As one of the cheapest, healthiest, most versatile and accessible sources of protein in the world, eggs rank high on many nutritionists’ lists of best foods. The one shortcoming where eggs aren’t all they’re cracked up to be is the process by which they arrive in your fridge. Grocery stores market eggs using a dizzying range of labels — how are you supposed to know the difference between organic, free-range, cage-free, pasture-raised, and Omega-3 eggs?
Three years ago, I started raising chickens in my backyard. The rich, orange yolks from these ultra-local eggs serve up not only a uniquely tasty and thrifty meal, they also remind me that everything we eat comes from the earth in one way or another.
Late winter is a great time to get started raising chickens, especially because it’s welcome to have a tangible sign of spring under your roof. Step one is researching the local ordinances in your area for backyard chickens. Then head to a local farm store and pick out a handful of chicks along with pellet feed specially formulated for young chickens, a small heat lamp, feeder and waterer, and a bag of pine shavings. Back home, set up a cozy indoor spot for the little featherings while you and they wait out the remainder of winter.
At around six weeks of age and when the daily low temperature reaches into the 60s, it’s safe to move your birds outdoors. You might want to use those weeks for more than just waiting around — it’s also a good time to get your coop up and ready.
It’s easy to find loads of DIY chicken coop plans to fit nearly any budget, yard, and aesthetic. The most important variable to get right is how to keep your chickens in — and potential predators out — while also giving your birds sufficient space to roam. Keep in mind that there is one creature that will be coming in and out of the coop frequently: you. Make sure to create easy access for yourself to check for eggs, refill their food and water, and clean out their coop. The whole set-up can get a bit smelly in the warmer months, so you might want to position the coop at a little distance from your house — a good idea reinforced by many urban chicken ordinances.
As your chickens’ appetites grow and as summer vacation season nears, you’ll want to pick up a larger capacity feeder and a poultry-nipple water system that keeps water clean and on-the-ready for up to a week or more. Switch from pine shavings to straw for their bedding and move from chick meal to layer feed. Then, sit back and start dreaming about the quiches and custards in your future.
A few common questions and troubleshooting
Hens don’t lay an egg every day. Egg production varies with age, warmth, hours of sunlight, and access to food and water. Don’t panic if the egg count ebbs and flows a bit, but do some research to make sure everything’s right if your birds are egg-laying age and haven’t started or suddenly let up laying.
What if you keep finding cracked eggs or if the eggs aren’t where you expect them to be in your coop? You can try putting a golf ball in the laying box to discourage pecking at the eggs. Better yet, make sure your chickens aren’t running out of food or water, ensure they have plenty of space to roam, and check the laying boxes more frequently.
Birds may have small brains, but they still have a mind of their own. Despite designing laying boxes within easy reach to get eggs, my chickens occasionally fall into the habit of stashing eggs away in the far corners of the coop or chicken run. Ensure that their laying boxes are well-stocked with straw and that the size of the laying box is optimal for your breed of chicken. It also pays to be patient as they settle into their coop.
Unlike factory farms where hens are slaughtered after just two years, backyard chickens can happily and healthily keep laying for five to seven years. The Farmer’s Almanac offers a range of options for what to do with chickens after they stop laying eggs — their life spans can reach up to 12 years.
The most delightful problem that comes with raising chickens, though, is deciding which friends and neighbors you’ll off-load your surplus eggs to first.