Your back yard is as local as you can get for food. Thousands of people around the country have started growing organic produce in their yards, and some have even taken it a step further and started raising chickens for fresh eggs. “You’ll know what the chickens ate and how they lived. As with a backyard vegetable garden, backyard chickens give you some measure of self-sufficiency,” explains Christine Heinrichs, author of How to Raise Chickens: Everything You Need to Know (Voyageur Press, 2007).
THE DETAILS: About three hens will provide a family of four with plenty of eggs, but before you start salivating over the thought of fresh Sunday-morning scrambled eggs, it’s important to understand what raising backyard chickens entails. And if you don’t find your lifestyle friendly to home-raising poultry, don’t feel bad. You can do the next-best thing and buy your eggs from local small-flock poultry farmers who let their chickens live more natural lives outside (compared to filthy, factory-farm cage conditions). You can even join organizations like the Society for Preservation of Poultry Antiquities or the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy to support the cause. “Everyone doesn’t need to keep their own chickens, but by supporting each other, we can create stronger local food networks that will serve all of us better,” says Heinrichs.
MORE DETAILS: If you can cope with chicken poop on a regular basis (it’s an amazing addition to your compost operation!) and are truly drawn to the idea of raising backyard chickens, read on to see if you have what it takes—even if you only have a teeny yard.
Prepping for poultry
• Is it legal? Depending on where you live, it might be illegal to raise backyard chickens to provide food for your family. If it’s against zoning regulations in your area, start showing up at town hall meetings and try to get things changed to support local food production.
• Do the math. You don’t need to build an extra bedroom or anything, but if you want to raise chickens, you should ask yourself, “Am I willing to share my home with a handful of chicks for 4 months?” At an event sponsored by the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture
and Greener Partners last month, backyard chicken keepers Amy Johnson and Chris McNichol, of Media, Pennsylvania, laid out the details on raising a few chickens in a small yard. (As a side note, Media is America's first Fair Trade Town.)
Johnson and McNichol recommend purchasing newborn chicks that will arrive at your home (you can order online or from a local feed mill) when just a few days old, which will help the chicks establish a pecking order and become used to having humans around. The type of housing you’ll need depends on how many chickens you’re going to house. “Don’t keep more chickens than space allows,” urges Heinrichs. “Figure a minimum of 1½ to 2 square feet per chicken inside the henhouse, and 8 to 10 feet of yard outside.” Bigger is better. Chickens need space to stretch their wings and interact socially with each other.
• Plan a henhouse. Even before you order chicks, make sure you have your henhouse set up in a good spot. You can find plans for smaller, more urban- or suburban-appropriate houses online. (If you have a small yard, you probably won’t be looking for a tractor-style movable henhouse popular on farms.) From there, you can build one yourself, or hire a local carpenter. Coops can range in dimensions from rabbit-pen size to storage-shed size, and can cost between a few hundred dollars and $10,000-plus. No matter which model you choose, McNichol recommends following a few basic rules:
Make sure the floor sits at least 2½ feet off the ground to prevent rotting (the area underneath also offers shade to hens outside during warmer months).
Opt for knotty cedar for the floor; the rest can be made out of pine.
Avoid using pressure-treated wood, which is bad for your backyard environment.
Make sure there are adequate grates on the top of the house to ensure proper air circulation.
Make sure the coop has a door for hens on one side and a human-size door on the other end, so people can easily clean it.
Make sure the design includes a long horizontal flip-up door so you can easily harvest eggs.
Don’t place the coop near a neighbor’s home, or under your home’s windows.
Consider placing the coop against a garage to provide more insulation.
• Use existing structures, or splurge.
Even if you don’t have much extra space, consider what existing structures and space you have, such as a play structure or space beneath a deck or staircase that could be appropriate, says Heinrichs. For those with a little money to burn and limited space, the Eglu has become a popular and convenient solution. (But it’s one that will run you more than $650.) “It has the advantage of being ready out-of-the-box when you are,” says Heinrichs.
• Predator-proof your run.
Because birds are most vulnerable at night, make sure they spend their nights locked up in a secure henhouse. But the outside run area, where birds can forage and bathe in the dirt to prevent mites, must be secure, too. “Don’t overlook ground-level protection. Critters will dig under fencing,” says Heinrichs. Find out what predators range in your area, so that you can guard against them successfully. McNichol and Johnson suggest burying chicken wire or hardware cloth at least 12 inches down around the perimeter of your fence. Use berry netting on the top of the run to deter aerial attacks from hawks and owls.