I have been raising chickens in my backyard for about 10 years. I don’t know why I thought I could raise them; I am, after all, a transplanted city girl. During my youth backyard chicken raising was not the rising trend we see today. I probably read an article about small flocks in Mother Earth News or Organic Gardening and thought, “I can do that.” That’s how most of the trouble starts in my house.
Right now I have eight hens in the backyard. Well, hens might be too generous a term as four of them are mature and four are baby chicks we bought in March, so they’re too young to lay eggs. We have had various numbers over the years but six to eight is the right amount for our family. We purchase them as day old chicks and raise them under a warming lamp until they grow all their feathers and can move outdoors. My children and the neighborhood children have enjoyed watching the chicks grow and collecting eggs from the hens.
There are many different breeds of chicken; many of them beautiful, some of them whimsical. There are hybrids and heritage breeds – just like vegetable varieties that are hybrids or heirlooms. People raise chickens for eggs, meat, and showing. There are chickens that lay white eggs, brown eggs, and even blue-green eggs. Hens lay eggs whether or not a rooster is around; we have never had one, mainly because I like my neighbors and my sleep. I try to be practical when I’m choosing chicken breeds and opt for good egg layers, but someday I would like a Polish Chicken. They have a fabulous crown of feathers and look like they are ready to stir up some fun.
I initially got chickens because I wanted fresh eggs and discovered that the flavor is far superior to eggs shipped from afar and bought at the supermarket. Not only is the taste superb but the color, especially when the hens are allowed to forage on grass is a deep orange and the egg practically stands up in the frying pan. No watery, runny eggs here! You can get the same delicious eggs from many of our farmers here in Riverhead.
We decided that we would not have a permanent coop built in one part of the yard that the chickens would turn to dirt in no time, but rather we would build a chicken tractor that could be easily moved around the yard to give the girls fresh grass every day. When I say we I mean my husband, Dan, would build it. That chicken tractor was like a fancy duplex. It was a thing of beauty. It had an A-frame structure that was enclosed on the top and open on the bottom. It was screened in on the bottom; keeping the chickens safe from predators and restrained from my garden while still allowing the chickens access to fresh air, grass, and bugs. There was a ramp that let the chickens climb to their nighttime roost. It had a plywood roof that we were supposed to cap with metal to keep rain out but we had extra asphalt roof tiles laying around so we used them for weather proofing.
Do you know how heavy asphalt tiles are!?! Between the plywood roof and the asphalt tiles it was onerous to move the coop around the yard.
So several years later we built Chicken Tractor 2. This one is much better. In fact, I like it so much that I have two of them. It’s basically a rectangular frame, 2.5ft h X 4ft w X 8ft l, with ¼ inch hardware cloth on the tops and sides. There is a tarp attached on the top to protect from sun and rain. Two doors make it easy to feed and water at one end and harvest eggs from the other. In the winter we wrap the house in plastic sheeting for extra warmth. That’s all the girls need. They do just fine in the winter. And because the chicken tractor is lightweight I can move it all by myself!
Click here for the directions from GardenGirlTV for this chicken tractor.
Now, here’s the best thing about this new chicken tractor – its dimensions are just a fraction smaller than the interior dimension of my garden beds!
Once I’ve finished harvesting I put the coop onto the garden bed and the chickens hang out there gleaning any plants left behind, and more importantly destroying weeds, eating weed seeds, and eating insects that might be plaguing the garden. They have a great time and they are helping me keep the weeds down in the bed while depositing valuable fertilizer. From late fall through winter and early spring I move the chicken tractor monthly from bed to bed. I’ll throw in some straw and kitchen scraps for the girls to kick around and with the addition of their manure I’ll have a refreshed and fertilized bed – with hardly any work or additional expense on my part. (Disclaimer – chickens are indiscriminate in their bug eating habits, they don’t eat only the ‘bad’ bugs but are certainly eating beneficial ones, too. Worse still is if they are let into a garden with new planting they will rip it all up.)
One of our chickens, Chihiro, is quite old. She is no longer laying eggs but maintains a special place in our hearts. She is one of the chickens we got in our first flock ten years ago who has managed to survive raccoons and death by natural causes. Several years ago we noticed that Chihiro was having trouble getting around. She was limping and her wing on the same side was limp. We think she had a stroke and didn’t know what to do for her except make sure she had food and water. After a few days she was able to get around with this crazy kind of hop-walk and she started foraging again. The chickens particularly like to forage in the compost heap and soon Chihiro managed to get up the heap but then fell down onto her back. Because one side of her body wasn’t very strong she couldn’t get up and we had to come to her rescue. With time, determination, and her own physical therapy routine she still has a little limp but is able to keep up with the younger chickens.
I am convinced that watching chickens lowers my blood pressure. We love cooking and eating outside during the warm weather. I’ll let the girls out just before dinner to forage throughout the yard. They are a stinking riot to watch. They take dirt baths, sun themselves, and chase each other around the yard if one has a particularly juicy bug. It is great entertainment to eat supper and watch the chickens. I call it chicken TV.
Backyard chickens can be fun and provide delicious eggs. If you are interested in raising some of your own Tara Besold at Talmage Farm Agway puts orders in every spring and chooses a very nice selection of breeds. New York State Law requires that you purchase a minimum of six chickens. If this is more than you want consider splitting an order with a friend.
In the garden this week:
• Get new plants and do a good deed! Go shopping at the 17th Annual East End Garden Festival, May 10-13, 9am – 6pm, at Staples Shopping Center in Riverhead to benefit Peconic Bay Medical Center’s Pegasus House Palliative Care.
• Harvest Lettuce, Spinach, Radish
• Plant Carrots, Radish, Kohlrabi, Bush Beans, Cucumber, Zucchini
• After the 15th plant Muskmelon, Pumpkin, Winter Squash, Watermelon; set out transplants of Tomatoes, Eggplant, Peppers, Basil
• By the end of May all warm weather vegetables can be set in the garden.
• Start mulching plants with compost, straw or tree mulch. Wait to mulch warm weather vegetables after soil warms up (June).