Have you always raised chickens and grown a garden?I was brought up in the suburbs of Kansas City with my parents and grandparents planting a garden each summer. Though I didn’t have any interest in it as a child, I did learn the basics from watching my family tend the gardens. Once I was out on my own, I realized how much I missed that garden and started growing veggies and herbs wherever I could. I loved visiting farms as a girl, but was more interested in the horses. I never gave a thought to chickens!
What got you to start raising chickens?
We had my son’s 4th birthday party at a local dairy farm. They brought different farm animals around for the kids to learn about and pet. My son would not put down the little red hen! He carried it all around! Only the promise of birthday cake distracted him from this hen. The little red hen and the instant bond with my son got me thinking about backyard chicken keeping. I started my research after the party. I read everything I could get my hands on about chicks and chicken keeping. It took about 5 years before I came to a place in life that I could execute this dream of a backyard coop. Everyone thought I was crazy. I met a wonderful guy who had previous chicken experience and better carpentry skills than I. He believed in my dream and helped make it happen!
When you had your first set of baby chickens, how did you feel?
I was excited, scared to death and impatient all rolled into one! My dream was finally being realized. Please don’t die! When will I get my first egg? A twinge of these same feelings returns with each new batch of chicks, but now I have more experience.
To anyone else interested in raising chickens, what are some of the most important things you would like to have others understand?
If you are in an urban or suburban setting, check your local laws. If you have a home owners association, check the rules. There is nothing worse than finding out, after investing time and money, that your hens are illegal. Also talk to and educate your neighbors! Don’t hide your chickens. Plus it is amazing how quickly minds change when offered a bribe of fresh eggs! Also, these are living, breathing, feeling creatures! With the rise of backyard chicken keeping, we are seeing a rise in abuse, neglect and abandonment of hens and especially roosters. This is a commitment! A hen lives 8-10 years on average and are typically only productive layers for 5-7 years. What are you going to do once a hen stops laying? You have to ask yourself the hard questions before taking on the responsibility of raising chickens.
Is there something that people should definitely NOT do?
Do not underestimate how many chickens you will adopt and how much space they need. There is a quote going around “People thought I was crazy building a chicken coop. They were right, I should have built two!” Chickens are addictive (again, check your local laws as to how many chickens you are allowed)! I started of with a respectable size coop. Then I added a 4x10 run. And now I have a 10 ft x 20 ft protected chicken yard. All this is in addition to letting the girls free range in the afternoon and evening. A small hobby has turned into a chicken complex. Remember that overcrowding leads to bullying, feather picking and unsanitary conditions.
Is there something that people definitely should do?
ENJOY YOUR CHICKENS! Do they have safe shelter, balanced feed and fresh water? Stop worrying and enjoy them! New chicken keepers tend to obsess over every little thing. Chicken keeping is an ongoing learning experience. You aren’t going to get it perfect the first time. The fun of chicken keeping lies in getting to know your girls. Like people, chickens each have different personalities. What are their likes and dislikes? You adjust the environment to them.
What tips and tricks could you share with other people?
1. Consider your climate when buying/designing a coop. I live in the desert of Arizona. My coop is open on three sides to help keep it cool. My coop would not work for someone in Maine who deals with many feet of snow and frigid temperatures.
2. Learn your area predators and poisonous plants. Protect your flock.
3. Vinegar is your friend to safely and naturally clean the coop, waterers and feed dishes! And vinegar infused with citrus and herbs is even better!
4. Have a chicken first aid kit and references for treatment/avian vet phone number BEFORE something happens. (cotton balls, Q-tips, gauze pads, gloves, tweezers, eye dropper, vet wrap, Vetericyn spray, Blu-Kote, saline solution, epsom salt, an antibiotic ointment WITHOUT pain relief) Also
5. Join a local chicken group (either online or in person). The chicken community is full of amazing and helpful individuals!
6. Grow lots of herbs and edible flowers: cilantro, fennel, mints, lemon mint, lemon balm, lemon grass, marigold, lavender, nasturtiums, oregano, comfrey, borage, basil, dill, parsley, sage, thyme, wheat, garlic. Chickens love herbs, they improve the eggs and the health benefits are innumerable! (A good place to plug the All-in-one backyard chicken keeper variety pack)
7. Understand chicken bio-security. I keep shoes and clothes for my backyard only. This prevents me from bringing in or taking out possible contagions.
8. Vary chicken snacks according to the season. Oatmeal and scratch in the winter to keep them warm. Melons, berries and high water content veggies keep them cool and hydrated during the summer.
9. When it comes to feeding your chickens veggie and meat scraps, I ask myself “Would I eat it?” Something that is slightly over ripe or a bit stale is fine. Absolutely nothing with mold should be fed to your chickens. Also, chickens are omnivores, not vegetarians as many people think. While free ranging, they will eat insects, worms, mice and lizards. Scraps of lean meat are acceptable treats. Never feed potatoes, avocado, nightshade greenery (from tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant and rhubarb), dried beans and rice, onions, seeds and pits from apples, cherries, peaches, pears, plums and apricots.
10. Have a camera and many memory cards. Shhhh! I think I have more pictures of my chickens than my kids!
Have you ever made mistakes or failed doing something?
All the time! Giving the girls enough space was my biggest mistake in the beginning and something we immediately rectified. Right now I am finding out that my feeder is creating a lot of waste. While the food does end up in the compost, I’d much rather it go through the chicken first and then end up in the compost! Like I said before, it is constant tweaking to improve the quality of life for the girls and the easy of chicken keeping for me.
How did you overcome any obstacles?
Community support! There is an amazing online chicken community, both local and worldwide. There is always someone who has been keeping chickens longer than you and has been through what you are experiencing. The friends I have made are invaluable resources, plus are always there to lend an ear.
Have you ever dealt with a person who disregards your life style?
I had a few friends who were tired of seeing chickens on my personal page and began to wonder about me. That’s how the chickens ended up with their own Facebook page. The only people I have had look down on me for raising chickens are not animal people to begin with. They don’t comprehend the love of a dog or cat, let alone a chicken. I can not imagine life without animal companions. If we stop and listen, they teach us so much!
What are some of your greatest rewards with a lifestyle such as the one you live?
Of course the amazing fresh eggs are the number one reward! My suburban micro farm is a work in
progress. My girls are one piece to the permaculture system I am attempting to establish. The chickens help out the garden: fertilizer, insect control, turning the dirt, mixing in compost. In turn, the garden helps the chickens: insects, garden scraps, dedicated chicken crops. Plus the garden and chickens contribute to the compost (poop and scraps), the chickens turn the compost and then the compost nourishes the soil. I also use the chicken pool water (yes, my chickens have a swimming pool of their own during our hot summers) to water my bananas, grapes and blackberries. The water has a very diluted amount of chicken manure that adds nitrogen to the soil. Finally, the garden feeds the family. I do the best I can to have a complete system. And hopefully my kids are learning valuable life skills by observing and helping out with the chickens and gardens. On a personal level, nothing grounds me more that sitting with my chickens. Watching them scratch around and do their chicken things is the best way to shake of a rough day. I will sit on the ground and hand feed raisins. I often end up with chickens on me! That is a reward I never expected from keeping chickens.
Interested in growing beneficial herbs for your backyard chickens?