Backyard Chickens: what no one tells you before you start

Backyard Chickens What No One Tells You | Living Consciously Blog

We’ve had our backyard chickens now for almost 3 years. Overall, if I had to do it again, I would. Just today I was talking to my chickens through the storm door while I fixed dinner and they were clucking pleasantly at me…

…while they covered the back door stoop in poop that I will inevitably step directly into the next time I go out the back door.

There are few things stinkier or stickier than chicken poop. It’s so difficult to remove yet you want to remove it so quickly.

I realize that there are things no one tells you before you start with backyard chickens. I think I need to make a list of those things. There might be people who would wait until a different life stage before getting into this, if only they knew. You can do a search for backyard chickens and get a million blog posts telling you how easy it is, how fun it is, how wonderful the eggs are. You can see hundreds of Pinterest-worthy chicken coops, including one from a friend of mine which is actually the bottom story of an enormous tree house/play fort. All very inspirational.

What I am here to tell you about today is what no one tells you about backyard chickens in a semi-urban or urban setting. In case you knew nothing about farm animals, like I did (or didn’t. or still don’t) beforehand.

In the past 2 years, here are the things I have encountered that you are likely to encounter too, at some point.

Poop – So much poop. If you let them “free-range”, please know that you ceding your backyard to them. It’s theirs now. You can never walk out there barefoot again. Even walking out the back door, you will find poop on the mat. If you don’t let them free range, you will be scrubbing, scooping, and sweeping poop out of the coop and chicken run (if you have one).

Salmonella from chicken poop – If you have children or perhaps forget to wash your hands very well at some point, you will get a nasty stomach bug. It’s just salmonella, which isn’t usually terribly severe. But it is no fun. If your chickens are free-ranging and you have children under the age of 4, understand that you are definitely exposing them to salmonella in the chicken poop that will be everywhere.

Mites – The standard answer to this problem on all the internet forums, boards, and blogs is “just sprinkle diatomaceous earth around the coop and nesting box and you’ll never have mites!”. That is a complete lie. I have gone through something like 25 lbs. of DE since last summer and it never did anything to either repel or quell the mite infestation. When your flock gets mites (which can actually come from wild birds, no fault of your own), you will have to treat them ALL (as in, catch each individual chicken and douse them) with either an herbal essential oil pesticide or DE (good luck with that). Then you have to empty and clean the coop and treat it with the same substance. You will have to do this every 6-7 days until the infestation subsides. I did this for 2.5 months last summer until the cold weather or the fact that I resorted to heavier pesticides finally worked. I had to wear protective clothing and a mask in 110 degree heat to keep from inhaling DE as the chickens squawked and clawed and pecked at me. I did that every week for around 10-12 weeks. Think about doing this before you commit to chickens.

Not all chickens are friendly – Our Buff Orpingtons were very shy, and their shyness came out as attacking when cornered. This is super fun when you have to catch them every 6 days to treat them for mites. The Red Sex Link that we have bit everyone for the first 1.5 years we had her. They also bite, peck, and attack each other. They will tear each other’s feathers out and make each other bleed. Sometimes you have to separate them.

Predators – We have lost two chickens to a bobcat and one to a hawk so far. Remember, every animal loves to eat chicken. They are easy to catch, have no natural defenses, and aren’t known for being intelligent. And they are delicious.

Death in the flock – Make sure you and/or your children are prepared to face death. In addition to the chickens killed by predators, we have also lost one to some kind of sudden illness that could have been egg bound or possibly liver disease My kids have taken each death in stride and never seemed particularly phased. We have been honest with them about what happened and they seem to appreciate that. But if you have qualms about discussing the death of a pet with your children, owning chickens might bring that fear to fruition sooner than you’d like.

Broody hen – Sometimes a hen will become convinced that her eggs have baby chickens in them and she MUST SIT ON THEM. This is called “going broody”. She thinks she has a brood. Unless you have a rooster in your flock (illegal in most urban/suburban areas), she obviously does not have a brood, but she doesn’t know that. She will chase the other hens out of the nesting box and peck anyone who comes near her. If she doesn’t allow the other hens to lay eggs in the box, they could hold their eggs inside and become egg bound (which is fatal to a hen). Unless you are prepared to find some fertile eggs and allow her to raise chicks, you will have to sequester her in a crate with an open bottom where she can’t sit down without adequate airflow under her bum for 2-3 days. When her internal body temperature cools, she should break the broodiness. Most people use a dog crate with the poop tray removed. We didn’t own a crate so we had to buy one ($60) the first time one of our hens went broody.

