Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Why Keeping Chickens in the Backyard?

The achievement of a successful urban gardener can be summed up in growing vegetables and fruits for some. For others, fruits and vegetables are only the beginning of the experience.  The continued need to expand and increase the natural food produced at home can lead to include some livestock. One of the easiest steps in adding animals to an urban setting is by keeping a few chickens.  Once a sufficient preparation and education is done, it is easy to discover some of the great benefits chickens bring: they are great foragers, provide wonderful eggs, and are environmentally friendly.
            Before jumping into the adventure of keeping chickens, it is important to check the codes with the city and/or homeowners associations – HOA. Some cities allow chickens and some do not, for those that allow them, an HOA can overturn the decision by imposing a different set of rules.  Then in some cities, further restrictions may apply such as the number of chickens that can be kept on the property, whether roosters are or are not allowed, and the location and size of the enclosure.  In any case, if chickens are allowed, it is always a good idea to first check with the neighbors to ensure they are fine with the idea of living next to them.   One of the best ways is to entice them with the promise of fresh eggs!
            The next normal step would be to get educated and understand all the different facets involved in keeping chickens.  Having chickens can be an easy “hobby” and can turn into a wonderful experience if done right from the beginning.  It is important to be well prepared prior to getting baby chicks.  Some non-profit organizations specialized in gardening and urban farming, local farms and/or, local feed stores may offer comprehensive classes to educate people about caring for chickens, from getting started with baby chicks to building and designing a chicken coop.  Guidebooks and online forums are also great resources to have for quick references and additional information. 
            Once educated, but prior to getting chickens, it is important to plan for proper housing and protection for them.  The coop, where the chickens sleep, lay eggs, and roost, can be bought pre-made or can be built from scratch.  If deciding to build a chicken coop from scratch, it is a good idea to know the basics: each standard size chicken would require a minimum of 3-4 sq. ft. of floor space inside and an additional approximate 10 sq. ft. for an enclosed run (Taylor, 268), when in doubt, the bigger the better. Chickens can adapt to confine spaces but seem to be at their best when given more space; more space will also avoid too much pecking between chickens. Additionally, it is good to keep the coop well ventilated but draft free. Chickens need good air circulation to stay healthy but do not tolerate drafts very well.  And finally, it is necessary to keep both the coop and the run rodents and predators resistant; either by lining the bottom of the floor with hardware cloth or by extending the sides of the run with an additional foot of hardware cloth and covering it with dirt and rocks (Litt, 80-82) and by closing the top of the run with wire or roofing material. Chickens tend to be the target of lots of predators from the ground to the air. Once all the preparation is done, it is time to get chickens and start the adventure.
            Chickens can be the perfect addition to an urban backyard.  They are great foragers; nature gave them beaks and claws and their purpose seems to be digging and eating from dawn to dusk.  They “can make a substantial dent in the population of unwanted garden, pests, such as slugs and tomato-chomping caterpillars, while having little effect on populations of most beneficial ones, like ladybugs.” (Litt, 8).  Although, they are a wonderful match to keep the pest population down, if left free to roam around the garden, they can also cause some substantial damage in very little time to areas they may not be wanted.  In this case, it is best to protect parts of the yard (for example, the vegetable corner) by using some sort of fencing (Luttman, 16).  Allowing chickens to free range in the garden not only benefits the garden itself, but also gives them all the additional nutrients needed to create the most wonderful eggs.
                Eggs will be rediscovered when keeping chickens in the backyard.  Knowing what goes into the chickens can be essential in order to appreciate the high quality of their eggs.  From local organic feed to kitchen scraps, the result is far superior eggs compared to store bought eggs. An egg testing done by Cheryl Long and Tabitha Alterman in 2007 “compared to official U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) nutrient data for commercial eggs, eggs from hens raised on pasture may contain:  1/3 less cholesterol, 1/4 less saturated fat, 2/3 more vitamin A, 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids, 3 times more vitamin E, and 7 times more beta carotene”.  Such information demonstrates not only that having chickens in the backyard is beneficial for a health point of view, but also shows that keeping happy chickens simply provide better eggs.  The eggs have proven to be firmer, tastier, and richer than those bought at the store.
            One of the last components of keeping chickens in the backyard is that it also benefits the environment.  Chickens do not need to be given chemically produced feed filled with antibiotics that impact the environment; instead, they can sustain themselves on most of the kitchen scraps supplemented by local organic feed.  Controlling what goes into a chicken has multiple consequences, first by knowing what goes back into one’s body (via the eggs) and second by controlling what goes back into the garden (via the manure).  Chickens in the backyard have great benefits in reducing the amount of waste produced in a household as well.  Providing chickens with food scraps help supplement their diet and lower the amount of leftover.  The manure produced by the chickens is a wonderful fertilizer highly sought after by organic gardeners, “In fact, of all manures, chicken waste is the most effective as a fertilizer.” (Litt, 127) The manure composts a lot faster than regular waste would, so it can be used a lot sooner,  which gives the opportunity for the vegetable garden to get some of the best nutrients year round. It is a win-win situation.
                As Uncle Sam stated in 1918, “two hens in the backyard for each person in the house will keep a family in fresh eggs” (Mather, Pars. 2), keeping chickens in the backyard may surpass anyone’s expectations.  One might discover great abilities for design and construction by providing them with a “perfect habitat”. Chickens will become the backyard best friends when it comes to managing the garden, they will provide endless wonderful breakfast, they will deliver some of the best fertilizers for the vegetable garden, but best of all they are great pets.  Each breed and each chicken has a wonderful unique personality that is sure to provide everlasting entertainment.

Works Cited
Litt Robert, and Hannah Litt. A Chicken in Every Yard. New York: Ten Speed Press,       2011. Print
Long, Cheryl, and Tabitha Alterman. “Meet Real Free-Range Eggs.” Mother Earth News            Oct./Nov. 2007: n.pag. Web 05 Nov. 2012    <          Healthier-Eggs.aspx>
Luttman, Rick, and Gail Luttman.Chickens in your Backyard A Beginner’s Guide.           Emmaus, Pa.: Rodale, 1976. Print
Mather, Robin. “Uncle Sam Wants You to Raise Chickens.” Mother Earth News 18 Nov.             2011: n. pag. Web. 05 Nov. 2012  <     homesteader/uncle-sam-wants-you-to-raise-chickens.aspx>
Taylor, Lisa. Your Farm in the City. New York: Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, 2011.            Print

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