Columbia residents find endless benefits raising chickens

Saturday, April 24, 2010 | 8:32 p.m. CDT; updated 3:04 p.m. CDT, Thursday, April 29, 2010

COLUMBIA — Jerry Vanderpool has been reaping rewards from a new law that lets Columbia residents raise hens.

The retired farmer, who raises several breeds of chickens for show and as a hobby, uses his home-based business near California, Mo., to sell birds he doesn't need.

Tips on raising chickens

Here are some tips on how to raise your own chickens, shared by John Gage, Karen Mickey, Mary Stilwell and Adam Saunders:

The coop

  • Its design and structure should keep out the rain, wind and predators of the chickens.
  • Temperature should be about 95 degrees and warm so that the chickens do not fall sick. Heat lamps can be used to generate heat for chickens. After six weeks, the chickens do not need supplemental heat.
  • Place leaves, pines, shredded newspapers, grass and straw that are broken up into your coop for the chickens to peck at. Never place white paper into the coop because it is high in dioxins.
  • The ordinance states that hen owners have to construct coops out of sturdy wooden fencing and wires. Saunders suggested that owners can make a coop out of recycled materials to save cost.

The food

  • Chickens do not have teeth and thumbs, so the food should be small enough for them to consume. Chicken starters that are granulated and non-medicated are good for them.
  • Chickens eat almost anything the owners feed them with, including food scraps such as split peas, egg shells, parts of tomato and meat. However, do make sure to make these food into small pieces.
  • To allow the chickens to drink water on their own, place a bottle in the coop. However, they have to be taught how to use the bottle. Also, make sure the water is clean.

Good books to read on 

  • "Choosing and keeping chickens"
  • "Success with baby chicks"

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"They actually give back tangible rewards, making every day seem like Easter to the egg gatherer," Vanderpool said. "They also give nitrogen-rich compost to the gardener."

Since Columbia legalized hens on Feb. 1, Vanderpool said he's received numerous  calls at his J&M Buzzard Farm from customers in Columbia interested in raising chickens. Tom Payne, manager of Orscheln Farm & Home at 2800 Paris Road, also said he has seen an increase of about 20 percent in chicken sales — prices range from 99 cents to $3.99 each — since the Columbia law took effect.

At last count, Vanderpool said, he had sold 143 hens to Columbia residents. Most of those were bantams, or smaller-sized chickens, such as Silkies, Cochins and Buckeyes that are known for their gentle dispositions.

"Purchases varied from one to six birds, with most customers purchasing smaller numbers coming back for another one or two," he said.

Conversely, about one-third of the people who came to see his chickens and learn about caring for them decided that raising hens wasn't for them. He advises first-timers to research and ask questions before buying chickens.

Bourn Feed and Supply sells baby chicks every spring. Since it started selling the chickens this March, employee Melissa Haley said the store at 4011 I-70 Drive SE, has seen at least 10 customers from Columbia.

Why keep chickens?

There are several reasons why chickens have become an urban cause and have prompted cities around the country to make changes in their laws to accommodate the growing number of residents interested in raising their own eggs or meat.

Adam Saunders, board president of the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture, keeps six hens in his backyard on St. Joseph Street, which is also the location of the center.

"The economy is very poor right now, so people are becoming more interested in growing their own food," Saunders said.

Chickens can provide intangible benefits, too, such as education, networking opportunities and even entertainment.

Mary Stilwell, who helped lead the push for the Columbia ordinance, said her six Orpington hens serve as a community builder.

"I meet a lot of people by having chickens, especially when kids come over to play with them," Stilwell said. "They take their friends along, too, so I meet more people."

Saunders enjoys taking care of his hens. "I really enjoy watching them because of their unique character, different from cats and dogs, and they are beautiful," he said.

Taking care of chickens doesn't need to be onerous.

"They are self-reliant creatures," Saunders said. "As long as you give them food, water and a safe and clean shelter, they can take care of themselves."

Chickens do have some basic needs.

John Gage, 56, and his wife, Karen Mickey, 53, recently added 10 red producer chicks to their country home outside of Columbia on South Olivet Road. Twice a day, they give them food and water and clean the box the chicks live in.

Gage calls these "the chores of keeping chickens" and said he gets "more poop than I like."

At night, they lock up the chicks on their sunroom porch to keep predators at bay. Gage is building a concrete chicken coop to house them in a warm and safe environment.

"It's a lot of fun, though you have to pay attention and make sure the chicken house is right," Gage said. "You have to build fences to keep the black snakes or critters out. Otherwise, the chickens are pretty self-sufficient."

The family is waiting for their chickens to begin laying eggs when they are about 4 to 6 months old. The family plans to buy 10 more chicks so they'll have enough eggs to give away to relatives, friends and the food bank.

"We just want to know where our food is coming from, and this way we know what is and is not in the eggs we eat," Mickey said. "They are raised without antibiotics or hormones, and we know they are healthy."

They are also interested in raising the chickens as an educational tool.

"Teaching the grandchildren and nieces assures another generation will know how to take care of the land and each other," Mickey said.

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