By Chelsea Hohn
A chicken ordinance was passed in Ann Arbor in 2008, allowing residents to keep up to four hens in their backyards for the first time. Happily, residents of Ann Arbor began building coops and transforming their backyards into a haven for their chickens. The popularity of backyard chickens has continued to grow. As of December 2016, 22 permits for backyard chickens had been issued, already rising above the 14 that were issued in 2015. Early in 2015, the number of chickens allowed went from four to six, delighting those who already had them and instilling curiosity in many who have never had chickens.
But it’s not as easy as picking up fresh eggs every morning. There’s work involved before and after reaping that benefit, such as planning before the chickens arrive and figuring out what to do with them once they’ve stopped laying. If there’s one thing that everyone who has chickens can agree on, it’s that it’s worth the small amount of work for the quality of the eggs, the amount of which can vary anywhere from a couple dozen a week to only a handful, depending on the ages of the chickens, time of year, and, of course, how many chickens you have.
What to know before you start:
You will become emotionally attached to your chickens — if you let yourself. “In the city, when you get chickens, generally they become your pets,” said Judy Stone of Ann Arbor, who has been keeping chickens for seven years. According to Stone, the eggs are without a doubt the best part of keeping chickens, but when they stop laying after a few years, they start costing more than it’s worth to some. At that point, it becomes difficult for many to picture their dear chickens in a soup pot. Stone spoke from first-hand experience. Her first chickens became her pets, and a few of them are still with her seven years later.
The next step is to think about the amount of work and money that it takes to get started. Eileen Dickinson, another Ann Arbor resident, has had chickens for years, and spends about $27 a month on the upkeep of her six chickens. This covers food and maintenance of the coop. Judy Stone pays about the same price, coming in at around $30 per six chickens each month.
Surprisingly, the amount of work that it takes to keep chickens is not extensive, and is easily managed. To collect eggs, feed the chickens, and clean the coop takes only a few minutes each day, plus a few hours a year to thoroughly clean your coop. “I don’t consider it a lot of a work,” said Dickinson. “I feel like it’s just part of my life.”
Dickinson also suggests going into the process with an understanding of what it’s like having chickens. “I think it’s really helpful when talking to neighbors to have an understanding. Some talking points might include that they aren’t noisy, they aren’t smelly, and they don’t attract rats.”
Dickinson said that her neighbors enjoy it, and having some advance information to navigate getting neighbor permission is important. Getting your neighbors' signed permission is part of acquiring the permit that you need to keep chickens. (In order to apply for the permit go to a2gov.org and search “backyard chicken permit.” The steps are relatively simple.)
Where to get started:
Once you have your permit and a clear decision to start raising chickens, the first step is to build a home for them. Chicken coops can vary from an elaborate chicken manor to a simple four walls, but there are certain requirements for each. There’s an entire industry built around coops that you can buy online, and stores like Home Depot have pre-made chicken coops, but there are several thoughts that should go into building your own.
The first is space. Stone recommends two square feet per chicken, and if you start with fewer than six, possibly allowing room for growth. It’s also important to remember that chickens aren’t the only ones that will be in the coop. Allow room for yourself to get in and collect eggs and clean the coop. “It needs to be easily cleanable,” said Stone. “If it’s burdensome to clean it then you won't.”
Dickinson also pointed out that it needs to provide a roosting area for the chickens or a nest box. There also should be a spot for food so that it doesn’t get wet, the usual culprit behind the stereotype that keeping chickens is a smelly business. When food and flooring gets wet it can ferment. Some suggestions for flooring include pine shavings or straw.
Another important aspect is making sure that the coop is predator-proof. The most common predators in Ann Arbor are hawks, stray dogs, raccoons, possums, and even coyotes or foxes. It’s important to make sure that if the chickens are in the coop, they are safe from predators that might come from above or from the ground. Having something in the ground around the coop prevents animals from digging into the chickens' space, as well.
Keep in mind also that the chickens will be spending a fair amount of time inside of the coop, during the winter months especially. It’s important to make sure that it stays fairly warm inside and that their water doesn’t freeze.
Breeds and raising:
There are over 50 different types of chickens. Certain breeds are better for egg production, some are better with being handled, some are more winter-hearty, the list goes on. Think about what’s important to you, how you will be treating and handling them, and do some research on which breeds seem to fit your purpose of having chickens. Buff Orpingtons are popular, and Dickinson and Stone both have experience with this breed. Dickinson says they are like the golden retriever of chickens, because of their pleasant demeanor. Stone also has Australorps and Araucanas, which lay different colored eggs and are wonderfully nicknamed “Easter eggers.”
There is also the option of raising them from chicks, which has many rewards and a few risks. Attempts are made to sex chicks at birth, but unless the breed indicates the sex by the color of the feathers, chances are you’re going to get a rooster, and then you’re going to have to figure out what to do with it. Many farms will take roosters, and it will most likely end up in a soup pot. If you’re lucky, you can trade for a hen.
Raising day old chicks, despite the rooster risk, is a good idea, according to Dickinson. “I would definitely recommend starting with day old chicks. They’re really cute. It’s good to handle them, and then they get used to being handled,” she said. Integrating them into the coop should be a gradual process though, slowly introducing them to less heat and more space.
Once you decide which chickens to get, deciding how many is the next step. Chickens are social creatures, and the most common suggestion is to start with four. Stone and Dickinson both said that more chickens doesn’t necessarily make for a significant amount of more work, only more feces to clean up and providing slightly more food.
Once you’ve dived in:
Plan for the future. Chickens will produce eggs for about two to three years with egg production lessening over time. Once your chickens stop producing, it’s important to know what you’re going to do with them. It’s also important to have a plan in place in case a chicken gets sick. This is where the pet/livestock line gets drawn, again. A visit to the vet can mean keeping chickens is an expensive game, and having a plan before something happens is a good idea.
Keeping the coop clean is an important part not only for your chickens' health, but for your neighbors' and your own happiness. Cleaning the coop keeps it from smelling and keeps your chickens happy in a clean environment.
Food is another part of upkeep, and making the decision to feed your chickens organic feed affects whether or not you’re getting truly organic eggs. You can also supplement chicken scratch with scraps of compost from your kitchen, which can mean buying less food and provide other nutrients for your chickens. Keep in mind that laying hens need extra calcium, and this can be found from crushed oyster shells or limestone grit that the chickens can pick at.
Why it’s worth it:
It can seem daunting. The coop, the feed, raising from chicks, the cleaning, and the planning. But it’s worth it. “It’s part of the cycle of my garden,” said Dickinson. “They’re an integral part of my garden.”
For her, keeping chickens isn't a lot of work, and not only does she enjoy keeping chickens for the eggs, they’re entertaining to watch, her neighborhood kids enjoy them, and it’s satisfying. She enjoys knowing where her food comes from, and it’s hard to beat when that place is your own backyard.
Stone enjoys them for similar reasons. “It adds to my life to have them around,” she said. “Listening to the sounds they make, or seeing how happy they get from compost. I get a lot of pleasure out of that.”
It also is an integral part of her urban farm. By keeping chickens, she is able to work with the whole life cycle. “It’s really important to me that I work to keep the soil healthy because it keeps the food I grow healthy and regenerates our climate,” she explains. “I consider it a complete cycle.”
But above all, the thing that everyone who keeps chickens raves about the most is how absolutely wonderful the quality of the eggs are. And for most, that’s enough.