During the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was common to keep livestock, including pigs, cows and even chickens, in towns and cities in the United States. As the cities grew, local ordinances slowly curbed the keeping of animals in urban centers—mostly due to the issues of noise and smell nuisance.
But even those were relaxed during wartime as people were encouraged to find creative ways to feed themselves. After World War II, the flight to the suburbs, thanks to the availability of the automobile, along with increased accessibility to packaged and prepared foods, made the keeping of animals a thing of the past.
By the 1980s, for the most part, only farmers (or, possibly, hippies) dared raise chickens.
Given the fact that there’s an abundance of grocery stores in most areas, and because we live in a technology-centric culture, it would seem unlikely that individuals would consider raising livestock, yet the chickens have come home to the ‘burbs and cities to roost!
Many cities have relaxed their regulations and made permits easier to obtain to raise and keep chickens. Large cities, such as New York, Seattle and Portland, Oregon, have chicken programs, while suburban or backyard chickens are also hatching around the country and with the support of major food producers.
“Raising backyard chickens gives families more time together, teaches responsibility to children and puts food on the table,” said Archer-Daniels-Midland (ADM) Consumer Products Business Manager and chicken expert Mike Barrett.
While the outbreak of the novel coronavirus highlighted how precarious the American food supply chain can be, and many people had to rely on food banks and donations to keep their families fed, raising chickens has been seen as a way to prepare for a future pandemic outbreak or a breakdown of society.
However, raising chickens is actually hard work and isn’t something that’s as simple as building a coop and throwing down some feed.
First, suburban and urban dwellers need to check local ordinances and should consult with local experts. There are other factors to consider, including climate, area predators and how the birds will adapt to a backyard or roof garden.
“When it comes to having a backyard flock, not all municipalities are created equal,” Barrett explained. “Before building a coop, choosing which breeds you want and buying the first bag of feed, check with your local zoning board to make sure you may have chickens at your residence.
Many towns have zoning restrictions that limit each address to four to five hens, and most towns are rooster-free zones. Your local zoning board would have all the rules and regulations so you can get started the right way.”
A next step is ensuring you can care for the birds properly. For instance, raising birds in Texas is going to be different than raising them in Minnesota.
“Coops should be warm in the winter and cool in the summer,” Barrett added. “You should budget time and resources to feed, water and clean up after your new feathered pals.”
Meat or Eggs?
A common question asked by those first getting started raising backyard or rooftop chickens is whether special breeds are required for the production of eggs, as opposed to chickens raised for meat. Chickens aren’t exactly a “one-size-fits-all” solution.
“Many breeds serve a dual purpose. However, the strategy varies for raising the best layer or best meat-quality bird,” Barrett noted. “Owners of layers typically plan slower growth, with the goal of laying many eggs over the bird’s life span.
Broilers, or meat birds, are raised more quickly and make it to harvest or finishing weight in six to eight weeks.”
The associated costs are generally reasonable and, depending on the size of the coop, it can be built for under $200, while the actual chickens cost around $2 to $4 each. Five chickens could eat roughly a 50-pound bag of feed per month, which averages around $15.
For families, it can also be a fun project … if, at times, a bit of a smelly and dirty one.
“Chickens provide more than eggs or meat: They provide family time, insect control and some great fertilizer for the garden,” Barrett pointed out. “More than that, they allow you to know where your food came from and how your food was raised.
The enjoyment from watching chickens peck around the yard while you’re sipping your favorite beverage will also help the stress just melt away!”
10 Top Homestead Chicken Picks
“Which comes first—the chicken or the egg?” The chicken absolutely comes first. As a result, it’s important to consider the right breed.
Here’s a rundown of some of the top choices for backyard birds.
Ameraucana. This is a breed that can produce three or four eggs per week, but it’ll take awhile for the birds to reach maturity and start laying.
These chickens are cold weather-tolerant, in part because the Ameraucana was developed in the United States in the 1970s from Araucana chickens brought from Chile. However, these unique backyard birds don’t care for high heat.
Barred/Plymouth Rock. If you don’t mind a chicken that’s a bit “talkative,” the Barred/Rock is a good choice. Each bird can produce around five eggs per week. This breed works best when the chickens are allowed to range freely. It’s a dual-purpose breed, raised both for its meat and its brown eggs.
Brahma. Known as the “King of the Chickens,” Brahmas are big birds that produce about three or four medium-to-large eggs per week. They’re winter-hardy and produce from October to May—a time when many other breeds “take a winter break.”
Cornish or Indian Game. This breed of chicken originated in the English county of Cornwall and dates back to the early 19th century. It’s a large stock breed that’s mainly used for meat production.
Easter Eggers. Despite the name, these birds don’t just produce eggs for dyeing; and, they’re actually known to be good in colder weather climates. In fact, these aren’t a breed, per se, but are a variety of crossbred bird that doesn’t conform to any breed standard. However, birds marketed as “Easter Eggers” will typically produce around four extra-large eggs per week.
Euskal Oiloa. Also known as the “Basque” chicken (because it originated in the Basque region of Spain and France), this is an extremely hardy bird, which has made it a favorite of homesteaders. Hens lay about 200 to 220 large brown eggs per year, while the roosters can grow to as large as 9 pounds in a season, making them a good meat bird.
ISA Brown. These low-maintenance chickens can produce 300 eggs or more per year, and many can start to lay eggs as soon as they’re 16 weeks old. They’re good in most types of climates as well.
