This summer our family took up the practice — or should I say the “experiment” — of gardening with chickens. A Flagstaff landscaping contractor friend of mine, Chris, and I were chatting when he informed me that he was getting backyard chickens this year, specifically an order of 25 “Rainbow Layer” hens from McMurray’s Hatchery (a variety of breeds including high production white egg layers as well as brown egg layers. Our local Olsen’s chicks were already gone for the season). We picked up our modest order of eight chicks just after Father’s Day. My two boys, ages three and five, had great fun naming them after Transformers; we have three “Bumblebees” (as it turns out, these are the high-production Pearl-White Leghorns), an orange “Ratchet,” multi-colored “Mudflap,” a speckled “Sideswipe” and “Ironhide,” and of course the well-known “Optimus Prime.” Despite the names, we’ve been lucky to have all hens; my landscaping friend was not quite as lucky and ended up with a rooster that proudly crowed at the crack of dawn from a young age, to the discontent of his city neighbors. You can guess his fate…and if not, well, Chris said it was the best chicken he ever ate.
What prompted me to get chickens was not so much their eggs (although we do enjoy them), but having them to support my organic gardening efforts. I use their manure in my compost and they happily hunt grasshoppers on our property as well eat the weeds. Unfortunately, they did nothing to deter the deer who partook in my beet greens just before harvest this year! For now, ours roam freely on our one-acre parcel, which allows them to scratch and peck for food constantly, as well as take dirt baths and perch in our pine trees. Once I start my gardening up again next season, however, I will either need to protect my vegetables and ornamental plants or contain the chickens in the fenced portion of our yard by clipping their wings (they easily fly over the 4-1/2′ fence).
If you decide to get chickens of your own, be sure to carefully consider the coop design as well as where they will spend their time out of the coop, whether it be in a run or a larger area of your yard. They will need a certain square footage (about two s.f. in the coop and four s.f. in the run for each chicken). There needs to be ventilation in the coop, and it needs to keep them warm in the winter and cool in the summer. For us this has been easily accomplished with two small upper windows, foam sheet insulation (which we later learned has to be covered up with oriented strand board, OSB, or they will peck at and eat it), a heat lamp, and locating the coop out of intensely sunny and extremely windy areas of our property.
Of course, they also need egg laying nests or boxes in their coop. We built 9″ wide x 9″ deep x 5″ high “cubbies” with outer ledges and filled them with straw. I was delighted to see our first egg appear on Halloween when the chickens were just four months old. We have since been getting two to four eggs daily, which I thought was pretty good considering their young age and colder temperatures. But I had quite the discovery just last week while cleaning up a pile of weeds left by the coop. When I turned over the wheelbarrow, I saw a huge pile of eggs in a nest that had been built underneath it! I carefully counted them — there were 30 eggs in all. Luckily, since having collected the wheelbarrow nest eggs, the chickens have restricted their egg laying to the coop cubbies. But now I know where to look should their production seem to be dropping off!
Another important consideration is building the coop and run high enough so that you can stand upright inside for easy cleaning, feeding, and egg collection (some people prefer to have exterior egg collection doors but I have been told of raccoons learning to open them). We built a human-sized A-frame coop and run that work great. If you want to have free range chickens, you will also need to think about protecting them from predators common in our area, such as coyotes, skunks, raccoons, foxes, and even neighbor dogs. We are lucky in that our two sweet mutts have no interest in the chickens other than amusement and herding! As for the wildlife, I try to have our dogs out when the chickens are out of their run, and keep the chickens protected in their coop during prime hunting hours (from dusk to well past dawn). Our next task, as winter is now upon us, is to install an electric wire at ground level on the outside of the coop and run to deter any nighttime invaders. If you want to see a modern coop with a living roof (architecturally designed), check out this slide show I discovered on Dwell magazine’s website. There is no end to the creativity that can be had!
With all of this effort, I can’t say we are saving any money on buying eggs, but so far we are really enjoying having chickens. Yet my favorite part has been not the manure, the fresh homegrown eggs, the humane control of grasshoppers and organic weed control, or watching their funny antics. What I really love is watching my sons care for them. When they were tiny chicks my boys held them and sang to them while they slept in their laps. They have learned to be very careful around them (this lesson was learned the hard way, after one of my sons accidentally stepped on and broke one of Mudflap’s legs when she was about two months old — thankfully, it healed within one week on its own). They also collect their eggs, feed them, and round them up at nightfall. And yes, they still hold them and sing to them when putting them in their coop at night-time. It is this unanticipated stewardship blossoming in my sons that I really cherish.