well, onto the research!

When I started at my current full-time job last year, I learned from my boss that he at one point had taken up beekeeping several years ago. Since I was still in the investigation phase and definitely interested in beekeeping, there were few days between those when I’d be asking about his experiences and for tips. One interesting tidbit I’d picked up: he also kept chickens at one point. I’ve met a few people who have both bees and chickens in their backyards since then; as it turns out, it appears beekeeping and chicken-keeping go hand-in-hand. For some, the next step is goat-keeping … but let’s not go there just yet.

Once I’d installed my bees earlier this month, I had a sudden stroke of confidence and decided, screw it, I’m going right to chickens. Now. I started to check Craigslist for cheap chicken coops and putting together plans and cost for building my own. Before I knew it, I found someone relatively close by who was selling an already-made chicken cook and attached run, and four one-year-old, laying chickens! And I got ‘em!

So, in less than a month’s time, we’ve gone from a farm of two small vegetable gardens to one including bees and chickens. And you know what? So far it’s been mostly easy and mostly great. Just as I did last time with the beekeeping side of things, I’ll give you a few initial thoughts and tips from what I’ve learned in the little time I’ve had with our four hens:

Say goodbye to your lawn. For us, we have an attached run to the henhouse. It’s big enough for four hens to have plenty of room, but I wouldn’t add more. However, that entire area they run in will be wiped out of almost all grass after a day in place. The chickens are eating it and scratching at it all day. I try to make a point to move the henhouse truck (the entire house and run is movable) every day, to give the hens fresh grass to eat; you can see an almost-perfect rectangular patch of grassless earth where the truck was last.

Some people are able to allow their hens the run of the yard, but we’ve got a severe hawk problem around our house, and they were well onto us the day we got our hens; I don’t think they’d last a couple of hours outside the fenced run. The plus side of allowing them to eat the grass, though, is fewer ticks and other insects, as well as yummy grass-fed chicken eggs.

Watering is necessary and problematic; get a chicken nipple. See that red-and-white watering trough in the picture above? Toss that right out — worthless. The chickens get that full of dirt and shit quicker than they can take a second sip out of the thing. Then you’re left cleaning the damn thing out several times a day. That metal bowl was worse. Our solution was to get a “chicken nipple” that basically works like a hamster cage bottle for chickens. I was amazed that, just as advertised, the chickens learned to drink from it within maybe an hour of it being installed. No more mess, and you can throw a huge bucket of water up and away from the chicken mess, making sure they won’t be without water for days.

Egg laying is inconsistent. Sometimes we would see four eggs a day, sometimes only one. All sorts of things affect the hens’ laying, from a change in food to a change in location or other kinds of stress. Sometimes we’ll have more eggs than we can eat sitting in the fridge, while other times we’re hoping for more. So far, though, it’s been a perfect pace.

Chickens are dumb. It was raining out, so I put their food in the henhouse; they couldn’t find it. They wonder why they are getting wet when it rains and try to dodge the drops. They think golfballs in their nesting box are eggs. Don’t expect them to figure out even the easiest thing you expect them to understand, which is why it still amazes me they learned how to drink from that nipple. They also get pretty antsy and loud if they’re not let out of their house early enough in the morning, so either look into some sort of automatic door or risk leaving their coop open all night, otherwise plan for an early morning.

All in all, it’s been worthwhile having these dirty, loud, dumb creatures. They may not be cuddly, but they’re making our cats come in with fewer ticks, making us great fertilizer for our gardens, giving us awesome eggs and making it unnecessary to mow my backyard. And you know what? It really is easy! I’ll update along the way and let you know if our opinion still stands.

Are you a backyard hen-raiser? Got other early tips you can provide? Let’s hear ‘em!

Photo Credit: Keith McDuffee, CliqueClack

2 Responses to “Are backyard hens easy? – Adventures in Backyard Farming”

April 27, 2012 at 5:01 PM

My dad decided to get hens a year ago and he is hooked! He recently bought another half-dozen, although one turned out to be a rooster. Mind you, these are gourmet chickens as they apparently love spaghetti and fish soup leftovers!

May 28, 2012 at 1:39 AM

I can’t wait to read your next Backyard Farming post, Keith. This is fascinating stuff. Question – are the chickens able to stay out there in the winter?

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