I fell in love with farm eggs nearly a decade ago at a nearby farmers market. Multi-colored eggshells, bright orange yolks, superior flavor, and freely roaming chickens made these eggs preferable in every way to grocery store eggs. In 2009, I saw Eleni Vlachos’ “Seeing Through the Fence” a documentary that contains undercover footage of factory farm egg-laying hens crammed together in dark, windowless warehouses. Haunted by the images of mass production, and the undeniable suffering of the hens (so apparent that they seemed nearly half-dead), grocery store eggs were no longer an option.
Fortunately, not all views from the other side of the fence are so grim. In the Piedmont, we are lucky to have access to small, sustainable farms and conscientiously cultivated food. Some consumers are even choosing to grow crops in their own backyards and urban chickens play a part in this evolution. After months of debate and public hearings, Durham’s City Council finally voted to allow backyard chickens within city limits in 2009. Last Saturday I had the opportunity to participate in Judy Hogan’s backyard chicken workshop, a one-day introductory course that covered the basics in urban chicken care, appropriate shelter, chick care, nutrition, litter management, laying, egg sales, and gulp, “killing as needed”. I was intrigued.
When I arrived at Central Carolina Community College in Sanford, North Carolina, six women of varying ages (from early 20′s to mid-40′s) filled the small conference room. Donna had recently been trying her hand at small building projects. Visions of chickens in her backyard in a self-designed coop brought her to the class. Crystal, a young blonde living in a residential subdivision, was on a self-proclaimed “chicken quest” after falling in love with the taste of farm eggs. Daydreaming about chicken tractors while at work, she figured it was time to learn more. Leslie, a busy mother, was grappling with 22 Java baby chicks that had just been delivered to her doorstep 4 days ago as part of the Java Chicken Recovery Project, initiated by the American Livestock Breed Conservancy to preserve heritage birds. Her husband, a chef, plans on opening a restaurant with a farm-to-fork concept. Across the table from me in an oversized flannel shirt sat Nan, who purchased her chicks on Earth Day last year. Despite all the warnings about getting attached to ones’ birds, she has named each and every one of them. Susan, with kind brown eyes and a ready smile, has been dabbling in small-scale organic farming for years, and figured it made sense to add chickens to the mix.
Turns out, this workshop was more of a conversation than a class; like sitting on the porch with a wise and seasoned elder who has all the time in the world to share what they’ve learned with you. Instruction was meandering and relaxed rather than sit-up-straight-in-your-seat academic. Hogan, who is 73 years old, is also a writer, poet, teacher and editorial consultant, so the fact that she teaches through storytelling seems appropriate. Lots of amusing chicken antidotes were told: The rogue chicken, who wanted to be different, kept flying the coop, bringing Hogan to the verge of frustration. “She decided she wanted to be an individual or something, I don’t know. I finally got so fed up, I just let her stay out. She was happier, away from the others, roosting up in the trees, so I just let it be,” Hogan laughed. Then there was the depressed chicken, who sat listless and still in the coop for a few weeks, but a change in diet had her perky within a couple of weeks. There were lessons learned as a novice chicken keeper. Like the time it stormed and Hogan panicked, remembering a story she’d heard about turkeys being so dumb they would drown in the rain. Running into the downpour, Hogan desperately attempted to herd the flock back into the coop. She tried to shelter the hens from the deluge with her umbrella, but the whoosh of its’ opening terrified the poor chickens and they fled to a nearby orchard. “I can’t speak for turkeys, but my chickens are fine in the rain. They couldn’t care less about getting wet”. Hogan, who has been keeping chickens for 8 years now, emphasizes the importance of a sense of humor when keeping chickens. “They say they’re not very smart, but they can still defeat you”, she told us with a wry chuckle.
What follows are the rough notes I took from class. It’s certainly not meant to be expert advice, or even a how-to guide. I’ve never had chickens myself, and am not even that great of a note-taker. But the many resources and links listed should be enough to get you started.
Hogan’s Tips on Raising Backyard Chickens:
First Things First:
Before you buy chickens, you’ll need to have a space prepared for them. Decide the basics first: how many chickens you can care for, what breed of chickens you want, if you want to add a rooster to the mix, where to buy them, how much space your chickens will need, what season is the best for beginning, what to expect in terms of cost and time spent on care.
If you’re buying young chicks, you’ll need to set up a nursery, with a heat lamp to keep the chicks warm. The nursery doesn’t need to be anything fancy, just something that they can’t get out of, a place where they can stay warm, and eat and drink water. It’s a temporary dwelling that they will quickly outgrow after their first six weeks of life. Judy used an old horse-watering tub that a neighbor gave her. The best time to get chicks is in the Spring, since the weather is warmer and you won’t have to worry as much about keeping them warm as you would in the winter. Their feathers will be grown in by winter. Chicks can fly in one week, and will grow in all their feathers in six weeks.
Judy spent about 2 hours a day of chicken care when they were babies—changing litter, feeding and watering, fussing with the temperature of the heat lamp, etc.
