Peeps, pets and backyard chickens

I admit they are cute.

The temptation to take one home is hard to resist.

I’m talking about the little bundles of fluff that show up this time of year in garden centers, pet stores, feed stores and farm and home centers: baby chicks, baby ducks and baby rabbits.

Before I go on, let me tell you little about me and what I share in “Dose of DMU.” Food, food politics and food systems is my beat. I’ll be honest. It’s a topic that can be a little bit academic and policy wonkish, so as I write here, I look for the more human and personal perspectives to bring to the chat. I share with our students that food policy is health policy, and what better place to bring the two together than our blog space? And what does a cute baby chick, duck or bunny have to do with your family’s food system — or national food policy? There is a connection. Let me explain.

Day-old Chinese goslings hatched at Two Mile Ranch – too cute!

I want to talk you out of getting a fluffy baby chick for the wrong reasons — and see if I can talk you into getting one or two for the right reasons.

Adopting any pet is a commitment. The baby rabbit that lived in our family home grew up to live nearly nine years. Nine long, power-cord-chewing years! And now, as a poultry farmer in southern Iowa, I owan chickens and ducks that require daily care, feeding and protection from predators. Many animal rescue leagues and breeder groups strongly discourage the giving of these babies to unprepared owners. You may have heard of the national “Make Mine Chocolate” campaign to discourage the impulse purchase of baby rabbits as spring-time gifts.

For lots of reasons, I want you to think before you bring home the baby duckling or a cute, neon-dyed chick. After the fun of posing for Facebook photos, the I-have-to-care-for-this-everyday reality sets in.

But here is my twist: That reality can have a self-sufficient lining. If you like the idea of taking care of a pet, and your city ordinances allow it, consider raising backyard chickens. A backyard chicken or two not only provide entertainment but also a near-daily source of eggs. Once you taste and cook with fresh eggs, it’s very difficult to return to buying them at the store.

This 1918 poster promoted backyard poultry.

The idea of raising backyard chickens was promoted as a practice of patriotism leading up to World War I 100 years ago. It’s an idea that is becoming more mainstream again and provides rewards many times over.

So how about some Chicken and Egg 101? A backyard chicken is a hen, and a pullet is a hen less than a year old. If you’re not sure why a rooster won’t provide the family eggs…and why you don’t need a rooster for a hen to lay eggs…um, well, go ask your mother…or Google it. And don’t be embarrassed – I usually have to explain it several times a year. And sometimes to very smart Ph.D.-type people.

You can purchase chicks a few at a time from a local store or order them online in batches of 25 or so from a hatchery. Ordered this way, there are enough of them in the shipping box to keep each other warm, and they can amazingly survive a few days en route after hatching without food or water. Twenty-five chickens is too many for most beginners, and town councils often limit the number of chickens you can have in your backyard, but if you have a group of friends who want to share an order, ordering from a hatchery an easy way to get them.

Like any pet, a backyard chicken needs few things: a feeder; something to hold drinking water; shelter from predators, especially at night; and a perch to sleep on. Ideally, the chicken should be able to wander on grass in a protected space (an enclosed pen) and have shade. You can buy a chicken coop new or used, find plans to build one online, or put something together from odds and ends in your garage or shed. Chicken manure from a couple of chickens can easily be added to your compost pile.

What’s in it for you? Once your pullet begins laying, you can expect four to six eggs a week. Your laying hens will need daily care. It takes about the same time as waiting in line for a coffee from your favorite barista.

In the years to follow, each spring, your chickens will begin laying eggs with longer daylight and stop laying eggs in the fall with shorter daylight. You can encourage your chickens to lay year-round if you add supplemental light to their coop, or you can give the girls a break each year. Most years, I give the girls time off, and one of my early signs of spring is the first egg of the year.

Fritz Nordengren, MPH

Fritz Nordegren was an Assistant Professor at DMU from 2007-2014. He is an award-winning documentary storyteller and digital content strategist.

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