Sorry, dogs and cats. Chickens are the best kind of animal to add to a household. They eat bugs, make compost, and give eggs. If one dies unexpectedly, it’s sad but you just get another one. If you have enough property to free range them, you barely have to feed them at all. Even if you do have to feed them, it costs less to feed a dozen chickens for year to take a dog to the vet for a yearly check up and medicine.
Most chicken owners, myself included, also have dogs. It’s not really an either/or situation. However, from a practical standpoint, in both good times and bad, the little brown hen is going to do more to help you out than Fido is likely to, and cost you a lot less in terms of money and effort.
Low Maintenance? Oh, Yeah!
Keeping chickens is ridiculously simple. And if you keep them in your backyard, all you have to do is let them out of their coop in the morning, make sure they have food and water, and leave them alone. In the evening, they go back into the coop by themselves, so all you have to do is collect your eggs, and close the door to the coop.
About twice a year, you need to clip their wings. This is a safety precaution, to keep them from flying away and getting lost or killed. It does not hurt the chickens. It’s not like cropping the ears of a dog. It’s more like trimming toenails.
How many eggs can you expect? From my flock of 10 hens, we get 6 to 8 eggs per day. That’s over three dozen per week, which is more than enough for my family. Also, the quality of the eggs is outstanding. Instead of the pale yellow yolk you get from store-bought eggs, the yolks are a rich orange in color, with a great flavor.
I pay a little more for organic, non GMO feed, So if I had to be honest about it, I’ll probably wind up spending as much on feed as I would on buying eggs. But, I’m getting better eggs, from hormone-free, antibiotic-free chickens that I know have a great life. Also, that supply of eggs is not dependent on a transportation supply chain, the electric power grid, or any other fragile construct that could easily interrupt the food supply.
The way I look at it, I’m not just paying for eggs, I’m investing in Independence.
Keeping Them Alive
This is a pessimist gardening post, so of course I’m going to give you the downside. To paraphrase the late, great Leonard Cohen, “Chickens are so lightly here.” Meaning, there is a lot that can kill them. Between hawks, dogs, parasites and fowl pox (oddly enough, it’s only called “chicken pox” for people), you may as well just name all your chickens Kenny in an homage to South Park.
There are a few precautions you can take. Mixing apple cider vinegar into their water is a very economical and surprisingly effective way to reduce the risk of intestinal parasites. They don’t seem to mind the taste, and the extra electrolytes probably do them some good too.
If animal predators are a concern, there is a simple solution, but one you may find problematic. A rooster.
The Trouble With Cocky
A good rooster will, without hesitation, risk his life for his flock. For example, when mine (I’ve named him “Cocky”), spotted a hawk perched on the roof, he screeched a warning to the hens, and stood in the middle of the yard crowing and puffing himself up to attract the hawk’s attention, while the hens ran for cover. The hawk decided it wouldn’t be worth the effort, and flew away to find something unprotected.
In return, however, a rooster expects to get whatever he wants, whenever he wants it, from the hens. And roosters are neither sensitive nor gentle.
In short, there’s a reason the word “cock” has the double meaning it does.
Even if you’re OK with nature striking its own balance, regarding the sexual entitlement of roosters, you need to understand how loud they are. You may be familiar with the concept of a rooster crowing for dawn. What you may not realize is that they start crowing for dawn around 4 a.m. Depending on how heavy of a sleeper you are, and how much you’re willing to inconvenience your neighbors, this may be a deal-breaker for you.
My solution to this problem is fairly effective, but admittedly inelegant. When I close up the coop in the evening, I yank the rooster out, and put him in the garage overnight. He still crows, but because he’s in the garage, the sound is substantially muffled, compared to their well–ventilated coop.
A Few Tips
There is an overwhelming amount of information about chickens, and most of it is either useless or redundant. Keeping chickens just isn’t that hard. In fact, it’s really easy. Here is basically all you need to know.
- Don’t overthink the coop. Our first coop was store-bought, and I built the second one myself out of leftover shutters and scrap wood. The chickens don’t really care. They need a larger area to sleep (they prefer to roost on a perch, and tend to snuggle pretty close to each other), and somewhere more confined to lay eggs.
- Hay is your friend. Put hay in their nesting boxes, put hay on the ground, put it everywhere. It allows them to make nests for themselves, absorbs odors, and gives them something to scratch around in. it is in every way superior to pine shavings, which is what people usually recommend.
- Say goodbye to your lawn. Chickens love to eat grass and grass seed. This means that unless you have a very large area for them to roam, they are going to destroy whatever is growing out of the ground. Some people make large, rolling chicken tractors that keep them confined to one area at a time. I have one area fenced off that they live in, with straw all over the ground. Every few days, I’ll let them into the rest of the backyard so that they can eat some grass and bugs, But not so often that the grass can’t recover.
- Skip the poisons. If you’re a Miracle-Gro and Weed ‘n Feed person, chickens probably are not for you. Even if you don’t apply those poisonous products to the area your chickens are in, rainwater is likely to spread them around. You can either use toxic chemicals on your property, or have healthy chickens. Not both.
- Reduce, reuse, recycle. Chicken are composting machines. Dump all your compostable scraps into the chicken yard, and they will eat what they want, and break down the rest.
- Eating eggshells isn’t cannibalism. Chickens need a lot of calcium to make all those egg shells. Crushed up oyster shells are great way to give them that calcium, but it’s also a good idea to smush up their eggshells and give it back to them. It sounds a little gross, but they’re happy to chow down on their own shells.
- Don’t let them eat your eggs. Not only will chickens eat the shells you give back to them, you have to be careful to make sure they don’t eat their own eggs after laying them. Fortunately, there is an easy way to break them of this habit if it starts. You can buy ceramic eggs (or even use golf balls), and put them in the nesting box. When they try to peck the ceramic egg, they realize that it hurts and they can’t do it. Since a chicken’s brain is the size of a pea, they aren’t smart enough to realize that these eggs are different, but they are smart enough to realize that the experience of packing a ceramic egg sucks, and decide not to risk it again by pecking at any other eggs.
The Bottom Line
If you’re the kind of person who realizes just how much can go wrong with, you know, everything, chickens are for you. They don’t take much time, they are cheap to replace, and they will provide food for you in the wake of a zombie apocalypse. And, if all else fails, you can eat them.