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Starting a Backyard Flock

Story at-a-glance -

  • Backyard chickens are growing in popularity, and many US cities are adjusting ordinances to allow for this pastime
  • Requirements vary widely depending on your locale, with many limiting the number of chickens you can raise or requiring quarterly inspections (at a cost) and permits
  • Chickens need at least 14 hours of daylight to produce eggs, which means they’re going to produce far fewer eggs, and maybe none at all, during the darker, colder winter months
  • You’ll need to carefully consider the breed(s) of your chickens, as they each have unique personalities, weather tolerance, and egg-laying potential
  • In addition to providing fresh eggs, backyard chickens help you “biorecycle” food waste, provide natural pest control, improve the health of your soil and may even help you reduce stress and improve your mood

By Dr. Mercola

In the video above, Naomi Montacre, co-founder of Naomi's Organic Farm Supply in Portland, Oregon, shares some of the basic considerations you need to take when deciding whether to raise chickens in your own backyard.

For starters, realize that chickens live upwards of 12 years, and even up to 20, so you’re making a long-term commitment.

If you’re even slightly familiar with the many problems of commercial egg farming, perhaps you’ve taken the step of finding a healthier, more humane source for your eggs, like a farmer’s market or direct from a local farm.

For some, this quest for farm-fresh eggs takes them down a slightly different path toward raising their own backyard chickens. According to one web site devoted to the topic, “Thousands if not millions of chickens are quietly tucked away in backyards across America…”1

Ironically, considering it wasn’t too long ago that people raised chickens as a matter of necessity – and US government posters during World War I and World War II actually encouraged Americans to keep hens (along with plant Victory Gardens), raising chickens is now considered trendy.2

Forbes even went so far as to say “it has become the mark of twenty-first century urban hipness to keep a bunch of birds out back.”3 Whether you’re seriously considering this idea or simply find it intriguing, there are some important considerations. The first is to find out whether it’s legal where you live.

Check Your Local Ordinances Before Buying Your Chickens

Backyard chickens are growing in popularity, and many US cities are adjusting zoning ordinances to allow for this pastime. Requirements vary widely depending on your locale, with many limiting the number of chickens you can raise or requiring quarterly inspections (at a cost) and permits.

Many cities limit the number of permits that can be issued each year, while some cities even require approval from your neighbors. In St. Louis, Missouri, for instance, an ordinance went into effect in January 2012 that allows residents to raise five chickens (but no roosters). As of April 2013, four permits had been issued (and no complaints had been heard).4

Earlier this month, meanwhile, residents of Cheyenne, Wyoming asked the city council to change a zoning ordinance that prohibits residents from raising chickens inside city limits.5

BackyardChickens.com has a section devoted to laws and ordinances on raising chickens across the US.6 It’s a good place to start if you’re considering this, but remember if your city currently prohibits it, you can make a proposal for change in your community.

You might be surprised to find your city already allows chickens, as even many large, urban cities have jumped on board (Chicago, Illinois, for instance, allows residents to keep an unlimited number of chickens, as “pets” or for eggs, provided you keep a humane and adequately sized coop).

Among the many cities that have recently added new laws and ordinances allowing chickens (with various restrictions and requirements) include:

Cowley, Wyoming Ledyard, New London, Hebron, and New Canaan, Connecticut Orange, Athol, and Gardner, Massachusetts
Pasadena, Texas Hartford City and Goshen, Indiana Lower Providence Township, Pennsylvania
St. Louis Park and Oak Park Heights, Minnesota Crest Hill, Illinois Oakley, California
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A Glimpse Back in Time: What Was Raising Chickens Like in the Early 1900s?

Prior to the 1920s, poultry was raised for fun in the US, mostly as a hobby, but not so much as a food source – the fact that you could eat them was incidental. Backyard "poultrymen," as an April 1927 National Geographic article called them,7 gradually disappeared after World War I.

