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Fresh Eggs: Keeping a flock of chickens is not just for farmers anymore

May 14th, 2010 | By | Category: Animals, Features

by Marnie Jones

It begins with eggs. For most of us, the chicken-keeping concept is hatched from a desire for fresh, wholesome, chemical-free food for the table, and the natural superiority of a free-range egg is the biggest draw.

Interest in keeping chickens is growing, and it’s not just for farmers anymore. The backyard flock can be enjoyed by suburban and rural families alike, and even an urban household may benefit from the food, fun, and fertilizer that a pair or trio of hens can provide. Meeting the chickens’ needs for space, shelter, and sustenance is simple, and the benefits go far beyond egg production.
Keeping 15 free-ranging hens and a chivalrous rooster on one and a quarter acres, my family of five enjoys a dozen eggs a day in the spring and summer. With firm, bright yolks and many-hued shells, they supplement our diet as well as those of our friends and neighbors. Acquaintances in Bellingham, on the other hand, keep just three hens, enjoying the slug- and bug-patrol that even a few backyard chickens can provide.
Accommodations for the flock will vary according to necessity and convenience, but it is generally assumed that three square feet per chicken will do for free ranging animals, while ten square feet per bird are recommended for enclosed yards. There are a variety of designs and styles to suit every taste and budget, but the key essentials must be in place. A roost, the diameter of which will depend on your chickens’ size, and nest boxes for layers—one for every three or four birds—are important, as are appropriate ventilation, shelter from the elements, and security against predators.
While an urban or suburban lot may necessitate keeping your chickens confined, there is much to be said for the free ranging flock. For the chicken-owning gardener, a six-foot net or fence around planting areas should suffice to prevent damage by scratching, while the chickens will relish the chance to forage for delectable garden pests. Whether they range or not, chickens produce nutrient-rich manure which, when mixed with bedding and composted, becomes one of nature’s finest soil amendments.
There are as many breeds, types and sizes of chickens as there are styles of keeping them, but a few breeds shine as backyard layers. Several heritage and dual-purpose breeds, such as Rhode Island reds, barred Plymouth rocks, Wyandottes, Delawares, and Australorps, serve well as layers and dress out nicely when their productive years are over. For those who keep, rather than cull, their retired layers, a heavier bird may still be a good choice, being generally calm and docile. Beautiful bantams, with delicate frames and equally delicate eggs, may be a good choice for the small-scale chicken yard, and the flighty but productive leghorn may be ideal for folks who want the most egg for their feed dollar.
Once a flock is established, there is harmony in routine. Our chickens rise with the sun, and greet us with enthusiasm when we arrive to open their door and fill their feeder. “Flocking to us,” if you will, they come to our call in expectation of kitchen scraps or chicken scratch, and by dusk they’ll have safely tucked themselves into bed. We shut their door against predators and gather eggs for the next day’s breakfast. Not much to it.
Whether scratching through and spreading manure in the pasture or eating slugs and grubs on the garden perimeter, chickens provide more than mere egg delivery. A small flock in rotation with other livestock can have a dramatic, positive impact on parasite populations, and their antics provide entertainment for family members of all ages. Children can play an active role in flock management, gathering eggs and feeding chickens, and can enjoy the company of a docile hen. Our young daughters take real responsibility for dispensing feed and gathering eggs, which the chickens repay with their gentle companionship.
Free resources for the novice flock keeper abound in print and on the web. As an example, www.backyardchickens.com offers helpful articles and an active community forum, while www.urbanchickens.org includes information on ordinances and laws for city dwellers.
The beautiful plumage, peaceful clucking, and helpful scratching of our small flock would be reward enough for the labor of keeping them, and the bounty of their eggs more than compensates for feed and bedding costs. Above all, however, there is the reward of growing our own food. The health benefits of fresh garden produce are matched or exceeded as one moves up the food chain, and free range, chemical-free eggs are no exception. Some studies show that Omega 3 and vitamins A and E are present in greater quantity than in caged chicken eggs, and the visual difference between a firm, orange, farm-fresh yolk is apparent even in comparison with a “cage free” purchased egg.
Healthy, affordable groceries, home-grown and wholesome, are a primary benefit of at-home chicken keeping. Then there are the birds—for our family, knowing that the chickens who produce our food are living in a fashion true to their nature is of tremendous weight. With the backyard flock, we all benefit.

Marnie Jones gardens, writes, and rides her mule in the South Fork Valley of Whatcom County, where she shares one green acre with her husband and three daughters. Her mule, Fenway, blogs at www.BraysOfOurLives.com.

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