Kylee Baumle lives and gardens with her chickens in Zone 5b where she writes her blog, Our Little Acre.

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Starting From Scratch with Backyard Chickens
by Kylee Baumle       #Birds

Chickens eat insect pests (including Japanese beetles), aerate the soil, ‘recycle’ kitchen scraps and their droppings are a natural fertilizer. Chickens and gardens really can grow together.


Chickens eat grass, but they love to scratch and peck to find insects and worms.

It was an exciting day when I was finally able to pick out my chicks at the farm store. These are the Buff Orpingtons and I got three of them.

Colored leg bands allow me to identify the chicks by name. The bands will also help in observing, if any of the chickens develop a problem.
The hens deserve a “red carpet,” don’t you think?

As a special treat, I give the hens dried mealworms, which they gladly eat from my hand. No, it doesn’t hurt when they grab them with their beaks.
Our eight hens enjoy a coop that’s designed to hold 12. The covered run provides protection from predators while allowing them to get some exercise.

Egg sizes can vary, especially when they first begin laying. The large one turned out to have a double yolk. 

When our neighbors’ chickens paid us an impromptu visit a few years ago, it was love at first sight. No one was more surprised than I was that from that day forward, I wanted some laying hens of our own. My husband? Not so much. In fact, he was so opposed to the idea that it was one of the few times he really put his foot down. He said, “NO CHICKENS.”

I didn’t really say much more about the chicken idea until a couple of years later, when that inner voice started screaming at me. I really wanted chickens. I began planning my strategy. 

Chickens are easy, right? And they feed you! They’re fun to watch, too. They provide fertilizer for the garden. But he was having none of it. He said, “They’ll wreck the grass in the run and it will be a muddy mess. We’ve already got enough animals to take care of. They’ll give you diseases. They’ll be expensive to maintain.”

Whatever.

Being a glass-half-full kind of gal, I argued my position and addressed some of the issues he was concerned about. The place where we’d keep them is always pretty muddy in the spring anyway. I’ll take care of the chickens. Chickens making us sick? Never heard of such a thing. And a bag of chicken feed costs just $11. I saw chickens in our future.

I mounted a full-on attack during the winter months leading into spring. I felt fairly certain I could convince him of the benefits of owning our own chickens, but there was one big issue to deal with: We’d need a coop.

I began pricing ready-made coops and though I felt they were a good value for the money, they were still more than I wanted to spend. I knew how handy my husband was with a hammer and a saw, so I found a nice coop plan online, showed it to him, and told him I’d help him build it. He was speechless.

To make a long story short, I was getting my chickens. We made a trip to the big box store for lumber and the other necessary items for constructing the coop, and we were on our way to becoming chicken owners.

Chicks in Spring

Spring is the time when hatcheries and farm stores have “Chick Days.” You can walk in the store and find cute little chicks, ready to take home and live the good life in your backyard. By now, it was May, and though the coop wasn’t yet finished, Chick Days nearly were. I knew I’d better get my chicks soon or I’d have to find another way to get them.

I took my mom with me and we went to the farm store, where we found a few chicks left. They were about a week old and luckily for me, they had two of the breeds I’d wanted to get. When deciding on the breeds, I had three requirements: cold hardy, good layers and a calm personality. Just a month before, I’d spoken at length with P. Allen Smith about this. Based on my own research and his recommendations, I picked five Silver Laced Wyandottes and three Buff Orpingtons.

There isn’t anything cuter than a baby chick, and I now owned eight of them! While the coop was being completed, we kept them in a large plastic storage tub in the greenhouse. We borrowed a neighbor’s warming light and used it on the few nights when the temperatures dipped low. 

They got chick starter feed and fresh water every day, while wood shavings in the bottom of the tub absorbed their droppings and gave them a soft place to sleep. Before the coop was finished, they grew so large that we had to give them free run of the greenhouse. 

But finally, the coop and the run were safely constructed so predators couldn’t get in. This was important, since we have hawks, raccoons, skunks, foxes and other wild animals in the area that would love a chicken dinner. We’d let the hens out to free-range in the yard periodically, but only when we could keep an eye on them.

By this time, the weather had turned really hot, and I was concerned that the chickens would have problems with the prolonged temperatures in the 90s F. Water is super important for chickens and I’d read they won’t drink it if they think it’s warmer than they are, so I changed their water several times a day, and we put a fan inside the coop at night, just to keep the air circulating.

Egg-cellent Fall

The chickens made it through the heat wave and after going through an “ugly duckling” stage, they started looking like hens instead of young chicks. I didn’t expect to see any eggs until mid-October, since most hens don’t begin laying until around the age of 5 to 6 months.

One day, as I was walking from the garden to the house and passed by the chicken coop, I noticed something laying in the bottom of the run. An egg! It was the middle of September and Pippa had given us our first egg! Two weeks later, Patty laid her first one, and two weeks after that, a couple more joined in. By Thanksgiving, all eight hens were laying and we were averaging six to seven eggs a day.

More Light in Winter

Just as all the hens began laying, the days were getting shorter. Since hens are sensitive to daylight in regard to laying, this meant that they would gradually “lay off” until they weren’t laying at all. That is, unless we provided extra light in the coop. We installed a caged 60-watt light bulb, which we put on a timer scheduled to come on at 3 a.m. and go off at daybreak. This allowed us to enjoy fresh eggs all winter long.

My reluctant husband now enjoys the chickens and especially likes the fresh eggs. He’s not willing to admit that getting chickens was a good thing, but I’ve not heard him complain about having them. However, I don’t think I’ll get that goat I was wanting…

Won’t Chickens Destroy a Garden?

Despite a chicken’s penchant for scratching and pecking, you can have chickens and beautiful gardens, too. According to Jessi Bloom, in her new book, Free-Range Chicken Gardens: How to Create a Beautiful, Chicken-Friendly Yard (Timber Press), good design, attractive fencing and barriers, and good flock management make it possible.

Chickens eat insect pests (mine love Japanese Beetles and tomato hornworms!), aerate the soil, and their droppings are a natural fertilizer. With a little effort and planning, chickens and gardens can grow together. 

For More Info…

Websites
•  www.backyardchickens.com
•  www.mypetchicken.com
•  www.urbanchickens.org
•  The Chicken Group on Facebook

Books
•  Free-Range Chicken Gardens: How to Create a Beautiful, Chicken-Friendly Yard by Jessi Bloom (Timber Press)
•  Chick Days: An Absolute Beginner’s Guide by Jenna Woginrich (Storey Publishing)
•  A Chicken in Every Yard: The Urban Farm Store’s Guide to Chicken Keeping by Hannah and Robert Litt (Ten Speed Press)
•  Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens by Gail Damerow (Storey Publishing)

Chicken Facts You Might Need to Know

•  A rooster isn’t needed for a hen to produce eggs. If you want baby chicks though, there’d better be one available.
•  There are only two colors of egg shells: blue and white. All other colors are added to the outside of the egg by the hen right before she lays them.
•  It takes 24 to 26 hours for a hen to produce a developed egg.
•  Chicks begin chirping while still inside the egg.
•  An immature rooster is called a cockerel; an immature hen is called a pullet.
•  The fear of chickens is called alektorophobia.
•  The average hen lives five to seven years, but can live up to 20 years. Most will continue to lay eggs all their lives, though not as often, as they age.
•  There is no nutritional difference between white eggs and brown eggs. 
•  Chickens “recycle” kitchen scraps and garden waste. Add their manure to your compost pile or aged manure directly to your garden.

 

A version of this article appeared in a May/June 2012 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Kylee Baumle.

 

Posted: 08/29/12   RSS | Print

 

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