Today my thoughts turn to ordering baby chicks for March or April this year. It makes me think of all the first timers who are thinking about starting their own backyard flock. I have had a backyard flock of chickens for eight years now, I’ve become an experienced backyard chicken wrangler if you will. It has been full of fun and challenges. Backyard chickens have become a national phenomenon and when I think it may be waning I see a new book come out for the backyard flock, and realize at least to some degree small flocks are here to stay. If you are thinking about a backyard flock here are some things you may want to consider.
1. You will need a coop. Nonnegotiable. Like all animals chickens need shelter. What that shelter looks like depends on where you live and what other things they may have access to like runs or other outdoor space. You can read as much as you want about coops but the reality is when you finish your coop you will have to make adjustments for your local weather, flock size and how much space they need vs. what you view as “right.” I am on my second coop and I am still tweaking with it based on how many birds I overwinter and how harsh my winters end up being. Coops are trial and error. There is no magic single one answer.
2. You need to decide what you want from your chickens. Do you want a pet, something fun to look at, dinner or eggs? There really is no one breed that does it all. I have tried all sorts of breeds over the years. I wanted cute, good egg layers that could eventually go into the pot. I also wanted Montana winter hearty birds. I can tell you that there is no single breed that does that based on my trial and error. I have settled on some breeds deciding that they are the best I can do and are successful enough for my desired qualities. You need to be prepared to make mistakes and figure out how to right them.
3. Getting started in chickens costs more than you estimate it will. It isn’t just the purchase of chickens at $3 a pop, there is the cost of the coop, food, feeders, water sources, bedding, and things you will not imagine you need until the time comes you need it. You can figure out what you think you need and easily double or triple it. A great example of this exponential costs is my revolving issues with water sources. I started out with fount but it seemed my birds were always somehow knocking them out of balance and my birds would be without water. I then got them rubber water dishes that worked good in the summer, but once freezing temperatures came I discovered I needed heated water dishes. I opted for the dog style as they were the least expensive. Oh did I mention that I eventually ran electricity to my shed to make this whole setup easier for me? Can you see the money bleeding for the search of a good year-round water source.
4. Time commitment from someone. Chickens are sort of like the worst qualities of a cat and a dog. They need someone around to open and close the doors like a dog. They need someone to clean up after them like a cat, even if you free range because at night they poop in the coop. Then you can also add the problem of predators. Chickens are very near the bottom of the food chain and there are predators from both the ground and air, domestic and wild, that would love to eat them.
5. You need an exit plan. Most backyard chicken keepers don’t think about what will happen when they tire of their chickens or then end up with an unwanted rooster. You need to know what you will do when you no longer want your birds. I will go on record saying taking them to the local rescue Is a selfish option because you have just made your chickens a drain on a overtaxed system rescue system because or your poor planning. When I lived in Michigan you could take your chickens to the local Amish and they would butcher and dress them for a small fee, or you could give them to them, assuming that they would end up on their dinner table. I have heard of people taking them to their local vet to put down. Some of us rotate our flock regularly and last year’s birds turn into this year’s dinner. I am not advocating any one method over the other. I am saying you should have a plan that makes you responsible to the very end.
So this year as you make resolutions to know your food, eat food that is raised in a healthier environment, or get back to nature, I hope you will think twice and then twice again before starting your backyard chicken flock. It is rewarding, and I can’t imagine not having chickens, but it is more than gathering eggs.