Finding a chicken sitter – It’s not as easy to find a chicken sitter as a dog sitter, because despite the free eggs, there are a number of things that could go wrong. There is a LOT of poop in the coop, so it has to be someone who is OK with walking through chicken poop. It’s possible the chickens might peck. Several times we’ve had chickens escape when the sitter opened the door and later had a neighbor call about our chickens wandering around the neighborhood (see Predators, above). Then you have to call another person who is comfortable both chasing and catching a chicken, and who is OK with being pecked by an angry chicken.

Mud – Chickens eat all vegetation in their area. They pull up any grass directly by the roots. Any area in which you keep chickens will have no grass at all. No grass when it rains means mud. Lots of mud. We had record rainfall in Texas this year. The coop was muddy for months. Did you know mud is the same color as poop? So who knows what all that stuff is that you’re wading through to gather eggs. The chickens are covered in it, the coop is covered in it, and you have to almost take a shower after feeding and watering them, which must be done every day since the food and water from the day before is already covered in mud. There’s nothing less fun than having to leave your warm couch and PJ’s and get dressed in what is basically hazmat gear to go out into the freezing cold mud to feed angry chickens.

I sincerely hope that you still want backyard chickens. They can be a fun adventure. They are not cheap and they are not easy. You will not be saving any money, but you will be more connected to your food and to your little vacuous, pea-brained pets!

Everything eats chicken…except me

It turns out that chickens are sort of difficult to keep alive. Besides being rather dumb, or possibly because they are rather dumb, pretty much everything preys on them.
Successfully.

All that to say: one of our newest chickens was killed on Saturday by a hawk. We were home, it was the middle of the day, we had just come home from the store as a family and the kids were at the table for lunch. My husband saw the hawk swoop on down and attack our largest chicken. The mistake it made was trying to drag the chicken under the chicken wire of the chicken run. The now-no-longer-with-us chicken got stuck and the hawk abandoned it. The hawk flew up onto a nearby telephone pole and watched from afar. After a while, it gave up and went away.

We learned that there was no way to process the chicken for food. I know that seems cruel, but…it seemed like such a waste to bury a chicken that was otherwise untouched. Not that I eat chicken — I don’t eat meat except for fish. The rest of the family does. Still, there was nothing else we could do, we buried it. In the backyard. Well, I didn’t — Christian did.

I tell you this just to inform you of our ongoing chicken journey.

R.I.P. Bocky and JuJu

Backyard Chickens - RIP Bocky and JuJu  | Living Consciously Blog
RIP Bocky and JuJu

It’s ironic that my last post was about our chickens, because they were both killed last night by a bobcat in our area. We had never heard of the bobcat coming this far from the creek or this close to a major road (which our alley backs up to), but apparently it does and it was able to get in our 6 foot fence, into the chicken run, and into the coop. It is partially our fault for not closing the coop securely. I am very sad to think about their last moments and that we were not able to protect or save them. I wish I had played with them yesterday so I could have said goodbye. The kids are at school right now so I am going to have to tell them that Bocky and JuJu are gone when they get back. I was in the backyard cleaning out the feathers and, uh, blood, and it is so quiet and lonely back there without their little bock-bock-bock sounds. I hope that we can get some new chickens soon and that we can make our yard more secure this time.

Taking our backyard back from the chickens

Backyard Chickens | Living Consciously Blog

When we got our backyard chickens, we had rosy dreams of chickens roaming freely and happily throughout our large backyard just the way nature intended and the way that factory farmed chickens are never allowed to live.

Then we got the actual chickens and the amount of poop kind of blew me away. I mean, two chickens — how much could they poop? And surely they’d mostly poop in the grass, right? The answer to those two questions is: an astronomical amount, and NO.

Those dang things poop aggressively anywhere they can squeeze their fluffy bodies into. Inside the garage in the 5 minutes that the door is open before I back the car out. On top of our picnic table. Directly on top of the back door mat so you step into it as you exit the house. And how they hide the poop in the garage when they manage to get in there so that I step in it on my way to the washer and dryer. NOT COOL, CHICKENS.

