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How to start a backyard chicken coop: A Q&A

September 03, 2011
  • Grace Simonson, age 11, holds 'Delilah' the Great Pyrenees livestock guard dog, who watches over the Simonson's flock of chickens in the backyard of their home in Hagerstown.
By Colleen McGrath/Staff Photographer

The Herald-Mail interviewed four Washington County families that raise chickens for food and hobby.

  • David Gray Sr. and his son, David Gray Jr., keep three chickens on their quarter-acre lot in Boonsboro.
  • Deb IntVeldt keeps nine chickens on her 1.25 acre lot on Beaver Creek Road.
  • Susan Simonson and her family keep about 30 chickens on a 5-acre hobby farm on Beaver Creek Road.
  • Bob and Kristin Garrett keep seven chickens on their 10-acre property near Fairplay.
This is what they had to say about why they raise chickens and how to get started.

Q: What appeals to you about raising chickens?

A: "We like the idea of our children knowing that things came from hard work and animals, rather than the grocery store, and we just wanted them to have that experience," Simonson said.

IntVeldt, a master gardener, said her interest in chickens stemmed from a desire to have more control over her food supply.

"I grow a lot, and it just seemed like a logical next step, to provide some of my own protein," she said.

The quality of farm-fresh eggs appealed to all of the chicken farmers.

"Store-bought eggs from caged hens are usually very yellow and the yolks are very flat, which is because they're older," Simonson said. "A farm fresh egg has a very circular yolk that stands up in a nice ball and it's much oranger."

The Garretts said reading about how commercial chickens are kept — packed into a small space where they live and die — reinforced their desire to keep their own chickens.

"They're just egg-laying machines," Kristin Garrett said of commercial chickens.

Raising backyard chickens is not a money-making proposition, chicken raisers agreed.

"You could probably buy eggs for less than it costs to feed your chickens, but they bring you joy in so many other ways," Bob Garrett said. "Just being with them, learning about them, watching them."

"The little hens are so sweet and endearing and amusing, and there's something very ... calming about watching them do their thing," Kristin Garrett said.

Q: What kind of shelter and pen do they need?

A: The chicken house should have 1 square foot of floor space per bird, plus nest boxes and roosts, University of Maryland Extension Educator Jeff Semler said. They should also have an outside run where they can get outside and scratch the ground, he said. 5 feet by 5 feet is an adequate run size for most residential situations, he said.

The Grays built their 4-foot-by-6-foot chicken coop from plywood and shingles. It has a roughly 12-foot-by-12-foot run surrounded by a 6-foot-high fence.

IntVeldt bought her roughly 6-foot-by-8-foot chicken tractor — a small hen house on wheels — from the Pennsylvania Dutch Market in Hagerstown. She uses a portable fence that can be moved around with the tractor to prevent the chickens from picking one patch of grass clean.

The Garrets' hen house, a 10-foot-by-10-foot space, was converted from an old smoke house. They let their chickens have free range of their 10-acre property during the day.

Q: Where do I get the chickens?

A: Simonson said her family orders shipments of newly-hatched chicks by mail. They must be ordered in batches of at least 25, so they can keep each other warm, and arrive in cartons with holes, she said.

"That's like my favorite time, is when we go to the post office in Frederick or Hagerstown and the postmasters are always like, 'Come get your box because the peeping's driving us crazy!'" Simonson said.

Smaller numbers of chickens can be purchased from local farmers or from farm supply stores. The Grays said they bought their chickens from Tractor Supply Co. in Hagerstown.

The Garretts recommended Chickenstock, a buy-sell-trade event at the Martinsburg, W.Va., Tractor Supply Co. scheduled for Sept. 24. More information is available at:

Q: What care do they need?

A: "They're surprisingly really easy to take care of," Kristin Garrett said. "They're very low-maintenance. If you want to start out with a farm animal, that's the one to choose first because they're very easy."

"Matter of fact, they're less trouble than a dog," Semler said. "You don't have to find someone to chicken-sit. Make sure they've got plenty of water, make sure their feeder's full, go away for the weekend."

IntVeldt said she tends her chickens three times a day. She lets them out in the morning and gives them food and water. In the afternoon, she collects eggs and throws out some grain for the birds to "scratch," or rake for in the dirt. After dark, when the chickens have gathered in the coop to roost, she simply closes the doors.

For others, the care routine is even simpler. The Garretts have water and feed dispensers that they fill about once a week. And the Simonsons have a livestock guard dog that stays with their chickens, so they don't close them up in the coop.

A 50-pound bag of feed costs about $13 and lasts a few weeks for a flock of six, the Garretts said.

Occasionally, the chicken house needs to be cleaned out, something the chicken raisers said they do a few times a year.

"The really great part, as a gardener, is I put the manure on the garden beds," IntVeldt said.

Chicken waste makes great fertilizer, Semler said, but he recommends composting it first because it can be very high in nitrogen.

Q: How many eggs do you get and what do you do with them?

A: When the hens are old enough, they generally lay one egg a day each.

The Simonsons get about six eggs a day from their roughly 30 chickens, because most are still young and not yet laying. Soon, though, the family could have far more eggs than it can consume, Simonson said.

"We generally take them to work or hand them out to friends," she said.

Chicken-keepers said they have gotten creative in using their abundant egg supplies, filling their diets with foods like egg salad and quiche.

"Do you think we're eating too many eggs?" Simonson asked her children.

Her son Andrew's response was emphatic: "No!"

Q: What problems have you run into?

A: "Our biggest problem is injuries," Simonson said. Her family's chickens have been attacked by raccoons, foxes, a hawk, and the family's own dogs.

The Garretts have had similar problems.

"Everybody eats chicken," Kristin Garrett said. "All the predators you can think of. It can be hawks, foxes, neighborhood dogs that are not on a leash, even raccoons."

Another problem is when a chicken becomes "egg bound," or unable to pass an egg that has formed, Simonson said.

"You feel so bad for her because she's in so much pain," she said.

IntVeldt said she worries about her chickens in extreme heat and cold.

Chickens have a high tolerance for heat and cold, but providing a heat lamp in sub-freezing temperatures can make them more comfortable, Bob Garrett said. The Garretts also have a heater attached to their chickens' waterer to prevent the water from freezing. In the summer, they should have access to shade and water, he said.

Despite the difficulties, the farmers agreed raising chickens had been an overall positive experience.

"I don't think we could ever go back," Bob Garrett said. "I expect we're going to have chickens to the end."
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