Rooster Not Required
Andrea Blum, Special to Beyond Organic
March 20, 2006
Talk about the goose that laid the golden egg. At San Francisco’s famed farmers market in the cathedral-like ferry building, chicken eggs go for as much as eight dollars a dozen. These eggs are what I call museum quality— so beautiful you don’t want to eat them and so expensive you have to think twice to buy them. If museum quality is you’re you’re after, Boulette’s Larder is the atelier—a shop lined with chemists bottles filled with rare spices and other fine foods. They display their organic eggs ($6 a dozen) like Italian marbles—some light turquoise blue and green; others spattered with brown freckles on tea stained shells. You won’t find commercial eggs here.
Now that farm fresh eggs, certified organic and not, are available to the city dwellers—at a price— it might behoove the urban and suburban forager not only to avoid commercial eggs at all costs but to buy some hens and set up shop of their own.
Bobby Foehr, a 27-year old, who lives an hour north of San Francisco in Point Reyes Station, has been raising chickens since he was three years old. As a kid he would sell his eggs for a dollar a dozen to his friends. His grandfather, a local rancher, taught him about raising birds. Then at Cal Poly he majored in ranch management (proving everything his grandfather said right). Now, he’s got some hens of his own turning his backyard into a barnyard with 45 hens of different varieties and one lone rooster. His chicken hobby, he says, “keeps me sane.” So what does it take to have fresh eggs at home? Foehr says it’s easy.“ It just takes some space, clean water, food, picking your eggs and a hen house that protects the birds from predators.”
Chickens, depending on the breed and time of year, produce clutches of eggs that average an egg a day. Allison MacLeod who has a backyard flock near Los Angeles, and produced a how-to video on the subject recommends that people start with one to two heritage birds per household member.
Here are some recommendations in starting a flock of your own:
- The space — An outdoor fenced area with a minimum of three square feet per bird. This allows the hens to eat bugs, worms (which they love), grass (gives the yoke a yellow orange color), and dig holes so they can kick up dust between their feathers to stave off mites.
- The shelter — Free-range birds don’t need a large coop because they spend the day outside. A clean coop means healthy birds. MacLeod suggests a rabbit hutch that has a ramp to the ground. Prefabricated coops are available on–line if you don’t build one yourself. Foehr says hens like most birds, prefer to sleep in trees so having perches in the coop is ideal. Lay boxes should all look the same and be covered and bedded with straw much like a nest.
- The chickens — Roosters not required (unless you want fertilized eggs). There are three routes: either buy pre-sexed chicks ($4 - $6 each) and brood the youth in a draft free protected place at 95 degrees until they have feathers and they can go outside. Or buy “teenagers” at four to six weeks old already with feathers. You also buy five–month-old female pullets ($5 -$10 dollars each) ready to lay eggs. Chickens begin to lay eggs at five months old. Order the heavy heritage breeds like Araucanas for green eggs, Red Island Red’s, Bard Rock’s, Wyandotte’s, and Black Australorp ’s for brown eggs. The pigment of their skin determines the color of their eggs: look behind the earlobe. If it’s red, the eggs are brown, if it’s white, the eggs are white. Two good sources: www.mcmurrayhatchery.com or www.sandhillpreservation.com or ask your local feed shop about local chicks. Ordering live chicks means they are sent by mail in boxes and should be picked up on delivery at the post office. A good rule is to buy all your chickens at the same time so that they are used to each other and have an established a pecking order.
- The Feed — Depending on the time of year and breed, hens eat about a quarter pound of feed per bird per day. It comes in three forms: mash, crumble and pellets. Certified organic feed cost $14.50 for 50 pounds. Commercial feed is less expensive. A 50-pound bag costs about $9.00. Make sure your commercial feed has no animal bi-products. Feed the hens (not chicks) ground oyster shells for calcium. Food scrapes, weeds and garden clipping, kelp found on beaches for minerals, and other plant matter are great food sources.
- The clean up — Compost it mixed with straw.
- The Law — Check local zoning laws in your area for ground birds (Madison Wisconsin recently passed a law allowing four chickens per household) or live by a MacLeod adage stamped on her bumper sticker: "Wherever chickens are outlawed, only outlaws will have chickens."