Saturday afternoon at Tractor & Supply, Kimberly Lester brought a few of her feathered friends to talk about raising backyard poultry. It’s been trendy of late, across the nation, prompting some municipalities to change the rules to allow up to four hens, but Lester is a long-time aficionado of the practice. She lives outside of city limits, however, so she can keep a few more birds than urban dwellers. Here are a few things to know about keeping a few chickens.
1. There are many, many breeds of chickens. Whether it’s eggs you want or meat, or just a pet, there’s a breed and style just right for you. For a good all-purpose backyard hen, Lester recommends the breeds Americano and Buff Orphington. These are fairly quiet birds, and not nervous. The Americano will get large enough to be a meat bird, but also lays enough eggs to fulfill that purpose as well. They make good pets, too, because they are not overly nervous. Lester has trained hers to perch on her arm quietly so she can bring her to workshops like the one at Tractor & Supply on Saturday.
2. A few birds in the backyard need not be overly time-consuming. Lester says 15 minutes in the morning and the evening to check on them each day, and then an hour or two to clean out the bedding once or twice a week is generally sufficient. You will have to provide the birds with adequate shade in the summer. And in winter, if you do not heat their water, you’ll have to go out and chop the ice so they can get a drink. Because of North Dakota winters, Lester doesn’t recommend breeds that have feathers or fur around their feet. That will attract ice and is difficult to manage.
3. Young chickens generally start out on what Lester calls chicken starter. It’s a crumble feed that is generally given from day 1 through week 18. After that, the birds get a laying mash. You can feed the chickens some treats using the 90/10 rule. A laying hen should eat about .25 pounds of complete feed each day, which is about one-half a cup. Treats, thus, should not exceed 2 tablespoons each day. Treats can include lettuce, kale, carrots, broccoli, Swiss chard, cucumbers, beets, oregano, parsley, thyme, cilantro, basil. Even some flowers make good treats — roses, hostas, daylilies, coneflowers, daisies and ferns. Avoid salty foods or anything that may cause off flavors in the eggs, like garlic. Avocado pits and skins are toxic, though the flesh of an avocado is fine. Undercooked or dried beans contain a compound that can inhibit digestion and rhubarb has one that can have a laxative effect. Oxalic acid can be fatal to chickens. Moldy, rotten foods also should not be fed to chickens.
4. Make sure to check with local authorities about the rules regarding chickens before deciding to raise backyard poultry. While some North Dakota cities, such as Bismarck and Mandan, allow up to four hens in the backyard, they are not legal in every community. Williston, for example, hasn’t allowed them since 1969. Property owners in the ETJ may be able to keep chickens, with suitable space if their zoning allows it. Most communities do not allow roosters, which can be noisy. Hens are quieter.
5. Chickens and gardens can go together quite nicely. The chickens will forage weeds and eat bugs, provide fertilizer, and help aerate soil by scratching and digging at the surface in their search for tasty treats. Consistency in feed, however, is still important for the health of the chickens, so feed them their daily ration before letting them out to forage. Make sure the feed you offer them contains some grit. To teach the birds to return to the coop, use treats and vocal cues. Maintaining a set routine is also helpful, so the chickens know what to do when. You’ll want about 250 square feet per bird if you’re letting them free range. To use the chicken manure in the garden, it’s best to compost it first.