New Directions topics
TOP STORY — May 2013
By MICHEL ELBEN
EMMITSBURG, Md. — “The type of person that is attracted to backyard chicken care is the type of person who has a vegetable garden and really appreciates the taste of a homegrown tomato,” said William Morrow, owner of Whitmore Farm in Frederick County.
He specializes in heritage American breed livestock raised on pasture.
Morrow also sells day-old chicks to rural and suburban customers.
“There’s a certain happiness associated with the animals,” said Dr. Brigid McCrea, who has recently written a book for current chicken owners about the realities of flock ownership, “The Chicken Whisperer’s Guide to Keeping Chickens: Everything You Need to Know ... and Didn’t Know You Needed.”
Backyard flocks are by no means new, she said, but interest has increased in the last 10 years.
“There’s been tremendous growth,” said Morrow. “I think it’s a renewed interest in a sustainable and self-sufficient lifestyle.”
McCrea said there are typically two groups of people in the demographic — young families with children and retirees.
The younger generation gets its information from the internet, and the older generation is “going back to having chicks like they did when they were little,” she said.
McCrea said families are also teaching their children about the life cycle and caring for birds is relatively simple.
Rev. James Olsen, pastor of the Kennett Square (Pa.) First Baptist Church, has a flock of nine chickens in the backyard of his home in West Chester, Pa.
“They are easy to raise and convenient,” he said. “I think they represent a mood of this country to get to back to the land, to appreciate God’s green earth.”
Backyard chickens, he said, can serve as a valuable family teaching tool.
“So the kids feed the chickens and provide the food that they eat,” Olsen said. “That’s what agriculture is all about.”
“By and large, people are using the eggs for home consumption,” said Jeff Semler, Washington County UMD ag agent. The Extension service teaches “Poultry 101.” The class regularly sells out and 200 people have gone through the program, he said.
“People just like fresh eggs,” he said.
Morrow said many people interested in backyard chicken keeping are attracted by the increased nutritional value of “free choice” eggs.
Morrow’s free choice chickens are pastured and roam searching for bugs, dandelions and other greens.
“The eggs are better for you, higher in vitamins and lower in cholesterol,” he said.
Morrow said many of his customers do a lot of research before purchasing their chicks, but some first timers have a lot of questions.
With more than 300 breeds to choose from, McCrea said there is a chicken for every person’s personality and purpose.
“Do you want a jewel in your backyard? Are you looking to sell eggs? Do you want a pet?” she asked.
The more time you spend with a chick when he or she is young, the friendlier it will be when it is an adult, said Morrow.
“Nothing is more frustrating than trying to chase a chick,” Morrow tells his customers.
“Chickens don’t need fences. They will always return to their coop at dusk.”
He does encourage them to protect the coop at night from predators, including the neighborhood dog.
Some customers ask how many eggs they should expect out of the chicken per day.
“Even an industry chicken does not do an egg a day,” Morrow said. “An egg every other day is more realistic.”
Backyard flock keepers should not expect “instant gratification.” Morrow recommends more than two hens for regular egg production.
“Check your town regulations, if you can have roosters, they will protect your hens,” he said. “They are also more colorful. ... Nothing says ‘country’ more than a sound of a rooster.”
Morrow suggested one male for every eight to 10 females.
Semler said most municipalities restrict roosters and planning and zoning regulations usually restrict households to five to 10 chickens.
“Chickens have strong social hierarchy. Two or three roosters will be too busy wondering what the other is up to to challenge you,” he said.
A chicken can live to be 10 years old but after three laying sessions, the bird starts to consume more in feed than it produces in eggs.
“I advise that you retire them,” he said.
But backyard chickens are not just for eggs.
Semler said some people use their flock as a “chicken tractor” to weed the garden, fertilize and eat insects.
Morrow said he only recommends this late in the year during fall clean up.
“You have to measure their intake,” said Semler. “Feed them only what they will clean up. Chickens and hogs were the original garbage disposals.”
“If you’re going to use your chickens as garden tillers, be aware of biosecurity; be with them while they do it. Make sure to worm them,” said McCrea.
“Biosecurity is as much for you as for the health of your chickens,” she said. “Be the best advocate for your birds.”