Skulking through the back alleys of our Flagstaff thoroughfare, you hear a gentle cooing. Peering into backyards, you discover a secret society to which many of your neighbors subscribe: urban chicken farming. You won't spot them wearing tell-tale overalls. Our hen-raising metro-underbelly includes the girl next door, the music teacher, wood worker, housing appraiser, belly dancer, mechanic and speech therapist.
All are teeming with reasons to raise eggs. This new breed of farmer wants to give her children a connection to their food while reducing their carbon footprint by consuming local food. These farmers want to support humane animal treatment while saving money on organic, nutrient-dense eggs. Kitchen scraps, weeds and insect digest into free fertilizer. This quickly growing hobby leaves our pals of poultry wondering why every U.S. citizen hasn't already subscribed to this chick lit.
Scared to start? Don't be. For under $50 you can get everything you need: your chicks, a waterer, a feeder, feed, bedding and a brooder (a 250-watt heat lamp and box for the first eight weeks). Bedding can be dried leaves, a towel or shredded paper.
Salvage materials for the living area or coop; creativity in design is common. Consider ventilation and light. Most families choose flocks between four and eight birds. Experts advise building the coop bigger than planned as you may acquire more chickens. Remember: the quickest way to thin your flock is to leave it exposed to birds of prey and wild or domesticated animals, especially at night.
Within Flagstaff city limits, households may keep up to 25 hens as long as they are beyond 50 feet of a residential dwelling.
At time of purchase, your chicks are between 1 day and 4 weeks old. Keep them warm for the first eight weeks as they feather and expediently increase size and weight. Start the brooder at 90 degrees, decreasing five degrees/week. Lots of peeping indicates they are too cold. Hold them gently; a bond that starts now will last.
Food until 6 weeks: chick starter feed. Until 5 months: pullet grower. Beyond: laying feed. Let them frolic outside daily: the more bugs, foraged food, kitchen scraps, grit, exercise and sunshine, the better.
Egg production begins around 6 months. As these ladies age from chick, to peep, to pullet, to hen, peak laying precedes two years of age. From a healthy Flagstaff hen, egg production may slow during winter, summer heat and the annual molt. She becomes less reliable as her 7-year life span nears.
Locally available, popular Flagstaff breeds are cold tolerant, productive and amicable. The Natural Chicken Hatchery sells year-round while Olsen's Grain stocks in March. Rhode Island Reds are prolific egg producers. Buff Orphingtons are pretty. Arcana/Ameraucana lay blue eggs. Bardrocks are hardy winter layers.
Once your flock is established, ensure clean water and add food when necessary. Collect eggs. Clean the coop weekly. Observe and love your hens. Subscribe to Backyard Poultry Magazine or join a Facebook Chicken Farmers group. Reference City Chicks or Chickens in your Backyard, or even Raising Chickens for Dummies.
Urban chicken farming is in. Don't let this local food movement pass you by!
Julie Lancaster is a certified permaculturalist, professor of motivational studies, career coach and local gardener.