“Thank you”, says two-year-old Oscar as he gathers eggs from the neighborhood hens in their portable coop. Oscar has taught the chickens to jump as he dangles greens (bind weed) through the chicken wire on the top of their run. Like many households in Moab, Chad and Emily Niehaus have taken advantage of the new city ordinance (Times-Independent, March 12, 2009) to keep a few chickens in their backyard. They share care and feeding of the chickens with neighbors Josie Kovosh and Cosy Sheriden and T.R. Ritchie. In addition to the eggs and lessons for Oscar, the joint project has provided “a way of knowing our neighbors”, Cosy says.
Most of the people I interviewed loved talking about the hens themselves. The eggs were almost an after thought, “Oh, yeah, they lay eggs too.” For Andy Nettell it started out as his wife Marcy’s project, but soon he was doing most of the feeding and just stopping in to chat with “the girls.”
Two other friends who acquired their first hen, Roberta, at a party as a white elephant gift, say she is still a lap chicken because they were her flock until they were able to build their coop and get more hens.
With the Neihaus’ four chickens, Oscar usually gets to gather two or three eggs a day. Karen Robinson has a larger operation in Spanish Valley. She gets eight to 10 eggs a day from her 11 hens. With that many eggs, she has learned creative ways to use them, including fritatas that can vary with what’s in the garden. The leftover fritata with a slice of cheese and a little hot sauce makes a great sandwich for lunch the next day or a picnic with the chickens and neighbors. Eggs can even be dessert, as in flan.
Two of the first four households on my short block have backyard chickens. While this is probably a higher than average ratio, the interest is high in Moab and across the country as evidenced by the fact that there isn’t just one, but two books from the For Dummies series on chickens--Building Chicken Coops for Dummies and Raising Chickens for Dummies. These can be ordered from Back of Beyond Books at the usual 20% discount for special orders, but you might ask owner Andy Nettell for other recommendations, since he has pullet-to-layer experience.
Most of the chicken owners in Moab have owner built coops such as the Nettell’s Taj MaCoop (so named by admiring friends). Eleanor Inskip picked up a dog run cheaply then covered it with chicken wire to keep out the wild birds and a couple of layers of tarps for shade in the summer and protection from the cold in the winter. She also has a light bulb which she can turn on in the winter for added warmth or to encourage continued laying. If there is no artificial light the hens slow down laying and go into a molt when the days shorten in the fall.
Another popular coop is the small (for three hens) wheelbarrow which can be moved from spot to spot in the yard or even neighborhood. This allows the chickens to scratch and fertilize a new spot, and has all of the necessities built in, i.e., roosts, nest boxes, food and water sources, shade and protection from wind and predators. In town there are few predators, although domestic dogs can be a problem anywhere. In Spanish Valley people have had trouble from hawks, coyotes and skunks as well. If you let your chickens into the garden area to get some help with insect control, don’t be surprised to find them scratching up and eating your vegetables, also; they are good at eating both insects and weeds, just not discriminating.
Popular chickens in the Moab and Spanish Valleys are the Aracauna, Buff Orpington, Rhode Island Red, Leghorn, Wyandotte and Black Sex-Linked. Everyone has his or her favorites.
Even if the chickens are feeding in the yard or garden, they need a balanced food source. The Farm and City Store has scratch, layer feed, flock blocks, and pellets. Owners Daniel and Hesper Chapman also stock various types of waterers, feeders, wire and heat lamps as well as straw and wood shavings for clean nest boxes. This spring they sold over 300 pullets. A pullet is a female chick (99% sure to be female) which will be laying in 15 to 20 weeks. If you start with chicks, you need to imitate their mother, providing warmth, safety, water and feed.
Besides the folks at the Farm and City Store, the Youth Garden Project (YGP) and the Utah State University/county extension agent can provide information about getting started with chickens. YGP has offered the Tour de Coops, so people can share their experiences. The university has also offered classes and maintains an authoritative web page on raising and keeping healthy chickens.
If you want fresh eggs without keeping chickens yourself, stop by the Farmers’ Market on Saturday mornings. You can even get turkey and peacock eggs. Moonflower Market also carries eggs from local, free-ranging hens. Eggs are a great source of protein, relatively cheap, easy to store and versatile to use. Wherever you “gather” your eggs, thanking the hens, as Oscar does, is good practice.