While raising chickens in the city may not be for everyone, it could be more of an option than you might think. Even people who live in the city can reap the myriad of benefits just a small flock can bring, and it’s really no more time consuming to care for them than the effort it takes to take a dog for a walk. And, while many people who decide to keep chickens do it for the eggs, they quickly find out how useful they can be in many other ways.
Arguably, the most compelling reason to keep chickens is to recycle food and yard waste, which keeps it out of landfills, creating compost that serves as an invaluable organic soil builder for your garden. Basically, you feed your chickens leftovers and scraps from the kitchen, and they provide you with nitrogen-rich fertilizer that you can compost with leaves and other untreated yard waste. Chickens offer natural pest control too, as they eat pretty much any bug that might destroy your plants.
Then, there are the eggs. You’ll get fresh, organic, cage-free eggs that have far more nutrition than standard eggs.
But you already knew all of that, which is why you’re ready to join the increasing number of city dwellers in keeping chickens, you just want to know the best way to do it- here’s how.
Make Sure It’s Legal
Before beginning, be sure that it’s legal to keep backyard chickens where you live. Check with your city, state and/or homeowner’s association ordinances. Even if it is legal, many places ban roosters because of the noise, and some locations put a limit on the number of chickens you can have. If it’s against zoning regulations in your area, start attending town hall meetings to try and change things to support local food production.
Eggs, Newly Hatched Chicks or Adults?
If you’ve never raised chickens before, incubating and hatching is a rather advanced aspect that’s best done with at least some chicken experience. Newly hatched chicks need a brooder that offers food, water, warmth, security and cleanliness, things that would all be naturally provided by the mother. You’ll use a large cardboard or plywood box and fill it with bedding – while pine bedding is often used, it can harm the lungs of the chicks, which is why corn cob bedding is best. By using an electric radiant-heat brooder, you won’t have to worry about the risk of a fire or inconsistent heat. Be sure to keep the brooder away from predators, including any other pets, but at the same time, consider the mess.
Juvenile chickens or mature adults are available too, but starting with “day-olds” (or hatching your own if you have some experience with chickens) decreases the risk of introducing an unhealthy bird to your flock, maximizes the production life of your flock and helps ensure they grow up happy, social and well-adjusted. Chicks that are handled regularly while developing, will be much friendlier as adults.
Another thing to consider is that when purchasing young chickens, determining the sex is only about 90 percent accurate, which means you’re likely to get a rooster in with your hens. Having a rooster in an urban or suburban area is often illegal, and annoying, so you’ll probably have to find him a new home, or enjoy him for dinner.
No matter what type of chickens you start with, you will need a henhouse, or coop. If you start with chicks, they’ll be in the brooder for about six weeks before moving into this permanent home. While you may want to make your own, using as many recycled materials as you can, you’ll also need to make sure your chickens are well-protected. If you don’t, they’ll be subject to all sort of predators, from dogs and raccoons to foxes and coyotes, which is why it’s best to follow a design plan. You can find plans for smaller, more urban-appropriate houses online. Check Pinterest for some great ideas for upcycled coops made from everything from refrigerators to children’s playhouses. If you have a neighbor that raises backyard chickens, take advantage of their knowledge to get helpful advice, and check out their set ups.
Generally, speaking, these are the most important criteria:
- The floor of the henhouse should sit a minimum of 2.5 feet off the ground to prevent rotting. The birds will also be able to use the area underneath their home for shade when it gets hot out.
- Include grates on the top of the henhouse for good air circulation.
- The house should have a door that you can use on one end for easy cleaning, and a door the hens can use on the other side. You’ll also need a long, horizontal, flip-up type of door to harvest the eggs easily.
- Install a feeder, as different chicken breeds have different appetites so you’ll need to ensure that you aren’t feeding them too much or too little. Their appetite is also affected by the seasons, for example, when it’s hot out, chickens tend to consume less food, but in the colder months of the year, they usually eat more.
Feeding and Free Ranging
When possible, the best way to feed your chickens is to simply let them loose, allowing them to feed off your yard. Depending on your location, however, that may not be possible as many local ordinances don’t allow backyard chickens to run around outside of a coop. If that’s not an issue, then you’ll need to make the decision whether or not to give your chickens the freedom to source food on their own. If you have a sizable backyard, that can significantly reduce food expenses, and when combined with organic feeds, you’ll enjoy both healthier eggs and meat.
Another option that falls in between chickens being cooped up all the time and free range, is allowing the chickens to roam free in a fenced area during the day, and then keep them protected in the coop at night. Regardless of whether or not you choose to free range or coop your chickens, you’ll need to feed them a high-quality poultry feed. If you do free range your flock, you’ll only need to supplement their diet, as they can get a lot of their nutrition from the insects and plants they pick out of the ground. If they are cooped all the time, you’ll be giving them their entire nutrition via the feed. Either way, it’s worth it to get the best feed you can buy as you can really tell the difference between eggs from a chicken who is fed good quality feed and one who is not.
Transferring Chicks to the Henhouse
If you’ve started out with chicks in a brooder, you’ll need to move them to the coop, typically around 5 to 6 weeks old , or when they’ve lost their fluff and have a full set of feathers that will keep them warm. If you’ll be allowing them to have free range, be sure to keep them inside their coop for a week before letting them go so that they understand where their home is. After that, they can run around to their hearts content and then they’ll come home to roost around dusk each night.
Cleaning the Coop
Making sure that your coop is clean is a must for preventing disease. Cleanliness also affects the mood and overall health of your chickens. That means regularly replacing the bedding you use by clearing it completely of all used bedding and then using soap and water to clean all of the surfaces inside. Be sure to clean your waterer and feeder too. If water gets soiled, chickens tend to not drink as much, which can lead to dehydration, illness, or even death.
Provided you keep your chickens fed, watered, and their coop clean, within a few months, you should find your first egg. On average, chickens begin laying at about six months old, but that can vary significantly based on breed, season, and other factors.
If your chickens are free range, whether fully free range or just during the day, they may not know to lay their eggs in a nesting box – in fact, you may find your first egg in a place you might never expect. Watch for signs of laying, primarily a very bright, red comb. By keeping your chickens in their coop for about a week, and placing “dummy eggs” in the nesting boxes, you can train them. They tend to do what they see other chickens do, so if another hen lays an egg there, they’re more likely to as well.
Keep in mind that your chickens will probably not be on a consistent schedule. They often take longer than standard estimates, and it varies by the season too. Ensuring they have a high-quality feed with at least 17 percent protein, lots of water, ample light and a clean space, will help. Still, you might find they lay every day for a month, and then take a break for several days before laying every other day.