We have a guest writer today. Nathan and his family keep chickens in their backyard in the suburbs of Portland OR. They have been at it for about 9 months now, and were willing to share some of what they have learned. You can see more of their adventures with chickens, urban gardening, raising bilingual children, and xerascaping on their blog Five Chickens.
When you think about backyard chickens it is easy to imagine horrors. A pervasive stench, angry neighbors, rats, and the mess of a bird killed by raccoons come to mind. We have been chicken owners for 6 months now and have managed to avoid or at least minimize these problems. For the most part chicken ownership has been a fun adventure. We love watching our curious birds turn kitchen scraps into eggs and garden compost. The keys for us are, 1) prepare, 2) set up a system, and 3) enjoy.
Ahead of getting our birds our aim was to over prepare. We didn’t even come close but we were super glad for every bit of preparation we did do.
Here is what worked for us:
Talking to friends and acquaintances. We discovered that there are chicken owners and former owners everywhere. As we have traveled this journey we have sought advice from friends many, many, times.
Reading all the chicken books in the local library. There are a lot of books out there. We got a nice foundation from them. Building the coop and tractor (more on tractors later) before the chickens arrived. Technically our tractor wasn’t done until the day after they arrived and the whole coop/tractor system evolved over the next two months, but having a place for them to go upon arrival was essential.
Getting chicks that were already a month old. I don’t think this was essential but it was nice to avoid the whole tiny baby phase. By the time we got them they were big enough to be outside in the June air. We didn’t have to mess with heat lamps or keeping them in the house.
If we were to do it again there are some things we would do differently. Here is where our preparation didn’t work:
We did not locate a feed store before we got our birds. We didn’t anticipate how difficult
this would be in our area. The feed stores all seem to be way out in the country. Imagine that. We didn’t have food for our chicks before they came home and with no feed store close it ended up being FIVE days before we got proper food for them. They ate dry instant oatmeal in the interim (I am not sure whether this is a recommended practice for one month old chicks but it got us through).
Get a chick waterer. We put their first water in a pie tin on the floor of the coop. They immediately soiled it and tipped it over.
Our original coop design had the chicken door at floor level with no threshold. There was
no way to keep the wood chips we used for bedding in. The chickens tracked them out as fast as I could put them in.
2) Set up a system
We have worked hard to set things up so we can get the most out of our chickens with a reasonable amount of work. Our system now requires 15 to 20 minutes of daily attention and a little more on weekends. Not bad by my way of thinking. The main thing we wanted from our chickens is eggs which they are producing nicely. Also important to us was healthy, clean chickens and a way to use their poop in enhance our garden soil. Here are the highlights of our system:
We use a combination coop and tractor. The tractor is a light wood frame covered top and sides with chicken wire and an open bottom. The tractor can be moved anywhere in the yard that we want the chickens to scratch.
In our system the coop is for sleeping and laying and the tractor is for eating and exercise. We keep the tractor up against the coop with doors matched up so the chickens have free access to both most of the time.
On sunny afternoons if we are home we move the tractor over a patch of weeds. The chickens get greens and we get weeding done. We use deep litter in the coop. So far this has worked to keep the smell minimal and makes clean up a snap. We brush off the roosts and either fluff up the litter or add a little new each day. The poop and litter slowly build up over time. We reworked our original coop so that it can accommodate up to 10 inches of deep litter. If things continue as they are we will need to dig the whole thing out about four times a year. The plan is to compost it when it comes out.
Semi-permanently we keep the tractor over a garden bed with the coop just off the bed. The plan is to rotate to a new bed about every three months. We hope the chicken poop will help us grow nice big vegetables down the road. We have just made one move so far as of October and haven’t tried to plant anything yet. We will this spring. We keep a container in the kitchen to capture all the food scraps that otherwise would have been thrown out. The chickens eat everything; vegetable peels, scrapings off of the dinner plates, leftovers that aren’t being eating by us. We find that we need to rinse our container off each time we empty it. It has
not worked to wash it with the dishes because it is usually full at that time. We supplement the kitchen scraps with pellets form the feed store. I put out food/water and do the cleaning in the evening when I get home from work (10 minutes or so).
I would gather eggs at this time too except my kids have usually already done it. Then once the birds are bedded down I come back out and put out the food/water for the morning (another 5 minutes). We use a light on a Christmas timer to keep the chickens laying. I guess chickens stop laying when the days get short in the winter. A light keeps them laying. The timer we use automatically senses when it is dusk and turns on the lights. It says on for a set number of hours. We have gradually increased the hours through the fall. We have tried to keep a total of 15 hours of light for them. We have added all our time in the evening and not bothered with light in the early morning. We use spring loaded rat traps. Yes, we have attracted rats. We have killed three so far. It seems this will be an ongoing part of raising chickens. Once I catch one it goes in the trash, trap and all. We hope that regular trapping will keep the number low and keep them out of the house.
We got into chickens for the eggs. We have stayed with them because they are very enjoyable. Here are some highlights:
Fresh eggs every day.
Satisfaction knowing that what was trash is now being turned into eggs and garden compost.
Great fun for kids. Chickens love bugs and kids love finding them.
Weeding done with no effort.
Hours of fun watching them scratch and chase and generally act like chickens.
With a little preparation and a thoughtful system you too can enjoy backyard chickens.
The book I would recommend is, Chicken Tractor: The Permaculture Guide to Happy Hens and Healthy Soil, by Andy W Lee & Patricia L Foreman
We’d love to hear about your chicken raising adventures too. Especially if you live in the city.
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