One reason might seem obvious: eggs. Commercial hens, even with current USDA regulations, do not lead very comfortable lives. Content hens living a natural lifestyle and eating natural foods lay eggs that are more nutritious than those laid by factory hens. Four hens will supply an average family with sufficient eggs.
But the reasons to keep hens in the back yard go far beyond breakfast. One obvious benefit is right under your feet. (Look out, don’t step in that.) Composted chicken poop is one of the best fertilizers out there, being high in soluble nitrogen and also a good source of the other macro and micro nutrients plants need to thrive. Hens can eat your excess vegetables, thereby reducing your garbage and the size of your compost pile. Free range chickens will eat a lot of the less desirable bugs in your garden, and they can do a good job of weeding.
Chickens are relatively easy to care for. Start with a solid henhouse and fenced yard that will protect them from predators. Henhouses can be made or purchased, although premade henhouses can be pricey. You can build a simple henhouse or convert a shed or child’s playhouse. Find ideas and plans for chicken coops on the internet. A minimum of 4 square feet per hen is required. Make sure that your henhouse and yard are predator-proof. Other requirements are good ventilation, shelter from wind and rain, food and water containers, an area to roost, and a nest box or two (one box per four hens is the minimum).
Backyard chickens tend to have significantly fewer health issues than their battery cage-raised sisters. The most common problem is parasites. Allowing your hens to dust bathe daily and keeping a dry, well ventilated coop will virtually eliminate external parasites. Use a commercial dewormer or feed squash seeds or diatomaceous earth to your hens to treat for internal parasites.
Salmonella is a concern for people so wash your hands after handling your hens and their stuff. And be cautious with small children handling your birds – it may not be worth the risk to let them snuggle new baby chicks.
Purchase the appropriate feed for your hens. Laying feed is necessary for you hens if they are laying eggs, plus oyster shell for added calcium. Use large feed and water dispensers so that you don’t have to add more feed or water every day – yes, you can keep chickens and still go on vacation.
Feeding produce from you garden will lower your chicken feed bill. Your chickens can eat all of the vegetable and fruit waste, spent vegetable plants, and weeds that come out of your garden. Do not feed any known toxic plant material. Do not feed the green parts of tomato and potato plants, for instance. Most ornamental plants are safe, but if you are not sure, don’t feed it.
Allowing your chickens to free range and forage for part of their food is a consideration. It’s what they want to do naturally. They get exercise and they eat the right amounts of the right things to satisfy much of their nutritional needs. They can also help rid your garden of insect pests. If you allow your hens to free range you can reduce the amount of commercial feed provided by about 50%. Be sure there is some cover for them to hide from a passing hawk.
But free range hens can be challenging, as foraging hens scratch the soil and eat young plants and low hanging fruit. You can confine them to certain areas, like an orchard, or fence off your vegetables and newly planted areas with fence at least 4’ high. You can use bird netting over raised beds. Use weed fabric, burlap, or 2” chicken wire, laid on the ground, to prevent scratching in ornamental beds. Hens tend to not bother mulches placed over these barriers. Allow the hens into the vegetable garden between crops, to clean up the detritus and gently till the soil. You can put compost on the bed and the hens will work it in, or let them eat and work in your spent cover crops.
If you want the benefits of free ranging while still maintaining control of their wanderings, consider a “chicken tractor”. This is a contraption, any size you want to make it, that allows you to move the henhouse and their run, chickens in situ, to any part of your yard where you need them to do their magic.
Adding chickens to your gardening endeavors is the ultimate in sustainable gardening. You are adding fewer inputs to your garden (purchased fertilizer) and hens (feed), and you are no longer permanently removing most of the nutrients from your soil – you’re just borrowing them for a little while. You have natural pest and weed control and you are putting less into your compost pile to attract pests. The combination of chickens plus gardens is far greater than the sum of the parts.
A great resource for chicken info can be found at Backyard Poultry Magazine.
If you are interested in more in depth information about gardening with poultry, check out The Small Scale Poultry Flock, by Harvey Ussery, 2011 Chelsea Green Press.