Keeping Chickens – Backyard or Barnyard: You can do this!


Keeping Chickens – Backyard or Barnyard: You can do this!

Some of you know that I grew up on a cattle ranch on the Mexican border in southeastern Arizona. A way of life I was so blessed to experience and have never forgotten.  We raised everything from chickens to cattle and most of our vegetables.  My mother was industrious and talked about sustainability before it became the buzzword we hear so much about today.  Having experienced that type of rural life never really leaves your soul, and I think I have been trying to get back to it for as long as I can remember.

My poor husband thought I was crazy when I told him we could easily keep a few chickens at our home in Scottsdale, AZ.   Unfortunately, he wasn’t sold on the idea.  It wasn’t until we moved to our farm in Virginia that I was able to show him first-hand the benefits of keeping our chickens.  Believe me, it’s not just about the eggs!

Whether you live on a working farm like we do or in the city, keeping chickens is something almost anyone can do. The place to start is with your local municipality and HOA (if you belong to one), to make sure chicken keeping is allowed.  Some areas have limitations regarding the number and/or type of chickens you can keep. Unfortunately, roosters have received a bad rap and a lot of areas don’t allow you to have them.  I don’t think they present any more issue than a neighbor’s barking dog, but I am not in charge of this one.  In case you didn’t know it, roosters aren’t essential to getting eggs.

Once you determine you can have chickens, the next step is researching the type of chickens you want to start off with and making sure they have adequate, safe housing. By selecting the right breed for your climate, you will avoid some of the issues that chickens face if they aren’t well suited for the cold or heat.  Some of my favorite breeds are Australorp, Buff Orpingtons, and Red Sexlinks (these chickens can be sexed at birth based on their coloring – this trait does not carry on to future generations. Consult a reputable breeder and find chickens that are healthy, docile, and good layers.  I recommend getting chickens that are vaccinated. In my experience, it isn’t an absolute guarantee that they won’t get sick but the precaution is worth a little additional cost. It won’t be long until you are on your way to becoming a chicken-keeper!

Chicks or Pullets?  If you are new to chicken-keeping, the idea of raising adorable baby chicks might be enticing.   I can tell you I have walked out of the feed store many times with ten little chicks in a box only to get home and realize that they don’t stay little for long.  If you have the type of set up that will allow you to raise chicks it can be a lot of fun and a great learning experience for kids.  My mudroom has been home to many baby chicks, ducks and goslings over the years, but they do need special care and a warm dry environment until they are old enough to go out in the coop.  You must also keep in mind that chicks don’t eat the same food as adult chickens.

Another thing to consider is that depending on the breed, chickens don’t start laying until they’re between five to seven months old, so you have to wait for those fresh eggs too.  If you want to start out with a few young chickens or Pullets as they are called (female chicken under one year old) that might be an excellent way to get into chicken keeping and tackle raising chicks after you are more experienced.  I think it is good to start out with a few chickens and then based on your needs and space; you can always get a few more.  Remember most breeds lay an average of an egg a day for part of the year so three to four chickens can provide an abundant amount of eggs a week for the average family.

There are a multitude of books on how to build your coop, and lots of places are selling chicken coops if you aren’t feeling too DIY.  I recommend starting at your local co-op or feed supply store. A few crucial things to consider when selecting a coop are ventilation and predator-proofing– they’re critical to the health and safety of your chickens.  It’s heart-breaking to lose any animal, and chickens are pretty defenseless creatures. You may not have to worry about hawks, foxes, weasels, coyotes or raccoons as we do, but dogs can be just as much of a risk if they haven’t been raised to respect your chickens. 

Other important areas to focus on are the type of feed your chickens will need depending on their age and stage, finding a local veterinarian to help you should one of your chickens get sick, and making sure you have someone qualified to watch them when you vacation.  Keep an eye on what treats your chickens can eat because some foods are poisonous, if you aren’t composting, then your chickens can be a great way to help out with your vegetable trimmings. Avocado and raw potatoes are just two of the foods you shouldn’t give to chickens.  I keep a list of poisonous foods handy just to double-check.  You should also check around your garden to make sure your plants aren’t poisonous if your chickens have access to them.  Your local agricultural extension office can help you identify a list of safe plants as well as a lot of on-line resources.

Chickens may not be the most intelligent fowl, but they are amazing to interact with, and their curiosity is limitless. They have a definite hierarchy, and it won’t take you long to see them establish a pecking order. I love spending time with my chickens. It’s an excellent place for me to sit and chill when I am feeling stressed. Knowing what goes into the eggs I am eating and selling to my neighbors and friends is another benefit I get from raising chickens.

As a disclaimer – I am not a veterinarian and don’t consider myself a chicken expert.  The recommendations I am passing along are based on my experiences, good and bad, in keeping over 50 chickens here at The Farm.  I am continually learning about caring for my chickens and happy to pass along my knowledge if you find it helpful.  With so many people keeping chickens these days, there are great resources available.  You can do this!

Camilla Strongin