The Call and Times, Column 20 – A Chicken Coop in Every Yard

14 05 2015

(May 10th, 2015)

The Urban Farmer

A Chicken Coop in Every Yard

After last month’s discussion about applying for a backyard chicken permit in Woonsocket, here’s a little primer on actually keeping chickens. I should point out – I’m not an expert in this area. I have raised chickens for a combined 11 months, but have spent a good many hours reading about them. This column is only an overview, and I urge you to read at least one good book about chickens – I suggest Robert and Hannah Litt’s A Chicken in Every Yard, or anything on the topic from Storey Publishing as a helpful guide. As always, I welcome and encourage your emails.

Choosing your birds. There are more breeds of chickens than I could possibly list, and it’s worth researching what each one has to offer – egg production, foraging ability, temperament, and appearance are a few of the important qualities to keep in mind. Some of the more common backyard breeds, which are often a good balance of these qualities, include the Plymouth Rock, the Orpington, and of course, the Rhode Island Red. You can find everything you need to know in Henderson’s Chicken Chart, available at http://www.sagehenfarmlodi.com/chooks/chooks.html.

You also have to make the decision about whether to raise your birds from chicks (a few days old) or older birds. Books have been written about raising chicks, and I can barely scratch the surface here, so I suggest you read well about that particular facet.

The chicken coop. This is where your chickens will live, so it’s worth investing enough time and money so that it’s durable, predator-resistant, and comfortable. You can buy a pre-made coop for a few hundred dollars, or design and build it yourself for more work but less money. We built our coop in a few weeks’ worth of afternoons, which is the method I prefer.

There are a few basic components that every coop must have. The “henhouse” is the enclosed, solid-walled structure where the chickens will eat, sleep, and lay their eggs. The “run” is an open-air pen, surrounded on all sides by wire mesh and connected by a small door to the henhouse, which provides the birds fresh air, sunshine, and ground, while protecting them from predators. The “nesting boxes” are 1-cubic-foot boxes (milk crates, tote boxes, or wooden structures) in the henhouse that are lined with nesting material, where the birds are comfortable to lay their eggs. The “roost” is a wooden beam, affixed a few feet above the ground inside the henhouse, where the chickens will sleep at night.

Maintaining your flock. You need a few basic pieces of equipment to keep your chickens happy and healthy. A durable feeder and waterer are worth their weight in gold. They should be large enough to hold a few days’ worth of feed and water, and should both either be hung with rope a few inches off the ground, or otherwise affixed to a base on the floor, to prevent toppling, spilling, and wasting of feed and water. Unlike other animals, chickens will self-regulate how much they eat – you should provide unlimited access (“free choice”) to food and water, and they will eat what they need.

There is also the chicken feed itself. First, know that chicks need starter feed, adolescents need grower feed, and adults need layer feed – each are formulated with enough protein and minerals for the growth stage of the bird.

The big decision is organic versus conventional. Organic feed is somewhat more expensive than conventional, but ensures the absence of certain feed ingredients – knowing what goes into your chickens’ beaks is a big reason why many raise their own birds, so I am a strong believer in organic feed.

In addition to feed, the birds need grit and water. Grit is any type of (nontoxic) small particulate that they will ingest in order to help them break down their food. Allowing them access to the ground is usually sufficient as a source of small stones, but sand can also be provided as grit. Water should also be given free choice, sourced from the faucet or, as a potentially healthier option, from unchlorinated rainwater. Some chicken-keepers also give their birds crushed oyster shells, as a supplemental calcium source that helps with eggshell formation.

Another ongoing maintenance consideration is cleaning. Chicken manure is a valuable fertility asset for any urban farm, but it needs to be removed from the coop and composted before being applied to the soil. A quick cleaning about once a week is more than enough to keep sanitary conditions, and provide a steady stream of compost material.

This story would be incomplete without expressing my deepest gratitude to two people: former Councilman Marc Dubois, who was an advocate long before it was popular to be so, and Councilwoman Melissa Murray, who has worked tirelessly to make it popular enough to succeed. He planted and nurtured a seed in the uncertain spring soil, and she built a greenhouse that brought the plant to a harvest. Every family who gets a permit to keep backyard chickens in Woonsocket should be reminded of the devotion shown by these two leaders.

There are so many others – Councilmen Mancieri, Jalette, and Gendron, who co-sponsored the ordinance; the experts and residents who supported this idea; RI State Vet Dr. Scott Marshall, and Scott Scofield of Providence ACO, who testified before the Planning Board as expert witnesses; and Joan LeFrancois in the Zoning Office, Zoning Officer Larry Desormier, and the members of the ZBR, whose hard work and understanding made the application process straightforward for me, and set a good precedent for the future.

I’ve written this column while watching my chickens scratch and cluck contentedly, and I wonder – what does it mean for Woonsocket to have taken this step? It means urban farming, as an idea, a movement, and a way of life, is growing, and the government has taken notice. It means that Woonsocket, as a fledgling microcosm of the organic stronghold that our state and our region have become, understands its citizens’ wishes to live more sustainably, more self-sufficiently, and more healthfully. It means that we are beginning to view the land not only as the place where we build our buildings, but also as the place where we grow our food – the great Source and final Destination of all life on Earth, who’s most productive use includes tomatoes, wind turbines, and chickens, right alongside our homes, shops, and factories. This is urban farming. This is backyard chicken keeping. This is the future.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times. The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.

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