We thought we had it under control with our dogged dedication to handwashing and by purchasing backyard-only Crocs that were always taken off at the door to the house so that if anyone stepped in poop it never made it inside the house. We covered every dropping with loose sand from the sandbox and swept it away when it dried. We bought a power-washer for the concrete.

Despite one of my previous commenters’ disparaging remarks, I really do not think it was unreasonable for us to assume that two chickens in 1/8 of an acre in full sunlight was a natural breeding ground for all kinds disease. In agrarian societies, humans and animals co-existed for centuries and still do on operating farms today.

Nevertheless, I think it was the sippy cups that really did us in. I like to make sure my kids are well hydrated so I let them carry their sippy cups with them wherever they are playing. Which, unfortunately, included outside. It never occurred to me that they might have been dropping those cups in infected areas and then touching them with their mouths and hands. Even after washing their hands, re-touching those cups again later might have been the cause of what happened: salmonella.

At least, we think it was salmonella. It was 2 weeks of diarrhea with no other symptoms for both kids. When we took Little Sir to the doctor (he was the first to exhibit symptoms), she mentioned that it looked a lot like salmonella but that since he hadn’t been touching frogs or turtles, that couldn’t be it. Then, either she or someone else casually mentioned chickens later…and I started putting it all together.

My first thought, of course, was to cook those chickens for making my babies sick. But I am a vegetarian and ethical slaughter would probably be expensive and time consuming.

Instead, we locked those chickens up in their coop and power-washed the entire back yard and some of the garage floor. SO MUCH POOP. The chickens were indignant and loud about it. I told them that they were lucky that they were not in a soup already.

This weekend, Christian built a little chicken run around their coop with some chicken wire.

Chicken run

I love it!

Another thing I love, unrelated to this post, is my new screen door for the backyard.

New screen door

The weather is just now getting cool here in the Dallas area and the kids have been enjoying playing outside in their now-poop-free environment. The screen door makes it perfect because I can even work on dinner with the door wide open to hear them and the bugs won’t get in. Both of them have even learned to open and close the door themselves! Big kids!

And that is the story of how we reclaimed our back yard from the chickens.

Need feedback: Future posts?

If you haven’t been following this blog long (and a lot of you are new, thanks to Green Sisterhood, CottonBabies, and Dallas Moms Blog – hi! welcome!), you might not have noticed that since my last BlogHer, I’ve really been trying to focus the intention of this blog to be less random stream-of-consciousness, Jenny’s-personal-thoughts-about-today and more eco-friendly and green. More Pin-able and less philosophical. Which is a smart and noble endeavor, I believe, especially since I really want to grow my blog to something more than 50 people that I’ve met IRL at some point in my life and who think I am weird enough to be amusing.

But then, things like last week happen. Where I have a lot of random thoughts in my head but none of them are relevant to my green living endeavors or long enough to be an entire blog post. In fact, a lot of them are probably bemoaning the ways I’m failing and can’t seem to gain traction. So I just don’t post at all. How is THAT helping my blog? To not post? Probably not much.

Yet, I have a lot of random things to share, which I often do on my blog’s Facebook page (make sure you’ve “Like”ed me!).

