A Guide to Getting Started with These Perky, Beneficial Pets

Photos by L.G. Patterson

With the quality of our food becoming less and less assured, health conscious individuals are considering alternatives to the food supply their families are consuming. Many urban dwellers have introduced vegetable gardens in their backyards. Some are going a step further by starting their own flock of chickens.

YUMMY AND HEALTHIER EGGS
So, why chickens? For their eggs! The benefits of free-range eggs opposed to store-bought commercial eggs are in their nutritional value. Studies show several advantages to farm-fresh eggs, including:
• less cholesterol
• less saturated fat
• increased vitamins A, E, and D
• more omega-3 fatty acids, and
• more beta carotene.

Omega-3 fatty acids are essential to our body’s day-to-day functions and help to prevent several chronic diseases. The nutrients necessary to increase the amount of fatty acids, vitamins and minerals in eggs come from the chickens’ diet. A daily consumption of bugs and leafy greens along with a quality feed are essential in providing the nutrients for healthy eggs. These are not part of the commercially raised, caged hen’s diet.

Both farm-fresh and store-bought eggs have cholesterol. However, backyard eggs contain lower amounts and most of the cholesterol in these eggs is considered “good” cholesterol (HDL). HDL does not have the same harmful health effects as “bad” cholesterol (LDL). Cholesterol is actually a very important part of our diet, aiding our bodies in maintaining proper levels of calcium and phosphorous.

GETTING STARTED
Chickens are easy to care for, and you don’t need to take out a second mortgage to house and feed them. So how do you begin, and what do you need? These are the first of many questions to consider.We will start with the B.C. era… “Before Chickens.”
• Does Columbia allow backyard chickens?
• Are both hens and rooster acceptable?
• Are there rules on where the coop can be built?
• What do I need from my neighbors before starting?
• Do I need a permit to raise chickens and to build a coop?
• Who can I contact if I must unexpectedly part ways with my chickens?

COLUMBIA IS CHICKEN FRIENDLY
In 2010, the Columbia City Council voted in favor of the Urban Chicken Ordinance. This ordinance allows residents to keep up to six hens. Roosters are not allowed because of the concern for the noise they would generate each morning and throughout the day to the annoyance of non-chicken lovers.

It is important to familiarize yourself with the chicken ordinance concerning odor, coop construction, and of course proper treatment of the animals. More information about these and other questions is available from the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture (see sidebar).

You will need to consider space for when your chicks are grown. Each grown hen will need 4 square feet of indoor space and 5-10 square feet of outdoor space. This is important when considering the size of your back yard and how many hens it will support. Three hens will be much happier and more productive with appropriate space than six that live in crowded conditions. Now that you have answered the “before chicken” questions, it is time to discuss breeds.

CHICKEN BREEDS TO CONSIDER
Plumage and egg color are two factors to consider. If you like white eggs, the Leghorn, Anacona, Campine and Andalusian are very popular. If you google images of the breed you can see what they look like as adults.

If your preference leans toward the traditional brown egg, the Black Australorp, Buff Orpington, Plymouth Barred Rock, Rhode Island Red and the Speckled Sussex are good choices. For those who like a dark brown egg the Welsummer lays a beautiful terracotta brown egg. The Cuckoo Marans lay a dark chocolate colored egg.

If you like a little color outside the traditional brown or white, try the Americana, Aracana or the Cream Legbar. Many hatcheries list the Americana and the Aracana as Easter Eggers because of their pale green or blue eggs. It is fun to diversify your flock to diversify your egg colors. Every carton looks like Easter eggs with different shades of brown and a spot of green thrown in.

FROM FUZZBALL TO FLOCK
Every hen starts as an egg. After 21 days they become a cute little fuzzball chick. That is where you will want to start with your flock. If you want your hens to be your backyard buddies, you will need to raise them from chicks. If you buy adult hens you may get hens that are already past their egg-laying prime and you will be a stranger to them.

We use the term, “chicken” when referring to someone who is afraid because chickens are very nervous around strangers and don’t like change. If you are their mom or dad and raise them with lots of attention and handling, they will warm up to you.

They can be trained to eat out of your hands or even sit on your lap while looking for treats. The same goes for the rest of the family. Let the kids get involved early on. It is a great way for them to learn some responsibility in caring for the animals.

PREPARING FOR YOUR CHICKS
Before you buy chicks, there are a few things you need to do in advance. You need to prepare their brooder. The brooder is where you raise the chicks. This is not the same as the chicken coop. Most chicks are only a day old, or within their first week of life, when you get them.

