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Thursday, February 16, 2012 / 9:23 AM

Tales From a City Microfarm: The Joys (and Heartbreaks) of Backyard Chickens

Tales From a City Microfarm: The Joys (and Heartbreaks) of Backyard Chickens

That's one handsome bird! Photo by Thomas Crone.

It’s been four months and change since our two-person, South City household turned into the smallest farm imaginable. Though our city lot is wider than most, it’s still an urban space, bordered by two, modest homes and a nondescript alley. But over the past three summers, grass has slowly disappeared, produce beds have been built (and torn out, and rebuilt), okra’s become so voluminous that a local restaurant was sought to deal with the overflow and, on October 1, 2011, chickens belatedly entered this well-meaning-attempt-at-permaculture.

The story of adding chickens to a city plot isn’t necessarily a new one. In fact, in 2012, you can find chronicles about chicken-tending in a variety of places. The garden magazines and blogs, of course, have been on the trend for a while, and those are excellent spots to begin research into assembling your own flock. If there’s one, absolute, go-to source, though, it might be backyardchickens.com, which ties together a huge community of avid, amateur chicken-keepers, who trade notes on topics that you’d never find interesting until you’re faced with the need for that exact bit of information.

And good, old-fashioned books still maintain a place in your studies. First-person accounts like Novella Carpenter’s Farm City are inspirational tales of turning a bland, even lifeless, urban space into a nutrition factory. For Carpenter, that process brought not only chickens, but ducks, turkeys, bees, rabbits and, most dramatically, pigs. By the end of the reading Farm City, it’s possible that you’ll not only want to get the chickens you’ve been talking about, you’ll start sizing up your yard for pygmy goats and pigeon coops. Chickens, it seems, truly are the gateway drug to bringing animal husbandry into your life.

While it’s often a fun and satisfying avocation, there are so many things that come up! Every week, it seems, a new wrinkle or vexation emerges. Some are pleasing, some upsetting. While far from comprehensive, this list tackles a few of the issues you might consider when making the decision to add birds to your gardening efforts.

1. THE COOP: The key acquisition in your avian pursuits is the coop. You can find dealers online who work within our region supplying ready-made structures. Obviously, you can also build your own, with multiple guidebooks available, which complement the free resources of the web. Our path lead to Murhphysboro, Ill., just outside of Carbondale. Via a Craigslist ad, our $200, A-frame coop satisfied our basic needs, with the right amount of space for a quartet of birds. Buying a used coop, of course, comes with qualifiers; slight imperfections can be found, and you might even need to get creative in getting a larger unit into your yard, depending on your gates and fencing. But used coops can be cheap, and are plentiful. One caveat: check all variations of “chicken” on Craigslist. The day after buying ours, an even better coop showed up on Craigslist, but the word “coop” never appeared in the ad. A search on the simpler, less-descriptive “chicken” turned it up. Alas. Keep checking, as these turn up all the time, in all sizes, prices and styles. 

2. SPACE: If you’re planning on letting your birds free-range, know that they will slowly, cautiously begin taking over all the space they’re allowed. Whereas they start out with a few tentative steps outside of their run, eventually they’ll be seen pacing the top of your fence line, or roosting in trees and bushes that you’d assumed they’d never be able to fly up and into. They’re roamers, so your coop will be the first purchase, but some type of fencing, modified dog kennel or other containment system will come into play eventually. And it’ll add to your start-up or add-on costs.

3. LEGALITIES: It’s possible your municipality doesn’t allow chickens. Or it may allow any number you want. Right now, smaller towns throughout the St. Louis area are crafting their own laws, some of them settling on the St. Louis City quotient of maximum birds: four. Check with your local animal control or health department before proceeding with #s 1 and 2 above. And definitely be sure that your dealer has sexed the birds, especially if they’re young; the last thing you want is a young rooster coming home with you, when you’re expecting to raise egg-producing hens. Your neighbors will thank you, too.

4. THE BIRDS: If you’ve never had the occasion to buy a live chicken, you might not realize that there are a few different feed mills along the perimeter of the metro area. These outlets often keep a chicken room, with a blend of pullets and even some young roosters. At this point, you’ll want to have researched all the different types of birds available, and see if their stock matches. There’s a dizzying array of chicken breeds, with some known for prolific egg production, others for the oddball coloration of eggs. Some grow quite large, while smaller, bantam birds can exist in larger numbers in a smaller footprint. Considering weather, you’ll also want to invest in birds with heat and cold tolerance. Most dealers will know this and stock birds that fit the region, but it’s helpful to bring a checklist on your shopping trip.

5. YOUR GARDEN: Your birds will change everything. One day, they’re frightened pullets darting back to the safety of their coop, after a 30-second jaunt into a corner of the yard. Within weeks, though, they’ve gained confidence and— Lo!—now you’ve got multiple chickens sitting in your late-fall crop of arugula, munching delightedly at the autumn greens. They’re relentless diggers, spending hours of the day turning over winter beds, looking for insects. This is a great mechanism to control insects, true, but you’ll also notice the birds rearranging large swaths of your landscape, chewing down border grasses, hopping up for a rosebush leaf snack... it’s constant, somewhat amusing, but a real landscape-changer. As mentioned above, realize that birds love their pre-mix scratch, but they always, always, always are in the mood for some fresh greenery and live bugs. Whatever stands in their way will get the four-claw treatment.

6. COMPOST & WASTE: As you might expect, birds need their coop changed frequently, even if you deep-pack the coop’s hay, straw or wood shavings. But within a week or so, you’ll be rearranging it again, scooping out sizable portions of the bedding, where the birds have deposited their overnight contributions to your compost.  Your spent hay and straw is a fine mulching material, but you’ll really see it stacking up quickly, so be prepared to build an extra compost pit, or two, to handle the excess. And... how to put this delicately? Chickens produce more solid waste than you’d expect. To a degree that’ll surprise you. It’s a non-stop supply and needs to be composted, as the nitrogen-rich material shouldn’t come into contact with young plants, since chicken waste will burn your seedlings.

7. DEATH: A last, but needed note. Within 10 days of our having chickens, a bird severely broke its leg. If you’re not prepared to put a bird down, this might not be a game for you. In the span of four months, I’ve had to do it twice, getting it right neither time. Obviously, you want your bird to have a quick exit in those moments, and botching the job will only give you nightmares and the bird some agonized last moments. Another unfortunate chicken was beheaded by an owl. And the yard’s constantly being visited by other varmints, like possums, so the potential for an injured animal is always there. It’s something to keep in mind, especially if your kids are going to be an active part of the raising process.

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