The answer to an eternal rhetorical question, at least for my wife, Lisa, and me, is easy: The chickens—six hens, to be exact—came first. The eggs, hundreds of them, came later.
When Lisa brought up the idea last spring of acquiring chickens, I expressed doubts about how they’d fare in our suburban backyard. The only experience I’d had with the fine, feathered fowl was buying them butchered, plucked and wrapped in plastic at the grocery store.
After some research, Lisa decided upon red sex-links, which are a crossbred hybrid known for being hardy, heat tolerant and consistent egg-layers. She picked out six of the nicest-looking pullets (young chickens) at a local feed store. After some adjustment, “The Ladies,” as we’ve come to call our flock, became a familiar presence, and I soon enthusiastically embraced the role of chicken farmer, sharing the duties of feeding them, cleaning the coop and collecting eggs.
The Ladies roam our half-acre backyard during the day, eating bugs and grass and kitchen scraps. At night, they are shut securely in the coop. We’ve sacrificed our compost pile and a flower bed to their digging for bugs, but they do give us fertilizer—in abundance.
We also get, on average, about six eggs a week from each chicken—close to 150 eggs a month. Needless to say, we’ve been eating a lot of omelets!
But the eggs are exceedingly nutritious, especially these fresh, pastured eggs. A study by Mother Earth News showed that backyard eggs have less cholesterol and saturated fat than their commercially raised counterparts. They are also richer in vitamins A, D and E, omega-3 fatty acids, and beta-carotene.
I think our eggs taste better than store-bought ones, but that’s a subjective opinion. It is also nice to always have eggs on hand and to know what exactly went into the chickens’ diets. As much as we enjoy our eggs, our supply is greater than our demand. Thus, our friends, family and neighbors have all been recipients of cartons of eggs.
We figure that we’ve long since broken even on our initial costs for building the coop and the modest feed bills, considering that free-range eggs sell for as much as $4 a dozen at the farmers market.
In addition to frying, scrambling or boiling our eggs, I also like to cook with them. I recently learned a simple method to make pots de crème, a rich egg custard that uses half a dozen separated eggs. I use the yolks in the custard and save the whites for omelets or meringue.
Some Answers About Backyard Eggs
Q: Do I need a rooster or just hens?
A: That depends on what you are trying to do. If you just want eggs, a rooster is unnecessary. If you are starting a breeding operation or raising chickens for meat, then you’ll want one. A rooster does help protect a flock from some predators, so if your chickens are going to run free, it might be an asset.
Q: Should I wash eggs before I eat them?
A: Egg shells, which contain microscopic pores, have a natural protective layer over the shell that is wiped away when washed. This decreases their storage time. Commercial farms wash eggs, then replace the natural antibacterial layer by oiling them. If you do wash them, use water that is 20 degrees warmer than the egg, as recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). That will prevent the pores from “shrinking” and pulling in contaminants from outside the shell.
Q: How long do eggs last?
A: Fresh eggs keep at least six weeks in the refrigerator. The USDA recommends refrigerating eggs and using them by the “use by” date on the carton. That date is set no more than 30 days from the date of packing.
Q: Why are my hard-boiled eggs hard to peel?
A: The fresher the egg that is boiled, the harder it will be to peel. As eggs get older, the air pocket inside grows, pulling the white’s membrane away from the shell.
So You Want To Be A Backyard Chicken Farmer
Raising your own egg-laying chickens can be easy. First, make sure that there are no ordinances prohibiting you from having your own flock. And you’ll need space for a coop large enough to allow the chickens to roost and take dust baths.
If you’re handy at all, you can easily knock a coop together. You can find books that include detailed plans for coops, including “chicken tractors,” mobile coops that keep birds enclosed and protected while allowing them the ability to forage in different areas of your yard. The Internet has several sites dedicated to backyard chicken raising.
Having chickens is a responsibility comparable to owning pets. They depend on you for shelter, food and fresh water (you can make a homemade chicken waterer with a large pan and a 5-gallon bucket). They also need your protection from predators, whether hawks, raccoons or the neighborhood cats.
If you let your chickens roam free in the yard, there is little, short of a fence, that will keep them away from gardens and other spots you don’t want them to be. Potted plants and flower beds may soon turn into dust wallows and feeding grounds, and when walking anywhere they’ve roamed, you’ll have to watch your step, as they leave droppings indiscriminately.
If you are going to let them roam, make sure to find any holes in your fence they might escape through. You might also have to trim their wing feathers to limit their flying ability. Unclipped chickens can easily fly to the top of a 6-foot fence.