Urban Chicken Ranching

Oh chickens. I love chickens.

About a year or so ago, my wife and I had a brief discussion about getting chickens. I’d had some adult hens for a brief time earlier in my life, and my wife had never had a flock of her own. As our brief discussion ended with a sort of non-committal agreement that it’d be nice to have chickens, I took that as a green light when I was driving by the local farm store a week or so later and saw that they’d received their spring chick shipment.

Nine and a half dollars later, I had a small box with five peeping chicks in it, and a small bag of starter food. I got home, and my wife and I kind of looked at each other with that “now what?” look on our faces. Admittedly, we were still unpacking from the consolidation of our houses, we had our two boys, and then, the two worn-out dogs to worry about, and part of me wished the chickens had cost more money. I think we would have felt like the stakes were a little higher in making sure that we (they) succeeded.

That being said, we were totally into it from the word go; We started them in a cardboard box in the garage with food, water, and a small heater. There was a thermometer in the very first setup, but the chickens didn’t see any value in it besides caking it in food, water, and all the other joyous emissions that baby birds make. From that point on, we’d just check them regularly. If they were huddled under the heater, they were cold, if they were trying to get away from it, then they were too hot.

In hindsight, the chickens have been super easy to raise, and they have paid for themselves over and over. Now our four hens (we did some rooster placement at some point… our flock numbers four now) lay about one egg per hen per day. They’re beautiful brown eggs, and I’d put them up against any other. We’ve found that one hen per person tends to keep us in eggs around the house, and no, you don’t need a rooster to have hens that lay eggs. It’s also good policy to let the kids name the hens once you’re sure of the ones you’re going to keep. Around our house, “Ultra-grandma” rules the roost.

Egg production in our own yard is great for several fairly obvious reasons: We can save money on high-quality eggs, the eggs themselves don’t have to travel very far, which saves on fossil fuels, we have greater control over what we eat, and the sense of industrious-ness, if you will, partnered closely with the sense of self-sufficiency that comes with keeping our own chickens. There’s something more though, that I’ve discovered since we’ve been doing this. It’s what we owe to the next generation.

The other night we were roasting a chicken (not one of ours- we bought this one packaged, ready to cook) for dinner. My five year old saw me preparing the bird for the oven and absolutely insisted that I was pulling his leg about eating chicken for dinner because he saw me putting what he swore was a turkey in the oven. One thing I’ve learned in parenting is that while our offspring absorb a lot from the world around them, from their friends, from school and from the community- if there’s something you want to make sure they know, you’ve got to teach them yourself. What I’m saying here is that in our world of pre-fab, pre-heated, pre-processed, pre-whatever, it’s easy for our youngsters to miss the basics. Having our chickens and harvesting their eggs has been a great lesson for our boys in food production. Eggs don’t come from the store any more than chicken strips come from McDonald’s.

There’s a secondary job that our hens do for us as well. We’ve started to sort our kitchen scraps so that almost anything except eggshells and coffee grounds go are fed to the chickens. I’ve been working up a plan to incorporate our coffee grounds to see if I can come up with caffeinated eggs, but don’t tell anyone my idea, ok?

Maybe you’ve heard that a pig will eat just about anything. Well, chickens practically will too. We save money on chicken feed by scattering our compost scraps in the chicken run and letting the chickens sort through it. All this is done on a bed of hay, and ideally, at the end of the process, the family is fed, the chickens eat what we don’t eat, and then convert it into nitrogen-rich manure which mixes with the hay that they broke down by scratching through it to get to the kitchen scraps, and I’ve got more solid-gold compost for the garden to grow more food for us. I like to use the shopvac to clean out our coop and run. It makes life much easier. Since chicken manure is so high in nitrogen, your chicken run compost will likely need to sit for a while to let some of that nitrogen dissipate, or else you’ll burn your plants.

As I said earlier, we’re just about a year out from having started our egg-laying venture. My wife, although she does a great job with just about anything she puts her mind to, has only ever marginally taken to animals. I was surprised recently when she made the suggestion that we increase our flock by another two. “Everyone’s saving egg cartons for us and we need more eggs to trade.”

Give chickens a thought as an integral addition to your subversive food production operation. April is the time to do it so the birds will start laying by winter. You, your family, and your garden will be better for it. If you figure out that caffeinated egg idea before me though, you gotta throw a little credit my way.

(Mike Ryan is a member of Support for Local Urban Gardeners (SLUG) — The Lawrence-based volunteer group is a great way to pick up gardening skills. It’s the busy time of year, so they’re looking for more. A great way to learn is to help out! Email: slug [at] lawrence [dot] com)


Megan Green Stuke 12 years, 8 months ago

If you'll tell Mr. Meat and Potatoes how to build a functional and simple coop, I'll take a couple of laying hens.

