Henpecked city dwellers dote on their backyard broods
By Carole Gieseke
Originally published in the spring 2015 issue of VISIONS
Ed Moran is cleaning chicken poop off of his back patio, a space he power-washed less than an hour ago.
“Welcome to the world of urban chickens,” he says, laughing. Moran (’99 horticulture) is part of a growing trend of city dwellers who keep a small flock of laying hens in their backyards.
“I keep tabs on the website http://www.backyardchickens.com,” says Christa Hartsook (A) (’98 Jlmc), a small-farms specialist for ISU Extension and Outreach. “In 2007 they started a small forum with 50 members. Three years later they were up to 50,000 members. Today’s membership is more than 300,000.”
Moran fell into chicken ownership quite by accident: The home he bought in a quiet Ames neighborhood had a small chicken operation in the backyard.
“I inherited chickens with the house,” he said. “It never crossed my mind to do this before.”
But Moran, like so many others, has embraced his backyard brood. Urban chicken enthusiasts build elaborate chicken habitats, obsess over the best mix of feed, debate chicken breeds, and celebrate the fresh, daily eggs they collect right outside their back doors. Motivation for starting a backyard flock can vary.
“Chickens represent a safe and small enterprise for people to begin in a backyard,” says Hartsook, who raises poultry herself. “Chickens don’t require large amounts of
space, are inexpensive, and are family friendly.”
Last spring, Amy Feller (L)(’97 transportation & logistics / German) got four chickens
as a gift for her birthday. “I’ve always wanted chickens,” she said. “I have at least 10 friends who have chickens.” Feller keeps the hens in a coop in her yard in New Braunfels, Texas, not far from San Antonio.
Torey Looft (PhD ’12 microbiology) and his wife, Sandra, an academic adviser in ISU’s
World Languages and Cultures Department, wanted their two young children to see where food comes from.
“My grandparents had chickens, and I loved the baby chicks,” Sandra said. “I wanted to recreate that for my kids.”
Before embarking on their chicken project, the Loofts watched a documentary about urban chickens at Wheatsfield, a local food co-op in Ames. That made it more real – and exciting.
They bought a chicken coop crafted by Iowa State architectural design students, one of 20 sold at an auction in fall 2013 as part of a student design-build project. The structures had to meet the specific needs of chickens: space to live and space to range, a place to rest and a place to lay eggs, shade from the sun and shelter from the cold.
The heritage-breed hens in the Loofts’ backyard – the speckled Ameraucana, Rhode Island Reds, Buff Orpingtons, and New Hampshire Red – lay five or six eggs each day, enough to provide eggs for the family – with some to spare.
“We give the eggs as peace offerings to our neighbors, for having the chickens,” Torey
“It’s been a great way to meet my neighbors,” Moran agreed. “If I need anything, I can always give them a dozen eggs. There’s that community aspect.”
Carole Gieseke is the editor of VISIONS.
How to raise backyard chickens
By Andy Larson
What’s the first thing I should do before deciding to raise backyard chickens?
First, see if it’s legal. As the level of interest in raising backyard poultry continues to rise, more and more municipalities are either enforcing old ordinances pertaining to the keeping of “livestock” within city limits, or drafting new ordinances. You may need to apply for a permit. Second, in the interest of keeping the peace in the neighborhood, it would be worth talking to close neighbors about your idea of getting backyard chickens.
What are the main benefits of raising backyard chickens?
The eggs! They’re delicious and nutritious, you know where they came from and how the birds were treated, and they make great gifts for the neighbors who are tolerating your chicken habit! A close second would be the companionship and learning opportunities for your family, especially the kids. They get to learn how to raise a pet up from a baby (or even an egg!), the daily routine of chores and egg-gathering, and how to cook with food they have raised themselves.
How much initial financial investment should I expect?
At the most basic, adult chickens need a feeder, a waterer, and a decent coop with nest box and roost. A good gravity feeder with a grill on the trough (to prevent wasted feed) will probably run you $25. A waterer with a heating element in the base (to keep your water from freezing in winter) will probably cost you $35-40. Then you need to buy the feed itself, which will probably run $12-15 per 50-lb bag at the local farm supply store.
