We are bringing chickens to the Memphis Botanic Garden and there is a lot to think about! Even though I have raised chickens for years, it was not long into my research that I realized I needed help. This is when I turned to our Director of Horticulture, Rick Pudwell, life-time bird enthusiast, for help. So, after talking with him at length—we are in the middle of planning and designing a large-scale ‘back-yard’ coop, you see—and reading an essay he wrote some years back concerning backyard chickens, this is what I have come up with. Maybe with a little bit of my experiences thrown in.
There are many reasons for raising your own chickens. You can keep them for eggs or, if you want, meat, and that is usually enough for most folks—I enjoy watching them diligently scratching about, personally. These birds also make great pets and can help rid your yard or garden of pest insects—when free-ranged or during supervised garden bed visits. In terms of composting, nothing can heat up a slow compost pile like a few heaping shovels of chicken manure.
The most common housing for chickens is a coop. This is a dry, well-ventilated structure with an attached run or wire pen—allowing them space to roam whilst still being protected from predators. (I have allowed my chickens to graze freely in the open yard, but usually during the times that young, delicious shoots are not present in the garden beds, as the hens can/will decimate such tender plants while they scratch for insects.) Chickens need light to help regulate their internal clocks, so another must for the coop is a light source. This should be provided by a collection of hatches or windows that are easily opened and closed—wire mesh should be installed behind all windows or vents for safety. Within the coop, nesting boxes should be offered for egg laying and setting, and roosts—the bull-nosed edge of a 2x4 works great for this—provided for roosting. As per Rick, any dust-free, biodegradable stuff, such as straw or wood shavings, can be used as litter. Remember, do not use anything you would not want to put into your compost pile.
Use commercial layer feed pellets or mash. These are available at farm feed stores and some pet stores. Scratch grains are also available but use sparingly. I used to mix grains in with my feed but now I only ever use pellet form chicken feed to nourish my hens. Adding scratch grains to your feed adds carbs and thus dilutes the protein-to-fat ratio of your feed. I have seen hens peck out only the grains and leave the pellets—like children with sugary cereal.
Now, I use scratch grains only to entice them to shred some leaves for my compost. I will do so by sprinkling just a little bit on a pile of leaves and watch my girls scratch through the pile for hours, looking for every little grain. You can, and probably should, treat your birds to vegetables, greens and the occasional bread items. Rick suggests that this should consist of no more than 20% of their diet, and goes on to warn against feeding them any meat scraps, for fear of disease. As far as water for the birds goes, I have used several different methods, and settled on commercially bought waterers.
When you buy chickens from a commercial hatchery they will have been tested and disease free. This is not to say they will always be. Just like us, chickens need clean surroundings to keep from getting sick. Start with a clean coop, fresh shavings, and clean water. During routine cleaning, take the time to disinfect all surfaces before adding fresh litter. Remove wet litter when you spot it or cover it with fresh, dry material. Rick recommends cleaning a “not-too-crowded coop” 2-3 times a year. He also states that he deworms his chickens twice a year with Ivermectin or Cydectin, the only difference being its application—orally or topically, respectively.
These are the essentials to backyard chicken keeping. Remember your coop must be a clean, strong structure to prevent predation and protect against the elements and disease. I hope this article has helped you with some particulars of this wonderful hobby. Once the Chicken House at MBG is finished, and the birds are here, I will write more on such topics as breeding and finding the right breed for you!
By Blair Combest, horticulturist at MBG
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