discussed the local push that is on to legalize backyard chicken farming in Ottawa. This topic is extremely interesting to me as I, like many of you other city dwellers out there, am yearning for a rural experience of my own and it is very important to me to know where my food originates. Perhaps it intrigues me further because I don't actually have a backyard, so I love to live vicariously through those who do...(sigh)! So, on my quest to find out more about backyard chicken farming, I remembered that I had seen some beautiful photos of baby chicks, taken by an old friend and posted on her Facebook page. I inquired, and yes, my hunch was correct -- she is farming backyard chickens for their eggs! Morgan was gracious enough to let us peek into the chicken coop for a while and learn more about backyard chicken farming through her experience in Seattle, Washington.
Morgan and her chickens
Morgan and I met many moons ago at camp, and now she and her husband Ben live in the Magnolia neighbourhood of Seattle, which is about 10 minutes from the downtown core. According to the Seattle Municipal Code (SMC 23.04.448 Keeping of animals), it is permitted to have 3 chickens for each standard sized lot, and a one bird allowed for every additional 1000 square feet. Seattle has long been known for its commitment to local food with its famous Pike Place Market and it has many organizations connected to local and sustainable food currently in existence. One of Seattle's restaurants was even named in Bon Appetit's Top 10 Best Roof to Table Restaurants. So I guess it's safe to say that Seattle cares about local food. They even have an organization called Seattle Tilth, a nonprofit that teaches organic gardening and living sustainably off the land. So it was this organization that Morgan consulted in order to begin raising her chickens.
After the Harvest (ATH): How and when did you get interested in the idea of raising backyard chickens?
Morgan: I first heard about it through a local organization called Seattle Tilth about two years ago, and last spring took one of their classes on raising chickens. Ben, who is a contractor and a carpenter, found plans and built a nice A-frame coop out of cedar for our backyard. The main predator concern in Seattle are the huge raccoons that roam the neighborhood, so the coops have to be built to keep them out.
ATH: How did you get the chickens?
Morgan: Some people get their first batch of chickens as older hens (3-6 months) so that they get eggs sooner. We decided to go with day-old chicks that we got from a feed store up north of Seattle. They lived in our spare bedroom in a large storage Tupperware with a heat lamp for the first few weeks, and then out in a covered shed until they were old enough and had enough feathers to keep them warm through the spring nights (about 2-3 months old).
ATH: What breed are the chickens? Did you name them?
Morgan: We started out with a Barred Rock, a Rhode Island Red, and a Araucana. The Aruacana turned out to be a cockerel, so once he started crowing all day long, we put him on Craigslist and someone came to get him. As they matured, it was funny to see two of them develop into a hen-shape, and the other one develop a beautifully colored tail and was much taller and leaner. We blame our inexperience and the fact that we had all different breeds that it took us so long to realize that 'she' was a 'he'. :)
This all happened prior to the time that the two other hens started laying, so we bought a 6 month old Australorp hen from a lady we found on Craigslist. The hen was laying 5-6 eggs a week, and her name was Oprah. A very fitting name for a big black chicken that talked a LOT! We decided that naming our flock after celebrities was a great idea, so we re-named the other two: Dolly (a big-breasted gal) and Reba (a plucky red-head).
Oprah and Reba
This spring, we recently got two new day-old chicks, hoping that these new ones will just be starting to lay when the other two (Dolly and Reba) start to molt (molting is when they change out all their feathers, and usually happens around year - a year and a half of age - and during this time they very rarely lay eggs). We haven't decided what to name the new chicks yet - one is a Light Brahma who is very sweet, and the other is a Cuckoo Maran who is a bit crazy. One thing that surprised me was how much personality they have, and that they all have different preferences.
ATH: Can you tell me about the chicken coop and how the chickens are enjoying their backyard surroundings?
Morgan: It is suggested that you allow 3 square feet per bird for a happy chicken. Ben built our coop so that the top part includes the nesting boxes (where they lay the eggs) and a roosting bar (where they sleep). There is a ramp that leads from the bottom part up to the top part that we can raise if we needed to keep them up there for some reason. They spend their nights up above, and their days down below where they scratch and peck most of the day. We make sure they have fresh water every day and enough food in their feeder.
We let them out about once a day for a while when we're around to keep an eye on them. They love being out of the coop, scratching up bugs and worms in our garden. The worst part about letting them out is they kick the dirt and bark everywhere and have been known to destroy my entire lettuce box. Apparently they have a thing for homegrown lettuce. :)
Oprah and Dolly roaming free
One thing that people often ask about is smell and clean up. Like anything else, if you don't maintain it well, it can get to be a problem. We clean the coop about every week, which really just means removing the soiled shavings from the top where they sleep, and putting new shavings in. We also scrape out the ground of the underneath area, and about once every few months add bark or mulch to the ground inside and around to keep it from getting muddy. It really doesn't smell, and cleaning the coop only takes about 15-20 minutes usually.
They aren't loud at all, although they do "talk" much of the day with quiet clucks. If startled they will squawk, but it's rare that you can hear them unless you're close to the coop. Some chickens (Oprah) are much more talkative than others, but I think that just depends on their personality. At night they're silent since they're sleeping.
Oprah, taking a break from reading Eckhart Tolle
ATH: Why is it important to you to raise backyard chickens?
Morgan: The best part is having fresh eggs all the time, and knowing exactly where they came from. We usually feed organic chicken feed, but lately I've been getting the feed from a lady who grows and mixes it locally which is pretty fun. It is definitely a conversation piece among friends and family - my grandfather grew up on a farm with chickens, and is just tickled that we have them in the city. I think it makes him proud that I must still have a bit of the farming blood.
talk about fresh eggs...
An unexpected bonus side effect is that we've met a ton of our neighbors because they've been curious about our chickens. Also - when we go out of town, it's pretty easy to find someone to check on them for food and water since they get to keep any eggs that are laid while they're on duty.
Many thanks to Morgan for taking the time to let us into the world of backyard chicken farming, and for sharing her beautiful photos!