Ask Eartha: Quit clucking around, it’s time to start backyard farming
May 22, 2014
During the winter I moved to part of Summit County that allows residents to keep chickens. I've enjoyed harvesting vegetables from my garden and am now interested in collecting fresh eggs. I'm just unsure where to begin. — Reynolds, Breckenridge
Chickens are a gateway project for the growing homesteader. Cleaning the coop, collecting eggs, and providing fresh bedding, organic food, and water are just the daily chores. With luck, your labor and time will feel well justified as you stir up omelets for breakfast.
Back in October, our Board of County Commissioners approved a new set of urban farming regulations allowing residents of unincorporated Summit County to keep a limited number of chickens, small goats, and even bees! This is a new opportunity that can greatly expand local backyard farming initiatives and it is important that we serve as responsible representatives of the movement.
You'll first want to look into zoning rules. In addition to abiding by local laws, check with your homeowner's association and take neighbors into consideration when constructing your coop. The family next store may even jump at the opportunity for shared fresh eggs, and kids get a kick out of learning where their breakfast comes from.
Once you know whether or not you are able to own chickens, you will have to contemplate if the option is feasible for your lifestyle. Weigh out all of the pros and cons prior to picking up your chicks; they should never be an adorable impulse buy. Chickens require care, may attract predators (coyotes) to your yard, and coops will need cleaning. Then you'll have to plan for the day your chickens stop producing eggs and decide whether they become retired family pets or dinner?
Similar to selecting the right plants and vegetables to grow, you will also need to choose the right breed of chicken. Decide if you want egg, meat, or dual-purpose breeds. Since dual-purpose breeds have not been bred for factory-like production, they've retained their ability to survive harsh conditions, desire for forage, and resistance to disease. Many of these breeds were developed in the United States so they will have American names, like New Hampshire, Plymouth Rock, and Rhode Island Reds.
Healthy chickens will have dry nostrils, bright eyes, red comb, good weight, and alertness. Strong little chicks will be lively and running around chirping. Keep in mind, small chicks are often difficult to sex making it a challenge to ensure that your flock is rooster-free (roosters are not allowed in several zoned areas outlined in the new regulations). I'm always a big fan of buying pullets which are young, domesticated hens that are typically less than a year old.
Chickens are a chore but baby chicks can be a full time job, especially during the first four weeks. You will want to check on them five times a day. Chicks are kept in what is called a brooder. It must protect them from predators and drafts. A large tupperware container works fine when the chicks are small, but I don't advise storing it in your living space. Their home needs to be 95 degrees during week one. You can drop the temperature by five degrees each following week. By two to three weeks of age, chicks can have little outdoor excursions, as long as the temperature is at least sixty-five to seventy degrees. By four to six weeks you can relocate the flock to an outdoor coop but monitor closely how the birds adjust to the temperature change.
Outdoor chicken coops, like the brooder, must also stand up against predators and resist the harsh elements. The hen house will need nesting boxes lined in bedding for egg laying, flooring that allows their scat to drop thru, a little extra ceiling space should you need to use a heat lamp, and roosts for the birds to perch on. The run attached to the coop will allow for roaming space but needs to be Fort Knox to predators. Unless the top is enclosed, the fencing should be six to eight feet in height. You will also want to bury chicken wire twelve inches into the earth to prevent a fox from tunneling into the enclosure and helping themselves to a chicken buffet.
Chickens will need a fresh supply of water and feed with extra calcium, sixteen to eighteen percent protein, and essential amino acids, vitamins, and minerals. Feeding your chickens oyster or ground egg shells will also improve calcium intake. Grit, which is sand or fine pebbles, is feed to chickens, stored in their gizzard, and used to breakdown kernels of corn. They will eat kitchen scraps and love grass clippings, bugs, seeds, worms, and weeds. If you are really feeling ambitious then consider growing your own poultry feed. Corn, legumes, and small grains such as wheat, rye, oats, and barley are wonderful snacks and can also be turned under as a green manure.
As for the payoff, the eggs are safe and delicious as long as you collect daily and keep a clean coop. Keep your eggs in a clean carton, labeled for the day collected, and store them in the refrigerator. One day at room temperature ages your eggs a week of fridge time. To test for quality and freshness, good eggs will sink in a bowl of water and the yolk will stand up when fried. Floating eggs and flat yolks are signs of old eggs and eating them may be a costly gamble.
To learn more about caring for backyard chickens attend the High Country Conservation Center's Backyard Chicken Workshop. The session will begin at 5:30 pm on June 5th, 2014 at the County Commons in Frisco.
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.
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