Keeping Backyard Chickens in the Suburbs
By Emily Beck • Photography by Alison Bickel
For five years, Angie Arms wanted the same thing for her birthday, her anniversary and Mother’s Day, which usually fall within the same week. Every year she told her husband what he didn’t want to hear: “Honey, I just want chickens.”
He began to buy her books about chickens instead, to appease her, but as she began learning more and more about them, his interest piqued, too.
Angie loved the idea of having chickens, of living out in the country and being self-sustaining. She loved the idea of starting a cycle: giving her family’s leftovers to the chickens, then using their poop as a natural fertilizer in her garden, then harvesting and eating fruits and vegetables from the garden and giving the leftovers to the chickens again—it was a dream she held onto for years.
Angie lives in the suburbs of Gretna, Nebraska, with her husband, Randy, their son Cury, 14, and daughter Praja, 10. The inner walls of their house are painted different, bright colors—a remnant of Angie’s interior design degree—and in their backyard sits a playset-turned-chicken coop.
Once Angie’s persistence paid off and her husband agreed to the chickens, she organized a garage sale to raise money for the lumber they would need to build an addition to the playset. Angie says she didn’t want it to be a burden on her family in any way—actually, she wanted raising the chickens to be a group effort.
“I tried to get everyone involved, so this was a family thing, not just my thing. Even though I was the one propelling it,” Angie says.
Cury and Praja took to the project, researching different chickens online. Breeds can have drastically different personalities, and Angie let both her kids and her husband choose a type of chicken. Praja, who likes anything to do with baby dolls, chose a Buff Orpington for their maternal and gentle natures. Cury wanted Silkies because their dark blue-black color and thick head of feathers make them look like “punk rockers.” Angie wanted a chicken that laid uniquely colored eggs, so she chose Easter Eggers, and Randy wanted a good old-fashioned egg producer, so he chose a variety called Plymouth Rock.
Getting four different breeds at the same time wasn’t so easy—they had to order the chicks just after hatching, and they wanted them all at the same time, so Angie constantly checked My Pet Chicken, waiting for the day all their chicks would be available. They waited for two months.
Finally, the babies were ready. They called and ordered two of each. The day they hatched, the eight were stuck into a box with a heating pad, sealed up and shipped from Connecticut to Nebraska. A short 24 hours later, Angie went to the post office to pick them up. When she stepped into the door, she could hear them chirping.
Normally chickens are hatched in autumn or spring, but by the time the Arms got theirs, it was June. It didn’t really matter, though. Angie took the chicks home, where a plastic swimming pool filled with wood shavings was waiting. The babies were deposited into the pool. Heat lamps overhead kept them warm, and the family kept their food and water fresh.
“They were just little baby fluffballs,” she says.
Angie put chicken wire around the pool to prevent them from jumping out when they got bigger, and as the chicks grew, she worked with her husband and brother-in-law to construct the coop. They added an addition onto an old playset.
“We had to be very creative,” she says. They reused the wood from the playset’s climbing wall and bought more lumber with garage sale funds. It took about a week to build. Once the chickens were eight weeks old, it became their home.
Before getting her chickens, Angie made sure her practices would coincide with local law. The placement of the coop had to be precise in accordance with the property line. A plan with measurements had to be drawn up and submitted to the city. She also needed permission from her next-door neighbor. The Arms live in a “tight-knit” neighborhood, Angie says, and she’s friends with many of her neighbors, so she made sure everyone was okay with her family raising chickens before they began.
“I didn’t want this to be something that was going to divide us,” she says. And it hasn’t. Neighbors like the eggs the Arms share, and Angie says she often spots the young girl from next door sitting in front of the coop, staring at the chickens.
“She’s mesmerized,” Angie says. “She loves them.”
Aside from the obvious benefit—more wholesome, better-tasting eggs—backyard chickens have brought Angie closer to her children in a way she hadn’t anticipated.
“My son, he’s going through the whole teenage thing,” she says. “I can see how it’s a getaway for him. We can just sit on the back porch swing. We’ll sit out there, we’ll talk, we laugh at the chickens … it’s kind of this thing that’s brought us together.”