  • The defeat of Proposition 37 in California and what does that mean for our ability to be conscientious consumers? I think I am too unhappy that this failed to see a way out right now. The truth is, Prop 37 failed because a lot of big corporations have a lot of money and they had the advertising and lobby power to convince people in a tight economy that their overall health and ability to be informed is going to cost them too much. When the opposite is true. It’s another case of Big Corp and Big Money winning and I am just so dang sick of being optimistic about that battle when it seems unrealistic.
  • What is going on with my garden: it is actually currently producing a fairly good crop of tiny but healthy bell peppers! I think I will collect the entire crop, chop them up and freeze them, and make a stir fry. For one person. I already made these cute bell pepper eggs once. Only the pepper was so small that I made a little flower with all the rings instead…it’s hard to describe and I didn’t take a picture. Sorry.
  • Free shipping with Shaklee. I buy some of my green cleaning products from my friend Jessica’s Shaklee business, as you will find out if I ever finish my “Green My Routine: Cleaning” post. That’s going to be a long one.
  • Going dairy and soy free, in addition to already being vegetarian. OK, it’s not me that’s dairy and soy free, it’s my son. Since we’ve taken him off dairy and soy his potty training poop issues have suddenly improved. It’s been almost 5 days since he’s had a poop accident. But, since he already refuses to eat meat of any kind or beans of any kind, removing dairy and soy presents seemingly insurmountable obstacles when it comes to his nutrition. He’s already in the 40th percentile for weight. Shoot me now. I have no idea.
  • Giving my children salmonella by mistake. It wasn’t actually me, but our stupid backyard chickens. I swear, sometimes I consider cooking those chickens for dinner and I don’t even eat meat. I believe what happened is that my children’s sippy cups came into contact with the chicken poop that is EVERYWHERE in our backyard because those stupid birds are aggressive poopers. As in, you leave something out there for 5 minutes and when you come back there will most definitely be poop on it. Aggressive pooping. So we have confined them to an area of the yard. Pictures to come. And maybe I should blog about the salmonella you can get from backyard as a cautionary measure for other potential chicken owners? It’s just all so embarassing.
  • Operation Christmas Child. It’s a worthy cause, we are excited about it. I took an emergency trip to Target and Whole Foods to get a ton of suitable and conscientious items and then we left our stupid box at home so we might have missed the deadline. Nice.

So maybe some of those bullet points deserve their own post but I’m feeling overwhelmed. Help me out. Which would you like to hear more about? And thanks for hanging in there with me!

Organic Cage free eggs vs backyard chicken eggs

UPDATE AS OF 6/2014: Since the original publication of this post in 2012, Costco has changed the company with whom they obtain their third-party Humane Certification. Formerly, they were Certified Humane by Humane Farm Animal Care. Some time since then, the certification was changed to United Egg Producers (UEP) humane certification program. The difference, as far as I can tell, is slightly disturbing. UEP does allow both live chick grinding and beak trimming, considering those practices “humane”. I certainly don’t. However, that does not mean that the chickens are being trimmed or chicks ground. It just means the producers are not prohibited from those practices. I have seen no change in the inside or integrity of the eggs in comparison to our backyard chicken eggs.

Before we got our chickens, we heard other owners of backyard chickens tell us how the eggs from their chickens were so different from the eggs they’d been buying at the store: tasted better, looked better, etc. We were maybe a little surprised to find there wasn’t much difference for us, because it turns out we’d been buying {relatively} responsible eggs all along.

We were buying cage-free organic eggs from Costco. Why Costco and not a local farm? Because my kids eat 3-4 eggs per day. That is 21-28 eggs per week even without using eggs for recipes and cooking. I cannot afford $6 per dozen at local farms. Two dozen of the Costco cage-free organic eggs cost $6.99.

First, it’s important to know the types of eggs you can buy at the store.

Cage-free: just means that the birds weren’t in a cage. This doesn’t mean they had access to the outdoors or that they were not overcrowded, just that the place in which they were contained did not have wires. It could be a barn or a warehouse or anything. And there is no certification, auditing, or established overseeing program to verify that the chickens are truly cage-free. An egg producer can put “cage-free” on the package and it can be a complete lie.

Organic: mainly specifies the type of feed the chickens were given, and that they were not given antibiotics which would have allowed them to survive infections from overcrowding. If the eggs are certified through the USDA (the ones we bought were certified), the chickens were also required to have access to the outdoors, but there is no requirement about how long they are “allowed” outside per day or even if it is daily. However, the USDA does audit and verify the conditions of facilities who are given this certification.

Our eggs also had a “Certified Humane” seal on them, a program certified by Humane Farm Animal Care, at the time of this original post publication. Since then, Costco has switched to using the United Egg Producers certification program. See note at top of this post for more details.

Labels that mean pretty much nothing at all when it comes to buying eggs: vegetarian fed, natural, free range, free roaming, and cage free.

Why do those labels mean nothing? Because there is absolutely no regulation on who uses them or verification in place to prove the label is accurate.

A great source for more info on egg labeling: EggIndustry.com

When it came to the eggs we were buying from Costco, we lucked out, though!

