Backyard chickens becoming popular

Last Updated: 
October 31, 2008

Chicken photo by Lynn Ketchum

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Most people keep chickens for three reasons, according to Jim Hermes, Oregon State University Extension animal science specialist. Farmers raise them for meat, and with more than 400 breeds and exotic varieties in the United States, exhibition is popular with many growers.

But the easy availability of fresh eggs in a time of higher food prices is convincing even city folks to keep a few hens in the backyard.Chicken photo by Lynn Ketchum

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Most people keep chickens for three reasons, according to Jim Hermes, Oregon State University Extension animal science specialist. Farmers raise them for meat, and with more than 400 breeds and exotic varieties in the United States, exhibition is popular with many growers.

But the easy availability of fresh eggs in a time of higher food prices is convincing even city folks to keep a few hens in the backyard. Many cities allow hens, but not roosters, within the city limits. It's a good idea to check ordinances as the first step before bringing home your flock.

Roosters, and their 5 a.m. wake-up calls, are not necessary if eggs are all you want. Hens also do a fair amount of clucking, however, usually in the mornings after they lay an egg. Hermes advises meeting with neighbors before building a hen house.

When choosing chickens to start your flock, Hermes suggests buying four to six good producers and staying away from exotic breeds, which do not lay as many eggs. Feed stores sell young birds in the spring, usually from March to May. You can expect pullets (young females) to begin laying eggs at 18 to 20 weeks of age, with a production rate of up to nine eggs each in 10 days.

Don't be surprised when your hens stop laying in the winter.

"Decreased daylight causes hens to molt and cease egg production, a process that may take several months," Hermes said. Artificial lighting, however, can keep hens laying. See "Why Did My Chickens Stop Laying?" at the OSU Extension website, for more information on artificial lighting.

Any structure, such as a lean-to, which provides protection from the weather and predators will do for a chicken coop, Hermes said. "But hens need to nest in places that are a foot or more above the ground as protection against dogs, raccoons and other predators."

To be considered "free-range," chickens must have access to outside through a door. "There is no other or 'legal' definition of free-range," Hermes said. Chickens often choose to stay put, however, and won't go out in rain or high winds. They also do not utilize large areas well, congregating instead with other chickens where the food is. "They like to be in groups," Hermes said, "and there really is a social, 'pecking order.'"

Although chickens have been described as "quasi garbage disposals," Hermes said, they must have a balanced diet for maximum egg production. "Any supplementation of table scraps, garden waste or what they can scratch serves to unbalance the diet."

Feeds are formulated and manufactured for chickens to meet their nutritional needs at specific ages. "Starter feeds are fed to chicks from hatch to a few weeks of age. Grower and developer feeds are for adolescent chickens and layer or breeder feeds are for chickens that are producing eggs," Hermes said.

Drawbacks to raising chickens include odor and the flies it draws, and rodents invite themselves to share the feed. Cleaning the coop once a week helps, Hermes says, and the chicken manure—high in nitrogen—is a welcome addition to the compost pile.

Occasionally chicks will get sick and die, Hermes said, but avian influenza (bird flu) is not likely the cause. "The flu has been concentrated in Asia and Eastern Europe. If it comes to our area, agencies will know and quickly spread the word," he said.

In the meantime, Hermes advises keeping your chickens isolated from other flocks, and if you live in a rural area, wild waterfowl should be discouraged from sharing the feed.

Author: Judy Scott
Source: Jim Hermes