Emma Barcenas is new to the world of backyard chicken-keeping. She wanted to add a third hen to her burgeoning Denver flock, so she visited Wardle Feed & Pet Supply bright and early on a recent Monday morning.
When she arrived, she encountered a line of people waiting outside the Wheat Ridge store for the exact same reason. Word spread that the store had a new shipment of pullets — juvenile hens that are just about to start laying eggs — and everyone flocked to the store. Despite the crowd, Barcenas managed to buy one.
“She’s really funny because she’s more talkative than the others,” said Barcenas, 27.
Coloradans are buying so many chickens these days that hatcheries, farms and stores can barely keep up with demand. Wardle Feed, for instance, is limiting customers to six baby chicks and four pullets.
“Everybody’s worried about food, so they’ve been buying a lot of chickens,” said Shaun Pearman, co-manager of Wardle Feed & Pet Supply. “We’ve sold about 7,000 baby chicks since March. It’s easily triple or maybe four times what we would normally sell in that period.”
The sudden surge in interest in backyard chickens can most likely be attributed to empty grocery store shelves and purchase limits for meat products. The pandemic has led many Coloradans to think in worst-case scenario terms, buying deep freezers, stocking their pantries, planting gardens and taking other steps to ensure their families have food if push comes to shove.
Some people are also pursuing new hobbies, including backyard chicken-keeping, thanks to the abundance of free time. But, by and large, chicken suppliers and farmers say they’re hearing from people who are scared about the availability of food in the near future.
“It’s the apocalypse standpoint, unfortunately,” said Grant Goldberg, who owns Twisted Pines Farm in Colorado Springs along with his wife, Alison. “Well, you know, ‘The power will go out, cellphones will die, people will rise up, but as long as I have my chickens, I’ll be able to eat.’ ”
If you’re interested in keeping backyard chickens, here’s what you should consider first.
Before you do anything, it’s important to understand your goals for keeping backyard chickens.
Do you want chickens that lay a lot of eggs? Chickens you can keep as pets? Chickens you can butcher and eat? The answers will help determine what age and breed are right for you.
“Not all chickens are created equal,” said Goldberg. “The birds that lay eggs, can you eat them? Yes. But if you want a bird that you raise for meat, it’s a totally different animal.”
Typically, you’ll choose between unhatched eggs, new baby chicks, starter pullets, laying hens and older hens that are still healthy and happy, but just aren’t producing as many eggs anymore. If chickens just aren’t your thing, you can also raise ducks, quail, guineas or turkeys, if your local laws allow it.
It’s also important to keep in mind that raising chickens, especially young ones, can get expensive. If your goal is to beat the price you see on eggs at the grocery store, you may want to think twice. But if your goal is to have delicious, high-quality eggs from chickens that were allowed to roam and prosper, then you’re on the right track.
Local regulations (and don’t forget the HOA)
Before you run out and buy (or build) a coop, you absolutely must check with your city, county and HOA. You might need a permit, and be limited in the number of chickens you can keep. And you might not be able to keep them at all.
And as for telling your neighbors? You could ask how they feel about chickens living nearby. Or you could take the “act first, apologize later” approach, with a twist.
“If you’re on good terms with your neighbors, I have always found the best way to let them know is to bring them a dozen eggs of your own,” Goldberg said. “A free dozen eggs goes a long way with a lot of people.”
Consider your space
Your local regulations may dictate how large your coop and yard space needs to be, depending on the number of chickens. You don’t need to live on a full-fledged farm, per se, but chickens do need some space to thrive.
Also take into consideration the fact that chickens prefer to be members of a flock. You’ll want to have at least two chickens at a time to keep them happy.
“Like any animal, they’re happiest when they have a buddy,” Goldberg said.
If you’re keeping chickens because you like to eat eggs, a good rule of thumb is that one healthy, laying hen produces approximately six eggs a week. For a family of four that eats a standard amount of eggs, Goldberg recommends four chickens.
It’s also important to consider the so-called biosecurity of your yard, or measures you can take to prevent the introduction or spread of disease among your flock. For example, if you take a walk through your neighborhood, you may accidentally step in goose poop and bring back bacteria that could harm your chickens. Migratory birds also can introduce bacteria or diseases.
Disinfect any and all objects that your chickens will come into contact with, including your shoes, gardening equipment, the coop and their feeders. Wash your hands regularly and control the rodent population.
Backyard chicken gear
Adult or juvenile chickens don’t require a ton of equipment, but there are a few standard must-have items.
