I talk to lots of people who want to keep backyard chickens but just haven’t made up their minds yet. I think a lot of this comes from reading all the crazy literature out there about backyard chickens. It seems that most chicken books read like a worst-case scenario guidebook of disease and disaster. The subtitle for these books might as well be “101 Reasons NOT to Keep Chickens.”
The truth of the matter is that (in my experience) chickens are very low-maintenance yard guests. I’ve been keeping chickens for five or so years now and I have not ever dealt with the first chicken disease. I have lost a few—almost exclusively to my own dog getting in the chicken lot or the chickens getting out. (My current dog, thankfully, is not a chicken killer, so I haven’t had trouble with that for a few years, either.)
I think the risk of disease is mostly concentrated on commercial operations that have a few thousand chickens sitting in a warehouse of their own waste. My chickens freely roam their fenced-in lot and for a lot of the year, I let them out to roam the whole yard. (Not during strawberry season, or they decimate my entire crop.)
The biggest expense for me associated with the chickens was fencing. My chicken coop is actually salvaged from a family member’s yard. (They bought a property with a coop on it, but didn’t want to keep chickens.) There is also that stretch of time where you are feeding the chicks before they are old enough to lay eggs. (Sometimes, I get a little resentful at the “girls” when they aren’t laying. I threaten to drop them off at KFC, but they don’t seem very amused.)
My chickens have never received the first antibiotic or any sort of medical treatment. They eat a diet that contains a lot of kitchen scraps. I’ve heard people tell me all sorts of things that chickens can’t or won’t eat—including potatoes—but I give them pretty much everything and they take what they want and leave what they don’t.
My favorite thing about keeping chickens (besides those beautiful bright orange yolks in my cast iron skillet every morning) is watching them waddle around the yard on a late summer afternoon. They elevate my humble backyard to something much more magical. It becomes a homestead, a life-giving oasis, a place interconnected with all of my ancestors who raised chickens before me.
I generally order my chickens from a poultry company such as Murray McMurray. This allows me greater control on getting the breeds I want. (The local farm store sells out so quickly, I often can’t get chicks at all or anything other than a mutt breed.) The problem with ordering from a catalog is that you generally must order 25 chicks. Twenty five chickens is much more than you could ever need, unless you plan on supplying your entire neighborhood with eggs. For this reason, it’s great to find a friend who might be willing to split an order with you.
I raise my baby chicks in a large plastic tote in my laundry room under a heat lamp. I’m sure there are better ways of doing it, but this keeps them contained while they are young and close by so I can be sure they have plenty of water and care. My kids also help with this and so the chickens get plenty of handling which helps keep them friendly. (In the last batch that I raised, there was one sweet girl who would always hop onto the side of the container to be petted when we came in the room.)
So… if you’ve been on the fence about keeping chickens, go for it! Really! Quit worrying about getting sick from the eggs at the store, and quit contributing to the problem of horrible animal care in the poultry industry. We can make a change one backyard, one chicken, one egg at time.
There are some great books on chickens, but, as I mentioned earlier, read with caution and remember most of the problems outlined in these books won’t affect your home flock.
Storey’s Illustrated Guide to Poultry Breeds (While this book isn’t about raising information, it is a great resource about the different breeds, and my-oh-my is it beautiful!)
The Small-Scale Poultry Flock: An All-Natural Approach to Raising Chickens and Other Fowl for Home and Market Growers (You probably recognize Harvey Ussery’s name from his many contributions to magazines like Mother Earth News. He’s a great writer with lots of poultry experience!)