Have you ever considered the idea of getting your own backyard chickens? I was pretty much obsessed with the idea of getting backyard chickens before finally taking the plunge. Over the course of a year I amassed a huge collection of empty egg cartons and entertained dreams of collecting my own locally grown farm fresh eggs. I imagined picking green onions and spinach from my garden in early spring and cooking up morning omlettes. I compared countless chicken coops, scavenging craigslist and chicken websites for the perfect design. I wondered which breed would be the best, and how many chickens we would ideally want to keep. Raising chickens was becoming an obsession, but having never raised any farm animals before, our backyard chicken adventure definitely proved to be quite a learning experience! Here I hope our chicken adventure will prove informative to you as well.
So, lets start at the beginning. Once you’ve decided you like the idea of collecting fresh eggs, and you’d like to get a few of your own feathered friends, the first step is to contact the local town government and find out what are the existing zoning laws regarding backyard chickens. Surprisingly, the town of Amherst where I currenly live (a rural and suburban setting with lots of farms nearby) had a lot of red tape when it came to getting a permit for keeping chickens in my backyard. This year, with the amount of people interested in raising backyard chickens on the rise, enough people in Amherst got fed up with the zoning laws and petitioned for the laws to be revised. Subsequently, the zoning laws in Amherst have been revised to make it much easier to have backyard hens. But I was over zealous and jumped in 2 years before these changes had taken place. So what did I have to go through to get my 6 hens, you ask? Ah, yes… good times, good times. First, I had to file an application with a fee of $110 to town hall. Seriously? Next, I had to notify everyone within 300 ft of my house by mail (over 65 houses!) about my intention to get chickens (another $25). Next, I had to have not one, but two site visits by members of the zoning board to my home on two separate occasions (more on that later). Then, I had to write and submit an extremely detailed management plan on how I would care for the chickens, and to top it all off I had to appear at a hearing in town hall to defend my proposal publicly in front of the zoning board. In all honesty, I probably should have just gotten the chickens without the permit, but the house next door to ours was for sale at the time and I didn’t want to go through the whole process of getting chickens only to discover my new neighbors might not be so into the idea. So eventually I decided to cover my bases and go through with the permit process, even with all the red tape. Which leads me back to the site visits.
I have a confession to make here. I actually kind of broke the rules a wee bit, you see, I actually went ahead and got the chicks before I knew that a site visit would be necessary. And before I actually got approved for the permit. I was excited. I just needed to dive in, and I figured it couldn’t be that difficult to get approved. On May 8th 2009 I took the plunge and drove 35 minutes to a family farm in Greenfield MA and bought what I was told were 8 female chicks. Pretty exciting stuff. Especially for my kids, who were 3 and 5 years old at the time. So now we had a big blue plastic bin with 8 chicks hopping around, a feeding dish, a water bottle, a red light to warm them, and two very ecstatic children. And no idea what we’re doing. Learn as you go, right? Couldn’t be that hard… and truthfully it wasn’t really that hard. We just didn’t realize how fast our chicks would outgrow (and start to escape) their comfy blue bin in our basement, and how soon we would need to transfer them outside. So we made a really rickety make-shift chicken run so they could be outside during the day, and sleep in their blue bin at night. Sounds simple, but it involved catching them all and bringing them in each night. I still have images of the chick that escaped and gave my husband a fun time (picture large guy diving into shrubs repeatedly). It must have taken almost two hours to catch that thing once it got free! When the chicks outgrew the blue bin completely, and the weather had warmed up, we stopped transferring them indoors and had them sleep outside. I bought a very little pre-fab chicken coop that wasn’t going to be big enough for long (it was designed to house 2 adult chickens), and it was way overpriced, but it was predator-proof and it gave us a little time to figure out what kind of a larger coop to build. Tip: when buying chickens, build coop first, then buy said chickens. We ended up hiring someone to help us build a 6ft by 8ft coop with an attached 10ft by 6ft outdoor run. But in the meantime the town notified me that site visits on our property would be necessary in order to get the permit to have chickens. So… how to get rid of our chicks and make it look like I never had any in the first place? Well, that involved a 12am stealth operation which employed the use of our friend’s grease-run school bus, 8 chickens, and two bearded men- and which resulted in relocating the rickety make-shift chicken run to my friend’s house. Where they subsequently escaped. Yeah, I was a bit stressed by this point, but I bravely headed over to their house alone the next day and got all the chickens back into the coop by myself. True story. Then, I pulled off the two site visits on my property with two members of the Amherst zoning board. That patch of hay where the rickety chicken run had been? Oh, that’s just a new garden bed that I’m working on….
