U rban chicken keeping is a growing trend. These two books Free Range Chicken Gardens and the Urban Farm Stores‘, A Chicken in Every Yard are recent contributions to the trend and have been written by PNW chicken keepers (both of these are on my To Read list). It’s a pretty common site to see a coop in the front yard.
There are definitely many factions on chicken keeping here in Portland. The “these are my babies/my pets “, “we do it for the eggs”, and “I’m creating a more local food supply” are just some of the reasons you hear from chicken keepers. Those from the “my pets”faction are so passionate about their “girls” that they talk dreamily about their contributions to an urban yard, such as “I don’t have any slugs in my yard thanks to my girls”.
We have had chickens for nine years now and we have evolved. The girls started out as pets and have changed into well appreciated suppliers of protein. Which means they don’t have names and they don’t hang around once they stop laying eggs (think chicken pot pie or stew).
The books I read prior to getting chickens didn’t perhaps put enough emphasis on some of the negative aspects of chicken keeping. Or perhaps I just glossed over these facts in my determination.
The dream of the chicken running free and eating bugs in your yard is pretty much a dream, unless you want your yard to look and smell like a chicken run. Left alone for long enough these efficient excavators will literally level your yard.
The eggs are amazing, but I’m sure I pay WAY more than what I would for organic eggs in the store. I’m not complaining because I know these are FRESH and I can eat raw cookie dough (this is very important).
We supplement our hen’s food with our chicken scraps and grow greens in the yard for them but they still eat a lot. Keeping chickens in this small of a space is not sustainable without a fair amount of inputs.
Cleaning up after chickens is no fun. Their manure really stinks, especially if it gets wet. And remember we are living in Puddletown here!. Chicken coop cleaning rates really high on my Worst Chores List.
I found that the debris from cleaning the coop exceeds the capacity of my compost bin, and I have a big compost bin!
The hens really need a light set on a timer in the fall and winter to continue producing eggs.
Fresh eggs make terrible hard boiled eggs. So you still have to buy eggs from the grocery if you want hard boiled.
Raccoons, possums and dogs are efficient chicken killers.
Despite the fairly negative viewpoints listed above, I still own and enjoy chickens. Part of that is due to discovering the Deep Litter Method (an old time technique well researched and used by some commercial chicken farmers).
This methodology calls for maintaining 12″ of dry carbon in the base of the open air coop at all times (a difficult thing to do when it rains 180 days a year). Effectively all the nitrogen from their manure and food scraps gets mixed in with the dry carbon material and composts where it sits without a sour odor (an occasional bit of lime added helps with this as well). This technique also provides the hens with a much needed supply of protein as they busily dig through the dry base looking for all those yummy critters that hang out in it as it composts.
We finally got smart and designed our garden beds to fit the coop’s foot print and be 12″ tall (this also helps it stay drier most of the year). Two coops and two beds for each coop. All it takes to “clean” the coop is to swap its location to the currently vacant bed. Then its important to let the recently exposed bed rest for a couple of weeks under a layer of mulch. This bed then yields 12″ of rich organic matter, full to bursting with earthworms. Quick work with a fork to loosen it up a bit and its ready for planting.
Thanks to this method I still enjoy keeping chickens. Diatomaceous earth applied to the coop occasionally help keeps the flies down a bit (although I’m still working on this). A raking or forking are sometimes necessary to break up any caking. Both of our coops have a drawer under their roosting bar. This is where smell can build up and needs frequent removal and cleaning. I’ve tried filling this area with straw and it just gets kicked out. We’ve tried sand, it worked okay but was really heavy to remove. My next experiment will be with a mixture of coco fiber and diatomaceous earth. Placing this in the drawers could absorb some of the moisture, the diatomaceous earth would kill fly larvae and it would be lightweight to remove (this is an untested theory).
Upon discovering the flawed dream of the wandering chicken, many city chicken owners bottle them up tight, like we did. But the whole point of owning your own chickens is to have healthier eggs than you would find in the store. Chickens need a well rounded diet to be happy and create eggs that are balanced in nutrition. This method seems to be solve many of my personal issues listed above. We haven’t had any varmint attacks since we started this, and no rats outside ( just the two pets inside).
Hopefully I haven’t scared you away from urban chickens. Just do your research and be prepared to get creative in problem solving! If you live in Portland the Urban Farm Store has a class on chicken keeping. Although I mostly by my feed at the Urban Farm Store I would be remiss not to mention Concentrates. They are a great resource in Milwaukie near the Dave’s Killer Bread Outlet and Bob’s Red Mill.