For several years now, backyard chickens have been all the rage. Fancy coops have turned up in even the nicest of neighborhoods as people, some who didn’t appear to have a homesteading bone in their bodies, jumped on the self-sufficient, save-the-planet bandwagon. Lots of folks have turned the fad into a lifestyle they would never abandon while others have decided it’s not for them. If you are wanting backyard chickens now is the best time of year to get started, but please carefully consider all the pros and cons before jumping in. Chickens are a commitment like any animal and you should never take that commitment lightly. Here are some things to think about.
Reasons You Should Raise Backyard Chickens
1. Farm-fresh eggs.
Egg cartons carry labels like Grade A, cage-free, all-natural, free-range, vegetarian-fed, humanely raised and antibiotic-free but what does it all mean? Not much as it turns out as nearly all grocery store eggs come from factory farm operations where conditions are sad at best and stomach-turning at worst. Raising your own chickens will ensure that your family has fresh eggs that are not just more delicious but healthier, being lower in cholesterol and higher in beta carotene, vitamin E and omega 3 fatty acids than what you can buy at the store.
2. Pest control.
I always roll my eyes when I see egg cartons in the store that say “vegetarian fed”. Chickens are NOT vegetarians! They are true omnivores and love to eat grasshoppers, beetles, spiders, flies, earwigs, worms, snails, slugs, weevils, centipedes and lots of other creepy crawlies. If it moves, they’ll at least consider eating it and chase a sister around the yard if she gets to it first. If you want a pest-free yard, chickens are the way to go. They’ll even eat mice, frogs and snakes if they can catch them.
3. Chicks are so dang cute.
Okay, this alone is not a reason to raise backyard hens. But chicks are quite possibly the cutest babies in the animal kingdom and so much fun to hold and interact with, especially if you have kids. I swear, no one will be able to resist picking up your darling babies and that is actually a good thing as the more they get held the more tame they will be. Keep in mind that chicks are only cute for about a month but pretty soon their unique personalities will start to shine and you will love them for a bunch of other reasons.
4. A mother hen with chicks is even cuter.
Chicks don’t need a mom to raise them. They will learn what they need to learn on their own. But if one of your hens goes broody (decides she wants to be a mom) then you can often get her to adopt some day-old chicks either from the feed store or that you hatched out in an incubator. This is definitely taking chicken ownership to the next level but watching a mother hen take care of her chicks is an educational and heart-warming experience you and your family will love.
5. Chickens are quiet.
Which is more than your neighbor’s dog can say. They go through their day pecking at the ground and making soft clucking noises to themselves, each other and you, when you show up for a visit. Some hens will bring the clucking level up a few notches after they lay an egg just so everyone notices their grand accomplishment. But even the most self-important hen only has something to brag about once a day. As soon as dusk falls they go into their coop and are completely silent until you open the hatch the next morning. Good-night ladies.
6. Lap Chickens.
Most farmers don’t consider their chickens to be pets. But If you have a few backyard hens that you raised from chicks, that you held and talked to, they will probably feel like pets to you. The good news is that they can make great pets. They all have very diverse personalities and it is always entertaining to watch how they interact with their world. If you hold them a lot, give them treats and generally spend time with them, they will become very tame and some will truly bond with you. We call these lap chickens as they will literally jump in your lap when you sit down. Just like any pet, the more time you spend interacting with your chickens, the more friendly and fun they will be.
7. Free fertilizer.
If you grow a vegetable garden (and you should) fertilizer is something you think about. Clean fertilizer can be hard to come by and it’s not always cheap. Chicken waste is a wonderful choice for fertilizer as it is high in nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. And best of all, if you have your own backyard hens it will cost you nothing. Just throw the chicken waste into your compost bin, and with the right composting practices, in a few months you’ll have a nice pile of black gold.
8. Less kitchen waste.
Like I already said, chickens are omnivores just like us. So they are happy to eat any kitchen scraps you throw their way. And unlike the compost pile, you can also throw them protein and meat scraps (no chicken please, that would just be wrong). Of course, you also shouldn’t feed them junk food or anything moldy or rotten. But lots of scraps and ends that you would normally throw in the trash, your girls will happily eat and turn into more delicious eggs. It’s the circle of life at it’s most rewarding.