The whole family spends more time outside because of the chickens, Angie says. She likes to know where her food is coming from.
“There’s something empowering about going back to our roots and the simplicity of life,” Angie says. “I love that about doing chickens. My life feels simpler. I don’t know why, it just does. It makes me slow down.”
I also spoke with seasoned backyard chicken keeper Miranda Sherman. She lives in Papillion, Nebraska, and has raised both meat birds and egg layers.
Their last batch, Miranda says, became too much like pets. Her son Reid liked to jump on the trampoline with them and take them for bike rides, and each had a name.
“If you treat them like a dog, they act like a dog,” Miranda says. “Reid plays with his chickens constantly … he trains them. They’ll come when you call. They’re spoiled rotten.”
The business of meat birds, however, is largely different. It only takes 10 weeks to raise them, Miranda says, and it’s better not to develop the same relationship one might with a longer-term egg layer.
She got her most recent batch at Tractor Supply Co. for $1.65 apiece. The end of April is a good time to begin, so you can keep them inside for the first three weeks, then move them outside as the weather begins to warm. Miranda and Reid kept their chicks in a plastic bin for about a month, then graduated them to a puppy pen they kept in their garage. It has a wire floor, and they added a tarp underneath and heat lamps on top. When the chickens get too big for that, they move on to the coop.
Miranda and Reid have a mobile coop with handles on it, so they can easily move it back and forth from the backyard to the garage. Once the chickens are big enough not to get picked off by hawks or other predators, they’re allowed to roam the backyard.
It’s important to monitor how much the chickens are eating—meat birds are bred to grow very quickly, and allowing them to eat as much as they want could be dangerous. After 10 weeks, it’s time for the chickens to be butchered, or “processed.” Miranda swears by Duncan’s Poultry in Papillion. It only takes about 10 minutes.
“We really do care about the fact that they’re giving up their lives for us. We take it seriously,” Miranda says. “It’s really good to be connected to your food. It’s not a nameless animal in Saran Wrap.”
STEPS TO YOUR OWN CHICKENS
“You have to learn. You need to know a lot more than it seems like you do,” Angie says. She suggests researching in increments, to get a thorough sense of what to do before each stage of a chicken’s growth. It’s too much to know all at once, she says.
Miranda suggests taking a class. She and her son took a college-level class, and while it was dry, they came out with a deep breadth of useful knowledge about everything they needed to know—like terminology and chicken anatomy.
Check city ordinances.
How many chickens are you allowed, and how big can your coop be? Does your city allow chickens? Know the city code, Miranda says, and make sure to choose quieter breeds that won’t fly off and that will do well in the city.
Consider your neighbors.
Depending on local laws, you may need permission from your neighbors to keep chickens. Even if you don’t, make sure your birds stay quiet and respectful—Miranda says it can take just one complaint for the city to no longer allow you to keep them.
If possible, stay transparent like Angie did, and let your neighbors know your plans before carrying them out. Share your eggs to make your neighbors happy!
Figure your costs.
$1.65 per bird seems cheap, but both Miranda and Angie say feed costs can add up quickly. Miranda usually orders an organic, soy-free feed from Washington, but this year she’s going to make her own.
Make sure you have the necessary supplies.
Plan ahead for meat birds.
Miranda says many poultry processing places close from Thanksgiving to spring, so it’s important to make an appointment early.
Connect online with other backyard farmers.
Angie recommends BackyardChickens.com and MyPetChicken.com for research and questions. When she has a question, she’ll often consult these websites for help or answers. “I feel like I gained this whole new world that was out there that I didn’t even know existed,” she says.
Want to learn “How to Raise Meat Chickens in your Backyard”?
Join Miranda Sherman from 10am–1 pm on Saturday, May 7, in Papillion, Nebraska.
Register before May 2 by calling Miranda at 402.637.8929 or e-mailing her at SparkySherman@msn.com.
Cost is $12 per person.
Emily Beck is a student at Indiana University studying journalism and environmental sustainability. She wants to travel and write.