To chicken or not to chicken...

Growing up around chickens (we had geese as well), I didn't like them one bit. Now I keep my own chickens however, I finally understand why my father always kept them. They turned me from being terrified of anything with wings, to a crazy chicken lady trying to learn anything there can be learnt about them. And now I secretly want to turn all of my friends (and strangers) into keeping them as well...

Why keep chickens?

Janssen & Haddock

Janssen & Haddock

1. Chickens are low maintenance

As long as you have a decent coop and a predator-proof fence, all chickens need is fresh water and food (every few days or so, more often in summer). You will need to clean the coop now and then, depending on the design and the number of chickens per square meter.
When you go on holidays (and if you have the right setup), a neighbour can easily come and check on their water and food every few days.

2. Chickens are cheap

Chickens can be as expensive as you'd like - you'll pay more for a fancy breed than for an ordinary egg layer, but you might as well get rescue chickens for free. The costs of the coop and run depend on where you source the materials and wether you build it  yourself; the internet has many designs of coops built with recycled materials only, but you could build them a fancy palace as well.

3. Chickens don't need much room

Technically, you could keep chickens on an apartment balcony. The eggs you're probably eating at the moment come from farms with an average of 17-19 chickens per square meter, which is the European norm. Most people around here seem to keep 3-4 chicken in a (more or less) square meter cage; the more room they have, the less cleaning they require - and the more they can act like chickens (which is fun to see). We are planning to have about 12 chickens on around 25 square meter most of the time (building up our numbers as we speak), and rotate pastures when we can. 

4. Chickens can provide you with daily fresh eggs

Not only do chickens provide you (their owner) with eggs, you can surprise neighbours and family members with them as well. That is, if you get the right breed; some breed lay more eggs, others have better (and more meat). Many breeds are "dual purpose", which means they lay an average number of eggs, but are very tasty as well. Broilers (meat chickens) don't usually lay eggs; most of them will be eaten before they're ready to lay their first egg anyway. 
Chickens usually stop laying when they moult (in fall) and when days are getting really short (in winter), do take this into account. 
I'll be focussing on egg laying chickens in the rest of this post, as I don't expect the average chicken owner really wants to butcher their own chickens. 

5. Chickens produce excellent fertiliser

Chickens can provide you with high quality fertiliser for the garden; even better, if you feed them organic fodder, you'll have 100% organic fertiliser. Don't have a garden? Don't worry, chances are a neighbour or friend will happily come and collect chicken poo for his or hers. 

6. Chickens process your garbage

Chickens will eat most of your leftovers and kitchen scraps. No more food waste! Do keep in mind that what you feed them will affect the quality of your eggs. It's not a good idea to keep them on a diet of raw onions... 

7. Chickens debug your garden

If you have a garden, chickens will eat pests: ants and slugs, maggots and the occasional mouse. Don't let them in your vegetable garden when your plants are still young and tender, as they will eat them too. And if you let them in the same spot for a longer time, they will eat every bit of vegetation they can find - leaving only a wasteland. 

8. Chickens are good entertainment

Our chickens are active and funny and more entertaining than a television. Really. Watching them scratch away in some hay or fight over a piece of spaghetti is priceless. They also have a complex social order (called a pecking order because they will literally peck at any insubordinate fellow chicken) and it's fascinating to observe them. 

9. Chickens are good pets

Some chickens can be flighty; some breeds are less sociable than others, and some chickens are just naturally scared of people. However when chickens are used to being handled kindly from a young age, they will like being cuddled and they're very sociable. My main concern when I enter the chicken run is not to step on them, as they will be trampling each other to get my attention - or some food. 
I think chickens are better suited as pets for children than rabbits or hamsters, for instance. 

 

So... Why not keep chickens?  

1. Chickens need predator protection 

If you're keeping free range or pasture raised chickens, they will either be higher maintenance (you'll need to keep an eye on them during the day, close the coop at night and open it in the morning) - or the infrastructure will be more expensive. 
Some chicken keepers only let their animals free range under supervision; others have a system with electric fencing and / or a coop that will automatically close at dusk and open at dawn. 
Don't underestimate local predators: foxes, the neighbours' dogs, maybe a snake, sometimes even a cat if you've got chicks. They can leave your animals alone for months or sometimes years, but once they've found an unlimited supply of chicken meat (or fresh eggs), they'll keep coming back until you stop them. 
If you need to know what killed your chickens (or who's stealing your eggs), here's a useful article

We incubate our chickens' eggs and raise our own chicks... This is chicken maths at work! Unfortunately, we also had predators killing off chickens - so we only have 2 more now than we had a year ago...

We incubate our chickens' eggs and raise our own chicks... This is chicken maths at work! Unfortunately, we also had predators killing off chickens - so we only have 2 more now than we had a year ago...

2. They can be a nuisance 

Chickens can be loud. We all know roosters can start crowing really early in the morning (not all roosters crow as much and start as early, but chickens can be loud as well: after they laid an egg for instance, they will need to tell the world about it - including your neighbour who's trying to sleep after night shift. Sharing your eggs with neighbours can be a good pacifier, but it's good to check before you get chickens if they're going to be shunned upon. 

3. Chickens are not always allowed

Some neighbourhoods or cities have ordinances prohibiting or limiting chicken keeping. Be sure to know what you're allowed to keep, before going through the trouble of setting up everything and buying animals. 

4. Chicken maths

Chicken maths are real. They make people want to keep, buy or raise more chickens than they originally intended to. 

5. Chickens destroy things

Keep them on a young and fresh vegetable patch for a day, and it's goodbye vegetables. Keep them on a small lawn for a week, goodbye lawn. If you can't free range or rotate pastures (so grass has the chance to grow back) and you don't want a bald patch for a chicken run... Chickens probably aren't for you. 

 

Chicken resources

  • Keeping chickens in the city (specifically): see this video - or check out The City Chicken website (I love their "hen house of the month" gallery!).
  • Justin Rhodes' website, Abundant Permaculture: it's full of videos on how to keep chickens. Also, Justin sometimes contributes to (free) webinars and online summits, he has tons of good ideas that can be helpful to any chicken keepers. Our chicken coop was built from his "chicksaw" design. And if you like vlogs: he's got one, featuring his whole family doing stuff in the garden and with the chickens...
  • A very useful article for anyone thinking about the right setup for them to keep chickens, is Paul Wheaton's "Raising Chickens 2.0".
  • The Chicken Chick and Fresh Eggs Daily both have a blog with info and fun stories, and lots of information on their website. Same goes for Raising Happy Chickens, which is where I learnt how to hatch my eggs. I follow these 3 ladies on Facebook as well.
  • If you're on Facebook, check out The Poultry Pages. With around 30.000 members, there's lots of interesting info, funny stories, and if you've got a questions there's usually lots of fellow chicken people on it within minutes.
  • Want to read even more, or know about chickens in permaculture? There's always the Permies forum, new content added every day.