Chicken coops were replaced by automobile garages as post-war mechanization took over, and chickens began to be regarded more as livestock. Henneries became commercialized operations capitalizing on poultry's economic value as a human food.

Chickens saved the day for thousands of farmers in the Midwest who suffered crop failures, labor shortages, and price drops, and who were unable to make a living. Chickens were, and still are, very efficiently "manufactured" from raw material – a four-pound hen consuming 75 to 80 pounds of feed will produce 25 to 30 pounds of eggs! 

And if you are prudent most of that feed can be weeds and damaged veggies from your garden, which makes the endeavor even more efficient.

In 1927, most flocks consisted of 50-300 birds. But flocks didn't stay that small and cozy for long. By the 1940s, the chicken population in every American city was roughly half that of the human population. Most people obtained their eggs from their own backyard, or from a neighbor or a farmers market down the street. What happened to the backyard poultry farmers?

"The breakthrough that made today's quarter-million-bird farms possible was the fortification of feed with antibiotics and vitamins, which allowed chickens to be raised indoors," Smithsonian Magazine explained.8

From there, the CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation) was born.

Key Aspects to Consider When Choosing Chickens for Your Backyard

While chickens can continue to lay eggs for their entire lives, provided they’re well cared for, the rate at which they do so will slow down considerably after they reach five years. You can help to spread out your chickens’ production by adding in younger chicks to your flock after a year or two.

Next, don’t expect that your hens will be egg-producing “machines” year-round (the way they’re expected to be in CAFOs). Chickens need at least 14 hours of daylight to produce eggs. This means they’re going to produce far fewer eggs, and maybe none at all, during the darker, colder winter months.

The breed of your chickens matters, as well. Some are known for their egg production while others are raised for showing. Certain chicken breeds will be more cold-tolerant than others and their personalities will also vary by breed, with some being docile and others flighty.

Not all breeds get along well together, either, which should be carefully considered if you’re planning to raise multiple breeds. If you have a neighbor or a local farm with chickens, asking him or her about the pros and cons of the breeds in their flock is one of the best ways to learn for yourself which chickens will be right for you. Rodale News also has a useful article to help you pick the right chickens.9

You’ll also need to decide whether you want to raise chickens from the chick stage or get them when they’ve already reached the “teenaged” stage (known as pullets). The younger chicks will be more labor intensive, yet some say they also become tamer when raised in your flock from that young age (and many enjoy the chick stage).

If you really want to get the full experience of raising chickens, you can also raise them from eggs, although this will require either a broody hen to sit on the eggs for 21 days or an incubator designed for this purpose.

What Can You Gain by Eating All of Those Fresh Eggs?

For most people interested in raising backyard chickens, the greatest allure is the ready access to fresh, free-range eggs. Free-range or "pastured" organic eggs are far superior when it comes to nutrient content, while conventionally raised eggs are far more likely to be contaminated with disease-causing bacteria such as Salmonella (this is why, if you're eating raw eggs, they MUST be organic pastured eggs). You can usually tell your eggs are free-range or pastured by the color of the egg yolk. Foraged hens produce eggs with bright orange yolks, and this is what most people who raise backyard chickens are after. Dull, pale yellow yolks are a sure sign you're getting eggs from caged hens that are not allowed to forage for their natural diet.

Eggs are a phenomenal source of protein, fat, and other nutrients, including choline and the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin. I believe eggs are a nearly ideal fuel source for most of us, provided they’re prepared correctly. (The best way to consume eggs, provided they come from a high-quality source, is to not cook them at all, which is why my advanced nutrition plan recommends eating your eggs raw.) The evidence clearly shows that eggs are one of the healthiest foods you can eat, and can actually help prevent disease, including heart disease. For example, previous studies have found that:

