Interest in locally grown food is on the rise, from urban gardening to backyard chicken operations. Raising backyard chickens as a source for high quality fresh eggs, meat or as pets can bring the family together, while producing your own locally grown food.
Can Fairfax County Residents Keep Chickens?
Yes! With appropriate approvals from Fairfax County’s Department of Planning and Development, neighborhood associations and neighbors, Fairfax County residents are allowed to keep chickens (See sidebar at right below for Fairfax County guidelines). If the property is less than two acres, contact Zoning Evaluation at 703-324-1290, TTY 711 to obtain the necessary paperwork. Even with county approvals, homeowners’ associations may prohibit keeping chickens. To avoid potential conflicts, check limitations or restrictions in the association’s covenants. Also, speak with neighbors to discuss plans and address any concerns before getting started.
Hen Breeds and Broods
All breeds of chickens can be traced back to the Red Jungle Fowl of East Asia. Over the years, a wide variety of specialized chickens have been developed. They are categorized as broilers (good meat producers), layers (good egg producers) and dual-purpose breeds (capable of being both meat and egg producers). Some of these chickens have also been developed for good looks. Popular backyard birds include Rhode Island Red, Ameraucana, and Orpington.
Eggs and Meat Production
Generally, hens begin laying eggs between five and six months of age. At peak production each hen may lay about six eggs per week. The rate drops off after five years and during seasons with shorter daylight duration. They need 12-14 hours of daylight to continue laying. A standard light bulb in their coop helps them continue laying at their regular daily rate during those seasonal changes.
If you are raising hens for meat, this advice may be of great value to you! Establish a relationship with another family with a backyard chicken operation, so that when it comes to “chow time,” you can do a fair trade, and you’ll simply be eating your neighbor’s chicken, and vice versa.
Caring for Your Chickens
Feeding. Chickens are omnivores. They eat grains, insects, worms, fruits, kitchen scraps, grass, etc. However, proper chicken food contains a good ration of protein, vitamins and minerals. In addition, the diet of a layer should contain crushed oyster shell to help with egg production and grit for digestion. It has been estimated that a six-pound chicken can consume about 3 pounds of feed per week. They tend to eat more in winter when they burn more calories to stay warm. High quality feed and clean water keep the birds healthy and productive.
The Coop. For a reliable backyard operation, a well-built and secured coop with a laying box and “run” area are essential to keep your chickens and their eggs protected from bad weather and predators such as foxes, raccoons and hawks. A minimum of three birds and an average of four square-feet per bird for an interior floor space are recommended. Closely packed chickens soon become ill- tempered and very aggressive with each other.
Keeping Healthy. Backyard raised chickens are usually very healthy and free of diseases. They stay active, and are amusing to watch. They spend a good portion of their day pecking, scratching and quietly clucking. A key to good health is a clean and well-kept environment. Their feeders and watering containers should be routinely cleaned and disinfected, as should their coop and run. Disinfecting with a solution of one-tablespoon of chlorine to one gallon of boiling water is recommended.
Backyard chickens do carry a fair amount of germs, as do every living organism. However, humans are not adversely affected by most of their germs because of the marked difference in human biology compared to that of birds. The few pathogens of concern can be taken care of by simply washing your hands with soap and warm water and general good animal husbandry. Normal carrying and interactions with chicken does not pose significant health risk to a family.
Keeping Chicken Waste Out of Local Streams
Chickens poop, A LOT! According to poultry husbandry, a normal full-grown chicken produces about a quarter pound of waste in one day. Sources have translated this to the equivalent of one cubic-foot every six months. Since birds don’t have a urinary canal, all their bodily excretory wastes are discharged together, usually as a stinky, watery blob. Normally, 80% of chicken waste by weight is water. It also contains high levels of nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, intestinal bacteria, and minerals from metabolic processes.
Manure management is an essential component of backyard chicken activities. Poorly managed chicken waste can cause air pollution (stench), spread of diseases, pest infestation and surface and ground water pollution.
The following are some best management practices for waste management at backyard chicken operations:
1. Removal and treatment of waste away from coop. Bedding material can help you manage chickens’ waste effectively. Pine shavings are a highly absorbent material; the waste dries out and becomes less messy. Other types of wood shavings can be used, with the exception of cedar. Cedar shavings are believed to emit certain fumes that are toxic to birds. Hay or straw are not as absorbent as shavings, retaining moisture and becoming wet, messy and stinky.
Bedding and waste from routine cleaning should be added to a bin for composting. Because of the high nitrogen content, composting will proceed rapidly. If chicken manure is applied directly to your garden, the high nitrogen content will cause the plants to “burn.” Also, salmonella and E. coli bacteria may transfer to your vegetables if applied fresh to a vegetable garden. Once the compost pile is 12 - 15 inches deep, composting actively begins and after 6 months can kill harmful bacteria.
The roosting area of some coops is equipped with a poop-collection tray to keep the birds from stepping in their droppings. When this is the case, no bedding material will be needed in the coop except in the run area. The tray should be removed daily, scraped into the compost bin, and rinsed off.
2. Pasturing the chickens. A moveable coop and run are valuable tools for pasturing chickens. When manure begins to build up, move the set-up to another location to distribute the waste. It reduces cleaning time dramatically, does not require any bedding material, but does require a large yard space with grass. The grass is fertilized and soon becomes lush once the set-up is relocated. This system provides fresh areas for the birds to graze and peck.
3. In Situ Waste Composting. In this case, composting of waste is done right under the chickens’ bedding. To start this process, about four inches of bedding is spread out in the run area. The layer of bedding should be stirred up regularly to prevent clumping. After it appears to have been shredded by the hens and “used” enough, add another layer of fresh bedding. Continue the layering until it gets to 12-15 inches deep. At this depth, composting actively begins and after six months can kill harmful bacteria. This process releases heat, which keeps the chickens warm in cooler months and attracts natural fly predators. To maintain the compost, it must be stirred regularly to prevent crusting.
Preventing Water Pollution
When chicken waste is managed correctly, it is easy to prevent water quality pollution. Two additional precautions should be taken:
- Waste composting or pasturing of chickens should not be done within a Resource Protection Area.
- For large quantities of composted waste, the material should be analyzed in a laboratory and applied according to recommendations from a soil test analysis based on vegetation type to keep excess fertilizer out of runoff and streams.
Keeping backyard chickens can make you feel great about producing your own locally grown eggs or meat. Hens have unique personalities and characters and can provide hours of entertainment and learning. When you care for and manage them properly, you can enjoy the new addition to your family while knowing that you also are doing the right thing for local streams, the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay.