Backyard Chickens for Beginners: why owning chickens is easier than you think

Article written by: Chhaya Kolavalli - Our Local Food Intern & Anthropology Graduate Student at KU
Photo courtesy of Meryl Carver - Lawrence, KS
   Until fairly recently, the concept of keeping a small flock of chickens in your backyard was familiar and commonplace.  In fact, up until the 1930s, many urbanites kept a few chickens in their backyards as a complement to their kitchen gardens.  But as industrial agriculture grew, the practice of urban chicken raising diminished and the concept of families keeping a few chickens in their backyards grew to be foreign, and more often than not, against city ordinances.
   But the recent "urban chicken movement" has made backyard chickens legal again in many cities, and growing numbers of chicken enthusiasts have made many areas of the U.S. chicken-friendly once more.  Small backyard flocks of chickens are welcome in a growing number of Kansas cities. Chicken-friendly cities and neighbors, and the wealth of chicken-raising knowledge circulating online, in print, and among Kansans, makes now the perfect time to start your own flock.
Photo courtesy of Meryl Carver - Lawrence, KS
   Aside from being great entertainment and affectionate pets, chickens provide a wide range of benefits for you and your backyard.  Chickens are a great way to help kids learn about where their food comes from.  Many people start a backyard flock simply for the fresh, healthy, better-than-store-bought eggs!  A hen will lay about six eggs per week, depending on breed, age, and health.  In addition to eggs, education, and entertainment, chickens will also provide you with free pest control, and will gladly help weed your garden.  As if that weren't enough, chicken manure is rich with nitrogen and makes a great fertilizer.   


 
   Chicken raising may at first seem daunting - especially to urban and suburban folk who have had limited access to farm animals - but it's much easier than you think!  Here's what you'll need to consider before bringing your chickens home:


Getting started:

-Find out if it's legal.
Photo courtesy of Meryl Carver - Lawrence, KS
  Don't make any investments before you check your city's laws and ordinances regarding chickens.  Most cities will specify the maximum number of birds you can keep in relation to your property area, and may regulate coop size and distance from other houses.  Many cities will not allow you to keep roosters - but they aren't necessary for your hens to produce eggs anyway!  Look up the relevant laws and ordinances by asking a city clerk or checking your municipal code online.  BackYardChickens.com has a great reference tool for several Kansas cities: http://www.backyardchickens.com/search.php?action=disp&type=Wiki&containerIds%5B%5D=3&search=kansas


-Decide what your goals are.  The breeds of chicken you decide to raise will depend on what you want to do with them.  While many people raise chickens as pets and entertainment, fresh eggs or backyard-raised meat might be a priority for you. If you decide to raise chickens for meat, local farms may help you butcher the animals. For example, Bauman's Cedar Valley Farm in Garnett, Kansas has a USDA certified processing facility and will slaughter chickens for you: http://www.kcfoodcircle.org/growermembers/baumans-cedar-valley-farms/
Most, however, choose to raise backyard chickens for their eggs and companionship, rather than meat.  In this case, choose friendly breeds that are good egg-layers.  Motherearthnews.com conducted a member survey of the best backyard breeds, which can be found here: http://www.motherearthnews.com/Sustainable-Farming/Best-Chicken-Breeds-For-Backyard-Flocks.aspx.  Some hardy and friendly backyard breeds, as chosen by Barbara Kilarski in "Keep Chickens! Tending Small Flocks in Cities, Suburbs, and Other Small Spaces" are:

·       Black Australorp
·       Buff Orpington
·       Plymouth Barred Rock
·       Rhode Island Red

·       Silver-laced Wyandotte
·       White Wyandotte
·       New Hampshire Red
·       Sex Links (hybrid birds)


Photo courtesy of Meryl Carver - Lawrence, KS

-Get a coop and supplies.  While a coop is certainly the biggest expense involved in chicken raising, it doesn't need to be fancy or expensive!  Chickens need protection from predators and harsh weather, so your coop should be built - or bought - with this in mind.  Renee Caldwell, "Kansas City Urban Chickens Examiner," has written a great article that explains the important aspects of a chicken coop: http://www.examiner.com/article/urban-chickens-101-10-important-features-a-chicken-coop. 

