4 things to consider before adding chickens to the homestead
Beth Crago of Youngwood had wanted chickens for a long time, but her husband Lloyd thought not.
With two horses, a goat, a dog and a barn cat on their 6-acre property, he figured they had enough animals.
“I thought they’d be just another thing to take care of,” Lloyd says.
But when their now-21-month-old granddaughter Maggie Mae showed an interest in the feathered creatures, Lloyd relented.
They ordered a coop and, right before Easter this year, they bought peeps of four different breeds that should begin laying eggs in early July.
Jamiee and Andrew Barefoot of Armbrust also got into the backyard chicken business in April. They bought 15 chicks and a coop kit that Andrew and son Johnathan, 13, assembled in the backyard. They’re also expecting the eggs to start coming soon.
Their three children “eat a lot of eggs,” Jamiee says, but that wasn’t the only reason to invest in their own layers.
“We want to teach them about sustainability and to learn how to garden and how to raise things,” she says.
A growing trend
Keeping backyard chickens is a growing trend across the country, according to a May report from the United States Department of Agriculture.
Some people raise them as a clean source of both eggs and meat. Others simply like them as pets.
Either way, there’s a lot more to owning chickens than just building a coop and putting them in it.
People are often enthralled by the little yellow balls of fluff that they see in farm stores around Easter time, says Emily Lhamon, a poultry educator with Penn State Extension, but buying them on impulse is not a good idea.
There are a number of factors to consider beforehand — and all the others depend on the first one, Lhamon says.
1. Know the law: “The major thing is to know if they’re actually allowed where you live,” Lhamon says. “Check with your borough or township office.”
Regulations vary widely from place to place. For instance, there are no restrictions on keeping chickens within the Greensburg city limits, but they are not allowed in New Kensington. Pittsburghers need to apply for a permit.
“You’re allowed to have a shed in the City of Greensburg, and if you want to put chickens in it, you can,” says planning director Barbara Ciampini. “The rules of urban neighborhood living apply. Use common sense, and keep things quiet and sanitary.”
2. Know your purpose. Ask yourself why you want the chickens — will they be pets, egg producers, a source of meat, or all three? The breeds you buy could depend on what you want from them.
3. Size ’em up. “Space requirements vary by breed,” Lhamon says. “You need the right size coop for the size of your birds, and we have resources to help you decide that.”
Overcrowding can lead to some unpleasant outcomes. They may stop laying, or they can turn to cannibalism and egg-eating, she says.
4. Born free? While “free range” is a popular concept with backyard chicken owners, Lhamon says, it’s not a good idea to just let your birds roam.
“Chickens don’t know about property lines,” she says. Neighbors probably don’t want your chickens in their yards, and predators and other unexpected dangers could be present. A fenced-in area or run adjacent to the coop is a good compromise, she says.
Buying your biddies
Once you’ve decided on the size and makeup of your flock, and once your coop is in place, it’s time to buy your chickens. Where to go?
“I don’t recommend buying from an auction,” Lhamon says. “Auctions are great for livestock but not so much for poultry. It’s like buying from a puppy mill. You don’t always know the source or the quality of what you’re buying.”
Instead, she says, buy from a mail-order hatchery or a farm store to insure the chicks are coming from a reputable breeder.
“I love Tractor Supply, but there are a lot of good farm stores around,” she says.
Farm stores also will stock different types of feed for each stage of a chicken’s life, Lhamon says. She recommends a pelletized food, with occasional treats to keep things interesting.
“Pellets might look boring, but they’re a complete feed,” she says, containing the right mix of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients needed to keep chickens healthy and laying good-quality eggs.
Providing clean water at all times also is a must.
“Weird and fun’
Owning chickens is both “weird and fun,” says Tommy Medley, who co-owns Greensburg’s White Rabbit Cafe and Patisserie with Amber Kunselman. The pair have kept six hens of various breeds at their Greensburg home for about a year.
Being vegetarians, he says, they thought sourcing their own eggs would “give us some control over what we eat, knowing they’re not full of scary things.”
The flock came with a learning curve, he says.
“No matter how much you research, there’s still a lot to learn,” he says. “The upkeep is easy, but it does take time. Cleaning the coop is kind of a pain.”
Chickens also need regular checkups for injuries and bacterial infections.
Their chickens have access to a 1,500-square-foot run.
On the downside, he says, “the amount of havoc they’ll wreak on your lawn is one thing we didn’t expect.” On the upside, “their droppings are an amazing fertilizer for nitrogen-depleted soil.”
They also help with pest control: “They love ticks, they eat bugs, they also take care of mice and snakes around the yard.”
Nothing like a fresh egg
One last thing prospective chicken owners might want to consider, says Jim Douglas of Ligonier Township, is that “chickens are stupid, and turkeys are even worse.”
You have to keep an eye on them, he says, but there’s also nothing like the taste of an egg freshly laid by one of your own chickens.
“There’s a major difference in taste from the eggs you buy in the store,” he says. “The yolks have so much more flavor.”
He was raised on a farm and built the coop where his six chickens roost “years ago” when he lived in Irwin. He moved it to his present home about two years ago.
In their blended family, Douglas and his wife Rasi Douglas have six children, from age 9 to adult, so there’s no such thing as too many eggs when the chickens are laying.
“We’ll eat what we can and we’ll have no problem giving any extras away,” he says. “They’re so good, people get addicted to them.”
Shirley McMarlin is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-836-5750, [email protected] or via Twitter @shirley_trib.