Many people love the idea of urban farm animals and wonder what’s practical on a city lot. So I’ll spend a few posts ( not necessarily consecutively) talking about laying hens, meat chickens, and goats. There are other urban/ suburban possibilities, including bees, rabbits, small pig breeds, and even mini-cows. I may explore these in the future, but for now I’ll stick to what I know.
Laying hens are easy and delightful but need to be thought out. If you start with chicks, it will be 5-7 months until your first egg. Started pullets are available in many areas but of course are more expensive. Check Craigslist if you want to find pullets. I suggest two hens per egg-eating household member. That should provide enough eggs for eating, baking, and giving away occasionally. Many people who get hens fail to realize that they don’t necessarily lay every day except during the spring glut and don’t lay at all when they are broody or molting, or in midwinter unless you supply supplemental light.
Housing doesn’t need to be elaborate but does need to be safe. Raccoons are a concern in most urban areas. In my area we also have urban coyotes who can get over 6 foot fences, and they wiped me out of laying hens before I had the chicken run roofed over with sturdy welded wire. A safe coop at night is not enough, since I regularly see coyotes during the daytime. So no free-ranging for my ladies. I cut grass and leaves to bring to them instead.
Feed the hens to produce the best eggs possible. I like a laying pellet with flaxseed that produces high omega-3s in the egg, and I also provide daily heaps of greens for three seasons of the year, usually including fresh alfalfa. Extra calcium is a must, and in addition to oyster shell I save the shells of all eggs used in the kitchen. They can be briefly dried in the microwave and kept in a paper bag to be ground when they accumulate and mixed into leftovers of various kinds to be fed back to the ladies. If you have some spare time in the winter you can sprout seeds and grains for the hens, but I seldom bother. I did invest in a big bag of organic food-grade kelp meal a few years ago, and I dry some kale every year to make “kale meal,” both good winter supplements for hens.
Hens lay well for one or two years, moderately for another two, and very little after that. This means that after the first two or three years you have to have a plan to bring in some new ones each year and move out the oldest ones. Old hens are not good for most cooking methods but make the best broth or stew imaginable, full of flavor and collagen. To manage your flock well, you need to be able to tell fairly reliably how old your hens are. I start a few new hens of a different breed and color each year, so for instance the Rhode Island Reds in my flock are all four years old, the gold Pioneer hens are three years old, etc. This way I know that at the end of the upcoming season the Reds need to go in the broth pot and some new color of hens needs to be started. You will need to learn to butcher or be prepared to sell the old hens very cheaply to someone else who wants real chicken soup
Consider whether you want a rooster. They are beautiful, protective of the hens, and also very loud indeed. In some areas they are actually illegal. In my area it’s legal to have one, but legality doesn’t mean much if your neighbors are unhappy. I keep enough hens to supply my immediate neighbors with eggs, and that helps a lot. A few neighbors now have hens of their own, so be aware that you may start a mini-epidemic. Roosters can be aggressive, but most of mine have been fairly easy to handle. If they do get aggressive with you, a broom is a good humane instrument for shooing them away with no damage done.
If you do have a rooster your eggs will be fertile, and if a hen goes broody, she can be allowed to hatch out the eggs. A separate small coop should be provided for the hen to sit the eggs and rear her brood. Have a plan for what to do with them, and bear in mind that the young roosters should be butchered or otherwise disposed of the minute they start to crow. But it is a real delight to watch a mother hen care for her little family.
Sometimes I get questions about the “best” breed of hen. I have had Rhode Island Reds, Australorps, leghorns, Pioneers, buff Orphingtons, and several of the layer hybrids like black sexlinks and red sexlinks, and they have all layed well. For purely aesthetic reasons I prefer brown eggs and usually choose layers that produce them. Heritage breeds like Welsomers and Barnvelders go broody too easily to be great laying hens, but they excel at hatching eggs and caring for chicks, and I keep two elderly heritage hens just for the purpose of raising several chicks each year. I usually have an Americauna or two around to add soft sea-green and blue eggs to the egg basket. If I were more organized than I am, I would keep a rotation of Australorps, Rhode Island Reds, black sexlinks, and red sexlinks, since these are the best layers that I have found among the brown-egg breeds. My roosters are either Pioneers or Red Rangers, both large meat birds whose chicks, even when crossed with the laying hens, will be large and meaty. Personally I look at the Murray McMurray hatchery catalog each year to see which breeds are designated “best” for laying, and I never bother with chickens bred for appearance rather than production or with flighty little bantams. But if a flock of strangely alien-looking Frizzles pleases you and you don’t like eggs that much anyway, well, this is your flock and should gladden your heart in addition to its other benefits.