The two Plymouth Rock hens that we have in our backyard are truly free roaming. They roam all over our yard from sun up to sun down. They put themselves to roost in their coop at night, but the door is open so they wander out again first thing in the morning. When I leave to teach Pilates at 5am, they are always up already! They scratch on the ground to eat bugs and we give them leftover green table scraps. We also feed them organic layer’s mash once a day or so (sometimes every other day), because we don’t seem to have enough bugs to fully satisfy their appetites. We also add oyster shell to help their eggs’ shells be sturdier because we experienced a few “soft” eggs that one of our hens laid with no shell! It’s the weirdest thing.

Anyway, back to the Costco eggs versus the backyard chicken eggs. Here is what the two eggs look like in a frying pan:

Costco eggs vs backyard chickens

The egg at the top is the Costco egg, while the egg at the bottom is from our chickens.

The main difference is that with the backyard chicken egg, you can see more distinctly that there are 3 parts to the egg. I say “more distinctly” specifically because there are still 3 parts to the Costco egg — it’s just a little more difficult to see in the picture and in real life. The 3 parts merge faster with the Costco egg. This 3-egg-part phenomenon is supposed to be characteristic of a free ranging “happy” chicken.

The taste: pretty much the same. We have done this experiment again and again, always with the same results. The backyard chicken eggs usually have a little different flavor, but I think that’s mainly due to whatever table scraps we’ve given them most recently. No matter how well the Costco chickens were treated, they probably didn’t have kale and strawberry scraps in addition to their feed! 🙂

Other small differences: the Costco eggs are slightly larger and the shells are much thicker. Since we started giving our chickens oyster shells, their shells have become harder but still not as hard as the Costco eggs.

Right now our chickens give us 1 egg a day each. We have 2 chickens. Our current coop can only hold the 2 of them, so we aren’t in a position to buy more at this time. We do still have to buy eggs from Costco to supplement. But after doing this comparison for several months, my thought is that of all the places we could be buying affordable eggs, this is a great compromise for us when it comes to price and the humane treatment of the chickens. From what I can tell, in my unprofessional observation, Costco is doing a good job of providing responsible eggs at a good price.

7 Quick Takes Friday #39

— 1 —

We have had our chickens for one week now. It has been going really well, except for the day that I spent 30 minutes one morning chasing a chicken around the back yard, wearing a dress, while my children wailed inside the house because we were supposed to leave for a blogging-related shopping event. Since then I have been advised to squirt them with the garden hose to get them back into the coup. Duly noted.
Chickens!

— 2 —

This weekend is Earth Day! If you’re looking for activities to celebrate with your children, Dallas is hosting an Earth Day event and here’s another handy list of Earth Day activities for kids, even if your city isn’t hosting an event.

— 3—

Ironically, I have a ton of cloth diaper related posts coming up even though this week was Real Diaper Week. Better late than never, I guess. You can also find me blogging this week on CottonBabies blog about using cloth diapers at daycare.

— 4 —

I continue to do poorly at saving money. Here is another reason our family sucks at this: no one in our family will touch leftovers. At all. Ever. Well, except me. But I get pretty sick of whatever it is after eating it 3 times in a row and it inevitably gets thrown away. And yes, I have tried freezing things. The kids and the husband will not eat anything leftover, whether it is thawed or refrigerated. The fact that it is not fresh makes no one interested in eating it. Therefore, I have to constantly cook brand new things and the portion sizes have to be exactly what we will eat in one sitting or else it’s wasted. Anybody have any solutions for me there?

— 5 —

I hope to do a garden update this weekend, but our peas were getting eaten by some sort of pest so I bought a container of ladybugs to take care if it. We released them last night at dusk.

Ladybug release

OUR CHICKENS WERE WAITING
Chickens nabbing ladybugs

Many ladybugs perished in the chickens’ stomachs, but hopefully some of them survived.

— 6 —

In case you were wondering whether the $3.99 bottles of wine that Whole Foods has come out with are as good as Trader Joe’s “Two Buck Chuck”, the answer is NO. WF $3.99 wine is TERRIBLE. I do not recommend it. What ingredients do I need to make this into sangria or something?

— 7 —

Have a Happy Earth Day on Saturday!

~~~

Well that’s all for this week, be sure to visit Conversion Diary for links to more 7 Quick Takes Fridays.