Vermonters flocking to chicks; know the basics of backyard fowl

MIDDLEBURY — Backyard chickens are pushing do-it-yourselfers to a whole new level.
In Vermont, we live amidst people who pride themselves on being able to paint their own home, fix their own toilet, file their own taxes and grow their own vegetables. Perhaps it’s a natural progression (or return to a trend) that people here would want to keep their own chickens, too.
The numbers have been steadily on the rise, especially in urban and residential areas, for the past five or six years and the trend doesn’t seem to be declining any time soon. Towns, cities and municipalities have passed zoning regulations about how many chickens you can keep on what kinds of properties, but the general trend has been to permit the fowl in almost every suburban or urban environment.
In addition to the appeal of self-sufficiency, the charm of fresh eggs straight from the coop to the frying pan as well as the meat from a chicken literally raised in your back yard has driven more and more people to adopt fowl as homestead companions.
Our faith in large-scale food corporations has also plummeted as people become more educated about the treatment of animals in large feedlots or factories where conditions for the animals are questionable at best. Use of antibiotics as a preventative measure against the spread of disease and the fear that hormones and chemicals are making it into the food we’re buying at the store has furthered our distrust in large-scale agriculture.
People’s response to this frustration, however, has been a refreshingly productive choice to take matters into their own hands — or yards, as the case may have it.
Morgen Doane works at Agway in Middlebury and is an expert on keeping fowl. Doane was responsible for placing the orders and receiving the 2,000 chicks that Agway customers pre-ordered through the Exchange Street store this year.
“I don’t recall exactly what the number was last year,” Doane said, “but that’s easily 500 more this year.”
Doane says the growing appeal for chickens, ducks and turkeys doesn’t surprise her and makes sense given people’s renewed interest in knowing the real story behind the food they’re eating.
“In my opinion we’re going to have to come to a point with our food system where we’ll need to rely more heavily on small and independent producers because of all the diseases and problems we’re starting to see at larger-scale operations,” Doane said, referring to the avian flu and other diseases that spread easily in large factories.
Doane grew up on her family’s farm in New Haven and studied dairy management at UVM. Following graduation, she purchased a property adjacent to her family’s land and has started her own farm with chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys, pigs, goats, cows and horses all working to keep the pastureland productive and healthy.
The chickens have an important role to play on the land, as they will go through and help process the manure from the larger animals, keeping the parasites down and acting as “extra composters” for the farm. In total, the farm system at the Doanes’ Grey Tiger Farm is a tight feedback loop that fits within their ethos about sustainable local food systems.
Of course, not everyone has 35 acres or wants to have so many animals on the farm, so let’s get back to backyard chickens, because even with a small neighborhood lot, keeping a small flock is quite feasible.
“Chickens are kind of an entry point to farm animals,” Doane said. That’s in part because the recipe for fowl success is pretty simple: food, water, warmth.
Chicks and ducklings are shipped the day they are born, arriving (yes, via a box in the mail) within a couple days of hatching from their shell. As tiny fluff balls they are delicate and in need of a safe and clean place to grow, often called a brooder.
Brooders can be made out of a cardboard box or another basin, as long as it’s large enough to allow for about 2.5 square feet per chick. The bottom of the brooder should be filled with clean and dry wood shavings or other litter. Cleanliness at the earliest stages is very important, as they are prone to disease. 
Food and water are essential to all living creatures, and the chicks will be hungry when they arrive (having sustained the journey on the last of the yolk from the egg before they hatched). For the first six weeks, Doane recommends a “chick starter” feed that specifically helps them get off on the right track. At around six weeks they shift to a grower formula, then at around five and a half months to a layer pellet, each one supporting the growth phase that the chicken is in.
Clean, fresh and cool water should be provided readily for the chicks, with specific care to ensure the vessel is one that the little birds wouldn’t drown in if they slipped in. (Using marbles or pebbles at the bottom of a bowl is a popular and effective tip.)
Chickens, ducks and other fowl are not especially careful creatures and will make a mess out of anything, Doane says, so keeping things clean and dry can be more of a challenge than it sounds like it would be.
For example, the young birds will sometimes suffer a condition called “pasty butt,” where their droppings cake to their backsides, clogging the opening and making for a dangerous backup. Doane says it’s a good idea to check the chicks regularly and make sure they’re clean to avoid this and other potential challenges due to unsanitary conditions.
The temperature in the brooder is also important, as chicks need the warmth and the light to stimulate healthy growth. A 100-watt bulb with a reflector is typically fine, though some people use heat lamps to ensure their chicks are warm enough.
Doane and other experts suggest measuring the temperature in the brooder at about 95 degrees for the first week, then reducing the temperature by five degrees each week after that, until the chicks have developed their feathers and can reliably keep themselves warm (which happens at around five to eight weeks).
Some people use thermometers to carefully measure the temperatures at all times in the box, specifically three or four inches off the ground — or at chicken height, she says. “But honestly they’ll tell you when they’re too hot or too cold. They’ll all huddle together under the light if it’s too cold. If they’re all splayed out with wings and legs going every which-way, they’re hot. If they’re moving around independently, chirping and exploring, they’re happy.”
After about six months, most hens begin to lay. At first, the young laying hens (also called pullets) drop small eggs, about the size of a quail egg. The eggs gradually get larger as the hens get used to their task and will continue laying reliably for an average of about four years before their production starts to decline.
As Doane advises, new chicken owners should consider the full life of the birds before impulsively stocking up on cute and fuzzy chicks at the local garden store.
“It’s important to make sure you have the time and money and energy to keep chickens through every season. They need at least 12 hours of light every day, which in Vermont means you will likely need an insulated coop with electricity for a light to keep them warm and their water from freezing.” They also need enough space to move around and stay entertained with their surroundings so as to prevent them from picking on each other.
But on the whole, Doane says, keeping chickens is a pretty easy and rewarding endeavor.
“Having backyard chickens is better for the chickens, it’s better for you, and it’s better for the whole food process,” she says.

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