EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW
When most people think of raising livestock of any kind, they think of big farms and wide-open spaces—but we can’t all buy 50 acres and become full-time farmers. Thankfully, with the rise of urban farming and backyard gardens, you don’t need to own a lot of land or quit your day job to enjoy some of the benefits of farm life.
For my family, backyard birds are an essential part of our home garden. They are relatively low cost and low maintenance (after a few start-up essentials), they don’t require a lot of space, and they do so many wonderful things for us.
Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with Rodney Chrisman, who owns and operates Wolf Hill Farm in Bedford County. His family-run farm specializes in breeding and selling chicks (and soon to be ducks) as well as farm products. They also offer “coop-ready” chickens for anyone wanting to skip the incubator stage. At any rate, Rodney is pretty much a backyard bird expert.
According to Rodney, the practice of raising backyard birds has been quickly growing in popularity every year as more people discover the benefits. As he pointed out, chickens take feed, table scraps, grass, and bugs, and turn them into fresh eggs and the best fertilizer around.
It’s true, chickens are great gardeners. Their clawed feet act as mini tillers as they scratch at the dirt to forage for bugs and treats—and at the end of the growing season, they are great at cleaning up your garden for you! They produce nutrient-rich waste which, if composted with their used bedding, makes incredible fertilizer. But the benefits don’t end there.
There is nothing like a beautiful, farm-fresh egg and the pleasure of being intimately connected to the food you and your family consume. Furthermore, chickens are dedicated foragers, and they love to eat the bugs we detest in our yards! In fact, ticks are a favorite snack, and the average hen can consume at least 60 ticks per hour! Rodney says that even if you don’t free-range your chickens, rotating their coop to new locations throughout your yard or allowing them an hour or two of free-range foraging time will drastically reduce the number of ticks and mosquitos around your home. I live in a fenceless yard, in a neighborhood with lots of roaming pets, so my flock stays in a fenced-in coop most of the time—but I love to let them wander and eat up all those undesirables while I’m working in my garden or enjoying the evening on the back porch.
If you’re sold on the idea of raising a flock of your own, there are a few things you should know before you go out and make a purchase. First: check your local regulations. Most localities in our area have some regulations surrounding backyard bird raising. These might include maximum flock size, distance from property lines, or yard size requirements. Fortunately, most localities do allow residents to keep poultry, even Lynchburg City!
Next, it’s a good idea to carefully research the breeds available to you before you buy, and choose the breed that is best for your needs. Personally, I like chickens that lay plenty of brightly colored eggs, so we’re raising Ameraucanas, who lay blue-green eggs, and Welsummers, who lay rich terracotta speckled eggs. When it comes to ducks, we’re looking for an easy temperament and a high egg production. But maybe you are looking to raise birds for meat or want chickens with great personalities who will doze on your lap in the sunshine. Always do your research, and if you’re not sure, my friend Rodney would be happy to help!
Then, there are a few essentials you’ll need to provide for your flock, in order to keep them safe, healthy, and happy:
If you’re starting with babies, you’ll need a safe place for them to grow, away from the elements and predators. You can use almost anything as long as it is secure, big enough for all of the birds plus their food and water, and can be kept very warm. We use a big plastic tote and keep it in our mudroom.
Baby birds are very sensitive to temperature changes and must be kept very warm (80-90 degrees). Even after they’ve been moved out to their coop, you’ll want to move the heat lamp outside with them in case of cool nights. You can pick one up at just about any farm store. Slowly move the heat lamp away from the brooder as the chicks age.
Whether you are going to free range or keep your birds in a coop, their diet will require regular feedings of specifically formulated feed to stay healthy and lay eggs. Babies require protein-rich starter feed for the first few weeks of their life. Then, you’ll want to slowly transition them to a grower feed for the next few weeks. Once they are starting to lay eggs, you’ll switch them to a layer feed, which they will eat happily for most of their lives. Mix in crushed oyster shells and grit, which can be purchased with the feed, to achieve the necessary balanced diet.
Your birds need a strong, secure shelter where they can sleep, lay eggs, and be kept safe in inclement weather or while a predator is on the prowl. Remember, everyone (and everything) loves chicken, so protection is critical. Chickens and ducks require about two to four square feet of space each inside their coop, and if they are confined to a run, at least twice that outside. Bigger is always better. Inside, you may want easily accessible nesting boxes of about one square foot each, and something for the chickens to roost on. (Old wooden ladders work great!) Also, make your life easier by adding a large, locking door for coop clean-out. Their run should be fully enclosed with sturdy fencing, and you’ll want to consider fencing above and below to prevent animals that may try to dig under, or hawks that would swoop down from above. At Wolf Hill, Rodney uses hoop houses for ducks and chickens. He says they’re great because they are very secure, and they can be moved around your yard so you can reap those fertilizer benefits.
You’ll need to provide plenty of clean straw in the coop and the nesting boxes. Avoid hay, as it creates a lot of dust and attracts mites, which are harmful to chickens.
All in all, raising backyard birds is such a great experience for the whole family. “It’s good for the birds and God’s creation in general to be raised in a backyard environment,” says Rodney. “Every egg that someone raises and eats themselves helps the environment, and goes a long way to prevent some of the inhumane practices that take place in modern poultry factories.”
Not to mention that the simple good work of caring for living things and producing your own food is an invaluable experience that brings joy and contentment to all who undertake it.