I am interested in raising backyard chickens in Summit County. I have a large, fenced backyard with plenty of space. How can I get started and what do I need to make this happen?
— Matt, Dillon Valley
Backyard chickens are an excellent way to support local food production at home and in your community. There are tremendous benefits to keeping chickens including fresh eggs, meat, and nutrient-rich soil for your garden. Cities across the nation are updating regulations to allow residents to have backyard chickens and the results are proving to be very successful — people love them and can’t live without them!
First, let’s discuss the chicken myths before we dive into the how-to’s. We’re not talking about the large-scale, industrial chicken farms you may recall from childhood where the smell of ammonia from thousands of crowded birds would put a frown on anyone’s face. Not to mention the inhumane treatment of overbred, overfed factory birds. We’re also not talking about the noisy, “cock-a-doodle-doo” roosters that often come to mind with the “Old McDonald Had A Farm…” image.
The backyard chicken movement actually supports an environment of well-cared for animals that are protected from predators, clean, quiet, and respectful of surrounding neighbors. It thrives on building community and local food security. Families who participate in backyard chicken-keeping can only expect to receive what they wholeheartedly invest. In other words, it’s a symbiotic relationship of caring for the animals in exchange for nourishment (and entertainment I might add).
Backyard chickens consist of hens (again, no roosters). You do not need a rooster for the hens to lay eggs. Because chickens are social animals, you must have more than one chicken. Most city regulations allow for 4-6 hens.
There are hundreds of breeds of chickens from unique, heirloom varieties to better broilers to fancy feathers to blue eggers to cold-tolerant. When choosing your chicken breed, you should consider if they are good egg-layers or meat birds; if they have a nice temperament (especially if you want them around kids); if they are easy to care for; and what climate they prefer. Some examples of good breeds include Buff Orpingtons, Rhode Island Reds, Plymouth Barred Rock, and Brahma.
You can purchase chicks by mail-order from certified hatcheries and brood them at home. This can be tricky as they need extra attention and warmth. The other issue with small chicks is that it’s very difficult to ensure that your flock is rooster-free. My suggestion is to buy pullets which are young, domesticated hens that are typically less than a year old. You can find them at front-range feed/supply stores and the market at Denver Urban Homesteading.
Before you get suckered into the idea of having farm-fresh eggs every morning, there are some real expectations to consider. For instance, there are ongoing costs associated with chickens. Like dogs, chickens need daily care. They need access to fresh water and food at all times. This means that chickens can’t be left alone for days and you can’t allow their water to freeze in the winter.
You’ll also need a predator-proof coop and run. The coop must be cleaned out weekly with eggs collected on a daily basis. We also suggest insulating your coop to provide your hens with extra warmth and shelter during our extreme winters. Since chickens are vulnerable to predators like fox, ermines, and neighborhood dogs, you must secure your coop with fencing (preferably dug at least a foot into the ground). There’s an endless supply of building plans and photos for coops online.
Chickens need supplements for a healthy diet. Whatever you feed the chicken will ultimately end up in the eggs they produce (and in your body). For this reason, I am a big proponent of organic feed! There’s layer feed, calcium and oyster shell, grit for the gizzard, scratch, and garden greens needed for a diverse and vigorous diet. You should never give chickens additional protein from table scraps, potato or avocado peels, or citrus.
Beyond the basics, there are other things to think about such as what if your chicken gets sick; where will you compost the manure; and how will you care for the end-life of the chicken. Probably the most important consideration of all is whether or not you can even keep chickens in the first place.
This Monday, August 5, the Countywide Planning Commission will be reviewing proposed regulation to allow unincorporated Summit County residents to have backyard chickens, miniature goats, and bees. The meeting starts at 5:30 p.m. in the Buffalo Mountain Room in the County Commons followed by a public hearing. We hope to see you chicken advocates there! You can find more info and the drafted regulations at www.HighCountryConservaton.org.
Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at firstname.lastname@example.org.