The chicks themselves only cost a couple bucks apiece, but if you are going to brood day-old chicks (which most people do) you are going to need a chick feeder, a no-drown waterer, and a heat lamp with a red bulb to keep those little fluff balls at 90+ degrees Fahrenheit for the first couple of weeks. None of these things are too pricey, probably $4-7 each.
All told, if you already have a big doghouse or small garden shed that you can retrofit into a coop, you can start out in the chicken business for $100. However, many do-it yourselfers do tend to spend much more.
How much time will I need to spend each day tending to the flock?
It’s literally only minutes a day: five to seven minutes in the morning to open the chicken door and give a little feed and water, another five to 10 minutes over lunch or after work to gather the day’s eggs and watch the birds for a minute to make sure everyone looks happy and healthy, and finally a minute or two at night to close the door to the coop and keep the girls safe from predators. Add in a coop controller to open and close the door, and your daily time investment is even lower.
However, there will be days when things take more time, like when you have to scoop the dirty litter out of the coop and into the compost pile, replacing it with fresh shavings. Or if one of the girls is acting unhealthy and you have to diagnose the illness.
Is there a downside to raising backyard chickens?
Sure. It’s really hard to lose one (or all) of your chickens, whether it’s due to predators, disease, or simply that your birds eventually get too old to lay productively and you can’t justify the cost of keeping them around. The other downside to backyard chickens
is that they limit your ability to leave for extended periods of time, because they need daily attention. Keep your neighbors happy, and they may be willing to chicken-sit.
Will the chickens become pets? Is it OK to name them?
My personal rule is to never name my chickens because a chicken with a name crosses the line from livestock to pet, and it just makes end-of-life issues that much harder. But there are many chickens with names out there, which is fine if your primary purpose of keeping them is to have additional pets. Just remember that dogs and cats tend to be on a different plane than chickens; it’s hard to find poultry vets, and you’re probably not going to go to the same financial and emotional lengths to save a chicken as you would a dog. As such, you and your family have to be prepared to experience the death of a chicken.
How long do the chickens live? How long will they lay eggs? What happens to them after they stop laying?
Chickens are likely to be very efficient producers of good-quality eggs for their first couple of laying cycles. After that, the eggs starting getting fewer and further between, with reduced quality, until laying tapers off altogether. A chicken can still live well beyond active laying, but you have to value them for either their manure or their companionship in order to justify keeping them around. Otherwise, it’s time to pull out your favorite recipe for chicken soup.
Where do I buy the baby chicks? How old will the chickens be before they start laying eggs?
Buy your chicks from a reputable hatchery that carries the breed(s) of chicken you want, will vaccinate your chicks before they ship, and is willing to answer your questions when you need an expert to troubleshoot. Your birds are going to be five to six months old, depending on the breed, before they lay their first eggs.
How do I determine which breed to choose?
If your goal is to have maximum feed efficient egg production, you are probably going to be looking at one of the hybrid breeds, like Red Stars or Black Stars, or at one of the more productive heritage breeds, like the Rhode Island Red. Many hobby producers choose dual-purpose breeds that can be good for both eggs and meat – Orpingtons, Wyandottes, Australorps, etc. Some people really love chickens that have beautiful coloration or rare characteristics, and they often choose a showy variety which might include Polish with their tufted heads, Cochins with their feathered feet, Frizzles with their almost curly feathers, or Araucanas with their funny beards and blue-green eggs If you live in the Midwest, you are going to want chickens that can tolerate both extreme heat and severe cold.
What should I feed my chickens?
Chickens tend to perform best on a premixed complete feed ration from a feed supplier or farm store. These are primarily comprised of corn and soybeans as well as specific vitamins, minerals, and amino acids that chickens need to be healthy and high-performing. Chickens are omnivorous, and a backyard chicken producer can certainly give them unspoiled food scraps from the house as a treat, but it can’t be their whole diet.
What about the coop and the run? How big do these need to be – and how is the best way to approach building them?
It’s best to locate your coop in a place that is high and dry (think about water flow and ponding during heavy rains or snow melt), has a clear line of sight from your house, and is not right on your property line (just in case your neighbor is not as excited about your chickens as you are). Your chicken coop ought to have about two square feet of floor space per bird housed. You’ll also need around 14-16 inches of roost space per bird; a large wooden dowel like a closet rod, or a 2×4 ripped in half, work nicely as a roost.