You’ll need to buy or build a chicken coop, which keeps them safe from bad weather and predators. Consider buying a coop with an attached chicken run, a protected space where they can roam around, or building one onto an existing coop.
Feeders for water and food are also essential. If you get large feeders, you can even take a short vacation without worrying about your chickens running out of food and water.
Chickens clean themselves in dirt or dust, so you may want to consider creating a special bathing area in your yard. (Just know that the chickens might create their own dust bath elsewhere!)
Baby chicks are a whole different ball game. They need a brooder, which is essentially a heated container that keeps them safe and warm. (The temperature in the brooder is crucial in the early part of a chick’s life.) Baby chicks also need special food with probiotics to help stave off a common gastrointestinal disease.
In general, you won’t need to spend a ton of time tending to your chickens every day (though the babies obviously need more of your attention). Above all else, though, you need to keep their coop or brooder as clean as possible and change out their water frequently to prevent the spread of disease.
“They’re probably less work than most other animals, so if people are going to get babies, they just need to make sure they have time to check on them and clean their water and their bedding regularly, but that’s really the first 12 weeks,” said Pearman of Wardle Feed & Pet Supply. “Once you can put them outside, they’re really low-maintenance.”
Chickens and kids
You might be wondering whether you should get backyard chickens if you have kids. Though you’ll need to teach your children to be gentle with the chickens and their eggs, overall, you can use the birds to help your children learn valuable lessons at any age.
Goldberg has tasked his 5-year-old and 3-year-old sons with daily egg collection, a chore they gleefully perform every day of the year, even on Christmas.
“It’s like an Easter egg hunt every day,” he said. “It teaches them responsibility and to have respect for animals. If you’re careless and you smash or crack the eggs, well, that was going to be our breakfast. If you don’t go get eggs for a couple of days and they rot, well dang.”
If you get a baby chick or an unhatched egg, you should be prepared for the very real possibility that you’re getting a rooster, which typically aren’t allowed in most Colorado cities. You’ll have to find him a new home, which can be tricky.
“Sexing is not like a cat or a dog,” said Rebecca Tuka, owner of Serenity Sprouts farm in Strasburg. “Even if you’re able to find it a new home, are you prepared for the emotional side of it? Of giving up this little guy you’ve raised?”
Serenity Sprouts often takes in surrendered roosters, especially if the farm sold the egg or baby chick in the first place. But generally, there aren’t a lot of options for rehoming roosters.
“We have a little rooster gentleman’s club,” said Tuka. “We basically think of them as living art. They’re fun to look at. They also can go to work by taking a lot of mulch and composting it. We put the boys to work.”
Chicken behavior and your feelings
It’s important to know what you’re getting into before you bring your chickens home.
Chickens are hearty, but they’re also pretty delicate. They’re susceptible to diseases, wild predators and, unfortunately, can be harmed or killed by household pets.
“Going in, know there’s going to be a potential emotional rollercoaster where you get to witness the miracle of life, that excitement of getting the gift of your hen’s first egg, but also the devastation of a potential predator attack and losing that beloved chicken,” said Tuka. “A dog can get 10 to 15 years. A chicken can live to 10 years, but usually something happens to them before that. It’s probably more realistic for a chicken to live three to five years.”
In addition to laying eggs, chickens are great gardeners. If you let them free-range around your yard (or part of it), they’ll help turn the compost, eat bugs and, well, provide natural fertilizer. They’ll also gladly eat your kitchen scraps, especially fruits and vegetables, which can help reduce food waste.
And the phrase “pecking order” isn’t just a made-up adage, either. Chickens have a distinctive hierarchy, which they will happily sort out themselves. But you do need to keep this in mind when introducing a new bird to the flock. You’ll want to be strategic about how and when you introduce it, and don’t be surprised if it gets bullied or harassed for a little while.
Also, prepare for your chickens to act ambivalent toward you — unless you’ve got treats. They’re livestock, after all, and they aren’t super affectionate. (You shouldn’t be hugging or kissing your chickens anyway, per CDC guidelines.)
“They don’t really do much. They just walk around, they poop, they sleep and they eat,” said Barcenas, the new chicken-keeper.
Colorado backyard chicken classes
Though the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted in-person gatherings, many farms and stores are still doing backyard chicken-keeping classes, virtually. Here are a few options:
- Twisted Pines Farm
- Cost: Typically $15 per person or $25 per family; free webinars offered
- Wardle Feed & Pet Supply
- Cost: $20. Children under 15 are free with paying adult.
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