Backyard Chickens, Part 1 – Yes You CAN!

IMAG0385In May of 2012, we visited a neighbor two blocks away in our quiet Mar Vista neighborhood and heard an odd sound emanating from her backyard. Upon further probing, we discovered, much to our pleasure, that she had four egg laying hens tucked into a coop, producing one egg apiece each day for her and her family to enjoy. In addition, the hens provided an easy way for her to compost leftover kitchen scraps, which she threw in each morning for the hens to happily devour. Surprisingly, there was no bad odor coming from the coop, which we found odd, and she went on to explain that, on occasion, she let them out to rummage around the entire yard and play with her three kids. We left intrigued to say the least, and the thought of raising our own backyard chickens took hold and we passed the idea around to a few friends to get additional information.

Coincidentally, two weeks later, we received a call from some fellow parents at our son’s elementary school (Beethoven Elementary) who had a pair of young hens that needed a home and would we be interested in adopting their two birds. They had apparently gotten them to somehow keep their duck alive and the experiment had failed, resulting in two unwanted chicks and one deceased mallard. Cautiously, we invited them over to meet said fowl and 24 hours later we were presented with two adorable six week old chicks in a plastic nesting crate. One was a white Delaware hen, the other an Araucana brown, both very friendly and well-known for their reliable egg production and easy going personalities. In fact, the Delaware is actually kind of rare, listed at “threatened” by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. We were instantly smitten, though not completely ready to take the leap to welcome them into our home without further research. However, after a quick discussion between ourselves, we couldn’t resist and Extra Crispy and Original became part of our household the next day.

Building A Coop

IMAG0412Obviously, we couldn’t keep them in a small plastic box forever, so the matter of building an appropriate chicken coop became priority number one. Being only slightly handy, we decided to construct a basic wooden structure out of 3/4″ plywood and 2×4’s, raised up on concrete footers to enable easier cleaning and maintenance. We wanted to give them a small outdoor “run,” which would require posts and chicken wire, so we added those materials to our list and headed off to Home Depot in Culver City. The total cost of materials: three 4’x8′ sheets of plywood, six 8′ length 2×4’s, four concrete footers, a box of 3-1/2″ deck screws, and a roll of chicken wire set us back approximately $85.00. Luckily, we already had all the necessary tools, such as chop and circular saws, impact drill/screwdriver, wire cutter, level, and tape measure, so no additional expenses were incurred in that area.

Our original idea was to construct our coop to resemble the Jawa’s Sand Crawler from “Star Wars – A New Hope,” so we cut the plywood sides at 20 degree angles, which would resemble the vehicle and also allow rain water to easily run off the roof. The bottom of the coop was covered with thick plastic, which we cut from an office chair carpet mat we found in a nearby alley. We then drilled holes at two different heights for perches, made from closet dowels we no longer needed, securing them into place with screws. Because we have possums and raccoon roaming our neighborhood yards at night, we fashioned a heavy sliding door with which to seal the hen house each night at dusk. This was done by taking scrap molding we got from a neighbor’s old carpeting project and making a channel in which the door could slide up and down, attaching a rope threaded through a pulley for easy lifting. Finally, we cut our 2×4’s into 4×4 foot lengths and screwed together a frame, stapling the chicken wire to the outside and attaching to the front of the coop for our chickens to have a safe outdoor place to roam and forage.

2013-05-01 14.03.52Inside the coop, in addition to the perches, we stacked a few bricks, placing a plastic waterer and feeding mash dispenser on top so they could easily eat and drink to their hearts’ content. The rest of the floor was covered with a thick layer of pine shavings, acquired in bulk at the local pet supply warehouse (Centinela Feed – $14.00), and we sprinkled in FOOD GRADE diatomaceous earth ($8.95 per pound), which we were told would help compost the droppings and reduce the need to clean the coop often. The last step before introducing our hens to their new home was stocking up on basic feed, so we visited Malibu Feed Bin, an LA institution since the 1960’s located on Pacific Coast Highway, and purchased 25 pound bags of mash and scratch ($40.00), two necessities for proper protein and digestion suggested by their helpful staff. We couldn’t resist a tub of dried meal worms ($14.00), either, as we were told that chickens will do almost anything for these tasty treats. All the feed is stored in two, 5 gallon airtight storage containers we found at Costco for around $25.00 apiece.

