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Thursday, September 30, 2010

Try Something New: Backyard Chicken Keeping

Photo by: Ron Grandia

Meet Apple and Alice, two Rhode Island Red laying hens that belong to my friend Ron Grandia. Ron began building a chicken coop out of reclaimed materials that his neighbor was discarding as he renovated his house.

This inspired me to write about backyard chicken keeping in my latest column in the Campbell Express. I discuss a variety of aspects including: Why are urban Americans keeping their own laying hens, city regulations, feeding, predators and more.

Photo by: Ron Grandia

I was tempted to include that chickens are psychic but I left that part out. How so? Well, one day Ron jokingly posted on his Facebook account:
"Okay chickens- decision time: layers or fryers? The decision is theirs. Start cranking out the eggs or get ready for a light dusting of flour and 11 herbs and spices." 
Neither hen had laid an egg and he'd had them for several months. About 2 hours later they each laid their first eggs. LOL. Ron joked they must have wifi and a laptop and read his empty threat online.

I love this coop design I found online!

I've been checking out chicken coop designs and am beginning to design one of my own. Next year I plan to acquire two banty (smaller than standard breed) hens to lay eggs in my backyard. Ron simply wanted fresh eggs. I want eggs that are laid by hens kept in humane conditions as the egg factory faming industry has quite a looooooooooooong way to go before the conditions the hens are kept in can be considered humane. The eggs are undoubtedly affordable, but at what cost? The latest salmonella scare brought to light that battery caged chickens are neither happy nor particularly healthy relative to chickens you'd see roaming around a country farm. And "cage free" and "free range" don't mean nearly as much as most consumers naturally assumed they did. Myself included.

Click on the Image to Enlarge

Turns out that even cage free and free range chickens are often kept in conditions that most of us would consider inhumane if the same were done to dogs or cats. States are beginning to work to change the conditions in which laying hens are kept but until actual change has been realized I'll feel better knowing my eggs are coming from chickens that are eating healthy foods, in clean conditions that have enough room to turn, spread their wings and roam around a bit.

In San Jose you can legally keep up to 6 hens without a permit. After much research here is my plan:

Hens lay most prolifically for the first 5 years of their lives and most can live between 10-20 years. By the fifth year the frequency of eggs begins to taper off. So I'm going to get two hens and 5 years later when they slow down on laying I'll get two more younger hens. Five years after that I'll get two more younger hens. By the time the third round of hens stop laying my first pair will have died of natural causes having led full and hopefully happy lives and I can get two more new chickens at that time. The other options are to get 6 hens all at once and five years later have 6 pet chickens that don't lay a lot of eggs. Or get 6 chickens at once and five years later try to find some kind of chicken sanctuary to retire them to. I think "Plan A" is the best plan so far...

Until The Campbell Express posts the column in their online edition I'll post it here for anyone who wants to read it:
City Fresh Eggs
Did you know it's legal for Campbell residents to keep up to 6 chickens (no roosters allowed) in combination with other small animals?

Why would you want to put in the time and effort to raise your own chickens? Some people (like my friend and Campbell resident, Ron Grandia) do it for the fresh eggs. Others are concerned about cruelty issues related to factory farming. Others want eggs from chickens who eat healthy diets and receive none of the antibiotics typically used to keep factory farmed chickens healthy. The average life span for well bred and cared for chickens falls between 10-20 years depending on the breed. Most will regularly produce eggs for the first five years laying an egg a day. After 4-5 years they may continue to lay but with less frequency. Chickens are easy to care for, intelligent and some breeds are known for being sociable and gentle.

They need fresh water and a modest amount of either commercially prepared pelleted food each day or you can feed them grains like wheat, barley, rice or oats but will need to make sure they also receive essential minerals and protein. If you hate bugs, letting your chickens out of their coop each day or putting them in a movable pen, allows them to scratch around for spiders, earwigs, snails, slugs, beetles, worms and grass hoppers. From what I've read, they'll pretty much eat anything they can catch. They'll also eat scraps from your table including favorites like watermelon and pad thai.

If they are not overcrowded and the coop and runs are kept clean, odor is not a problem. The most typical noise hens make is a soft clucking sound as they forage for food. They may let out an occasional squawk as they lay an egg but overall they are much more quiet than a neighbor's barking dog and probably more quiet than the plaintive meowing of my cat when he wants attention.

But chicken keeping is not all "fun and eggs." Tragedy can strike if raccoons, opossums and skunks injure or eat your chickens. Your flock will rely on you to provide them with a sturdily constructed coop that uses steel mesh screen instead of chicken wire to keep your birds in, and predators out.

Myself? I'm interested in eventually getting a couple of chickens so that I know my eggs were laid by birds raised in humane conditions while eating natural and healthy food.

In Campbell you can keep up to six chickens (in combination with other small animals such as: rabbits, guinea pigs, felines, etc.) not exceeding more than 6 small animals total.

My contact at the Campbell Community Development Staff verified that as long as your chicken coop is smaller than 120 sq. feet (usually 10' x 12') and does not include electrical or plumbing features, no building permit is required. Also good to know, accessory structures have to be at least 5 feet from property lines, and 10 feet from a main house.

In San Jose the total number of small animals (chickens, rabbits, ducks, etc) that can be kept without a special permit is also 6. More than 6 and you need not only a permit but your chicken coop has to be a minimum distance from your property line and neighboring structures.

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