COLUMN: A few things to know about raising chickens

Thursday, February 4, 2010 | 5:54 p.m. CST; updated 8:34 p.m. CST, Thursday, February 4, 2010

What do you know about chickens?

A Columbia City Council decision made earlier this week will allow residents to keep up to six chickens in their backyards. But caring for chickens takes more than just throwing them a little feed and gathering a few eggs.

When I started asking around, I found I am not alone in my lack of chicken know-how. In fact, most of the people I asked were not too sure what it takes to raise chickens. That’s saying something, as I spend 90 percent of my time with agriculturally minded folks.

None of the responses amounted to anything more than a brief memory of helping grandma collect eggs back in the day. Realizing I’m not the only one lacking this chicken expertise, I set out to get a better idea of what it would take to start up a backyard chicken project.

I turned to resources from University of Missouri Extension to locate a poultry expert and got a chance to sit down with poultry expert Jess Lyons. Because that’s not really practical for most residents, I thought I’d share what I learned.

I approached the topic as if I was looking for “started pullets,” which are hens ready to lay eggs. Lyons said these hens are typically worth about $10 each and will be ready at about five to six months of age. Another option would be to start with baby chicks, but that process would take a book to explain.

Like other pets, chickens require daily attention in terms of feeding, watering and collecting eggs. I called two local feed stores to get a rough estimate on the price of feed for a pen of six chickens. A 50-pound bag will cost somewhere between $9-12. The hard part is determining the appropriate ration, which determines how often you have to buy a new bag. With a few simple calculations, I would feel safe budgeting at least $150 for feed supplies for six chickens for a year.

Because a lack of nourishment will impact the hens’ ability to lay eggs, I suggest going to a feed store and having the staff help determine the appropriate ration with their nutrition information.

It is important to make sure the water isn’t too hot or cold, or the hens won’t be hydrated enough to maintain their egg production. With these below-freezing temperatures we’re having, add in extra work as owners must break ice or replace the water for the animals to be comfortable. Assuming most folks won’t be wiring their backyard hen houses for electricity, I’ll refrain from suggesting a heated water container.

These eggs don’t collect themselves, so that’s another daily chore to plan for. Taking days off can lead to broken eggs, frozen eggs and other issues. Once the hens break and eat the first egg, they’ll continue to do so, which could ruin breakfast for you.

Lyons estimated you can expect to collect around 200 eggs in a year from each hen. He noted this number typically decreases by about 20 percent as the hen reaches her second year of production. In the third year, Lyons says they’re not likely to produce many eggs, so you may want to think about this as an added factor in your decision.

Like any animal, chickens will need medical attention at some point. Most likely, it will involve parasite control. As with other animals, preventative measures are the best way to approach chicken care. That’s why I wanted to find cost estimates from local vets. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the success I hoped for. While I can’t provide cost estimates, it seems significant to acknowledge the reason for this was lack of interest and time from the vet offices I contacted.

My suggestion would be to start vet shopping prior to bringing your birds home. I don’t say this out of disrespect for the occupation, because I certainly respect their service to caring for our animal population. However, there is an apparent shortage of vets willing to practice on animals they’re not used to. In this case, we’re talking chickens.

Assuming most backyards aren’t equipped with ready-made hen houses, I checked out some designs online. They’re quite unique, so do some online searching or check books out at the library to find designs that fit your situation best. Hopefully, this is the kind of information that will be provided at the upcoming informational meetings to be hosted by the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture.

On a housing-related side note, don’t expect chickens to keep your lawn well-manicured. With scratching and pecking habits, chickens don’t really care what your yard looks like. Add in some mid-Missouri rain and expect to see some mud. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but certainly something to consider before making the commitment to your new backyard friends. You may want to consider a hen house with an outdoor run.

Mud is an important topic for those concerned about the smell. With proper management, I’m told the smell isn’t an issue. However, with mud, manure and water, it’s not unimaginable. Lyons tells me it’s an issue of keeping the bedding dry and cleaning up the droppings frequently.

He said the area under the roosting nests needs the most attention as the hens spend a large amount of time in this location andproduce waste as they roost. As far as cleaning goes, Lyons said owners will want to clean the roosts as often as two times per week in the summer. As you can imagine, the heat can lead to more intense odors, not to mention invite flies and other unwanted insects.

Animals are a blessing, but it is so important to know what you’re getting into. Instead of chickens, I spent my childhood raising and caring for lambs. I know what it means to have chores at least twice a day for 365 days a year. I attribute many life lessons to the experience and challenges of providing care for animals and applaud parents who wish to help their children develop responsibility. I encourage involvement in 4-H and FFA because I value the opportunities provided to this younger generation.

As a fellow animal lover, I only ask that you make sure to do your homework so you don’t regret the decision later.

Whitney Wallace is a senior studying agricultural journalism at MU. She grew up on a small family farm near Clinton, Mo.

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Mikey Popshot February 6, 2010 | 8:06 a.m.

Thank goodness Ms. Wallace has injected both sanity and context into this debate.

I'm a city boy, so I can't draw on personal background to put agricultural topics in context. As food issues continue to gain a higher profile in the media and pop culture, I can choose to listen to hipsters touting the latest feel-good orthodoxy or I can listen to those with real-life knowledge and experience like Whitney.

I choose Whitney, and I hope the Missourian continues to publish such insightful opinion pieces.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro February 6, 2010 | 11:54 a.m.

I like mine over easy.
Eggs on sale at Gerbes: 99 cents a dzn.
And if you're a leg and thigh man, like me, Mosers usually has 10lb. bags @49 cents per lb.
cheep. cheep, cheep....
(And you don't have to worry about the Poultry Police or just plain ticking off your neighbors.)
Let the feathers fly!

(Report Comment)
Whitney Wallace February 8, 2010 | 12:04 p.m.

Thanks for reading! I appreciate the comments.

-Whitney Wallace

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