Now, with the coop ready to go and possessing everything necessary to keep our new house guests happy, we opened the door of their new home and released them into their cozy environment…

Next up: A destroyed backyard, welcoming McNugget, and waiting for eggs.

Our chickens star in the Mar Vista Green Garden Tour!

2013-04-20 13.25.12Saturday, April 20th’s Mar Vista Green Garden showcase brought over 125 people to our Ashwood Ave. home, most of whom were drawn by our three “plucky” chickens, Original, Extra Crispy, and McNugget. With their moment to shine, the three didn’t disappoint, laying eggs, allowing themselves to be picked up and held dozens of times, and preening around to show off their fine feathers, and generally enjoying all the commotion swirling around them. It was amazing to meet so many neighbors and share ideas and conversations in such a great setting.

IMG951426In the front of our home, my wife, Alicia, greeted everyone with a warm smile and explained the ongoing transformation of our front yard from lawn to edible vegetables and native, drought tolerant plantings. She said our 1964 Aristocrat Lo-Liner vintage trailer even got a few looks and comments of encouragement. The sun was shining brilliantly and our community was definitely showed its best light all day long.

For those of you visitors who didn’t have pen and paper to write down our garden box recipe, here it is for you to print or copy…

You’ll need:

A raised bed. We make them out of Home Depot “seconds” lumber, which can be found in the back corner of most Home Depot lumber departments. This wood is 1/2 to 1/3 of the regular price and they will cut it to size for around 10 cents per cut. We use 2″x6″ pine boards, with 4″x4″ corner posts to hold it all together. If they don’t have a good selection of seconds wood, buying new shouldn’t be much more than $20-30.00 depending on the size you wish to make.

20130408_170103Once you have your box made, place it in a sunny spot in your garden and cover the bottom with a thick layer of newspaper or cardboard. There should be no dirt showing through. On top of the cardboard, add a layer of alfalfa, approximately 4-6″ thick, then a layer of straw up to the level of the top of your planter box (break it apart from the bail and spread it loosely). You can get alfalfa and straw at any feed supply store. Here in Los Angeles, we drive 15 minutes up the coast to Malibu Feed Bin, located at the corner of Topanga and Pacific Coast Highway. Sprinkle some blood meal AND bone meal, which you can find in any garden center or nursery, on top of the straw. No exact measurement, we simply sprinkle in a couple of handfuls of each. Finally, top everything off with a layer of garden soil. This can be dirt from your garden or a purchased bag, and you want to cover the straw so none is showing. As you apply the soil, the straw will compact down; however, don’t feel you have to add lots of dirt as you only need a few inches of it for planting purposes. Now, give the whole thing a good watering for 2-3 days so everything can settle in for a productive growing season.

Acquire your plantings or poke some holes for seeds and get to work! If using plants already in pots from your local nursery, dig down INTO THE STRAW AND PLANT THEM DIRECTLY IN IT. Once in, just move a little bit of soil to fill in the top to stabilize your seedling and give it a little drink of water. You may want to add a pie tin filled with beer at this stage to control slugs and snails. And that’s it! Water daily or run your drip irrigation lines into the box and watch in amazement as your vegetables take off like nothing you’ve ever seen.

2013-04-20 13.35.59As for you prospective chicken farmers, we can only say “do it!” We had zero experience when we took the plunge in May of 2012 and have never regretted introducing them into our lives. We will have lots more to say on the matter in future posts, but just know it is NOT that difficult and the rewards in eggs and experience are more than worth the effort. Feel free to contact us via e-mail at idenchasy@gmail.com if you want to connect and share chicken tips and tricks.