9. Knowing where your food comes from.
Do you know where your food comes from? Do your kids? The harsh realities of processed foods, GMO’s, pesticides, antibiotics and the horrors of industrial meat and egg production have caused more and more people not just to ask the question but to look for more-natural alternatives. Having eggs that come directly from happy chickens pecking around your yard is one of the simplest and most rewarding ways to answer that question.
There is real power in knowing you can provide (do, make, fix, raise, grow) something yourself and that it can actually be much better than what you have always bought at the store. Granted, eggs are a small part of most people’s diet and raising backyard chickens is not the same as going off-grid. But it does bring you one step closer to knowing that you really can take care of yourself and your family. What might be even more important is teaching your kids that they can be self-sufficient too. There are many important lessons in responsibility and caring for our planet that your kids can learn from raising backyard chickens. Especially if a lot of the work is theirs.
Reasons You Shouldn’t
Owning any living creature is a big responsibility. It goes without saying that you should never take that responsibility lightly. Do your homework and make sure your family also understands the challenges and downsides of raising chickens. Here are a few to think about:
1. You will not save money.
Yes, the eggs you will get from backyard chickens are better than any eggs you can buy at a store but they are definitely not cheaper. With all the set-up costs (like a coop) and ongoing costs (like feed), the cost of backyard eggs will never be able to compete with cheap factory-farm eggs from your local grocery store.
2. It is quite possibly illegal.
Land use laws are determined by your local municipality or county and in many places backyard chickens are not allowed. Yes, prowling cats and barking dogs are allowed everywhere but not chickens. Check with your city/county office to find out the laws where you live. If you are in-town you will definitely not be able to own a rooster (for obvious reasons) but luckily your hens will happily lays eggs without one.
3. Chicken is on everyone’s menu.
You may never even consider eating your hens but a lot of other creatures sure will. Everything from raccoons to owls to the neighbor’s dog won’t hesitate to turn your chickens into nuggets if given the chance. You will need a covered brooder for your new chicks, set up before you bring them home. When they are ready to go outside they need a secure coop that you will have to close up every night. They need a fenced yard or a run during the day because not all predators are nocturnal. And even with all the necessary precautions you will likely lose one to a predator at some point and it is not pretty, let me tell you. Especially if one of your kids stumbles upon the aftermath first.
4. Chickens poop–a lot.
Don’t hold it against them because all living creatures do. That said not all of them do it quite so frequently. Or do it where they sleep. Or do it on your back porch. Or on “your” eggs. Animal ownership always requires clean-up and chickens are no different but depending on how many you have and where they roam it can be a little labor intensive. The coop should be cleaned out every couple of weeks but can go a lot longer if you use the deep-litter method. Their run area also needs to be raked up regularly. And if your chickens are truly free-range then don’t be surprised if your back porch needs to be swept or hosed down, sometimes daily.
5. No more eggs–now what?
Chickens only lay eggs for about three years but they live up to ten. You will need a game plan for what to do with a hen once she hits menopause. Your great grandmother would have put her in the stew pot but you may not be at that level of homesteading just yet. You could give her away (try CraigsList or your local classifieds) or you could decide to keep her as a pet. Assuming there is a limit on how many chickens you can have in your backyard (there is), it’s hard for most people to justify the cost and work of chickens without the pay-off of farm-fresh eggs.
So should you get backyard chickens? Well, if your goal is cheap, easy eggs, then no. But if your goal is fresher, healthier, more delicious eggs, to rely less on industrial food, to remove yourself from the horror that is factory-farm egg production and to have wonderful, entertaining pets that give you, well, fresh delicious eggs then definitely get some backyard hens. Of course any animal is a commitment of work, time and money so do your homework and make sure it is right for you.
Do you own backyard hens? Is there are positive or negative aspect you think someone should consider before jumping in? Please leave a comment and let us know.