By Mel Paradis
It wasn’t long ago that people who had backyard chicken coops were considered out of the ordinary. Today, the upscale company Williams-Sonoma, best known for gourmet food and cookware, sells coops that cost as much as $1,300. Apparently, being able to collect warm, fresh eggs for breakfast— while teaching your children how to take care of animals and reducing your carbon footprint—no longer is the exclusive domain of farmers, 4-H families, and back-to-the-land hippies.
Of course, you don’t need an expensive pre-made coop to have your own flock of birds. Chickens are the easiest of livestock animals to raise and, with a little research and some dirt under your fingernails, you can be on your way to serving up soufflés or chicken soup from chickens and eggs plucked from your own backyard.
Raising for Eggs vs. Meat
Most newcomers to raising chickens start with laying hens, or layers. There are many choices, ranging from hens that are bred for prolific laying, to ones that are bred for beauty. If egg color is important to you, various breeds’ range in color from standard white and brown to blue, green, or even pink.
Erin Downey started her flock of six layers in Victor with four Bantam chicks. Bantams are a miniature version of standard breed chickens, coming in at about one quarter of the size of their regular breed counterparts. “I didn’t know they were going to be small when I went to pick them up, but I’m glad I started with them,” Erin says. You can expect most breeds to start laying approximately one egg every day and a half once they reach four to six months of age.
If knowing where your meat comes from matters to you, raising broilers is a great option. While Cornish Cross is the breed of meat birds most commonly sold, Jeff Klausmann of Driggs recommends RedBro Freedom Rangers. Cornish Cross can be slaughtered at eight weeks old, and they have a high percentage of breast meat, but because they grow extremely fast they often have health problems. RedBro Freedom Rangers grow slower, are slaughtered at ten to twelve weeks, and contain more dark meat. Another option is “dual-purpose” chickens, such as Rhode Island Reds or Barred Rocks. These hens are both good egg layers and good to eat, as they have a fair amount of meat on their bones.
Raising broilers is not for everyone. The closest facility to process chickens is Del Monte in Pocatello, so you most likely will have to slaughter and butcher them yourself. There are several graphic and informative videos on YouTube that will help you decide if this is something you’ll feel comfortable doing.
Purchasing your Flock
You can order day-old chicks through online hatcheries such as Dunlap in Caldwell, Idaho (dunlaphatchery.net), and have them delivered in the mail. But it’s preferable to buy your chicks locally. In the spring, Jackson Hole Feed and Pet and, in Driggs, Longhorn Corral and Ranch Supply and Backyard Farm and Supply are three places where you can pick up baby chicks.
Pay attention to how the chicks are labeled (or ask if they are not). Pullets are female chicks that are sexed at birth (though sexing of birds is only 90 percent accurate). ”Straight run” are chicks that have not been sexed and are priced a little cheaper. There’s about a fifty-fifty chance of a chick being either a hen or a rooster. This is a good option if you are buying dual-purpose birds and plan on butchering some. Or, if raising chicks is not your thing, you can find adult layers or broilers for sale almost any time of the year on craigslist.org.
If you buy chicks you will need to start them out in a brooder, a heated enclosure where they’ll live until they have all their feathers and are big enough to move into the coop. Brooders can be as simple as a cardboard box with a heat lamp overhead. They should be located somewhere that’s out of the elements and relatively warm, such as a basement or heated garage. The temperature should be maintained at 90 to 100 degrees for the first week or so, then reduced by 5 degrees each week thereafter.
Pre-made coops come in all price ranges, or a homemade coop can be fashioned out of something like a repurposed doghouse or recycled materials. They can be four hundred square feet or five square feet, as long as they are they are predator-proof and weather resistant. “Chickens are as hardy as cows,” says Alan Brumsted of Jackson (whose homemade “Coop Mahal” goes far beyond simple protection from the elements).“Keep them dry and out of the wind and they’re fine.”
At a minimum, chickens need about two square feet of indoor space per bird. Layers will also need a laying box lined with straw or shavings for every four hens, along with a perch. Coops can be permanent structures or “tractors,” designed to be rolled into new locations every few days to provide fresh pasture. You will find thousands of ideas if you search “chicken coops” or “chicken tractors” on the Internet. If you feel that building a coop is not in your skill set, ask around, call Trash n’ Treasure on KMTN radio (96.9 FM), or check the local papers and/or the Internet.
Chickens will eat almost anything you give them. In order to remain healthy, though, their main food source needs to contain lots of protein and other nutrients. Chicks have very different nutritional needs than adult birds. Feed stores throughout the area carry both regular and organic options. Ask at the store about the pros and cons of the many different types available, as well as the various protein counts.
In addition to “chicken feed,” many people give their birds small amounts of scratch. Scratch is made up of cracked corn, oats, and various other seeds and grains. It should be given as a treat, rather than considered a nutrition source. Food scraps are also great for chickens—but beware, some food is toxic; raw potato and its peels are poisonous to chickens, as is chocolate. Finally, do not forget to supplement your layer hens with calcium. Oyster shell, found in feed stores, is a good option. Leave a small bowl of it in the coop for the hens to eat when needed.
Free Range vs. Chicken Runs
Many of us love the fantasy of opening our coops each morning to permit the birds to spend their days wandering wherever they choose. Unfortunately for most, this cannot be a reality. City ordinances and wandering dogs, along with various other predators such as skunks and foxes, require keeping chickens within fenced pasture. Each chicken will need about three square feet to spread its wings, scratch, and play. If you do free range your birds, keep a close watch on them.
Many factors need to be considered when figuring out the true cost of raising a dozen fresh eggs or a few broilers. If your reason for having layers is to save money on eggs, think again. Most owners of layers say that while they love their birds and would not give them up, they are lucky to break even.
Zoning Ordinances and Subdivision Laws
The cities, counties, and subdivisions in the Tetons deal with chickens in different manners. Within the city limits of Jackson and Alpine, chickens are not allowed at all. Chickens are permitted outside the city limits in Teton County, Wyoming, as well as within the city limits of Victor, Driggs, and Tetonia, Idaho; Tetonia does require a permit and Driggs requires a permit if you plan to raise more than seven birds. If you live in a subdivision, the bylaws will most likely have some set requirements. If you are unsure of your local laws or want more specifics, contact a member of your subdivision board or local zoning committee. Remember, though, if your chickens become a nuisance, local government has the right to require you to get rid of them.
As you can see, there is much to consider before hopping on the backyard chicken bandwagon. But don’t let all this information scare you off. Ask anyone with chickens and most will agree that, although they require almost constant love and care, the nourishment, companionship, and pure entertainment makes it all well worth it.
Backyard Feed and Supply
465 South Main Street, Driggs
Big R Ranch and Home
1220 Meadowlark Lane, Jackson
Broken Spur Feed and Tack
145 Valley Center Drive, Driggs
Jackson Hole Feed and Pet Supply
1300 South Carol Lane, Jackson
Longhorn Corral and Ranch Supply
1776 North Highway 33, Driggs
Star Valley Feed and Tack
108050 US 89, Etna
A Guide to Raising Chickens: Care, Feeding, Facilities
by Gail Damerow (Storey, 1995).