An increasing number of people are turning to traditional means of putting food on the tables — farming it themselves.
While some gung-ho “homesteaders” plant vegetables, grow orchards and raise bees, a common starting place is raising a couple of chickens.
Jorah Roussopoulos, co-owner of Mountain Feed and Farm Supply in Ben Lomond, which he described as a “one-stop shop for critters and crops,” supplies many of them with the means to do so.
“Chickens are pretty easy, as long as you have a good, safe yard and a safe coop,” Roussopoulos said.
Kristin Smith, an employee of Scotts Valley Feed, 5470 Scotts Valley Drive, said she has noticed more people purchasing chicks in the past few years to raise as layers.
“I think it’s become more for the eggs,” she said, noting that the economy and the public’s growing desire to know where their food comes from is a factor.
Roussopoulos said the most important step in buying chickens is learning what you’re getting yourself into. He said Mountain Feed, at 9550 Highway 9, hosts poultry classes whenever chicks are for sale, which is usually in mid-spring.
“We wait until after Easter (to sell chicks) — we don’t like any animal to be an impulse buy,” he said. “Our goal here is to make it accessible and fun.”
On average, chicks take 4.5 to 6.5 months to mature and begin to lay eggs, Smith said. Then, depending on the breed and the amount of light, each chicken may lay an egg each day. To lay daily, a chicken needs 14 hours of daylight, she said.
Warm in the winter
Roussopoulos and Smith both said it’s important to ensure that chicks are kept warm enough — usually with a heat lamp — until they grow adult feathers.
“You want a warm and stable temperature for your little birds,” Roussopoulos said. “We encourage our customers to have infrastructure in place before getting the chicks.”
Smith said dozens of breeds of chicks are sold at Scotts Valley Feed, but some of the most popular breeds are barred rock and Rhode Island red.
After chicks grow large enough to be weaned off the heat lamp, he said, the adult birds can usually handle all but the coldest winter nights in Santa Cruz County, as long as they have an insulated and dry coop.
All cooped up
As far as coops go, the options are simple: Build one yourself or buy a kit.
Roussopoulos pointed out that an easily accessible coop is more likely to be kept up.
“The bigger the space, the better — you want to build a coop in a way that’s easy to maintain,” Roussopoulos said. “You’re protecting them and yourself.”
The most important element of a coop is safety, according to both Roussopoulos and Smith, due to the large number of predators lurking in the area.
“You have to make it 10-year-old-boy-proof,” Roussopoulos said.
Smith suggested that chicken owners use hardware cloth — a welded wire mesh — instead of chicken wire to ensure that birds are safe.
The smaller, denser mesh ensures that no predator can reach through or bend the wire to get to the birds inside.
What’s on the menu?
Both Smith and Roussopoulos strongly recommended a regimen of greens and table scraps for chickens, in addition to a dry grain feed.
Both said certified organic feed is superior to nonorganic feed, though it costs nearly twice as much, because nonorganic feed is made with genetically modified soy.
Roussopoulos said the birds should be allowed space to roam, eat plants, dig for tasty bugs and worms and scratch around.
“Chickens out in the pasture are the best,” he said. “Often, people set aside a space and sprinkle some grass seed on it.”
To stay healthy, Roussopoulos said chickens need to be able to exercise, something that is nearly nonexistent on commercial farms.
“Commercial poultry is disgusting,” he said. “They don’t give the birds any room to move at all.”
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