As the list of salmonella-tainted peanut butter products continues to grow, let’s not forget another food known to carry the bacteria from time to time: eggs. As with so many factory-farmed products, you never really know what you’re going to get. (Forgive me for getting all Forrest Gump on you there.)
If you have sufficient yard space, why not try raising your own chickens? Aside from scoring some really delicious, fresh eggs, you’ll know for sure whether or not they have been handled, refrigerated, and prepared properly.
The following is an excerpt from R. J. Ruppenthal’s Fresh Food from Small Spaces: The Square-Inch Gardener’s Guide to Year-Round Growing, Fermenting, and Sprouting. It has been adapted for the Web and edited for length. For the full version, see the book.
Most people who keep chickens raise them for eggs. This is sustainable farming at its best. Chickens can roam a small backyard and rid it of insects, slugs, and weed seeds. In exchange, you can get around 4 to 7 eggs per week from each chicken plus some yard fertilizer. Free-range chicken eggs are delicious and nutritious; if you’ve never had fresh eggs, you’ll be amazed at how much better they taste than the factory-farmed ones. If you have access only to a shared yard or common area in an apartment or condominium building, you might try talking your neighbors and building management into sharing some chickens. If you volunteer to take care of the birds, others might agree to share the small costs in exchange for some eggs, and this could give you access to the yard space. If allowing chickens to roam is impossible where you live, then look into buying or building a chicken tractor, which is essentially a mobile pen that you can wheel from place to place. Using a chicken tractor allows the birds to eat all the bugs, seeds, and weeds they want in one spot and then move to another. If you live in a larger building with a shared backyard, tell your building manager or homeowners’ association that your chickens can fertilize the lawn. If you don’t have any space to let chickens roam, then you can still keep them in a small coop, but you’ll have to provide all their food, and this can get more expensive.
Before deciding to get chickens, make sure that it’s legal to keep them where you live. Check local zoning ordinances by visiting the Web site for your local city or county. The good news is that even though many cities regulate chickens, most of them do permit you to keep a few chickens for personal use.
Even if it is legal to keep chickens where you live, you can still run afoul of other laws relating to public health and noise levels. Public health laws remind you to keep the pens clean and the chickens free from disease, which is a good idea anyway. Where noise ordinances are in force, residents may be cited or fined for animals that bother the neighbors. Hens are not as loud as roosters, but they can cluck enough to bother close neighbors. One way to handle this is to talk to your neighbors before getting the chickens and help them understand what you are planning. (Hint: If you offer neighbors some free eggs, they may see the logic in your plans.)
When selecting chickens, remember that you don’t need roosters for egg laying. Roosters are loud, can be obnoxious, and are illegal to keep in many jurisdictions. You’ll do better with three or four hens that can live together peacefully and lay eggs.
Chickens need basic shelter and enough space to roam a little. Their shelter need not be a formal chicken coop or animal hutch, but could be any appropriate small structure that you can either construct or commandeer. For example, an old toolshed or doghouse might work, or you could build your own shelter from some wooden crates or salvaged lumber. A small 2’ W x 4’ L x 2’ H coop could be space enough for a pair of smaller chickens. An 8’ x 12’ coop can accommodate up to 30 regular-sized chickens, but you should avoid overcrowding or else you will risk stress, disease, and unproductive hatching. Using chicken wire and a frame, you can either build in a small yard or run outside the main structure, or let them roam free when they come outside. Cover the bottom of the chicken house with some sand and a layer of bedding material (known as “litter”), which could be 3 to 4 inches of straw or untreated wood chips, or more in colder weather. For other chicken coop building plans, try an Internet search or seek out a book (there are several in print) that covers some different coop designs.
You also can purchase chicken coops ready-made from pet stores and feed stores.
Whatever structure you use for a chicken house should provide some protection from the elements and from extreme temperatures. In mild climates, the building alone should shield them from any wind and rain, but in colder winter areas, you may need to both insulate and heat the structure. Optimum temperature range for egg laying is between about 55 and 85 degrees F . There are many types of acceptable structures for this, and some are handmade. During the winter in a cold climate, if you do not want to heat or insulate, then you could consider bringing this coop into a garage or greenhouse for protection, at least during the night. Since egg laying is a function of day length, you can encourage egg laying in colder weather by installing a regular incandescent lightbulb and leaving it on.
Inside the chicken house, you also should place some nesting spots and places for chickens to roost (sit up off the ground). The roosts can be anywhere they can climb up and sit, such as a shelf or ladder made of small dowels. The nesting areas, which encourage egg laying, should be fairly tight wooden boxes measuring about 14 inches on each side and about 12 inches deep. An unused shoe rack with individual-sized boxes or a few old tool drawers may do the trick, but you could easily make some boxes yourself out of any available wood.
It’s good to protect against other dangers as well. Wild predators are not the problem in the city that they are in the country, but even dogs and cats can do great damage to an unprotected flock. Also, though I live in an urban area, we occasionally see owls, crows, raccoons, and opossums as well as plenty of squirrels. These animals can either steal eggs or harm the chickens themselves if both are not protected, particularly at night. Chicken wire or poultry wire, available at hardware stores, has a small enough mesh that it should keep out any predators. The chicken house, and perhaps the entire coop, should be surrounded by chicken wire. Ideally, you should make a “floor” of chicken wire as well to seal in the coop, which still allows the chickens to peck at the ground below if you have their pen or a lawn or bare earth. With no chicken wire base, you need to be extra careful to weight down the sides with a wooden or metal frame, so that no predator can push up the wire or dig beneath it to make an entry hole. Make one mistake and you’re bound to lose some chickens, and any survivors may be too stressed out to lay eggs for a while.
Buying commercial chicken feed is the easiest way to ensure your chickens get balanced food, and it’s a good way to start out, but you can reduce costs over time by allowing them to supplement their diet through foraging. Chickens enjoy eating your fruit and vegetable scraps as long as you avoid giving them anything strong-tasting (for example, onions or garlic), which can affect the flavor of eggs. Bread scraps and grass clippings are also good chicken food. But do not feed them any more than what they can eat in 10 to 20 minutes, or else their diets may become imbalanced. You also can feed them whole grains to cut down on costs, but limit this to 1/2 pound per ten chickens to maintain balance. Scattering these grains on the ground encourages them to scratch the litter for their food, which will aerate it and keep it in better condition. You can purchase feeders and waterers fairly cheaply online or from pet or feed stores. Finally, make sure you change the litter in the coop frequently (the bedding and manure, when aged, make great compost), gather eggs once or twice per day, and maintain the chickens’ living quarters in a sanitary condition, which often means limiting outside moisture and keeping things dry.