The Maven: Raising Backyard Chickens

Have you ever had fresh eggs laid the same morning? They taste better and are better for you than store-bought eggs. Best of all they came from your chickens, so you know what went into them—sweet grass, organic feed, no growth hormones or pesticides. Chickens are clever, have strong preferences about their food, home, and companions, and will come running when they know you have treats. They have a wide range of speech beyond clucking, and they are fun to watch as they forage for bugs or bask in the sun.

Start easy.

You think you’d like your own flock of backyard chickens, but you’re not sure about baby chicks? Start with pullets—young chickens who have just started to lay. Most catalogs sell chicks because they need to be shipped. (That’s right! Your mail is peeping!) But many local farmers will raise chicks for you until they’re eight- to twelve-weeks old. And since chicks are very hard to sex, starting with pullets means you’re also much less likely to get a surprise cockerel. Find a supplier by asking at a feed store, CSA, or farmers’ market, or even look on Craigslist.

No barn? No problem.

Chickens don’t need a lot of space. A general guideline is two square feet per bird for the coop and four square feet per bird for the run. What’s most important about chickens’ housing is that it offers shelter from the weather and protection from predators. Free ranging is great for chickens, but you want to be sure that they don’t wander into your neighbors’ gardens. Covered runs provide the best protection, but you can also get electric fencing or movable runs called “chicken tractors” to keep your flock’s grazing area fresh. Supplement their diet with grass clippings, cracked corn, and stone grit.

But what about the noise?

Roosters are wonderful guardians of their flock, but not everyone wants the constant crowing. Some city rules will even prohibit roosters because of the noise. You don’t need a rooster to get eggs. Hens lay eggs daily whether or not those eggs are fertilized. If you do decide to get a rooster, you can have only one per flock of about twelve hens or the birds will get territorial and fight.

Finding the right fit.

Check your local ordinances—you might be surprised what is allowed. Research different breeds. Do you want brown eggs, or white, or even blue or green? What are your climate conditions? Do you want chickens with ornamental feathers? Find the right kind of chicken for you, and don’t be afraid to try heritage breeds. Check your library for books, visit backyardchickens.com, and ask around. You’ll find that people who keep chickens will love to talk about their flocks! 

—By Andrea LeClair ’02

Leclair, AndreaAndrea LeClair ’02 had no farming experience when she first got chickens, but now she has a flock of ten in her five-acre backyard in Western Massachusetts. LeClair was a professional librarian for eight
years and now is marketing coordinator for Riptide Publishing. She blogs about life on her quirky farm at farmlifesupport.wordpress.com
.

Are you a maven?

Pitch us your area of expertise at quarterly@mtholyoke.edu.

This article appeared in the winter 2015 issue of the Alumnae Quarterly.

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