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Home fresh eggs: How to raise chickens in your backyard

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Home fresh eggs: How to raise chickens in your backyard

It all started with a March Break trip to Honduras. Hanging out on a local friend's porch, my six-year-old got to hold day-old chicks, which soon led to, "Mommy, Mommy, can we get chicks, too? Please? Can I have chicks?"
 
Neither my husband nor I could think of a valid reason to say no. For some reason the cost, responsibility and possible municipal bylaw infractions escaped our minds, and we promised that yes, she could have chicks. I had visions of my pink-cheeked daughter collecting three pretty brown organic eggs from the backyard each morning. Plus, c'mon, have you seen a day-old chick? They're hard to resist.

But they're also a big responsibility. We paid over $300 on supplies for three chicks that themselves cost all of $3 each. My husband also spent many hours converting part of our backyard garden shed into a chicken coop and building an outdoor run, while I spent my spare time cleaning: the cage, baby-chick bums, the playroom floor (after they'd pooped all over it during their regular free-range time).

The baby chicks grew fast, ate what seemed like their body weight in food daily, and pooped out the corresponding volume of waste each day. Often right into their food bowl or water dispenser, which then needed cleaning out. Again.

Today, at eight weeks of age, "the girls" require a lot less care, and now that their coop and run have been built, raising them is neither expensive nor difficult.

In theory, our Columbian Rock - Rhode Island Red cross-breed hens could be meaty dinner birds down the road when their laying days come to an end – but we'd never do that to Twyla, Rose and Buttercup. Now they're family.

Want to raise chickens in your own backyard? Here's what you need to know.

Level of commitment
High. Chicks need a lot of care, and chickens can live a decade – or more. Chickens eat and drink like crazy; foul (pardon the pun) everywhere; need room to roam and roost, indoors and out; and require heated facilities when the weather drops. They're highly social, too, so you'll have to raise a minimum of three chicks/chickens (if one dies, you'll still have a duo). A solo chick or chicken is likely to die from stress.

Page 1 of 4Life cycle
Many chicken breeds live around eight to 12 years. The easiest way to raise your own chicks is to buy day-olds that have been "sexed," or identified as female. (Even municipalities that allow chickens usually ban roosters.) Day-olds will need round-the-clock heat of about 32 degrees Celsius, with the temperature slowly reduced each week as they grow.

Once they hit four to six months of age, hens will be ready to start laying eggs. They can lay for a few years – or over a decade, depending on their breed and living conditions.

Breeds
When Googling local hatcheries or feed stores (which sell chicks individually, unlike many hatcheries, which may only sell in lots of 10 or 20), look for egg-laying or "dual-purpose" breeds. Read the personality traits associated with each breed, too. Sussex, for instance, are friendly. Wyandottes can be aloof. Leghorns sometimes avoid human contact – or attack.

The Chicken Selector Tool at mypetchicken.com can help you find your match.

Housing
Day-old chicks will quickly outgrow their starter cage and need to be moved to a coop with a minimum space of three or four square feet per bird from approximately one month on. As they grow, give them supervised "free-range" time in the yard or house to avoid confinement stress, which can lead to aggression and even cannibalism. Frequent handling helps tame them, too.

By week five, Twyla, Rose and Buttercup were in their "outdoor" coop. Our coop is a four-by-seven-foot pine-framed enclosure encased in wire mesh, with a plywood floor. My husband built it into our large potting shed. The coop is raised three feet off the floor to minimize cold, wet drafts. My husband cut an opening through the exterior wall, so the chickens can walk a wooden plank into their sand-covered, two-by-10-foot fenced outdoor run. Playground sand makes a good run surface because it dries fast (as does the hen poo that lands on it), unlike a dirt floor, which can get muddy and quite filthy over time.

Check out the wonderful website www.backyardchickens.com  for beautiful and practical coop designs.

TIP:
For those less DIY-inclined, there's an awesome product on the market called Eglu, which combines a coop and run in one moveable, super-stylish, modular unit built for two hens. It's a UK product that's shipped from its US partner Omlet.

Page 2 of 4Food
Chicks eat a granular feed called crumble. It's a complete diet, but you can feed them treats like pinhead crickets, yogurt or oatmeal after a month. Provide a supply of bird grit for their digestion; it can be found at any pet store and on most supermarket pet-food shelves.

