Signs of spring continue to show up and it’s a great time of year, even if losing that one hour of sleep Sunday morning was tough. The first couple of weeks of daylight saving time can be challenging, simply because it’s dark again in the morning. Later in the day, the reward is worth it when there’s another hour of daylight waiting for you to enjoy outside activities that wasn’t there a mere week ago.
There’s other harbingers of warmer times too. The trees are starting to bud just a bit, testing out the weather. I also discovered that we have a squirrel that has moved in around here. It was out on the plot where the corn stood last season, foraging around, looking for a bit of something to eat. She’s (who knows, it could actually be a he) not that timid either. I came out of the shop to get a picture and she just continued to sit up on her haunches and enjoy munching her lunch.
Shortly thereafter, the wind started blowing and sleet began pelting everything in its path. That’s when I heard it — the meadowlark’s song. Several yards away from me was my friend, apparently unaware or unconcerned about the adverse weather. The song was loud, clear and persistent. I think I have a few lessons to learn from that bird. He knows spring is coming, trials are temporary, and soon it will be warm. Apparently, that’s worth singing about!
Our adventure with our small flock of chickens continues. We have seven hens, and we may add a few more this year. The coop we built last year did really well through the winter and provided all that we asked of it. The hens weathered fine, and their egg production is picking up again as the days start to get longer.
Perhaps you’ve thought about having a few backyard chickens. I hope so! It’s been a very positive experience for us, and there’s a few do’s and don’ts that I’ll pass on to you that will get you further faster.
Before we begin, I’m shamelessly plugging a great event on Backyard Poultry that we, in the Master Gardener’s group, are hosting next Wednesday night, March 23, from 7-8 p.m. We are pleased to have East Lamont (yep, that really is his name) of IFA Country Stores with us for a free workshop on how you can get started with backyard poultry. Should you already have chickens, you’ll learn some new things to get even better with your animal husbandry. The event will be held at the USU Extension Office, 151 N. Main, in Tooele.
Until then, let me pass on a few experiences. We learned a lot of new things over the last year that can really inform your decision either to begin your poultry adventure or to engage in another pursuit.
First off, I don’t think it’s a coincidence a word for chickens (“fowl”), and the word “foul” sound the same! They are birds, so they…um, make a mess wherever they roost, eat, drink and strut around. I have to laugh a bit when I see pictures of chicken feeders posted online that are made from lighting fixtures and other really spiffy kitchen and household items. These are typically painted up beautifully, and they are photographed the first few minutes they are in the chicken house. I assure you, they don’t look like that a few hours later! Chickens are inherently curious, and they are constantly pecking and scratching at whatever is before them, and will hop up on anything they can.
While they are in the midst of all of this activity, they leave a trail of evidence that they were there (how’s that for a genteel description?). So, you need to set up your chicken house with a few key features to contain the mess, and make it efficient and enjoyable to care for your birds.
First, create a run or area they can move around in but that you don’t need to walk in. If you don’t, it’s guaranteed you’ll be tracking chicken pucky (don’t you just love these descriptive terms?!) into the house on your shoes. Not good.
Avoid walking in the run by creating doors and access hatches that allow you stand outside the coop while changing water, filling a feeder and gathering eggs.
Second, be sure to use feeders and waterers that limit access so the chickens can only put their heads where the feed or water is, and there are no surfaces the birds can set or roost on. As endearing as chickens can be, they don’t have the mental capacity to realize that you don’t mess in your own food and water. So, don’t give them the opportunity to do so.
Third, give them a good amount of space to move around in. I use a ratio of about 5-10 square feet of run space for each bird. This reduces stress, diminishes the amount of scuffles (the “pecking order” is a very real thing), and keeps them more active. Putting a bale of straw in the run provides endless fun. They’ll occupy themselves hopping on and off of the bale and scratching at it (which wears down quite slowly). You can also throw chicken scratch and weeds you’ve pulled up on top of the bale instead of into the floor of the coop. This reduces the chance of the feed getting lost into the bedding (due to their scratching) before the chickens can eat it.
Did I say to feed them weeds that you’ve pulled? Absolutely! Chickens really like salad. Earlier today, I walked out by the coop and got a mild reaction from the hens. That changed when they saw me pick up my hoe and plastic bucket. They like most of what I bring them and what they leave behind becomes a part of the bedding. It’s a win-win. Sure, I could compost those weeds, or burn them off, but I look at them as a food source. Besides it feels good, in a slightly twisted way, to send those weeds to their demise down the gullets of our egg producers!
What about the smell? I get that question a lot. We have almost no odor to deal with. Seriously. It’s not because the coop is a good distance from the house. There’s no odor to speak of, even up close. Here’s why — deep bedding. As long as there is a steady supply of chopped straw, lawn clippings and other organic materials, you won’t have to deal with bad smell. Keep the nesting boxes full of straw as well, and scoop out any “chicken bombs” (my supply of poultry excrement euphemisms is almost endless) that your hens leave behind.
We clean out our entire coop and roosting area once a year and provision them with about 12 inches of straw. Then, we add the aforementioned materials ongoing. The moisture in the manure is absorbed, ammonia is greatly reduced, and you can use the spent bedding as compost immediately, instead of waiting to create a compost pile outside the coop.
Roosters. I have a love-hate relationship with them. Ultimately, my dislike for them has won out over keeping them around. Sure, there is something iconic and majestic about a strutting rooster. Visitors like seeing them, and many like to hear their crowing. However, I guarantee you that your neighbors won’t at 4:30 a.m. As it turns out, it’s not really your decision anyway if you live in town as city ordinances pretty much only allow hens in order to address this issue.
Roosters tend to be highly territorial, ultra-protective of “their” hens (… but it’s me that feeds them — how does that work?), and they continually “pester” (another euphemism to keep this column G-rated) the hens. Lastly, they eat a lot. So, my advice is to pass on roosters.
So, do I recommend having backyard poultry? Absolutely. Having these animals is endearing, engaging and educational. There’s a lot of life lessons to be learned with animal care, and maintaining a small flock is attainable for most everyone. See you at the Backyard Poultry workshop. Details are in the Bulletin Board section!
Jay Cooper can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can visit his web channel at youtube.com/dirtfarmerjay for videos on gardening, shop skills, culinary arts and landscaping.