“It may be the cock that crows, but it is the hen that lays the eggs.” ~ Margaret Thatcher
We have had our chickens for the last three years. I know I will always want chickens in my yard.
I’m happy to go on the record and state that chickens are the best value pet of all time!
And while chickens are technically livestock, in an urban setting, we regard our chickens as pets-with-benefits.
They are a must-have in the urban garden, especially if you need to stick to a budget. But for some crazy reason, a lot of people think backyard chickens are high maintenance and expensive. When really, the opposite is true. If anything, money spent on your chickens returns solid dividends. Even so, there are things you can do to ensure you minimise the cost of keeping chickens while maximising their value in your garden as a whole.
Our pullets cost $15 each. We purchased three. They have names, are incredibly friendly animals with personalities all of their own. They are the perfect cuddle size.
The first 18 months of their time with us they averaged a dozen and a half eggs a week. That was enough for us to eat and even provided surplus to give away. Now, three years later, we are down to about 7 eggs a week.
Chicken laying pellets aren’t really expensive, but our chickens used to waste a lot of their feed, basically making a mess when they ate! We trialled a few feeder designs. The best feeder by far has been our home-made pipe feeders. They keep the feed dry, I’ve not had to clean out mouldy clumps of wasted food. Plus, they are fixed to the coop and can’t be tipped over. These feeders cost only a few dollars each to construct and have survived our summer heat without the plastic crumbling into a brittle mess.
Planting a chicken forage patch to supplement chicken feed is a fantastic idea. Sunflowers, amaranth, fat hen, flax, chia and silverbeet are our favourites. A forage patch is also great for the soil health and its probably the only part of the garden where I don’t mind if the insects move in. The chickens love the extra protein!
Plus, chickens will happily eat all the food you don’t. I used to gather all our fruit and vegetable scraps, and those from the kids’ playgroup, kindy, preprimary, scrap bin at the greengrocer and even friend’s rubbish was not out of bounds! Every last morsel of fresh fruit, vegetables, porridge, even cooked meat and *gasp* chicken is gobbled down enthusiastically. If you don’t have many food scraps to give to your chickens, maybe it’s time to review your own diet. A no junk, whole food diet is great for you and your chickens! It’s better that household food waste goes into chicken bellies, rather than rot in landfill.
My vegetable patch also delivers a wealth of chicken food. When my brassicas got overrun with caterpillars, the chickens were the happy recipients of the culprits, plus the damaged holey-kale. And while it can be a bit messy, the chickens will happily dig through a spent bed to rid it of slaters and pillbugs. When ants infested my figs, the chickens didn’t care and ate them anyway. When the searing summer heat split my ripe watermelons, the chickens were the fortunate victors. Chickens foraging around fruit trees can even help keep fruit fly in check as they gobble up any fallen fruit and eat the larvae.
Even your weeds will be put to good use. I once collected two bagfuls of fat purslane from my Aunt’s garden. She was thrilled to have her weeds pulled and my chickens gobbled it all down over a few days. Purslane is a common weed, but it has an uncommonly high nutrient value. High in vitamin E, essential omega-3 fatty acids, six times more vitamin E than spinach and seven times more beta carotene than carrots. Purslane is also rich in vitamin C, magnesium, riboflavin, potassium and phosphorus. Perhaps I should have eaten it instead! But no wonder their eggs taste so good!
Then there’s mealworms. Mealworms live in oats and bran, and eat vegetable scraps. And they are like crack for chooks. My chickens LOVE mealworms. And they are are likely the most nutritious, beneficial food I can give them. Mealworms cost very little to produce and produce a vivid orange yolk that tastes fantastic. Mealworms are important to the diet of moulting chickens, providing the extra protein needed to ensure your chicken’s plumage is absolutely resplendent.
You could add chicken meat to this value equation. But, as I mentioned, we see our chickens as pets and that is the primary reason why I don’t eat them. I don’t want to eat our chickens any more than I would nosh on our cat Jinx. While there is obviously nothing wrong with eating your backyard hens, it’s a call you will need to make. Ours are destined to fertilise a fruit tree when they meet their eventual, natural demise.
Thankfully chickens are more than just feathery personalities, egg layers, or chicken parmigianas-in-waiting.
Our chickens most valuable contribution to our household is their waste.
Yes, chicken poop is just gold for a person with a vegetable patch! I clean their waste from the roost every day, where it is then composted with other garden waste and newspaper. The composting worms thrive in my rotating bins. And the garden is the greener for it. The passionfruit planted in the chicken coop provides shade for the chickens and produces hundreds of delicious fruit. I use the enriched soil from the chicken run in my potting mix.
At three years of age, our chickens are reaching the end of their laying life. Soon, my eggs will likely disappear, so I’m thinking of adding another three chickens to our flock. Three new chickens every three years should be a good succession plan to ensure we have a steady supply of eggs, poop and chooky company.
So, I hope I have managed to convince you that you simply can’t go wrong with urban chickens. They are excellent value, low cost pets to keep. But have I left out any benefits? Please leave a comment below…