Food prices have skyrocketed. Polar bears are doing the breaststroke. Though things aren't looking great for our planet or our economy, something good, it seems, has come from the precarious position we've found ourselves in.
In an effort to cut costs and do the Earth right, quite a bit of our attention is refocusing on eating local. Farmers’ markets are surging in popularity, grocery stores are offering locally grown produce, and restaurants boast nearby sources of pea shoots and rutabagas. It's a good start, but I think we can do even better.
Our backyards hold a lot of potential as a food source. Even if all you have is a patio, that space can lead to herbs, vegetables and fresh eggs. A small plot can produce more than enough veggies to keep your crisper full most of the year. Container gardens, for those who are short on space, are a great way to supplement your salad intake.
As obvious as gardening is, there's another simple way to cut back on grocery bills and enjoy fresh-from-the-farm foods: raising your own chickens. Chickens are easy animals to raise, requiring less care than those needy cats and dogs many of us insist on keeping around, and they reward their owners with fresh eggs, and if you choose, fresh meat.
Before you decide to start a flock, it's best to check with city and neighborhood ordinances. If you discover that chickens aren't allowed where you live, don't give up. Exotic pet laws may be one loophole to get chickens in your yard, or you can always organize like-minded neighbors and approach your city council representative for help.
After assuring that chickens are welcome in your hood, you'll need to buy or build a coop. Options abound when it comes to housing birds. Sheds, dog kennels and even pickup truck shells can all be converted to coops. Buying a coop will set you back anywhere from a couple hundred bucks to more than a thousand dollars. Depending on size and type, building your own can be done for less than $100.
Whichever route you go with, the coop should be reasonably easy to access for egg collecting and cleaning. Make sure it can be secured at night against predators and at all times against the weather.
Every coop should have a ventilation source (i.e., a window), a roost and nesting boxes. A roost is just a pole or branch fixed above the ground for your chickens to perch on at night. It should be made from wood or plastic—metal roosts can freeze during winter, leading to frostbitten feet. Place the roost at least two feet from the ground and allow for at least one foot of roosting length per bird. If you find your birds are slipping off, the roost may be too small or too round for them to grip comfortably.
Hens require a quiet, private spot to do their egg-laying business, and that's where nesting boxes come in. You'll need one nesting box for every four hens. Buy or build a box that measures about 12 inches by 12 inches, and place it off the ground and away from the roost. Line the box with bedding—such as wood shavings, hay or straw—and keep it clean and fresh.
While chickens don't take up too much space, plan for about three square feet per bird. A fenced-in yard, garden or run can be included in this space. Use poultry netting or hardware cloth for your fence, and consider enclosing the yard completely to keep your birds contained. Chicken yards also protect chicks from hawks and other predators.
Chickens are easy animals to raise, requiring less care than those needy cats and dogs many of us insist on keeping around, and they reward their owners with fresh eggs, and if you choose, fresh meat.
If you're raising chicks, you'll need to start them off indoors until they're old enough to survive on their own. Keep them warm and safe with a heat source and a “brooder"—a cardboard box, cage or even a plastic tub.
Starting with mature hens is even easier. Check classified listings and feed stores to see if anyone's willing to part with some, usually for a price. I received mine for free from a former landlord just by asking.
Choose your breed according to what you expect from your chickens. Smaller breeds require less space. Others are bred for egg or meat production specifically. The Internet or your local feed store can point you in the right direction. You'll also need to decide if you want a rooster. It's best to skip roosters if you have neighbors and don’t want to breed your chickens. Roosters aren’t necessary for egg production—just chick-making.
Once you have a flock and a coop, all that's left is keeping them fed and watered. A one-gallon waterer can be used to keep water fresh and clean. For food, be sure you buy "feed" not "scratch." Scratch is mainly grain and should be given only as a treat. Feed is readily available at feed stores and even Wal-Mart. Consider supplementing your feed with crushed oyster shells for extra calcium—a must for laying hens. Table scraps and garden leftovers can be fed to chickens; just use common sense and make sure they have a balanced diet. It's also important to give your chickens grit—small stones or pebbles needed to “chew” their food—if it's not already underfoot.
Check the nesting boxes twice a day for eggs. My flock of three three-year-old Barred Rock hens produces about a dozen eggs a week. Right now the hens are in molt (the process in which old feathers are replaced with new), so they've slowed down to about half that. Egg production depends on a number of factors, such as bird age, weather, diet and if they're happy. Hens need 12 to 14 hours of light to lay at peak capacity. Adding a timer-controlled light to the coop should keep your birds laying steady year-round. Fresh eggs only a few steps from your back door is one benefit to keeping your own chickens, but that's not their only boon to an urban farm. Chickens will eat everything from weeds to bugs, keeping your yard nice and clean. And, of course, they're an unending source of nitrogen-rich fertilizer, which you can plop right back into your garden.