So, with the site visits and the stealth chicken mission accomplished, I moved forward and attended the public hearing of my proposal at town hall. You can see at this point how committed I must have been to keep going. Well I was really committed, and they approved my plan with some stipulations. So we built our coop, put our now teenage chickens into our coop, and began waiting for eggs. Life was good with chickens for a short while until one of our teenage “hens” started crowing loudly every morning. Well we really weren’t sure why that chicken was so loud- until we looked up the breed online again and realized that actually, there were two roosters mixed into our flock. Oops. Ok so now for a trip back to Greenfield MA where I returned the roosters. And finally, we settled in to enjoy our remaining 6 backyard hens!
Our chickens grew up quickly, and when they started laying at six months, the eggs came pouring in! We were getting roughly 5-6 eggs a day from our 6 chickens, and they continued laying all winter long. The breeds we chose were perfect. We had three auracaunas which lay pastel blue and green eggs, and three black australorps, which lay nice big light-brown eggs. Early that spring, I fulfilled my dreams of harvesting and making 100% home-grown omlettes. I was elated! And the work it took to keep the chickens fed and their accommodations fresh and appealing was a good reason to get me outside and breathing fresh air every day. Not to mention, in addition to the organic feed we provided, they ate up our food scraps, grass clippings, garden weeds, and compost, turning our waste into yummy eggs. We got a delivery of cheap hay bales from a local farm and used hay to keep the chicken run fresh and dry. They loved it, and always appreciated our attention. Even the neighborhood kids would frequent our backyard to feed and play with our chickens. All in all we adapted quite well to the shift in our lifestyle. So don’t let the first half of my story scare you off- I do highly recommend you try this at home!
The following year our hens continued to lay lots of delicious eggs, roughly 4-5 per day. Dark yellow yolks, fresh as can be, and really the best we had ever tasted. Many friends commented that these were the best eggs they had tasted as well! And although we had a few run-ins with a local skunk (thankfully no one got sprayed!) everything seemed to go fairly smoothly, and all we lost to predation were a few eggs. We were careful to make sure our coop was predator-proof, as we live adjacent to conservation land that certainly is a home for some wild animals. All in all, we kept our lovely flock for almost 3 years, at which point they were laying about 2-3 eggs per day (the amount of eggs that chickens lay decreases steadily over time). In the meantime we had a third child, and the winter was coming, so we decided to take a break from chicken care and try to give them up for adoption. Don’t worry- we’re still planning to continue to raise chickens here. But my kids are really bent out of shape about getting new pets, and chickens are about all I can handle right now. So we decided that we will buy new chicks for the kids to take care of come the spring. In addition, we want to make some improvements and repairs on the chicken coop. Luckily I found an extremely kind woman from the local area who adopted our hens and is letting them free-range on her farm for the rest of their days. We didn’t want to eat our pets, and we’re happy they will have a good life. We can even come visit them, she assured us. So it’s nice taking a little breather from operation-chicken this winter, and we plan to dive back into it this spring. In the meantime, I am buying home-grown eggs from a friend locally. The eggs are really great, and super fresh, but it’s not quite the same as having your own chickens. I mean, once you get started with raising backyard hens, and enjoying all the fresh eggs, there really is no turning back!