by Rebecca Nickols
Photos by author
Last year I was asked by the Master Gardener chapter that I’m a member of to do Power Point presentation on backyard chickens. Since I’m more of a gardener than a farmer, I thought I would not only share the whys and hows of basic chicken keeping, but also how a gardener can benefit from having a few hens, as well as strategies to protect your garden from the ever hungry foraging birds …
Here’s the basic outline for my presentation…
Gardening with Chickens
- Self-Sufficiency and Sustainable Living
- Free fertilizer
- Heritage Chickens
- Ordinance Requirements
- Resources: online, books, local sites
Q: What’s the chance I’ll get the bird flu or salmonella poisoning?
A: Avian influenza, or bird flu, is a viral respiratory disease that affects a variety of birds (both wild and domestic). There are various strains of this virus that occur naturally among wild aquatic birds worldwide that can infect domestic poultry. There have been outbreaks of bird flu in both commercial and backyard chickens the United States, but none so far have come from the dreaded H5N1 strain. The CDC reports that there is no evidence of the highly infectious form of bird flu having caused disease in birds or people in the United States.
As for salmonella, it’s common for chickens, ducks and other poultry to be a carrier of this germ or bacteria that naturally lives in the intestines of many animals and is shed in droppings. Live poultry may have salmonella germs on their bodies (including feathers, feet and beaks) even when they appear healthy and clean. The germs can also get on cages, coops, hay, plants and soil in the area where the birds live and roam. Additionally, the germs can be found on the hands, shoes and clothing of those who handle the birds, or work or play where they live and roam.
Should the fear of bird flu or salmonella influence your decision to have a backyard flock? It’s not of my opinion that it should. Some common sense hygiene practices will give you and your flock the best protection and prevention from many potential diseases. For example, keep the coop, feeders and waterers clean and wash your hands before and after handling the birds or eggs. Salmonella can pass from healthy-looking hens into the interior of normal-looking eggs; thoroughly cooking eggs is recommended.
Q: Do you need a rooster to have eggs?
A: This is a common question of many people considering to undertake backyard chickens… The answer is simply “no.” A chicken will ovulate and produce eggs with or without a rooster. A male is not needed to produce an egg, but he is required to fertilize an egg. If you want baby chicks, you’ll have to have a rooster. If you just want a dozen eggs, all you need are the hens!
Q: Are chickens noisy, smelly, dirty; will they attract pests and rodents?
A: A chicken usually will quietly cluck (sometimes it sounds more like a hum), but after they’ve laid an egg they will proudly cluck and strut around announcing their accomplishment! Even their loudest bawk, however, doesn’t compare to the bark of a dog!
As for smell, chickens don’t really have much of an odor at all.. If you allow the coop to accumulate a large amount of droppings, then (or course) you’ll have an unpleasant smell. I can attest, however, the smell of a chicken coop at its dirtiest is nothing like the smell of a liter box! If you routinely take the time to clean out the coop (it only takes me 20 minutes), odor will not be an issue.
Do chickens attract pests? No, they eat them! Chickens are a free organic bug control! They’ve also been known to devour a mouse… As long as their feed is properly stored, rodents shouldn’t be a problem.
Q: What do I do if one of the chicks turns out to be a rooster?
A: If you purchase your chickens as day old chicks, there is always the chance that an intended pullet might turn out to be a rooster. If one morning you hear your little chick crow, you have a few options… The easiest solution might be to just keep him, but many city ordinances won’t allow for backyard flocks to include a rooster. Many chicken keepers opt for humanely slaughtering unwanted roosters, but if this is not an option you want to undertake, you could do as I did–relocate him. I placed an ad in craigslist for a free rooster and within a few days I had a few interested callers.
A: Backyard chickens will lay eggs for several years, but the amount they lay will decrease as they age. After about 5 years or so, you might have to make the decision to keep the flock as pets (they are endearing and entertaining) or replace the older birds with more productive younger hens.
Back to the subject of gardening with chickens… Last year was the first year that I allowed my flock to free-range on my property and I came to the conclusion that the only way to be a successful gardener was to not allow the chickens access to the garden. I appreciate my flock’s huge appetite for insects and their great skills of scratching-up and tilling the soil, but they are messy foragers and can destroy a garden.
This season my fenced in kitchen garden is beautiful! My crops of vegetables and herbs have done wonderfully; not only because they have been protected from the chickens, but because my garden soil has been amended with the world’s finest organic fertilizer–chicken manure!
If you have chickens–you have chicken manure–and if you’re a gardener this fertilizer is pure (black) gold! However, fresh chicken manure should never be added to the garden without first being composted for 3 to 6 months (depending on the method of composting). In the past, I’ve been a lousy, lazy composter; I would throw the coop bedding and droppings into the compost bin and that was about the extent of my effort. Successful composting requires turning the compost, keeping it moist, checking the temperature–I failed at all of these requirements. This year, however, has been different thanks to my DIY Chicken Manure Tumbling Composter!
Stay tuned for my up-coming posts where I’ll share how you can quickly turn your abundant supply of chicken waste into free fertilizer at a faster rate and with less effort than a traditional composting bed!
To see what else is happening on our Southwest Missouri property, visit …the garden-roof coop.