The Truth About Backyard Chickens: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly
October 12, 2017
I recently shared a post on the @littleredfarmstead Instagram feed and asked my followers what they’d like to read about here on the blog. One question that came up was asking about the pros and cons of keeping backyard chickens.
Everyone is going to have differing opinions on this, but I thought I’d share my thoughts. So, I give you chicken keeping: the good, the bad, and the ugly:
The Good Parts of Chicken Keeping
Number one–obviously–is fresh eggs direct from your back yard! Keep in mind that chickens don’t start laying till at least 18 weeks of age (and 20 to 24 weeks isn’t uncommon), so you’ll need to be patient. But it is well worth the wait!
Easy to care for
Chickens are relatively easy keepers, especially if you have a small flock. (I recommend 3 to 6 for beginners.) You’ll need maybe 15 to 20 minutes each morning and evening to care for your hens. In the morning you’ll let them out of their coop, give them fresh water, feed them, and collect any eggs that might have been laid early in the morning. At dusk, you’ll want to lock up your flock safely from predators, collect eggs, and refresh their water. Plan on doing a deeper-cleaning of the coop about weekly, depending on how many birds you have and the size of your coop.
Fun to watch
Chickens are also extremely entertaining. If you’re fortunate to live somewhere that you can allow your hens to free range, it is well worth the time to sit in a lawn chair and enjoy the free “Chicken TV” drama that goes on as they wander about the yard hunting bugs and interacting with each other.
The Bad (Or Slightly Not-So-Great) Parts of Chicken Keeping
The never-ending battle with predators
The most stressful part of having chickens is staying on top of predator issues. Chickens are one of the lowest things on the food chain, and everyone enjoys a good chicken dinner. This includes coyotes, foxes, raccoons, bobcats, skunks, weasels, hawks, owls, and even domestic dogs that might be roaming the neighborhood. (In fact, domestic dogs are one of the main predators you’ll deal with, even though they often just want to “play” with the chickens.) Snakes and possums are also predators you might find in your coop, but they much prefer eggs or very small chicks more so than full grown chickens.
Ultimately, you have to do your best to provide a secure environment for your hens, including a predator-proof coop. This may mean using electric poultry netting or an enclosed run instead of free ranging, and you have to accept that you may lose a few chickens, despite your best efforts
If you want to go on vacation, you may struggle to find someone to babysit your chickens. As I mentioned, chickens aren’t hard to care for, but some people are hesitant to help out simply because they are a foreign critter for most people who are more accustomed to cats or dogs as pets. If you’re a traveller, best to ask friends or neighbors about chicken-sitting before you commit to getting a flock.
Another quick tip: best to stick with strictly hens if you’re going to be asking strangers to tend to your chickens frequently while you are away. While it’s easier to find someone willing to feed and water hens, when an ornery rooster is involved, much fewer people will volunteer!
Poop–as in manure. I debated on whether to put this in the “good” or “ugly” category, but ultimately settled on somewhere in the middle because I think its accurate to call it both good AND bad.
When I first talked about getting chickens, the immediate reaction I got from people was, “You don’t want chickens. They are dirty, smelly, and the manure is a nightmare to deal with.” I think this is a huge exaggeration. (Now duck manure–THAT is horrid!) Chickens are somewhat messy, but not terrible. Depending on the size of your coop and the number of chickens you keep, usually weekly or bi-weekly cleanings will keep everything under control.
The not-so fun part of cleaning the coop is, well, what to DO with all that poop? Chicken manure is considered a hot manure, which means it has to be composted before you can put it on plants. This means ideally, you’ll need a small area in your yard for a compost pile. Depending on the size of your yard and your interest in composting and gardening, this may be a good thing or an annoyance.
The Ugly (Worst) Parts of Chicken Keeping
What to do when they no longer “earn their keep”
One of the worst parts about chicken keeping is that after about 2 to 3 years of age, a chicken’s egg production will drop dramatically. Chickens can live 8-12 years, so that means a lot of years that you’ll be putting expensive chicken feed into an animal that may only lay a handful of eggs per month.
For some people this is no bother at all, and they’re happy to allow their hens to live out their natural lives as pets, whether they are productive or not. For others, backyard chickens are livestock, and as such, they have to be productive to be useful, otherwise they become a liability. In this case, you might make the decision to cull the bird and use it for a stew hen.
They may not get along with your other pets
… in fact, it’s pretty likely that they won’t get along, honestly.
Most dogs, even very good natured ones, will enjoy chasing chickens for fun. This is stressful for the birds, and often times one playful bite or pounce from a larger dog will injure them to the point that they can’t recover. Stray or indoor/outdoor cats can also attack chickens, particularly bantam or young birds.
Free range chickens make messes
Your patio or deck? Covered in chicken poop. Lawn furniture? Pooped on. Kids’ sandbox or play house? Yup–you guessed it–POOP!
That lovely flower garden? Scratched up. Same with your vegetable garden. And if you’re lucky enough to have a 200-year-old house with bright red clapboard siding, you better believe chickens will enjoy the heck out of pecking and chipping away at the wood boards along the bottom of the house, and making a giant mess out of that too!
So while the idea of free range chickens is a lovely and romantic notion, if you’re someone who doesn’t want your yard messy or potentially damaged, you might want to think about an enclosed run or a mobile chicken tractor instead of letting your poultry wander.
So, are chickens worth it?
Only you can weigh out the pros and cons, but for our family, I say YES! Our little flock isn’t much extra bother to care for, and I enjoy the fresh eggs and the entertainment of seeing them wander around the farm.