Marans. Originally bred in southwestern France, these birds are also descended from fighting game chickens carried from Indonesia and India. They’re new arrivals to the United States. Marans hens lay around 150 to 200 dark-brown eggs each year, depending on the variety.
Marans are historically a dual-purpose bird and are prized for their large, dark eggs and meat. However, unlike other breeds, Marans aren’t as tolerant to extreme heat—despite their roots in the Far East.
Rhode Island Red. A famous bird for laying eggs, these reds produce about 250 to 300 eggs per year. And, despite their name, they’re not partial to a particular state. The Rhode Island Red was also developed as a dual-purpose breed to provide both meat and eggs. Since about 1940, it’s been selectively bred, predominantly for its egg-laying qualities.
Welsummer. For those living in the south, the Welsummer is a chicken that’s both cold- and heat-hardy, and it can generally produce around four eggs per week.
Keeping the Birds—and Yourself—Healthy
While it’s easy to see the pros of raising chickens, including the fact that their eggs are about as fresh as they can get, there are other conditions.
One only needs to consider the lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic and how it likely originated—not in an advanced lab in Wuhan but probably as a result of the wrath of “Mother Nature,” like most zoonotic diseases.
Birds, much like pigs, can be sources of seasonal illnesses that can spread to other animals … and also people.
“The spread of illness between flocks of backyard chickens, as well as the spread of zoonotic diseases from chickens to humans, is a valid concern,” warned Dr. Megan Lighty, associate clinical professor of avian diagnostic and outreach for veterinarians at Penn State University.
“There are multiple steps bird owners can take to protect their birds from the spread of infectious diseases,” Lighty pointed out. “‘Biosecurity’ refers to the protective measures taken to reduce the risk of introducing infectious diseases into an animal population.
In general, biosecurity includes steps such as physical isolation between sites where birds are raised; separation of caretakers (e.g., dedicated individuals who take care of the birds at one site but don’t visit any other sites where birds are present); separate equipment, perimeter fencing and coop/barn design; and use of PPE (personal protective equipment—gloves, washable/disposable boot covers, etc.) when working around birds.”
Good husbandry—including nutrition, an adequate supply of clean water, ventilation, protection from predators, sufficient space for the birds, etc.—is also very important for disease prevention.
“Vaccination can be used to protect birds against specific diseases. However, vaccination is often challenging to manage in backyard flocks,” Lighty explained.
Simple maintenance and upkeep can go a long way toward keeping the chickens healthy and productive.
“Keep the coop clean, dry and well-ventilated, and safeguard your flock from predators or rodents,” Barrett added. “Wash your hands per CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines after handling the birds, eggs and the coop, and keep pets out.”
Chickens and eggs can be good protein sources. Unfortunately, both can also be sources of serious illness if the proper safety measures aren’t taken.
“The most common zoonotic diseases we see in people related to contact with backyard poultry are Salmonella, E. coli and Campylobacter,” Lighty said. “Anyone can become infected, but children under 5 years of age, adults over 65 and immunocompromised individuals are at the highest risk for developing these diseases.”
Avian influenza is often mentioned as a zoonotic disease from poultry. While it can be a very serious disease in people, it’s not very common, especially in the United States … however, until March 2020, a serious coronavirus wasn’t all that common in the United States either.
“General recommendations for reducing the risk of zoonotic disease transmission from backyard poultry include keeping birds out of your house (keep them outside or in a barn/coop); using dedicated footwear and clothing when taking care of birds; washing your hands after handling birds or their equipment; always supervising young children around birds; and keeping the coop clean,” Lighty added.
“Proper egg handling and cooking are also important for people who are eating the eggs from their backyard chickens.”
If these guidelines are followed, those chickens can ensure a steady delivery of eggs and more—especially if the grocery store isn’t accessible or open.
Ironically, one of the reasons to consider raising backyard chickens is because of the sheer number of chickens being produced commercially today.
Current estimates are that 50 billion chickens are “processed” yearly; and while a chicken dinner used to be something for special occasions, chicken has become one of the world’s main dietary staples.
However, some experts warn that this demand isn’t sustainable.
“The increased production is the result of concentrated farming methods, via which farmers produce chickens according to company specifications,” explained Roger Horowitz, a historian of American business, technology and labor and an expert on the nation’s food supply.
“There’s room to expand these methods. However, they often generate community opposition due to environmental impact, especially groundwater pollution from chicken waste.
So, technically, it’s possible, but practically expanding that further depends on acceptance of concentrated feeding by the regions where they’re located.”
Horowitz warned that disease is a huge problem for concentrated feeding operations, where there are often 20,000 chickens in a single facility.
“If one gets sick, they all get sick and have to be killed. And, because these concentrated operations are often in close proximity to each other, a disease that hits one chicken house can spread to another.
So, yes, disease is a huge problem created by precisely the same conditions that are necessary for such massive increases in chicken production. While disease is always a worry for livestock production, the social risks are far greater when we rely on a relatively small number of livestock farmers to supply the animals we need to turn into food.”
Given these facts, the United States and other countries could face a shortage of chicken, but it would only last as long as it would take to “replenish” the supply from eggs.
“If there were a true epidemic, it could take months for the chicken supply to recover,” Horowitz pointed out.
One concern is that the mainstream media fails to pay attention to such outbreaks. In fact, before COVID-19, the pig population in China was devastated by a disease. And that swept through the nation’s concentrated pig operations.
“Some estimates were that 40 percent of all pigs in China had to be slaughtered to halt the epidemic’s spread,” Horowitz noted.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the January, 2021 print issue of American Survival Guide.
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