Chickens: The Perfect Use for the Egg-tra Space in Your Backyard

After years of living in a city, I find myself a bit confused about what to do with the backyard in my new rural home. How do I maximize the space to provide myself with local food in the truest sense of the word? First, I sketched a plan for a garden, which was easy after a seven-month gig working on an organic vegetable farm. But I’m not a vegan, so I find myself wanting more.

For years, I’ve tracked blog posts and articles battling out the pros and cons of backyard chickens. Plus, I learned how to take care of chickens myself during my time on the farm last year. So I decided that the missing piece in my plan for a backyard farm is chickens.

The first step is finding some. There are two ways to go about this: (1) buy eggs and nurture the ladies through incubation and 60 days of chickhood. Or (2) buy the ladies already hatched and 60 days old (or older), which is what I’m going to do. It didn’t take long to find out that very few chicken suppliers are willing to sell just four female birds that are older than 60 days. I know it’s a small order, but I can’t accommodate more than four birds due to both space and my household’s inability to consume more than two dozen eggs a week. And, because I’m new to my neighborhood, I don’t want to cause hard feelings by waking my neighbors at 5:00 a.m. with a rooster’s cockadoodle-doo, so that’s why I have to insist on hens. Plus, buying birds that are 60 days or older will alleviate any need for them to live inside with me until the snow stops falling.

After some research, the best resource for me was actually Craigslist. After several e-mails and a few unanswered phone calls, I finally found someone with a chicken order already placed who is willing to deal me four of her Rhode Island Reds. This particular breed is big and hardy and lays lots of delicious brown eggs -– approximately 260 per year. They even have their own club, the Rhode Island Red Club of America complete with a photo gallery and a hall of fame.

But the excitement over finding my future chickens didn’t last long as the responsibility of preparing for them loomed large in my mind. My ladies are going to need a home! My original grand plan for their coop, inspired by my farming days, was much too elaborate for my yard. But I still intend to assemble my own coop because I have a crush on power tools and workbenches (and I have a handy fiancé if I need help). And having a plan is the best way to boost my confidence so that I can effectively communicate my ideas to the guys at the hardware store where I’ll go to buy building supplies. My Pet Chicken has some of the coolest coop plans I’ve found; I placed an order for this one because I love the elevated laying section, and want it to be mobile so I can give the birds new grass every few days. I plan to surround the coop with a classic chicken-wire fence and modify the design with a door that will allow the hens to have more room to forage. This will improve their overall health and save me money because their feed consumption will be lower.

Once the coop is up and running (next weekend’s project), I need to find a feed supplier. Since I'm diligent about eating organic food, I plan to follow the same rule for my chicks. I will feed them twice a day (early in the morning and mid afternoon) to ensure more steady laying cycles, which translates to more eggs. I will certainly have to rise earlier and I may need to bribe neighbors and friends for the afternoon feeding or throw the dog walker some extra cash. But for the most part, I know that their care is relatively simple. They will be anxious to leave their coop with sunrise and will find their way home at sunset. Like any pet, I anticipate that they will also find a way to let their new mother know when they need something, and I’m happy to fill this role.

If I've inspired you to consider backyard chicken farming, please be thorough in understanding your local laws to determine any legal or zoning issues associated with raising chickens. You can call your local government office or talk to your nearest extension agent. With free-range, organic egg prices passing $4 a dozen, it would be nice to have more options. My bet is that raising chickens will be more rewarding that you ever could have imagined. I know I am eagerly anticipating breakfasts of eggs benedict and lunches of egg salad.

Simple Good & Tasty is pleased to welcome Alicia Jabbar (photo, right), a self-described foodie, cook, and advocate for local and delicious foods. Alicia spent several years living in San Francisco, but last year spent seven months living and working on a farm on the East Coast. Now she's in Boulder, Colorado, where she is pursuing an opportunity to become an organic farmer. The single best aspect about food, she says, is the community it engages and the conversation it creates. We couldn't agree more.