The chicks need to be kept at 95 degrees for the first week at their new home. A heat lamp will provide for the needed temperature. I recommend the red heat light bulbs instead of the white. The chicks get agitated in bright light and will start pecking each other. The more subdued light cast from the red bulbs helps keep them calm. The brooder needs to be a safe place where Fluffy the cat can’t get at them.

You will need litter for the bottom of the brooder. Pine wood shavings are recommended. Never use cedar shavings. The strong smell is hard on their respiratory system. A large box, plastic tub or a small livestock tank works well for a brooder. You will need to hang the light roughly 20 inches above the bottom of the brooder to get the appropriate temperature. You may need to raise or lower it to get the temperature correct. Place a thermometer in the bottom of the brooder 24 hours in advance of the arrival of your chicks to ensure the proper temperature.

The chicks will let you know if the temperature is too hot, too cold, or just right. When they are cold, they tend to huddle very closely. When they are too hot they will move to the outer fringes of the brooder to get away from the heat. When the temperature is just right they will scatter all around the brooder while awake. Another sign of discomfort is a loud piercing peep. A contented chick will softly peep. If you are hearing loud peeps, check on your babies.

Be sure to purchase feeders and water for chicks, not adult hens. You will also need a bag of chick starter feed. You have a choice of medicated or non-medicated. If your chicks are vaccinated against Marek’s Disease and coccidiosis, you don’t need the medicated feed.

Once your chick feeders are filled with nutritious food and the chick waterers are brimming with clean fresh water, the temperature is at 95 degrees, and you have a nice 3- to 4-inch layer of pine shavings in the bottom of the brooder, you are ready to go shopping for chicks.

BUYING TIPS
So how do we go about buying chicks? One of the easiest ways to purchase them is from a local feed or farm supply store during “Chick Days.” You can also purchase them online from credible hatcheries. I recommend the following: www.cacklehatchery.com or www.mcmurrayhatchery.com.

A little vocabulary lesson is needed first. Baby hens are called poults. Roosters are called cockerels. When you order your poults, do not order a “straight run.” The straight run chicks are not sexed. You will be getting both hens and roosters. You need to specify poults, since roosters are not allowed in Columbia backyards.

If you order from a hatchery, like the Cackle Hatchery in Lebanon, Missouri, you will need to pick them up at the hatchery because they will not mail them to you in lots of less than fifteen. Fewer chicks would succumb to the ambient air temperature before arriving at your post office. They pack fifteen in a small box and the chicks keep each other warm. When you purchase from a farm supply store, be careful. They usually buy straight runs for resale.

BRINGING YOUR CHICKS HOME
Your chicks are now in the brooder. Be sure to change the water daily and keep food available always. Within a week, you will see the wing feathers develop. As they feather you can start lowering the temperature in the brooder by 5 degrees per week until they are fully feathered. They will feather out completely within 6 to 8 weeks. They are now ready for the chicken coop.

CHICKEN COOPS
Your chicks can handle the outside temperatures once they are fully covered in their insulating feathers. By now you have purchased or built the next home for your young hens. There are many designs and even designer coops available on the market. Many of the online backyard chicken forums will provide ideas for your coop. “Chicken Coops” by Judy Pangman can get you started on coop designs if you are into DIY projects. Keep in mind the space needs for your hens mentioned earlier.

NEST BOXES
In Columbia, since you are limited to six hens, two nest boxes are sufficient. Each nest box should be approximately 1 cubic foot. Build your nest box 12 inches wide by 10 inches deep.

Allow 14 inches in height so the chicken can stand. The boxes should be 18 inches above the floor of the coop. Line the nest with straw or pine shavings. This will protect the eggs from breaking on the hard nest box floor. A broken egg is a temptation to the hens. Once they taste an egg, they may start breaking eggs to eat. This habit is nearly impossible to break. Egg-eating hens should be removed from the flock permanently.

OTHER COOP SUGGESTIONS
Fresh air is essential for healthy chickens, but drafts are deadly. Windows and vents need to be higher than the highest roost to keep drafts off the hens. The ammonia that builds up in the coop is hazardous to the hens, so good ventilation is important.

An electrical source is important in the winter to keep water from freezing and for a light source. Hens will lay fewer eggs as the days shorten. A light on a timer that mimics summer daylight hours will help keep the girls laying all winter.

LET THE EGG LAYING BEGIN
So, when can you expect that first egg? Usually between 18 and 21 weeks. Don’t be surprised if your hens produce a very tiny egg, or one with no yolk or a soft shell at first. This will change quickly and good healthy eggs will begin to find their way into your diet.