Garden Livestock: Keeping Chickens at Home

Garden Livestock: Keeping Chickens at Home

By Michael Jenkins

Growing our own veggies can teach us a lot—about how nature works, about soil and water, and about how much effort it takes to create the food we eat. This journey in turn can expand our interests—if we’re growing our own produce, what other food can we produce at home? For a few years now there’s been a growing trend in keeping backyard chickens, both as pets and as egg layers. You may have heard about this yourself, and you might just be asking, “Hey, what are the logistics of keeping chickens at home? Are backyard chickens right for me?” There’s a lot to know about chickens before making the decision to acquire some for your garden, so let’s dig in and learn a bit more about chickens and how to keep chickens at home!

All About Chickens

The domestic chicken (Gallus gallus domesticus) is the most common bird in the world and one of humanity’s most popular domestic animals. Modern chickens are descended from the Malayan Jungle Fowl, which is native to Southeast Asia and was likely first domesticated in what is now Thailand around 8,000 years ago. Chickens spread quickly from there due to their versatility; they lay edible eggs, provide meat at the end of their lives, and their feathers are useful for all sorts of things. In addition, chickens eat insects, pests, and some kitchen scraps and their manure can be use for fertilizer after careful composting.

Keeping backyard chickens is a time honored practice—until the second half of the 20th century, a few chickens were common in most households in the US and Canada. Around the world, governments have promoted chicken-keeping at home as a way of supplementing food supplies. This was particularly common during the Second World War, when governments in the Allied nations encouraged citizens to raise their own chickens as part of the war effort.  Even now, many extension services have plenty of useful information about raising chickens at home, keeping backyard chickens, and how to keep chickens for eggs in a home garden. If you’re interested in keeping your own birds, we encourage you to check out some of these links for more detailed information that we can provide in the space we have here.

The Basics of Backyard Chickens

While we at Gardzen firmly believe that gardening is for everyone, the reality is that keeping chickens might not be the right choice for some spaces. Chickens have a basic set of needs that must be met if we’re going to keep them in a healthy, happy, and humane way. Here’s a basic intro list to what backyard chickens need, and what you’ll have to provide for them:

  • Chickens need company—we need to remember that chickens are social animals. They need to be part of a group of chickens to thrive. Keeping just one chicken is cruel, as the bird will get lonely and that will affect its health. A minimum number of chickens is two, and three or four is even better. Your maximum backyard flock size will depend on your space—but more on that later.
  • Chickens need a safe place to live.The chicken coop or chicken house—the place the chickens will roost at night and where they will (hopefully) lay their eggs needs to be large, well ventilated, clean, and weatherproof. A good rule of thumb is that the coop should have at least 2 square feet/.19 square meters of floor space per bird.  It should have strong walls and doors to keep out predators of all sizes from rats to foxes and dogs, and it should keep the rain and wind out while still allowing air to circulate. It should also allow easy access for cleaning—you’ll need to remove the poop and feathers and put down new bedding and litter (pine and ceder shavings are best) so your birds can be comfortable.
  • Chickens need to roost and nest. Roosting is the chicken behavior in which they perch on a branch or bar at night. This is instinctive, it helps keep them off the ground and away from predators. Left to their own devices, chickens will perch in trees and large shrubs, but in the coop you should provide a roosting bar—just a simple wooden dowel that they can perch on at night. As a general rule, there should be 6-10 inches/ 15-25cm of perching space per bird.

  • Chickens need a chicken run.The coop or chicken house is the place the birds stay at night, while the chicken run is a larger space in which they can spend time during the day. This gives them time to scratch in the dirt, play, and explore—chickens are smart animals and they need things to do. A good rule of thumb for a chicken run is that it should have around 10sq are feet/ 0.9 square meters of space per bird. The run should also be generally secure—while chickens are less vulnerable during the day, they do need protecting from predators of all kinds, getting lost, and some shade. A fenced in run or mobile chicken run is a great solution to all of this.
  • Chickens need to be kept clean. The birds do a good job of grooming themselves, but they’ll need open dirt to take dust baths in—this helps remove mites and other parasites and it’s funny to watch—and they’ll need their coops and runs cleaned regularly. Roughly once a week is a good general rule, but you may need to clean more often if your birds are especially active. We recommend ceder or pine chips as litter for the coop/chicken house, but in the chicken run you can use grass clippings and weeds from your lawn if you haven’t used pesticide on them. Yard waste that’s been exposed to pesticides can harm or even kill your chickens, so avoid it.
  • Chickens need food and water. Chickens will forage for themselves, but you’ll need to ensure they eat well by providing them with a good commercial chicken feed and plenty of fresh, cool water. There are a host of chicken feeders and watererson the market, so shop around and find the one that works best for you. You may need to feed more often in cold weather and provide more water in hot weather—don’t forget to keep the water from getting too hot in summer or freezing in winter!

More Backyard Chicken Considerations

Once all these needs are met, you’ll need to select the right breed of chickens for your space. As most people raise backyard chickens as pets and for egg production, it’s best to choose breeds that are healthy, hearty, and friendly while still being great layers. Some examples of popular backyard breeds include the Rhode Island Red, Wyandottes, Ameraucana, and Orphingtons. Your local county extension office can probably provide you with more information about the best breeds for your area and the specifics of their care. Most laying chickens lay one egg every 26 hours. This makes the math a bit tricky, but in general a backyard flock of six hens will provide 5 eggs a day during the warmer months. Many chickens slow down their laying when the weather gets cold.

You will need to provide your chickens with health care, and that’s more than we have space for here. We recommend reading the information in the links we shared above in order to learn more about chicken diseases and pests and what to do about them. Keeping a careful eye on your birds is a must—most chicken health issues are fairly easy to deal with if they’re caught early.

Chicken manure can be composted, and it does wonderful things for your compost heap by supply ample nitrogen and speeding along the process of turning waste in compost. Do not apply chicken manure to your soil directly—it takes a long time to break down and there’s so much nitrogen that it can actually burn your plants!

Speaking of your plants, you’ll likely want to keep chickens away from your garden. While they’re not going to eat your plants per se, they will peck at fruit and scratch up the soil uprooting the plants you’ve tended so carefully. It’s best to keep chickens out of your cultivated areas and give them their own space to roam. However, any bugs you remove from your plants can be fed to your birds—trust us, they’ll love it!

Chickens are Fun, but a Big Responsibility

Many of us at Gardzen have kept chickens in the past or have them now, and they’re fun birds that add a lot to the garden. They’re also living creatures and a big responsibility to care for, so please bear that in mind when making the decision to add chickens to your space. This is a long blog, but we hope it got you thinking about backyard chickens and perhaps adding some to your garden. If you choose to do so, let us know how it goes! If you already have chickens, we’d love to see photos of them so get in touch!

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