Over the past year, I have noticed an increased interest in raising chickens arising all over the nation. Locally, KSL has published several articles recently about this phenomenon (see below) as has the Wall Street Journal (also below) and most prepper blogs. My family started keeping backyard chickens about four years ago and have had some good success. In this article we’ll summarize some of the benefits to raising chickens, what you’ll need to get started and some links to resources to help you out once you’ve got your flock.
Benefits to raising chickens
There are a number of benefits that people interested in backyard chickens generally cite. Some of the most cited benefits are below:
Fresh eggs have a noticeably brighter, more yellower or orange yolk. Fresh eggs have also been scientifically shown to be more nutritious and are reported to be better tasting than store bought eggs which are often several weeks old.
Research conducted by Mother Earth News compared eggs from 14 flocks across the United States. The study found that when compared to official U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) nutrient data for commercial eggs, free-range eggs contained:
- 1/3 less cholesterol
- 1/4 less saturated fat
- 3/2 more vitamin A
- Twice the omega-3 fatty acids
- Three times more vitamin E
- Seven times more beta carotene
- Four to six times more vitamin D
If you allow your chickens out in your yard, even occasionally you will find that they are great at helping control pest bugs and weeds. Chickens will eat most bugs and weeds such as ticks, fleas, ants, beetles, grasshoppers, fly larvae, grubs and slugs. Our chickens even once attacked a mouse that was unlucky enough to jump into the coop. Fortunately for the mouse, it managed to get out of the coop before being pecked to death. Be cautious however as many chicken breeds will also love to eat some of the plants in your garden. You don’t want to eliminate the pests at the expense of your crop.
Chicken droppings are great fertilizer for your garden. They are quite ‘hot’ though and need to be processed with compost or through another process and should not be applied directly to your plants or it could ‘burn’ them. To resolve this issue, many gardeners will add the droppings in to their compost in small quantities. This enriches the compost and distributes the nitrogen evenly.
You can raise chickens for meat, but generally meat birds are different breeds from egg producing breeds. Some egg producing breeds also grow large enough and in the right areas to be useful for egg production. You also shouldn’t forget that once an egg producer stops laying, they can still provide you with meat. Even the stringiest rooster can taste great in a chicken stew or after being bottled in a mason jar.
Teaching Responsibility to Children
Raising chickens can (some would argue should) be a family affair. Chickens need to be fed and watered daily, so assigning children to do these chores can help them develop a sense of responsibility. It can also reduce the psychological separation from our food supply that exists in modern day America. Knowing where your food comes from is the first step to learning how to produce it on your own and working towards being more self reliant. Isn’t that what we are trying to do?
What you’ll need
Perhaps it doesn’t need to be said, but obviously you will need chickens. There are a number of ways to obtain chickens. You can often source them locally (although seasonally) through IFA or other similar stores. Many people enjoy having exotic and fun looking chickens. There are many breeds available and the only way to get some of them is through mail order breeders. A simple search online will provide you with a long list of mail order chicken suppliers. Determine what breed you want then find a reputable supplier, either locally or via mail order.
When determining what breed you should get, the breed chart at BackYardChickens.com is a good place to start.
You chickens will needs someplace to stay warm and dry as well as a comfortable location to lay their eggs.
People raising backyard chicken are increasingly using Chicken Tractors, a smaller moveable coop that is great for a few chickens and is relatively inexpensive in terms of materials and construction time. Others prefer a more elaborate traditional coop some of which can be considered art (Art of the Chicken Coop: A Fun and Essential Guide to Housing Your Peeps). Another option is to allow your chickens to be completely Free Range. You will find that they will roost in the evening on railings, in trees, on fences or wherever they can get off the ground and huddle together. Here in Utah this can work well over the summer and for part of Spring and Fall. For Winter however you should have a way of keeping your chickens warm so a chicken coop or shelter of some sort will be needed. Amazon offers a number of books on building chicken coops from complete plans, to tips and tricks, to a Dummies book on building coops.
Food and water
Most stores that sell chickens also sell chicken scratch and a supplement for egg producing chickens. Scratch is generally a mixture of corn and other grains. The egg mixture is oyster shells plus other ingredients meant to deliver calcium to ensure strong egg shells. This may also assist chickens in laying more frequently but I haven’t personally noticed a difference. If your chickens are free range, or at least let out a few hours a day you will find that the amount of food you need to provide will be reduced. They will make it up with weeds, bugs, etc. Given the relatively small size of most yards today, you will still probably want to supplement some. Observe your chickens and their laying patterns to help you decide what and how much to supplement with store bought food or vegetable based table scraps.
You should also be aware that chickens drink a lot of water. You will need to ensure that they have easy access to water year round. In the dead of winter a heat lamp is also helpful in warming the chickens and keeping the water ice free, but depending on your exposure to cold weather you may need a dedicated heated water container.
Traditionally a number of other bird species have been raised traditionally in order to provide both meat and eggs for families. These are not as popular today for a number of reasons, both economic and practical.
Turkey – Turkeys produce about a third the number of eggs as a chicken, but have a lot more meat on them. It seems like these are more practical as meat birds. The primary value in their eggs seems to be in producing more turkeys. On a related note, most modern breeds of turkeys are produced as meat birds. They reach maturity quickly in order to harvest meat faster. This causes the turkeys to have a short natural life span. Like meat chicken breeds, when they are ready to harvest for meat, they may be too large and top heavy to walk.
Duck – Ducks can be a good addition or substitute for chickens. Depending on the breed, (Khaki Campbells for example) ducks can produce an egg a day on average, much like many chicken breeds. Duck eggs are typically the same size as a large or extra large chicken egg and are higher in fat and cholesterol, but are also rich in Omega 3 fatty acids. A downside is that ducks require a bit more space and care. You will likely need a small wading pool or tub of water for them as well.
Geese – Geese generally lay for only a portion of the year, typically from late Spring to late Summer or early Fall. They do not lay reliably like most ducks and chickens although their eggs are larger. The true value in geese is in their ability to help maintain established orchards by eating young undesired saplings and through their use as alarm animals. Many cultures have used geese in place of dogs or other animals as they will immediately alert you to intruders.
Quail – Quail produce very small eggs, often daily. These eggs are prized by chefs for their rich flavor. Caring for quail is more difficult than the aforementioned species as they are more sensitive to heat and cold and thus must usually be raised indoors.