by Tony Pallone
One day in the near future, when the pandemic is little more than a reminder in the rearview mirror, we’ll likely reflect on the many lessons learned from hunkering down and keeping close to home. For many, this has been a time to focus on local food sources, and, when possible, to control how the food we eat is produced. With spring on its way, you might want to consider whether your property could be the perfect spot for procuring eggs or providing poultry, by playing host to backyard chickens.
Those we’ve talked to tell us it’s a rewarding pursuit, but also that it can be a more encompassing commitment than you might think. Here are some considerations to keep in mind as you consider adding chickens to your backyard pursuits:
Check your local ordinances.
In New York State, a Right to Farm law establishes a baseline for farming (including chicken-raising) without fear of neighbors who might consider it a nuisance. However, this applies only to agricultural districts. While some towns and villages adopt the same guidelines, others add more restrictive modifications such as space requirements or a prescribed number of allowed hens and a forbiddance of roosters. Call the local governing offices for your municipality or visit their website. “Do your homework before you buy the coop and you bring the chickens home,” says Nicolina Foti, a livestock educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension in Saratoga County.
Decide what you want from your chickens.
Having chickens to take care of can be a joy in itself, Foti says. But it’s important to decide whether you want egg-layers or meat birds; she adds that the latter option has become especially popular as a way to combat food shortages associated with the pandemic. There are many breeds available (see sidebar), with star performers in each category.
Coops: build or buy?
Your options are wide; how to proceed should be based on the time you’re willing to spend and the financial investment you’re willing to make. “You’ll probably save a lot of money by making something yourself,” says Ashley Pierce, commercial livestock educator with the Albany County Cornell Cooperative Extension. “Chickens don’t need a lot… it doesn’t need to be fancy,” she adds. The internet is replete with DIY plans and guidance, and there’s no shortage of books on the subject (Pierce recommends various titles from Storey Publishing). But if you’d rather skip straight to the finished product, easy-to-assemble prefabricated coops are available from suppliers like Agway and Tractor Supply Company, both of which also offer the birds themselves.
A middle-ground option is to repurpose an existing structure. Joshua Slingerland, owner of Slingerland Family Farm in Berne, says he’s seen a lot of people section off part of a shed for a coop. To provide chickens an area for daytime roaming, also known as a “run,” a dog kennel could be used. Slingerland is also a fan of tractor-style coops, which have built-in wheels for ready mobility. These feature wire floors that allow grass to poke through. Moving them regularly to different areas of the lawn provides pest control (chickens love to eat bugs), fertilizer (chicken droppings are rich in nitrogen), and built-in protection (would-be predators get confused by the constant repositioning).
Whichever way you go, you’ll want to include the essentials we’ve listed at the end of this article.
Realize that predators are everywhere.
“Lots of things go bump in the night,” says Slingerland. “and every single one of them wants your chickens.” That includes foxes, raccoons, hawks, neighborhood dogs, stray cats — the list goes on. In suburban settings, this may be less obvious at first but, as Foti adds, that will change “once the word gets around town that there’s some good eating over on that next corner.” A secure coop is your primary line of defense, although there are ways to fortify it. Lining the perimeter with rocks, for instance, makes it more difficult for anything to dig in; you could also go high-tech and install electrified poultry netting. If you anticipate visits from grandkids who’ll want to play with the birds, however, you’ll want to be sure you’ve got an easy way to turn off the power.
Remember that dryness is more important than warmth. Chickens have a remarkable resilience to cold temperatures, as they are essentially born wearing down jackets. Fluffing their feathers allows them to create a cocoon of heat against their bodies. This insulating quality is compromised, however, if they become wet. You’ll want to cover the ground with straw or shavings, which is also where much of their manure will land; change it regularly to keep it clean and dry. Some chicken owners provide heat lamps, but if overused these can make the birds more vulnerable to disease. Worse, they present a significant fire hazard: “If that light breaks, or otherwise falls from where it is, into those shavings,” Slingerland says, “you have a chicken barbecue in your chicken coop, which is not what you want.”
Avoid draftiness but provide ventilation.
This is an important balance; you don’t want the wind to tip over your coop, or to chill your birds. Yet in the desire to provide protection from the elements, Foti says she’s seen people board up or plastic wrap their coops “like it’s Fort Knox.” Problem is, chickens produce a lot of moisture that could lead to fungal disease if it’s not allowed to escape. She recommends leaving an open one- to two inch area — caged, to keep out predators — beneath the rafters to allow for airflow. And, by the way, if you notice an ammonia smell, it’s a sign that insufficient ventilation is causing a buildup of decomposition byproducts from wet bird droppings. This can cause a spectrum of problems ranging from unhappy birds that lay fewer eggs — to potentially deadly respiratory illness
Understand egg-laying essentials.