He's already set to building us a few raised beds in place of the ghetto garden we had last year, so we'll be referencing you for tips in planting season as well. As in, is it planting season NOW?

smerdyakov 12 years, 8 months ago

In my experience, chickens are by far and away better than a compost pile for anything that they'll eat--which is most everything like you say. They fiend for anything you'd otherwise just toss on the pile...and it not only puts a dent in their feed cost, but I tend to think that the "compost" that comes out their ass is way better than whatever a pile of this and that happens to form after a year.

12 years, 8 months ago

Megan, I'd wait a week to be safe from frost, but yes, it's planting season. One can get a really good jump on stuff that takes FOREVER to get started, like peppers, by starting them indoors in late February. It's actually not too late to start stuff indoors right now, and because the soil will be warmer than that outside, they'll start faster.

Smerd: you're exactly correct, that stuff is fantastic. I made the mistake a few years ago of cleaning out the coop right into my raised beds, figuring that if the crap wintered it would be ok to plant directly in come spring. In every one of those beds I had 5-foot tomato plants and no tomatoes.

that_will_do_pig 12 years, 8 months ago

Mike, that was a GREAT post! I really enjoyed it and hope you'll be posting more about these types of things.

I myself am preparing for gardening season (as in, obsessively tracking weather reports, buying seeds and plants, and cringing with every new stupid frost we've had lately!). AND, though most people are aware of these, if this sort of thing interests you, I highly recommend you read these:

"Omnivore's Dilemma" and "Botany of Desire" by Michael Pollan "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" by Barbara Kingsolver (which I just finished, and is an absolute affirming delight of a read for anyone committed to consuming what you can grow and breed at your own home with your own hands)

12 years, 8 months ago

Mike: is there a specific reason you exclude the egg shells?

alm77 12 years, 8 months ago

Bill, you mean besides the distasteful cannibalistic reasons? ;) I heard once feeding them shells does something to the eggs they produce, but I don't remember what the specifics were.

Mike, what are the veterinary implications of raising chickens? I like the organic idea, but don't chickens get/carry diseases? Any books on the subject you recommend?

mikeryan 12 years, 8 months ago

El_borak, or Bill-

I exclude egg shells from the compost that we feed our chickens for a couple reasons, in no particular order:

I feel a little weird feeding chickens their egg shells back to them.

Also, I've heard that they can develop a taste for the eggshells, and they can get into the really irritating habit of egg eating.

As for specific health reasons for the birds, I'm not sure; the two things I've mentioned has kept me from trying it.


We do compost our eggshells separately with other things like our coffee grounds, filters, and any other compostable things the chickens might not be interested in.

mikeryan 12 years, 8 months ago


When dealing with chickens, Salmonella is always present- on the skin of the birds, and likely in the eggs as well. We have a policy of washing our hands (like you would for any other reason) after dealing with the chickens, and we try not to eat undercooked eggs.

I can't say that at our house we do anything differently with our eggs than we would with any store-bought eggs.

What I can say is that we've never had any negative health effects from our chicken-keeping.

Keeping Chickens: The Essential Guide by Jeremy Hobson

This book was lent to us by some friends as we were learning initially, but I would encourage anyone to do thorough internet research rather than sticking to one book or another as a definitive guide.

12 years, 8 months ago

The reason I ask is because I've always fed the shells right back to them for calcium, clam shells and the like being rather hard to find (I did catch them a lot of fish, though). I used to grind the shells up so they did not look like eggs for the very reason you mentioned: you don't want them to get into the habit of "liking" their owns eggs.

The cannibalism, well, I figure that's their problem ;)

smerdyakov 12 years, 8 months ago

El B.... that's exactly what I did this year. Several people told me wintering it over on the garden would be fine as far as not burning the plants. What's the "mistake" you refer to? Does applying the manure like that prevent fruiting??

Mike... we did initially feed our gals egg shells (crushed up--to help make subsequent egg shells stronger) and we've had some egg cannibals since. Dunno if there's any cause/effect there, but we've stopped putting the shells in there and just supplementing oyster shell for shell strength. Incidentally we put golf balls in the nest boxes and that seems to have curbed the cannibalism for the most part.

I liked this book quite a bit: http://www.amazon.com/Living-Chickens-Everything-Raise-Backyard/dp/1592280137

12 years, 8 months ago

"What's the 'mistake' you refer to?"

I should have wintered it in the mulch pile, but I was lazy because the coop was close to some of my raised beds. There was just so much nitrogen that I had plants like crazy, but not a tomato in sight. The beds that didn't get any guano produced just fine.

You can probably get away with a bit of it, but I just put in too much...

smerdyakov 12 years, 8 months ago

I see--so maybe adding some 0-something-something fertilizer will be in order... I've got some tests coming from the extension that will tell me how the manure beds compare to the non-manure ones. Anyway, I don't feel like I've put it on very heavy... maybe a 1/4 layer at the most back in November. How's that compare to your "too much"?

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