Wednesday, March 12, 2008

On Raising Healthy Urban Chickens

It's great to see archival content coming online from Mother Earth News. Recently, they've republished a couple great articles originally written by Randy Kidd back in 1981 as part of his "commandments" lists on caring for barnyard critters.

While his target audience seems to be those caring for more than just a small flock of backyard hens, the advice still hits close to home for anyone thinking of raising a few urban chickens.

The original stories are posted as "Ten Commandments for Raising Healthy Chickens" (part 1 and part 2), but if you want to skim the list, I've reproduced it below (his commandments are bolded) with my notes in plaintext on how I see the commandments applying to urban chickens:
  1. Recognize your market - while Kidd's referring to raising chickens for meat or for eggs (or both), the urban chicken farmer needs to decide if you're raising chickens for eggs or for show. The most prolific layers aren't necessarily the prettiest birds and vice versa (I'm partial in thinking our own Plymouth Barred Rocks are both beautiful and bountiful).
  2. Build a good chickenhouse - In our case, buying a pre-fab, easy-to-clean Eglu from Omlet was a no-muss, no-fuss, no-brainer on this. Of course, our neighbor up the street just built a beautiful wood coop for her six new silkies that has me a bit green with envy, but our Eglu's still both aesthetic and utilitarian and handles our two chooks just fine.
  3. Know what normal looks and feels like - as a newbie, this is hard to triangulate as chicks and pullets seem to do odd things at odd times, but intuitively you'll know if your chickens are doing ok. And a Google search on proper chicken behavior is just a click away.
  4. Buy only the best (addendum: and from the best) - Spend some time getting to know the store you'll buy your chicks from (no spur-of-the-moment purchases!) and ask where they order their chicks from. Reputable hatcheries will proudly talk of their craft, and reputable dealers will happily answer questions about their chicks. Remember: if you're buying chicks from them, you'll likely be buying food and accessories, too, so it's in their interest to create a good relationship with you. When it comes to buying the chicks, spend time observing the little ones to get the best of the bunch.
  5. Be aware of the chickens' cycles - We've yet to reach the end of our first cycle with Sophia and ZsuZsu, but I'm prepared for the girls to molt, stop laying, then regrow and lay again (at a lower output). Kidd's talking about how to smooth out the cycle with multiple batches of age-staggered chickens. Not as useful to us urban chicken farmers, but don't fret when the molting hits.
  6. Coddle the youngsters - The chicks are entirely dependent upon you to make their eat, poop, drink, poop, sleep, poop cycle as comfy as possible for the first several weeks of their lives. Make a good brooder in your home and mother the heck out of them. You'll be rewarded with an amazing transformation of fluffy chicks to awkward pullets to egg-laying hens in a short amount of time, and they'll always remember you're the one that made their first weeks divine and reward you with lots of weed- and insect-eating afternoons.
  7. Feed your critters well - This is really easy these days by buying the right pre-packaged mix at the local feed-n-fuel. And letting your girls free-range in your yard means they'll naturally scratch and peck and get the balanced diet they crave to produce delicious eggs for you. Always remember, tho: garbage in, garbage out. What you feed your birds is actually what you'll feed yourself as you consume the eggs. Nothing like a real check-and-balance on your own eating habits to make sure the chickens eat right, no?
  8. Keep accurate and meaningful records - Kidd would never have recommended this, but, better yet: keep a blog! I've been touched to see how many other folks have sent a note of thanks for helping them make the leap into urban chicken farming. My only regret: not tracking egg production beyond the "about a dozen a week" level of detail. I think this'll be especially important as the girls start to slow down in a couple years and we need to decide how to supplement their productivity with new chickens.
  9. Cull the worst - More applicable to larger flocks raised for meat and eggs, but also important to stress for urban chickens: if your birds get ill or injured, remove them immediately. The media's got folks already spooked about avian flu, so while the chances of your flock getting H5N1 here in the States is microscopically small, don't feed into anyone's fears by keeping a sick chicken around.
  10. Help your chickens prevent their own diseases - just another way of saying be a good caretaker of your chooks! Keep their coop clean, their food bowl full, their water flowing pure and room to run around. A happy chicken will be a productive chicken and you'll be flooded with eggs. As I've posted before, it only takes a few minutes a day to properly tend your tiny flock, so do it!
Thanks again to the Mother Earth News folks for publishing Kidd's Commandments from way back when.

Do other contemporary urban chicken farmers have anything to add to the list to help apply it better to our situation and these times?

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