Hens eat readymade chicken scratch, as well as fresh kitchen scraps. Again, provide grit for their digestion, and experiment with different fruits and veggies, raw and cooked, and live insects like crickets, mealworms and earthworms. Hard-boiled eggs are a popular protein source. Well-cooked meat is fine, though perhaps a bit creepy. Many love warm oatmeal, but avoid extra sugar or salt.

Chickens love grass, so give them supervised access to any pesticide-free lawn that needs trimming!

Store crumbles and scratch in airtight, rodent-proof cannisters or tubs.

Maintenance
Expect to clean or top up food and water bowls once or twice a day, and to "muck out" the straw from their enclosure once a week. The enclosure floor will also need to be vacuumed (with a wet/dry vacuum, not your indoor model) or swept. Wear a dust mask for safety.

If soiled, the floor will need to be scrubbed and disinfected with a pet-safe product.

The outdoor run will need to be raked, with solid waste removed, once a week.

The hens, on the other hand, keep themselves very clean and pretty!

Safety tips for you
Your chances of contracting avian flu through backyard chickens are very low. Your "flock" will be tiny, and the density of chickens in an urban setting is also low.

A more serious threat to your family's health comes from salmonella bacteria, which can be spread from pet reptiles or birds via infected feces, and which causes gastroenteritis. Keep your family safe by not feeding your chickens undercooked meat or eggs, washing your hands thoroughly after handling chickens, and making sure your kids don't kiss or (shudder) mouth-feed the chickens.

Avoid letting chickens get too close to your face, as some tend to confuse eyes and freckles for peck-worthy morsels.

Chickens and chicks have sharp little talons that can scratch you if they "dig in" to prevent themselves from falling off your bare arm or lap. Promptly clean and apply disinfectant to any chicken-induced scratches.

Page 3 of 4Safety tips for feathered friends
Show your kid how to safely hold a chick (ask the feed store clerk to demonstrate, if you don't know how either), and always supervise their initial interactions. Have kids sit on a carpeted or grass surface, so if they drop the chick, it will have a padded landing.

Adult chickens are generally fine around house cats and well-trained dogs, but supervision is always the safest route. Small chicks should never be left with other pets. Keep in mind that even if a chick doesn't die from a mishap, any sign of weakness – a broken leg, bloody scratch – can result in it being attacked and killed by its peers. This is why safety is so important.

Raccoons, skunks, foxes, coyotes, red-tailed hawks and stray dogs and cats are all potential predators of backyard chickens. You can minimize their danger by ensuring runs are securely fenced in, including on top, and by using heavy-gauge wire mesh, not "chicken wire", on runs. The sides of a run should flange outward a foot or more, to prevent predators from trying to dig under the sides.

Finally, the legal stuff
Sadly, keeping backyard chickens goes against some municipal bylaws. Toronto has banned them, as has Halifax, where one woman had her three chickens seized after a neighbour complained.

Backyard chickens are permitted in Vancouver and Victoria, and London and Niagara Falls, Ont, among a few other cities. They're not explicitly banned in Waterloo, Ont., but a citizen's group calling itself the Waterloo Hen Association is lobbying to have urban chickens legalized.

I couldn't find info online as to whether there's a bylaw restricting them in my city (and didn't want to draw attention to myself by phoning in an inquiry), so I keep them on the down-low, aided and abetted by neighbours who like the novelty of hens.

Here are my top tips for raising backyard hens under the radar:
• Don't get too many. Three is a good number.

• Pick a quiet, docile breed. Even mellow neighbours might become less so if your flighty chickens make periodic breaks for freedom into their backyard or are noisy.
 
• Keep your henhouse über-clean. Lock feed in rodent-proof bins or canisters. Vigilantly clean the house and run to prevent odour.

• Don't create an eyesore. Or neighbours might talk. To the city, that is.

• Finally, share the wealth. If your neighbours know about the hens, occasionally drop off a basket of a half-dozen fresh organic eggs . Goodwill is practically guaranteed!

Read more:
5 healthy herbs: It's easy to grow them
The true price of dogs, cats, rabbits, birds and other critters
10 tips for being a responsible pet owner

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Home fresh eggs: How to raise chickens in your backyard

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