The girls and us

Published Monday, June 25, 2012 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal.

Several years ago, Roy MacGregor wrote a book called “The dog and I”: a reflection of the camaraderie that can develop between people and their pets. 

The title above springs from that sort of spirit, except that the subjects are not four legged.  They’re ten fine Rhode Island Reds that have brought more than just an ample supply of fresh eggs to our home over the past 12 months. 

If you’ve ever wondered about backyard chickens, here’s a firsthand account of some benefits and pitfalls.

Our girls arrived as young adults in May 2011.  We settled them into a small baby barn-like coop in our backyard with plenty of space (3-4 square feet per bird are recommended).  Feed, a feeder, a waterer and sawdust for bedding were sourced from our local farm supply store. 

Initially quite shy, the hens soon discovered the joys of roaming free about our rural property.  (Some people prefer to build enclosed runs.)  We had our first eggs within weeks, and before long were getting nine to ten eggs per day – a percentage that was maintained all year. 

Our coop is well insulated so the body heat of ten chickens kept it warm on all but the coldest nights during the winter.  Chickens normally quit laying eggs as days get shorter, so we installed a timer and light to mimic summer hours year round.

The advantages
Our backyard chickens have provided several benefits:

  • We’ve enjoyed the freshest, best quality eggs ever – rarely more than two days old.
  • In this era of long-distance food with uncertain origins, we have another small measure of control over our own food supply; we know where it comes from and we know what has gone into its production.
  • We have far fewer earwigs and other yard pests because the hens snack on all kinds of garden bugs.  (It’s a small measure of sweet revenge that they get processed into food we eat.)
  • Bedding and droppings combine to produce a nice supply of rich compost for our garden.  (Some hen owners create an active compost heap inside their coop in winter to generate warmth to heat the coop - clever.)
  • We’ve become newly acquainted with several neighbours who appreciate freshness and buy our surplus eggs.
  • Our sons have learned a bit about food, animal husbandry, responsibility and business; they do most chores and get to keep the profits from egg sales.

Rearing backyard hens is not without challenges:

  • They must be locked up at night because raccoons are more than happy to dispatch any unprotected birds.  Foxes and weasels have a palate for fresh chicken too.
  • Hens are not big on discretion, so droppings can be expected anywhere they roam.  You can stoop and scoop, as we try to do, but it’s a high-frequency exercise.  (On the other hand, it’s great fertilizer.)
  • Gardens need to be fenced off because hens love hostas, lettuce, beets, beans and a host of other plants, and they especially love scratching up newly planted seeds.  Simple, low cost mesh is available at hardware stores.
  • Hens need tending every day so you’ll need a backup caretaker if you expect to be away.
  • You’ll want to resist the temptation to add a rooster to your flock; their morning pronouncements may be nostalgic but are usually not appreciated by neighbours.  As well, some communities have zoning regulations that limit or prohibit backyard hens; check with local authorities.

Timed out
Over the past year, we’ve come to fondly refer to our chickens as ‘the girls’ in the same way dairy farmers often refer to their cows.  They have become so tame as to verge on pets, and they’ve been consistently productive.  Alas, with the completion of a full year of peak production, their time to move on came earlier this month.  Thankfully, they found a good home in someone else’s backyard and will live out their golden years there.

So are we lonely?  On the contrary: two weeks ago, we welcomed twenty new young girls, and the cycle has begun anew.  So – fresh eggs, anyone?