  • Consumption of more than six eggs per week does not increase the risk of stroke and ischemic stroke10
  • Eating two eggs a day does not adversely affect endothelial function (an aggregate measure of cardiac risk) in healthy adults, supporting the view that dietary cholesterol may be less detrimental to cardiovascular health than previously thought11
  • Proteins in cooked eggs are converted by gastrointestinal enzymes, producing peptides that act as ACE inhibitors (common prescription medications for lowering blood pressure)12
  • A survey of South Carolina adults found no correlation of blood cholesterol levels with "bad" dietary habits, such as use of red meat, animal fats, fried foods, butter, eggs, whole milk, bacon, sausage, and cheese13

The Benefits of Raising Chickens: Beyond Fresh Eggs

Eggs are but one benefit of raising a flock of backyard chickens. Others worth noting include the following, as noted by Patrician Foreman, author of City Chicks: Keeping Micro-flocks of Chickens as Garden Helpers, Compost Makers, Bio-reyclers, and Local Food Producers:14

1. Recycle Your Food and Yard Waste

One chicken can biorecycle seven pounds of food waste a month. That is, you feed your chickens scraps from your kitchen, and in return they give you nitrogen-rich fertilizer that you can add to your compost pile. If 2,000 households raised three hens each using this philosophy, it would eliminate 252 tons of waste from landfills every year!

2. Organic Exterminators

Chickens love to eat insects, which is why a few free-roaming chickens in your yard can easily get rid of ticks and other undesirable pests. They even like to eat weeds, which means less weed-pulling for you.

3. Improve the Health of Your Soil

Soil health connects to everything up the food chain, from plant and insect health, all the way up to animal and human health. Health, therefore, truly begins in the soil in which our food is grown. Chickens play an integral role here, and not just via the fertilizer. Chickens’ natural tendency to scratch and dig helps to mix the top layers of your soil with compost and mulches. They’re like built-in tillers!

4. Preserve Heritage Breeds

CAFOs tend to use the same breeds of chickens (either high-volume laying breeds or heavy, fast-growing meat chickens). Many beautiful heritage breeds are now on the verge of extinction, so adding a couple of these to your backyard could help to preserve their genetic material for future generations.

5. Boost Your Mood

Many people who raise backyard chickens adore watching them scratch around in the backyard. It’s likely that owning chickens provides many of the stress-busting benefits as owning other pets, like cats or dogs. There are even therapy chickens.

Five Questions to Ask Yourself Before Raising Chickens

Two years ago, I visited Joel Salatin at his Polyface farm in Virginia. He's truly one of the pioneers in sustainable agriculture, and you can take a virtual tour through his chicken farm operation in the video above. If you’re thinking of raising chickens, you’ll likely find his operations inspiring, but before you move forward ask yourself the five questions below. You can also visit Joel's Polyface Farm Web site for more details on raising chickens.

  1. Can I dedicate some time each day? You can expect to devote about 10 minutes a day, an hour per month, and a few hours twice a year to the care and maintenance of your brood.15
  2. Do I have enough space? They will need a minimum of 10 square feet per bird to roam, preferably more. The more foraging they can do, the healthier and happier they'll be and the better their eggs will be.
  3. What are the chicken regulations in my town? You will want to research this before jumping in because some places have zoning restrictions and even noise regulations (which especially applies if you have a rooster).
  4. Are my neighbors on board with the idea? It's a good idea to see if they have any concerns early on. When they learn they might be the recipients of occasional farm-fresh eggs, they might be more agreeable.
  5. Can I afford a flock? There are plenty of benefits to growing your own eggs, but saving money isn't one of them. There are significant upfront costs to getting a coop set up, plus ongoing expenses for supplies.

Finally, if you don’t want to raise your own chickens but still want farm-fresh eggs, you have many options. Finding high-quality organic, pastured eggs locally is getting easier, as virtually every rural area has individuals with chickens. If you live in an urban area, visiting the local health food stores is typically the quickest route to finding high-quality local egg sources. Farmers markets and food co-ops are another great way to meet the people who produce your food. With face-to-face contact, you can get your questions answered and know exactly what you're buying. Better yet, visit the farm -- ask for a tour. If they have nothing to hide, they should be eager to show you their operation.