You should have organic litter material in the coop – pine shavings are good – for cleanliness, dryness, and ease of cleaning. You should have one nest box for every 4-5 chickens. Nest boxes should be 12″x12″x12″ with a slanted roof to prevent roosting. Raise them off the floor but not higher than your roosts; have a bar for the birds to land on before they step in and a toe board to keep the bedding material in.
South-facing windows with an overhang are great for maximum light and also some passive warming in the winter. Coops can’t be drafty in the winter, but there has to be air exchange, so even if your windows don’t open, you’ll have to have vents to let fresh air in. Just make sure to cover all vent and window openings with hardware cloth to exclude predators; don’t use chicken wire because, despite the name, it tends not to be strong enough and the holes are too big. If you insulate your coop, make sure the insulation itself is covered over by some other building material because chickens love to eat insulation.
Will I save money on eggs by raising chickens?
Most people don’t. They spend too much on the coop and equipment, or they don’t factor in their costs of production, and the payback period to recoup their investment starts to get pretty long. At the backyard scale, saving on groceries should not be the primary motivation for keeping chickens.
How do I protect my chickens from predators?
You build your coop like Fort Knox, and you keep your chickens in there at night when the raccoons, opossums, coyotes, etc. tend to be the most active. Anything with sharp teeth and a backbone tends to be pretty interested in getting a taste of your flock. I don’t like to have openings bigger than a dime when my chicken coop is all closed up, and if I do I cover them with hardware cloth. Also, this is why I have splurged on automatic door closers that can be programmed to close the chicken door at night after they have come home to roost. You may even want to day-range your birds in a fenced-in chicken run. This probably doesn’t have to be as buttoned-down as your coop – materials like chicken wire or wildlife netting ought to suffice – but you’ll want to make the sides high enough to encourage the chickens to stay in and other beasties to stay out.
How many eggs should I expect per week?
Your best hybrid layer breeds, like the Red Stars and Black Stars, lay one egg every 25 hours or so, meaning that in an average week you can expect seven eggs from each chicken as long as they have adequate nutrition, good health, and minimal stress.
Can I keep my chickens outdoors during the winter? Will they continue to lay eggs during the winter?
Your chickens can certainly day-range outdoors during the winter, but I’d prefer to see them have an inside place, like a coop, to roost at night for protection from both the elements and predators. The coop doesn’t really have to be warm, but it should be above freezing, usually using heat lamps with red bulbs. You can buy thermostatically controlled electrical outlets that will turn your heat lamps on when the coop temperature falls below 35 degrees, and turn them off again when the temp goes above 45 degrees.
Also, chickens are very photoperiod sensitive and are naturally inclined to slow down laying as the days get shorter. If you want eggs consistently through the winter, it’s a good idea to provide supplemental light for a total of about 14 lighted hours per day. A compact fluorescent bulb on an outdoor timer inside the coop works great for this.
Andy, besides your terrific series of videos on YouTube that you made when you were with ISU Extension & Outreach, what are some other good resources for folks who are just starting out in the backyard chicken biz?
There are some good books on the basics of backyard chickens out there, including Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens, The Small-Scale Poultry Flock, and The Chicken
Whisperer’s Guide to Keeping Chickens, among others. There are also some periodicals that use authoritative authors, like Backyard Poultry Magazine. I like to get my information from university extension services because their material tends to be the most science-based and unbiased. The University of Maryland Extension has a great, concise publication called Raising Your Home Chicken Flock.
Of course, I would be remiss not to mention online forums, like BackyardChickens.com. Every backyard flock owner I know has been on here. User forums such as this tend to be a wealth of experience-based information from hobbyists and enthusiasts, but there is always the risk of bad information based on rumors or specific conditions that will not be relevant in your situation. Be a conscientious consumer of this type of information, and consider verifying its validity before betting the health and wellbeing of your flock on it.
Andy Larson (MBA ’08) is a local food systems and small farms educator at the University of Illinois Extension. He formerly held a similar position with Iowa State Extension and Outreach. He and his wife, Kate (MA /08 science education) raise chickens and children in northern Illinois.
Watch Andy Larson’s “How to raise backyard chickens” video series at www.youtube.com/user/uknowvideos produced by ISU Extension & Outreach.