Friday, February 7, 2014

Things to consider before keeping chickens!

First and foremost: Your local ordinances regarding livestock and your neighbors. Some places don’t allow chickens at all. Some have limits on how many you can keep. Some have rather strict rules requiring that coops be kept x number of feet from homes. Save yourself the heartache and call your city to find out what the rules are. You may also need to check with your Home Owners Associations.

Where I live I can have up to 15 chickens. However, my backyard is small and it takes an extra effort to keep my neighbors from being unhappy about the aroma. Chickens can get whiffy, especially if they have been cooped up (heh) due to bad weather. I don't know how they do it but after a while, they don't smell like just poultry. I swear there are shades of bear in there. One of the many surprises of chicken keeping is that several of my girls are quite vocal when they lay. I love hearing the Egg Song, but I wonder if my neighbors feel the same. I can easily hear them in the house, but then again, I can hear the neighbor’s puppy too, and she barks throughout the day. Sharing eggs with your neighbors goes a long way towards keeping them from being annoyed. I am allowed to keep a rooster, but I actually like my neighbors. So, unless I find a tiny roo with the world’s smallest crow, no roos for me.

Other considerations include: Will they be pets or livestock? The feed bill. The poo. Also, keeping your chickens safe from predators.
Getting into this backyard chicken keeping hobby, I knew that they would be pets that lay eggs. If it has a face and a name, if I held it as a wee baby and it has eaten from my hand, I am not eating it. That’s never going to happen. Because my chickens are pets and not livestock, this affects my approach towards their care. For one thing, they can live over ten years, but might only lay eggs regularly for the first three or four. I have to prepare for having a flock of elderly hens that won’t contribute to the egg-laying.

See this face? Not only would she sleep in my hand as a chick, if I hold her now as a grown chicken, her eyelids start to droop and she has to try very hard to stay awake. There is no way she is going in my soup pot!

A big surprise to me was how much grown chickens can eat. They eat all day, and to lay properly they need the specific ratios of various nutrients available in layer feed. The feed bill will be huge. My four girls go through a 40 pound bag every two months or so. If you are feeding them organic feed, that will be $30. Add to that calcium supplements, grit, treats, etc., and suddenly the organic eggs for nearly $5 a carton don’t look unreasonable. However, I look at it this way. Our chickens' ancestors didn't lay anywhere near as many eggs. Because of breeding and nutrition, my girls are turning out nearly an egg a day. That takes a huge toll on their systems and they deserve the proper feed to keep it up and still be healthy!

Another surprise with chickens was the waste. So much POO! As I mentioned previously, I have kept about every type of small animal. I thought I knew about poo clean up. I was wrong. Chickens poo constantly. They poo huge amounts while sleeping, which I confess seems darned strange to me. It is imperative to keep the living area as clean and dry as possible to keep the flock healthy and this is a challenge. On the other hand, I have been composting chicken poo since last May and last year’s garden went nuts. I live on clay and adding the shavings and the poo directly to areas of poor soil has done wonders to improve the moisture retention and fertility of my soil. I can’t wait until it is warm enough to garden. Anyway, planning ahead for easy clean up of your coop and run will make you and your chickens happier in the long run.

There are so many other things to consider, and I may try to cover more on another day. However, before starting your coop and/or run, plan ahead for keeping your flock safe. It is much easier to predator proof ahead of time and prevent heartache later. I live near a national park and quite often see critters that would be happy to have a chicken snack. Even if you live in an area where you don't see coyotes or other larger predators, many a chicken owner has lost beloved chooks to neighborhood dogs. I was fortunate to run across an excellent blog post by The Chicken Chick on how to predator proof a run. I decided to use hardware cloth on all six sides of the coop and run and haven't had any problems yet. Please remember that chicken wire is to keep chickens in, but it won't keep predators out. I also used her method with washers and screws in the corners when I realized that staples were coming loose and leaving gaps along the bottom. Another security feature in my backyard is motion detector lighting. The down side is that several times a week I find myself outside with a broom in hand hoping that this isn't the night that I find a coyote or a bobcat...

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