Costs of Coops and Fencing:
This will vary according to your needs and preferences. There are lots of ideas in books and online. You can be as creative as you want. Celebrity Dairy, a Bed and Breakfast/Farm that grows their own food in Chatham county, uses a defunct school bus. The main thing to keep in mind is to build a coop that will provide protection from predators. Everything likes to eat chickens and their eggs, so fencing is important. Make sure your fencing goes underground as well, to prevent digging animals from getting in. There also needs to be chicken wire on top of the fence, to prevent the birds from flying out and to keep predators out. Hens like to roost up high, rather than on the ground, so providing spaces up high for them to roost is an important consideration. They will also need nesting boxes to lay their eggs in.
Happy Chickens=Great Eggs: Chickens require space, and greens to thrive. Pull your weeds, especially chickweed, and feed it to your chickens—they love it. Give them your vegetable and fruit compost scraps. Chickens are like most of us—they like their habits and routines, so try and feed and water them at the same time every day. They prefer to roost at dusk, and will often rush to their coop at nighttime, in an attempt to get “priority seating” (like us, they have their favorite seats in the house!).
Another way chickens are like us is that they need interesting ways to kill time or they get bored. One way they like to entertain themselves is by digging. They get really excited when you put new straw down so they can dig around in it.
How much space do they need?
When will I get eggs?
Chickens usually start laying eggs at 5 months old. Their first eggs will be tiny—like little robin’s eggs, and they eventually will get bigger. “The first year of laying, 6 months to 18 months is the best, but mine are now 2 years old, and 15 hens are averaging right now 12-13 eggs a day, so second and even third years are pretty good for laying, but the numbers of eggs do slowly decrease, though the eggs get bigger,” Hogan says.
Should I get a rooster?
It’s not necessary to have a rooster, but there are some benefits (and disadvantages). The rooster does provide protection for the hens. If a hen is in distress (trying to fly the coop, or being threatened by a predator), the rooster will sound the alarm and attempt to rescue the hen. Roosters can also be quite chivalrous—alerting the hens to special food treats and allowing them to eat first. They have their favorites in the harem. Judy told a funny story of a virile rooster who would always roost at night with the same two hens, one on each side. They also do some flock management, and hens don’t tend to fight with each other as much if there’s a male around. The disadvantage is that roosters can be rough on hens. They are always mounting them and plucking off their feathers. A flock of hens without a rooster around will look much better—their feathers are full and intact, whereas a flock with a rooster will contain hens with spoiled plumage who appear overly pecked. Roosters can be agressive in general, with both hens and humans, which is something to consider.
Benefits of having chickens:
Aside from the obvious benefits of the eggs and meat (superior taste and nutrition—they have more Omega 3’s than grocery store eggs, and it’s a way to not support the factory farm industry), chickens will eat all the bugs and pests in your yard—including ticks. They eat everything. They love slugs and beetles. They like your weeds too—especially chick weed. In addition, you can barter with eggs. Judy, who is big on gifting as currency, trades hers for firewood and other favors. Of course you can sell them as well (as Judy does, along with homemade bread), although it probably won’t provide any sort of substantial revenue.
Chicken droppings make great compost. Their droppings mix with their straw bedding. It does not stink, and eventually creates a grainy, rich compost that you can put directly on your garden, or make into a tea and pour on your plants to help them to thrive.
Though they can be a pain in the neck, Hogan says having chickens connects you to the natural world. “It’s an intermediate between you and the wild”, she says, “It’s a more feral relationship than with cats and dogs”.
Killing Your Chickens for Meat:
This was a tough one for Hogan. She remembers being a young 6 year-old girl and “taking her doll for a very, very long buggy ride” anytime her Grandmother was going to kill a chicken. She says she’s gotten a little tougher about it over the years, but it’s still a hard thing for her to do, emotionally. Still she encouraged us to think of our chickens as a sacrificial animal, a food source. Domestic chickens generally have a very short life span, and even shorter if they are in the wild. Egg production slows at about 18 months, when the mother’s baby chicks begin to start to lay eggs. If you wait longer than that to slaughter a chicken, the meat will be very tough. ”Some people kill every year, but I chose to give them 3 years. You can eat a 3-year-old, but it needs long stewing , 5 hours maybe, and they don’t roast well. Most chicken sold in stores is weeks or months old”, asserts Hogan.
Hogan found a processing plant in Siler City that she has been happy with. It’s called Chaudhry Halal Meat Company and is located in Siler City, NC. The folks who run the operation are Muslim and pray over the animals before slaughter. The religion of Islam emphasizes the gentle treatment of animals, especially both before and during slaughter. It is said that the quickest, least painful methods are used, and animals are treated respectfully throughout. Judy personally oversaw the process and felt reassured by the handling of her birds and the kind manner of the people that work there. The operation is Animal Welfare Approved and there’s a USDA man on-site. Meat comes back to you packaged, and Chaudhry will process as few as 3 chickens at a time. Cost varies, depending upon the number of chickens. Judy brought them 15 birds, and was charged $4.50 per chicken.
Resources, Links, and Books:
Judy recommends these 3 books highly:
Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens, by Gail Damerow
Chickens in your Backyard: A Beginners Guide, by Rick & Gail Luttman
Designs for almost anything, including chicken tractors
Your local library
More on Judy Hogan: