The downside of raising backyard chickens

By Flint Stephens

For the Deseret News

Published: Friday, June 8 2012 2:00 p.m. MDT

With growing interest in keeping backyard chickens, there are plenty of advocates to extol the benefits of having a home flock. No one really mentions the negatives of keeping chickens, yet there are many challenges.

An Internet search for information on the cons of raising backyard chickens doesn't yield much useful information. A few articles refer to one or two negatives after listing numerous positives. Many results appear to come from people with limited or no actual experience.

When communities are debating the legalization of urban chickens at public meetings, worried residents often voice concerns over things like noise and smell. But many challenges are learned only after one undertakes chicken ownership.

Here are some of them:

Noise

Noisy roosters top the list of problems, and in many areas ordinances prohibit keeping adult male birds. While roosters crow early, loudly and often, hens also make a racket. Chickens squabble all day long, and plenty of cackling usually accompanies the activity. Admittedly, hens are not as noisy as roosters, but understanding neighbors are a plus for anyone who hopes to harvest home-raised eggs.

Expense

Store-bought eggs are a bargain when compared to the cost of keeping a backyard flock. Setting up a coop with all the equipment can easily cost a few hundred dollars. Then an aspiring chicken rancher must feed and maintain the chicks for five or six months. Only then will he be able to start collecting eggs.

According to www.poultrykeeper.com, in the first 18 months of its life, an exceptional hen could lay up to 250 eggs. At a price of $2 a dozen, that is $42 worth. Multiplied by five chickens, that amounts to about $210. That means it could take three or four years to break even on the initial investment, and that doesn’t count labor or continuing costs for feed.

Garden damage

Chickens are living cultivators and rototillers. That can be a good thing when they are eating bugs and weeds. Unfortunately, chickens can’t distinguish between weeds and newly emerging garden vegetables. And if you are lucky enough to raise vegetables or fruit to maturity, chickens believe you have done so for them to consume. If you want to raise chickens and have a nice garden, you’ll need to devise a method of protecting the young plants or of keeping the chickens contained.

Smell and mess

Anyone who has been near a commercial chicken operation has undoubtedly experienced some unpleasant scents. Fortunately, keeping a few chickens at home is not comparable. One benefit of Utah’s dry climate is that there is little smell or mess with properly maintained backyard chickens. Six chickens produce about the same waste as a medium-sized dog.

Culling

This is a reality every chicken owner must confront. Even when maintaining hens for eggs, there will eventually be old and unproductive hens. Sometimes chickens become injured or sick, and it makes little sense to spend lots of money taking them to a veterinarian. And when one buys baby chicks from a farm store, some turn out to be roosters — even when the signs on the cages promise they are pullets (young females).

Killing chickens is not fun. One can give them away, but that just forces someone else to deal with the problem.

Another reality is that chickens allowed to roam or range are not very good to eat. Unlike the grocery store birds, free-range chickens have little or no fat. They are also tough — as in chewy. If one hopes to raise birds for the table, they need to be confined and eaten at a young age; otherwise, plan on chicken soup instead of fried chicken.

Predators

Even in urban areas, chickens attract predators. In Utah, the list includes raccoons, foxes, skunks, mink, weasels, hawks, magpies, dogs and cats. Some are primarily interested in eggs or young chickens. The prospect of eggs or a chicken dinner draws them all. If successful, they will return repeatedly. A sturdy enclosure and regular maintenance are necessary.

Constant care

Chickens need daily attention. They must have food and fresh water. They need to be let out in the mornings and put away at night. Eggs must be collected daily. Coops must be cleaned regularly (at least a couple times each month). Nesting and bedding materials must be provided and changed. Ignoring any of these tasks for even a day or two is irresponsible.

There are many benefits to raising chickens and harvesting one’s own eggs. Good places to find information include www.poultrykeeper.com, www.backyardpoultry.com or a local farm supply store. But just be aware that avid urban chicken fans tend to understate many of the accompanying challenges.

Flint Stephens has raised backyard chickens for more than 10 years. He is author of "Mormon Parenting Secrets: Time-Tested Methods for Raising Exceptional Children." His blog is www.mormonparentingsecrets.com.

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