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Getting started with backyard chicken farming

"Eggs-cited" about backyard chicken farming? Here are some care tips for all the poultry-lovers out there!

Cluckingham Palace 2.0 (Photo Credit: Lisa MacDougall Photography)
Cluckingham Palace 2.0 (Photo Credit: Lisa MacDougall Photography)

The Urban Hen Program is here in Calgary! As "eggs-citing" as this may be, many city-dwellers have no idea where to begin when starting a coop of their own.

When it comes to chicken care, Cassandra Kirkpatrick is your go-to gal. In 2009, she graduated from the University of Saskatchewan with a degree in animal and poultry sciences and moved on to work on large commercial poultry farms—some of which housed up to a hundred thousand chickens. Kirkpatrick even has first-hand experience with backyard chickens. She got her first flock in 2015 and dubbed her coop, Cluckingham Palace. Today, Kirkpatrick facilitates a series of workshops on urban chicken care through Alberta Farm Animal Care (AFAC).

So, if you're "eggs-cited" about backyard chickens, Kirkpatrick has some great tips to get you started!

What to expect with urban chicken farming

Before taking chickens under your wing, there are many things you have to take into consideration—so it's important to take the time to be well-informed on what chicken care entails.

With proper care, chickens can live up to twelve years, so people should be prepared for a long-term commitment. Every day, you'll have to put aside some time to make sure your chickens are happy and healthy. There's also a large financial investment that comes with taking care of a flock.

"People will often say, 'well, I want get into backyard chickens, because I want free eggs.' And I tell them 'that these are the most expensive eggs you're ever going to buy,'" says Kirkpatrick.

While free eggs are definitely a nice perk to owning chickens, it doesn't outweigh the overall costs. There are tons of upfront costs, including materials for the coop, the proper equipment, and the chickens. Then, there are the ongoing costs to maintaining your chicken flock, such as feed, bedding or shaving, electricity for heating and lighting, general maintenance of your chicken coop, veterinarian bills, and yearly animal licenses.

It's also important to know that cities and towns have different bylaws and regulations around urban chicken farming. Make sure you double check your city or town's official website before starting!

How to care for your chickens

There are daily, weekly, and monthly responsibilities for chicken care. On a daily basis, responsibilities include feeding, providing fresh water, and collecting eggs. Chicken feed can be found at your local farm supply stores like UFA. In winter, you can occasionally give chicken scratch to your flock to help keep them warm. Chicken scratch is a type of feed that is often used as a treat. It has more dense carbohydrates that can easily be converted into fat, keeping them warm at colder temperatures. But chicken scratch shouldn't be used as their main diet, as it is not nutritionally balanced like chicken feed. Think of chicken feed as a balanced meal, while chicken scratch is more like a tasty treat.

Monitoring ventilation and temperature within the chicken coop is also very important and should be adjusted accordingly by opening and closing windows or providing a heater. Chickens should also be let loose into their outdoor run—even in the wintertime.

"Chickens are actually quite winter-hardy, so even at -15°C, they'll still want be in their run and spending time outside," says Kirkpatrick.

Kirkpatrick with one of her chickens. (Photo Credit: Lisa MacDougall Photography)
Photo Credit: Lisa MacDougall Photography

Finally, it's always good to check the health of your chickens. Make sure they're not injured or sick, and if they are, get them to a veterinarian! All of these chores typically take about ten to fifteen minutes and should be done in the morning and again in the evening.

Then on a monthly basis, if the weather permits, chicken caretakers should ensure that the coop is cleaned to prevent sickness.

"I tell people to really thoroughly disinfect it. Take a pressure washer to it or a hose and give it a really good hose down, scrub it out and disinfect it," says Kirkpatrick.

"It's hard to do that in winter when it's -40°C. But when we get those hot summer days and they're in their outside run all day, you can open up the coop, clean it, and make sure it dries all out."

Making a space for your chickens

Chickens need a dedicated place for rest and activity, so a chicken coop and outdoor run are necessary for future chicken farmers. It's recommended to have a permanent structure on your property for your chickens. You can either build it from scratch or transform your existing garden shed into a coop. Mobile chicken coops from the general pet store are not recommended, because they are not suitable for Alberta's cold winters.

When building your coop, take into consideration proper lighting and heating for the winter months. A heating system and insulation lining the walls of the coop can help keep your flock warm. Kirkpatrick suggests using Tyvek house wraps to contain the insulation. Tyvek is great for keeping the cool drafts out and the warm air in. Ventilation within the coop is especially important for humidity control.

"We want that dry air. We want to be getting rid of that moisture that the chickens expel. Otherwise, what we find happens if it gets too humid inside the coop, [is that] the litter gets really wet, and it creates a very unhealthy environment for the birds," says Kirkpatrick.

Chickens can also get frostbite if the coop is too humid—even at milder temperatures. So, make sure you have windows or vents that can manually be adjusted to control the humidity levels.

Last but not least, we have the outdoor run. Outdoor chicken runs must be enclosed even if your backyard is fenced off. Unfortunately, that means no free-range chickens! This is to keep your chickens safe from predators and diseases.

"We're really looking for a fully enclosed outdoor run. A lot of people will use chicken wire and it's too flimsy—so we recommend people use galvanized steel mesh which you can get from any home building store," Kirkpatrick says.

Keeping a healthy environment for you and your chickens

Animal health and biosecurity is no "yolk."

"Disease and biosecurity are a really big part of taking care of chickens. Not only for their health, but for ours too," Kirkpatrick says.

Sometimes wild birds can carry viruses and diseases that can be transmitted to chickens and then to us. That's why it is so important to have an enclosed indoor and outdoor space. There are plenty of other biosecurity measures you can put in place, such as keeping your coop clean by disinfecting it on a monthly basis, quarantining new chickens before introducing them to the flock, and sourcing vaccinated chickens whenever possible.

"But really the best thing for biosecurity is being aware of what we're doing. As humans, we actually transmit a lot of diseases," Kirkpatrick says.

Taking precautions include things like sanitizing your hands, not kissing your chickens, and being cautious around small children or people who are immunocompromised when handling the chickens. Kirkpatrick also encourages people to have a set of clothes that are worn only in the coop and at the very least a dedicated pair of rubber boots!

Photo Credit: Lisa MacDougall Photography
Benefits of backyard chickens

While backyard chickens are a lot of responsibility, they are very fulfilling in many ways. For one thing, chickens love to chase bugs or mice, making them great for pest control. If you're a gardener, their manure can be used as compost for your soil. Another benefit is fresh eggs, of course! Young hens lay eggs about once a day, but keep in mind that as they grow older they do produce less eggs (a time in a chicken's life that Kirkpatrick calls "henopause").

For Kirkpatrick, she loves getting to know the unique personalities of each chicken in her flock. From teaching many AFAC workshops, she also noticed how caring for urban chickens can help bring about a greater appreciation for agriculture.

"It's a really good educational opportunity for kids and adults. Some adults, they didn't grow up on a farm. Their parents may not have [even] grown up on a farm—so they're at least a few generations removed from a farm way of life," says Kirkpatrick.

"I think chickens are such a great way to bridge that gap."

Now with backyard chicken farming, we've only scratched the surface—there's so much more that you can learn about chicken care. If you want to learn more or even attend a workshop, check out the resources on urban chicken care below!



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