Many homeowners are drawn to the idea of raising backyard chickens because the flavor of fresh eggs can't be beat. There are many other benefits, too. Chickens help you garden organically by providing manure and feasting on garden pests.
Beyond that, they add character and charm. And like any pet, they can become true gardening companions while you are outside working. Increasingly, urban and suburban dwellers are welcoming feathered friends.
But before joining the trend, there are several things to consider:
• First, examine how chickens would fit into your life. They require daily attention and coop cleaning means dealing with manure, literally. Also ask yourself if you're really going to use the eggs. Does your family enjoy egg dishes? Do you bake? If your family is not fond of eggs, the expense of chicken-keeping might not be worth the investment.
• If you can use the eggs, and you're fine with the added work, the next step is investigating your local laws. Many areas do not allow chickens, and some allow them with certain restrictions. Roosters, because of the volume of their crows, are generally not welcome in suburban or urban areas. Many towns limit the number of chickens allowed.
Consider starting with three to five chickens. Check for local restrictions. Some say you need two hens per family member to provide enough eggs, but I find that number high because chickens lay, on average, one egg a day during their peak laying years. However, you should start with at least two chickens, because they are social and need companionship.
• If the regulations are favorable, and you know how many hens you want, shelter is the next thing to plan. A coop protects chickens from predators, and provides shelter from sun, cold and rain. It should have a locking door, a roosting bar and nesting boxes for laying. If you want to build your own, try the book "Building Chicken Coops for Dummies"by Todd Brock, Rob Ludlow and Dave Zook.
It includes lots of great designs (including one we built on my show), tips and easy-to-follow instructions. If you're not into DIY, you can order a coop online or find a farm store that offers finished coops. Horizonstructures.com and ChickenCoopsource.com are two good online resources that have finished houses as well as kits.
Make sure the coop, combined with the run, is large enough that each chicken has adequate space — about 3 square feet per chicken inside and at least 10 square feet per bird outside is ideal. A covered run area is important if you're not able to free-range your birds daily.
• Special feeders and waterers are helpful. Before bringing the baby chicks home, you'll need a large container to keep them in and a heat lamp for warmth. Feed baby chicks starter feed from day one. Hatching eggs is fun, but it's a lot of work and the failure rate is rather high. Farm stores and hatcheries offer chicks.
Like any baby, the chicks need to be handled with extreme care. Line the container with wood shavings or newspaper. Keep it clean and provide plenty of fresh water and food. Shelter them from the elements for at least six weeks before moving them into the coop.
Depending on several factors, they often won't start laying eggs for about six months. Once you install your young hens in the coop, it's smart to line the coop with shavings, straw or newspaper to make cleaning easier and provide a better environment for your hens. Change the water daily and make sure they have a clean food supply.
Chickens enjoy table scraps, such as leftover vegetables and peels, breads and fruits. Even when free-ranging, you'll need to add chicken feed to their diets.
The bottom line is that chickens are entertaining and you may even find your own sense of humor recharged. And beyond that, you gain helpers that add character to your garden in the process.
Joe Lamp'l, host of "Growing a Greener World"on PBS, is a master gardener and author. For more information, visit www.joegardener.com. source
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