Those adorable baby chicks you’re planning to bring home are still a long way from laying. Depending on the breed, it takes 20 to 30 weeks for egg production to begin. “Here’s where we run into the disheartenment with chickens,” Slingerland says. “If you buy those little baby birds at the store in May, you’re going to start seeing your first eggs in mid-August… you’re going to be the happiest chicken keeper in the world for three weeks. And then what happens? We run out of daylight.” Alas, chickens are diurnal (daytime) creatures. Without 14.5 hours of daylight, they simply won’t lay. For Slingerland, one solution is low-wattage LED lights operated by a timer. He sets his to come on at 3:30 a.m.
It’s also important to understand that egg-laying tends to diminish as chickens age. “People will call us and say, ‘My chicken’s broken, it’s not laying eggs,’” Foti says with a laugh. “After four or five years of age, they might stop laying altogether.” At that point, your options include finding them a new home, processing them for meat, or simply keeping them as pets.
Ring the dinner bell.
“Yes, you can train chickens, and yes you should,” Slingerland says. By regularly locking them in the coop at night when they’re young, they’ll develop the habit of coming in from the run when it gets dark. And if you want to go out early, train your birds to associate getting a treat of mealworms by shaking them in a cup or tin. You’ll then be able to use that sound essentially as a “dinner bell.”
Speaking of dinner, here’s something Slingerland likes to say about chickens: “They’re the only pets that feed you more than you feed them.” That’s true in a literal sense — each hen will eat only about a quarter-pound of chicken feed per day, yet their eggs will provide you with abundant nutrients in return. It’s true in a metaphorical sense as well, as the commitment it takes to raise them is liable to pale by comparison to the joy they bring.
Best Backyard Breeds
The Cornish Cross is the quintessential meat bird, sometimes referred to simply as a “broiler.” If you’re planning to process for meat, you’ll want to establish a relationship with a butcher early on; there tends to be a backlog. There may also be a minimum quantity because the process is so labor-intensive. It’s also worth noting that meat birds grow quickly: They can be ready for the butcher in as little as 8-12 weeks after hatching.
When purchasing baby chicks, be aware that New York law requires them to be sold in minimum lots of six. Some farms, like Slingerland Family Farm, will often have ready-to-lay birds available in smaller quantities.
The bare necessities for a coop are nesting boxes, a roost, and a feeder and waterer. Unless you plan to keep them cooped up all day, you’ll also want a chicken run. Space-wise, you should plan for a minimum total area of two and a half square feet per bird, says Slingerland. “More is always better,” he adds. If the coop is too crowded, the birds will fight. Foti’s per-bird recommendation is three to four square feet inside the henhouse and approximately 10 square feet for the run.
The nesting box is where the hens will lay eggs; a good rule of thumb is to provide one for every four chickens. Slingerland says that this can be a small structure of a couple of square feet and that it should be easy for you to access. Eggs should be removed regularly, especially in the wintertime to avoid the potential for freezing and cracking.
You can create an indoor or outdoor chicken run. Unless you’re planning to let your birds be free-range, you’ll want to be sure it’s covered to keep both predators and precipitation out. After a day on the run, the chickens will literally come home to roost. This consists of a set of elevated bars where they will sleep at night (standing up!), keeping them off wet or snowy ground. Because they tend to flock together on the roost, Slingerland says, only around 10 inches of linear space per bird is needed. He adds that it’s important to keep the bars around the same height: This curbs their natural tendency to establish an aggressive hierarchy, which is where we get the expression “pecking order.”
You could drive yourself a bit cuckoo over the variety of chicken feed options. “There’s all manner of feed — organic, non-GMO, whatever,” says Slingerland. “It doesn’t matter. Buy a bag of chicken feed, they’ll eat it, they’ll lay eggs. So long as they have some water.” Water is key; they’ll drink twice as much as they eat. Pierce recommends hanging a dispenser from above or elevating it with cinder blocks, to keep it from being contaminated by debris stirred up by scratching. It’s also important to keep it from freezing during winter, which can be accomplished by heating dispensers that automatically turn on when temperatures drop below freezing — or simply by regular replenishing.
Of course, you can also get super-fancy in all kinds of ways; there are automatic solar-powered coop doors, heated roosting bars, flashing lights that mimic the appearance of predator’s eyes to scare away actual predators, and the list goes on. The bottom line, however, is providing your chickens with a space that’s safe and comfortable year-round.
Cooperative Extension has an office in each county of New York State. Originally designed to provide continuing education to farmers, it has grown into a robust program that serves as a resource for all New Yorkers. Watch the CCE’s Capital Area Agricultural and Horticultural website for upcoming classes and webinars related to raising chickens. You can also contact Nicolina Foti from the Saratoga CCE at (518) 885-9995, or Asley Pierce from the Albany CCE at (518) 649-0267.
Visit Slingerland Family Farm online, or call (518) 662-0320.