Photo courtesy of Meryl Carver - Lawrence, KS
If you have the time and resources, building a coop yourself may be the cheapest option.  Motherearthnews.com has quite a few step-by-step coop building guides that can make construction easy, even for a novice: http://www.motherearthnews.com/eggs/resources.aspx#CC.  If you're not that handy, there are plenty of premade coops for sale online, and pre-used, reasonably priced coops are frequently offered on craigslist. 
Your supply list will be minimal after you've acquired a coop - you'll need chicken feed, a waterer, and flooring material for the coop, among other things.  If you decide to start with chicks you'll need to get them during a naturally warm time of year or have a brooder set up… but this can be as cheap and simple as a cardboard box and a light bulb-heat source. 

Photo courtesy of Meryl Carver - Lawrence, KS
-Buy your chicks or pullets.
  Now that you've done your research and gotten your supplies, it's time to get some chickens.  Keep in mind that chickens are social creatures - you should plan on keeping at least three so that they won't get lonely!  If you decide to raise chicks, do some reading on chick-care first - BackYardChickens.com has a quick guide: http://www.backyardchickens.com/a/how-to-raise-baby-chicks-the-first-60-days-of-raising-baby-chickens.  Alternatively, you can start with pullets - fully-grown young hens. 
Chicks and pullets can be bought through craigslist or local classifieds, local hatcheries and feed stores, and online hatcheries.  If you decide to order online, be aware that there will likely be a minimum order requirement - often 20-25 chicks.  Buying collaboratively with fellow chicken-enthusiasts can help you bypass this problem.  For eastern Kansans Cackle Hatchery, in Lebanon Missouri, may be near enough for a drive: http://www.cacklehatchery.com/, but many other hatcheries can be found in MotherEarthNews.com's hatchery directory: http://www.motherearthnews.com/directories/Hatchery-Directory.aspx?directory=116150.  

Photos courtesy of Meryl Carver - Lawrence, KS

  Once you've got everything set up, chicken care and upkeep is minimal - they'll need just as much, maybe even less, attention than dogs, cats, or fish!  Basic daily chores will include feeding and watering, collecting eggs, and closing the hens in at night.  The coop will need to be cleaned at least once a week.  Other than that, you'll get to enjoy watching your hens and getting to know their personalities.  For more information on how to get started, check out the resources below: 

Useful resources for beginners:


Keep Chickens! Tending Small Flocks in Cities, Suburbs, and Other Small Spaces, by Barbara Kilarski:  http://www.amazon.com/Chickens-Tending-Flocks-Cities-Suburbs/dp/1580174914/ref=sr_1_11?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1344185302&sr=1-11&keywords=urban+chicken+raising

City Chicks: Keeping Micro-flocks of Chickens as Garden Helpers, Compost Makers, Bio-recyclers, and Local Food Producers, by Patricia L. Foreman: http://www.amazon.com/City-Chicks-Micro-flocks-Bio-reyclers-Producers/dp/0962464856/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1344192321&sr=1-3&keywords=urban+chicken+raising

A great web-resource with tons of information in the forums (also check out their "Learning Center" articles): http://www.backyardchickens.com/

An exhaustive guide to many different breeds of chickens: http://www.ithaca.edu/staff/jhenderson/chooks/chooks.html

An informative series of articles on raising urban chickens, written by Renee Caldwell for Examiner.com:  http://www.examiner.com/urban-chickens-in-kansas-city/renee-caldwell

[*A big thank you to Lauren Moore and Meryl Carver, chicken enthusiasts in Lawrence, Kansas, for sharing their first-hand chicken raising experience with me!]

Photo courtesy of Meryl Carver - Lawrence, KS

Photo courtesy of Meryl Carver - Lawrence, KS by Our Local Food Kaw River Valley

Comments

ReneeSCaldwell 1 year, 11 months ago

What a lovely link-back! We have a burgeoning population of poultry enthusiasts here in Lawrence, and good support from regional feed mills, local feed stores, and our local government. I've heard many folks say that they love living next-door or near chicken-kissers because of the great perks.

This is a rewarding hobby and I encourage anyone interested to give it a whirl!

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kernal 1 year, 11 months ago

Good article!

Topeka allows urbanites to have roosters, Lawrence only allows hens.

I would love to have some chickens, but my homeowners association doesn't allow it.

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blindrabbit 1 year, 11 months ago

Legalize roosters, outlaw barking dogs. I'd much rather hear a 5 A.M. rooster than some 24 hour barking dog.

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LilySiebert 1 year, 10 months ago

Chickens are the best! The entertainment factor should not be overlooked. Plus the routine of letting them out first thing in the morning is my favorite way to start a day. Get outside and have a laugh.

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