Urban chicken farming takes dinner from backyard to plate - WTVM.com-Columbus, GA News Weather & Sports

Urban chicken farming takes dinner from backyard to plate

Pictured in the center is an araucana chicken, which lays blue eggs. (Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/chriswaits/) Pictured in the center is an araucana chicken, which lays blue eggs. (Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/chriswaits/)

(RNN) - While some people grow corn, carrots and cucumbers in home gardens, others prefer to raise something a little more lively in their backyards.

Urban chicken farming is a growing trend among would-be farmers who raise the birds as a hobby, as pets, as natural pest control and, yes, as food.

Each farmer seems to have a different story about how they got into it.

"We often had a flock of chickens when I was a kid," said Katy Skinner, a mother of two who runs a blog about backyard chicken farming. "When I was a kid they didn't have Pokemon or NeoPets collector's cards with different characters. I just had all these bird species memorized like kids would memorize the NeoPets characters nowadays."

Cassandra Newcomb, a college student, said her family decided to begin keeping chickens in 2010 because her parents raised the birds as children. She said her mother really wanted to get back into keeping them.

"I think she likes a sense of self-sufficiency and the difference in quality from what you buy from the store. But for whatever reason, she has been wanting chickens for a long while now," she said.

Is it worth it?

Eggs, the versatile food item used in everything from cakes to cosmetics, are one of biggest draws for urban chicken farming. Eggs come in a range of colors, from pink-tinged to blue depending on the chicken breed, and hens generally begin laying around at about 6 months of age.

Hens usually lay one egg a day and a large flock can provide a source of income for owners who sell off what they don't eat.

Millions of chickens are killed each year for consumption. Billions of eggs are produced - according to the USDA, 7.73 billion eggs were harvested in the month of July alone.

A reasonable question is why go through the hassle of chicken farming when the meat and eggs are so readily available?

The method of commercial chicken farming has drawn fire from health-conscious consumers, as well as environmental groups and animal advocates. At the biggest farms, thousands of chickens are packed into tiny indoor spaces that breed disease.

In 2011, the FDA raised concerns about arsenic levels in chicken from bad feed. Commercial chickens are bred to grow fast so they'll soon be ready for meat harvest at less than 13 weeks old. Others are consigned to a life of endless egg laying until an early death from reproductive diseases after about three years.

Many urban chicken farmers see a way around this by farming their own food - even if they have to kill and butcher the animals themselves.

"Originally, we were focused on simply food with eggs and later meat when they stopped laying. If the meat thing goes through, I'm not sure," Newcomb said.

Reasons other than food

While chickens can be practical for obvious reasons, sometimes it's not about food.

"Oh, I'd probably still keep chickens even if they didn't lay eggs. I think my favorite ‘feature' of chickens is that they eat your food scraps. Our toast crusts and stale cereal don't go to waste around here," Skinner said. "The chickens eat everything. In turn, I have to buy less store-bought chicken feed. And then they make manure, which is good for my garden."

There are many online resources for all the intricacies of urban chicken keeping, but the basics are space, housing, food and protection. Most urban chicken farmers tend to keep their chickens in fenced-off runs, and house them in small coops where they go to sleep at night and lay their eggs. Coops provide a level of protection from predators, which are a problem even in urban areas, and make egg hunting and collecting easier.

A good place to start for information is your local farmer's co-op, or online resources such as BackYardChickens.com's learning center

While chicken care can seem daunting at first, most chicken owners agree it's not time consuming. The chickens largely keep to themselves.

"Chickens are pretty easy pets once you set them up and get past the initial learning curve," Skinner said, adding that they're easier to care for than a puppy or dog. "Not cuddly, but useful and low-maintenance."

But chickens are anything but a traditional pet. Newcomb said that while her chickens don't mind being handled, they don't seek petting, and only her "girl," a special hen that she hand raised and nursed back to health, will play with her.

"My dog just likes trying to play with them but the only one who cares are my chicken who will actually play. She pecked him in the butt once and you'd think he'd learn," Newcomb said.

Before you take the plunge

Below are several good starting points for anyone interested in learning how to care for them:

Consider what you will do with unwanted chickens. The cost of vet care for sick chickens is a concern, and prospective farmers should check out city, county and state laws.

What to do with roosters is another concern. They're worthless for egg production and they wake the neighborhood up at the crack of dawn. Many zoning ordinances forbid roosters, which account for about half of all chicks hatched.

David Phinney is the animal care coordinator for Rescue Ranch, a project of Animal Place, based in California, which takes in neglected and abused farm animals.

"We get calls for roosters every single day. We can't possibly take in every rooster that we get a call about," Phinney said.

Rescue Ranch, a vegan organization, seeks to find animals homes with people who won't return them in any way to the food market. The organization's largest rescue to date was around 4,100 hens saved from a commercial egg-producing facility, which originally housed 50,000 hens. The owner ran out of money and walked away.

Most of those chickens have since found new homes and Phinney admitted most people want hens for their eggs – but that's not something roosters provide.

Finding out the sex of chicks is a guessing game at best until they reach a certain age, but most are sold when they are only a few days old.

"Sexing chicks is a difficult process and many mistakes are made," Phinney said.

And what's more, people who order specifically female chicks may end up with male chicks used as "packing peanuts" to keep the females warm.

"Literally every single day we get calls for roosters from people who bought them from the mail and ended up with a couple of roosters," Phinney said.

He said most of the time they have to turn people away. There simply isn't enough room for them at the sanctuary, and it leaves few options for owners.

One of the most common solutions is to kill male chickens. For vegans like Phinney, it means that even if you only plan to eat the eggs they produce, that flock still has a 50 percent kill rate because of the very nature of chicken farming.

Roosters aren't the only problems that chicken owners face. There's also the sticky situation of what to do with hens once they stop laying eggs, which usually happens at around 2 to 3 years of age.

Simple old age solves some of this problem for people with commercial egg laying and food breeds like leghorns, which die at about 3 to 5 years from health issues. But it becomes a large problem for the more traditional chicken breeds such as bantams, which can live four times as long at 8 to 12 years, and even to the ripe old age of 15.

That means your backyard chickens could turn into a long time commitment.

And if you're squeamish about killing what you raise or having your flock killed by predators, urban chicken farming might not be for you.

But for those who want to be sure where their food is coming from, want some pest control or just a nontraditional pet, then urban chicken farming is more than just a hobby - it's a lesson in sustainable agriculture.

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