Photo Credit: Cindy Jerrell
From her homestead about a mile outside of Statham, a few minutes west of Athens, Cyndi Ball teaches people how to grow their own food.
“If people are allowed to have dogs, they should also be allowed to own chickens,” Ball says. “You may not be able to curl up with a chicken at night, but then again, a dog can’t give you eggs.”
Ball started raising chickens years ago and today teaches workshops in how it’s done. (She also teaches a myriad other homesteading skills, such as beekeeping, from her seven-acre Lazy B Farm.) “It’s comforting to know what you are eating and how it was raised,” she says.
You can grow your own food whether you live on a farm or in an apartment, Ball says—you may just have to do it a bit differently. “I am so glad more people are learning about how to raise their own chickens,” she says. “It’s something anyone can do with a little knowledge.”
Athens-Clarke County’s new backyard chicken law will take effect sometime in the next week—if it hasn’t already by the time you’re reading this—depending on when and if Mayor Nancy Denson signs it. It allows residents to own up to six hens (no roosters). Contact the ACC Planning Department at 706-613-3515 for details about the law.
You can buy chicks in the spring at most feed-and-seed stores or by mail order, but the best few weeks of the year just passed. Chickens start laying eggs when they are about 5 months old, but production drops off in winter, when the days are shorter. Laying requires 14 hours of light a day. In other words, if you get a chick now, you may not get many (or any) eggs for 10 months. Of course, if you wait until next spring, you won’t get any eggs for 10 months, either.
A good guide to consider is Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens by Gail Damerow.
A coop stays in one place; a tractor (a rolling coop) you must move around day-to-day. A tractor fertilizes the grass underneath and requires little maintenance or cleanup, but it must be moved every day. A permanent coop can allow you to add lights for heat and may provide more security from predators, but it requires some cleaning.
For birds that are confined with no outdoor run, make sure to give each one at least five square feet. In Athens-Clarke County, coops larger than 25 square feet require a permit.
Fencing, including the cover, is more to keep predators out than keep chickens in. Chickens don’t try to break out much, but a hawk, raccoon or possum will try to sneak in to steal young birds or eggs. Chickens are most defenseless at night, when some of these predators are more likely to go after them.
When choosing a breed, you’ve got a couple of decisions to make: Do you want chicks of your own? Do you plan to eat the meat or only the eggs?
After centuries of breeding chickens for their ability to lay eggs (and not necessarily the desire to care for those eggs), many hens don’t brood. A heritage variety may be more likely to have the brooding instinct.
Here’s a look at some of the best known breeds:
The Plymouth Rock is one of the most popular breeds, especially for newbies. They are docile, can grow larger than nine pounds, lay brown eggs and are good meat birds.
The Rhode Island Red is a rust-feathered chicken that is what many people picture when they think of backyard chickens. Reds don’t get as big as some other breeds but are good for meat and lay brown eggs.
The Leghorn is a prolific layer of white eggs but is not good for meat. It can be noisier than other breeds and does not typically brood.
Huge Jersey Giants—they grow up to 13 pounds and are popular among people raising chickens for meat.
Ameracaunas have fluffy feathers around their heads and lay blue eggs. They are good pets and good layers, but not meat chickens.
Some experts advise that chickens eat only commercial feed, but they are omnivores, and many people also give their chickens table scraps for treats and to avoid wasting food. It’s important to make sure chickens get enough protein, and commercial feed is designed to have the right balance. A laying hen will eat about a quarter-pound of feed a day and should have access to food all the time. Don’t neglect to give the birds access to clean water.
Dogs can be a backyard chicken’s best friend or its worst enemy. Puppies raised with chickens often will defend “their birds” from other dogs, but domesticated dogs will kill chickens if they have no attachment to them.
Also, biosecurity has always been important, but is even more vital lately, as avian influenza spreads across Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa. Make sure visitors cover their shoes, and don’t track mud from one chicken yard to another.
Building your flock could have some bumps along the way. For Ball’s family, one memorable mistake came 14 years ago. The family had been successfully raising chickens for a couple of months; then they first allowed the birds out in a run. A frog was in the run, so Ball and her young children watched with curiosity to see how the birds would react to the amphibian.
They tore it to pieces.
“They ate him. We didn’t realize chickens were meat-eaters. We learned that day,” Ball said.