Denton may see a population uptick of another kind after Tuesday’s City Council meeting: backyard chickens.
City leaders are expected to relax rules so that residents can have up to eight hens in the backyard, so long as they are kept in an enclosure that is 50 feet from a neighbor’s house, garage or similar structure.
Before heading to the feed store, flea market or local farm to get the birds, prospective owners should give some thought to food, water and shelter, according to Lee Standley, the local extension agent with the Texas AgriLife Extension Service.
A coop needs to be well ventilated with a roof. For a flock of laying hens, the coop should be big enough to have 3 square feet per bird, Standley said. Outfitting the coop with automatic dispensers for water and feed isn’t necessary but will go a long way to keeping the water fresh and the seed and feed clean.
“Nutrition is key,” Standley said, recommending feed that is 16 percent to 18 percent protein for optimum production.
Those interested in raising their flock from chicks might want to wait until the end of winter or early spring to get started, said Sandra Johnson of Corinth.
Raised in the city, Johnson learned that chicks need a lot of care. She and her children did their research before they raised a flock for a school project.
“It’s a good experience, but they need to be kept warm and you need to clean the brooder at least once, sometimes twice, a day,” Johnson said.
They learned three of their chicks weren’t hens when they started crowing. The first few attempts sounded like something was wrong, Johnson said.
“We woke up and heard this sound — it sounded distressed,” Johnson said. They realized the chicks were trying to crow.
Over the next three days, the crowing improved, but they headed back to the farmer. She had arranged a deal with the farmer who sold her the chicks to bring back any roosters in trade. Sexing chicks can be difficult.
Denton’s new rules don’t permit roosters.
Now that the Johnsons’ hens are grown, they are easy to care for and the family enjoys fresh eggs most of the year. When they have too many, her husband takes them to work and shares with co-workers.
“I don’t feel like selling,” Johnson said.
Hens start laying eggs when they are about five months old and can lay for five years or more. Their first two years of life are the most productive, Standley said.
Some families might want to keep their birds for their natural lives, which can be about 10 years. But other families may be more pragmatic, like farmers, and weigh the cost of feed and the city’s limitations against the number of eggs produced.
When it’s time to cull the flock, they can visit the extension office for advice on how to handle that, Standley said.
The extension office has many publications and pamphlets to help new and experienced chicken owners, he said.
Capt. Scott Fletcher advised residents to call the Denton Animal Shelter to register their chickens with a free permit. The animal control staff will want to know a little about “what the birds look like, so if they get out, we have a way to return them,” Fletcher said.
PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .
Thinking about keeping chickens? Here are the top 10 things you need to know from Christine Heinrichs, author of How To Raise Chickens (Voyageur Press, 2007) and How to Raise Poultry (Voyageur Press, 2009).
• Are they legal? What are the requirements? Call your local municipal government and ask. They may have a general information number. Try the planning department. If you live in the country, call the county. They will be able to direct you to the ordinances that regulate keeping chickens in your community. (EDITOR’S NOTE: In Denton, call the animal shelter at 940-349-7594 to learn more and register your chickens for free. If your neighborhood has a homeowners association, check its rules, too.)
• Chicks or laying hens? Raising chicks takes several months. Pullets (young hens) start laying at around five or six months of age. Hand-raising makes them pets that will enjoy your company. Laying hens are ready to give you eggs right away but may take longer to warm up to you.
• What kind of chickens? Hybrid hens may lay eggs early and well, but they have no value beyond that. Traditional breeds can be exhibited at shows and make you part of historic preservation. Plus, learning about chicken breeds is fun.
• What will you feed them? Commercial feed is a simple solution and a complete diet, without having to figure out nutritional balance. Fresh greens and grain enliven their lives. Avoid too much junk food. Occasional spaghetti is fine, but don’t let it replace solid nutrition.
• Where will they live? Have a secure coop to protect them from predators. No matter where you live, the raccoons and hawks will find your chickens.
• Make sure they always have fresh water. Chickens won’t drink dirty water.
• Give them a place to run. They need a sandy place to take dirt baths. A chicken tractor is a movable enclosure that keeps them safe but allows you to move them around the yard to take advantage of fresh greens and new bugs.
• What will you do with the droppings? It is valuable fertilizer you can use on the garden and share with gardening friends. Compost it to reduce its concentration.
• Locate the local chicken club. There’s probably one in your area. Experienced chicken keepers can provide invaluable advice and guidance.
• Attend a chicken show. You can see different breeds and meet the breeders. See how kids show their chickens. It’s a great way to get started.