LS: Economy, local food movement make chicks popular purchase
Nick Shaffer cradled two chicks in his arms like newborn babies.
Nick, 8, has raised chicks for several years in a heated shed behind his family’s Redlands home.
“We got them because I just wanted to get them,” Nick said of the baby chicks, shrugging his shoulders and laughing.
Actually, Nick’s family gets nearly two dozen fresh eggs a week from the three grown hens pecking around their backyard. The family will have even more eggs in the months ahead when the five young hens Nick recently bought grow up.
The Shaffers are not alone in their venture to raise backyard chicks. This spring, chicks are flying off the shelves, so to speak, at area feed and farm stores.
More customers are purchasing chicks for the first time this spring than have done so in previous years, store owners and managers say.
The uncertain economy was the primary reason customers gave for deciding to raise their own chickens for eggs and meat, said Lillie Kopasz, a six-year employee at Murdoch’s Ranch & Home Supply in Clifton.
There’s also been increased interest in chickens nationally as more consumers want to know where their food comes from. One way consumers can be confident their meat and eggs come from chickens raised in a certain manner is by doing it themselves.
The desire for people, even city dwellers, to raise poultry, has increased the number of phone calls to local extension offices and local farm and feed supply stores, as well as government agencies with rules about raising chickens. In some cases, urban areas have had to meet consumer demand by changing regulations.
Kopasz, who goes by “Miss Lillie,” is the most knowledgeable person at Murdoch’s when it comes to poultry.
Since March 1, the ranching supply store sold more than 2,000 chicks. That is double the number of chicks sold in previous years during the same time frame, Kopasz said.
Mesa Feed Mart and Fruita’s Co-op Country/Ace Hardware also have seen an increase in demand for chicks.
“They go out as soon as they come in,” said Carrie McFarland, Co-op Country store manager.
When chicks are just days old, they are shipped to stores such as Murdoch’s or directly to consumers, said Bud Wood, president of Murray McMurray Hatchery in Webster City, Iowa.
Both Murdoch’s and Mesa Feed Mart get their chicks from Murray McMurray.
Chicks eat the yolk inside their egg just before hatching. That yolk provides them with the necessary nutrients to survive for three days without food or water during shipping, Wood said.
This year, hens at the Iowa hatchery can’t lay eggs fast enough to meet the demand for chicks.
A hen typically lays one egg daily.
Wood said his hatchery anticipated demand for chicks would increase this spring because of Americans’ economic worries, but he did not anticipate that demand would be as great as it has.
Murray McMurray has sold out its supply of chicks into June. Normally, the hatchery tries to sell out two weeks before a batch of young chicks hatch. The hatchery ships nearly 100,000 chicks per week.
“I hear a lot of people want to have a few chickens in the backyard,” Wood said. “If a family who lived in town had an abandoned doghouse, that would be perfect for three or four hens.
Once hens go into egg production, you are talking about 20 eggs a week. For most families, that’s enough.”
LEARNING FROM EXPERIENCE
Ed Page, small acreage management agent for the Tri-River Area Colorado State University Cooperative Extension office, has fielded more phone calls than usual lately from people interested in raising their own chickens and planting gardens for the first time because of economic concerns.
“The economy is scary right now,” Page said. “You have something like the economy that you don’t have control over, but it has a lot of control over your life. People begin to look for ways to make their own lives more secure and under their control. With chickens, in 12 weeks, you can have something to eat.”
The Tri-River Extension offices have fliers on how to raise chickens. Page doesn’t expect novice poultry owners to instinctively know what to do when handed a chick.
“People ask if (chicks) really need heat,” Kopasz said. “Yes, they do. They gotta have the heat and no drafts either.”
Nick’s chicks, for example, will live in a cardboard box for the next month-and-a-half, until they get big enough to roam the Shaffers’ backyard on their own. Until then, Nick must make sure his fuzzy little charges have water, high-protein feed, a heat lamp and dry chips to run and sleep on. He does his chores daily at 7:30 a.m.
Without food, water, heat and dry bedding, chicks likely will die, Kopasz said.
Kopasz remembers one occasion when someone came into Murdoch’s to buy chicks that would lay eggs. The person asked for roosters. Roosters don’t lay eggs.
People confuse roosters and roasters, she said. It’s all part of learning how to raise chicks, she said with a smile.
Another thing to keep in mind when raising chickens is that other Mesa County residents will want free chicken dinners if given the chance, said Randy Hampton, spokesman with the Colorado Division of Wildlife.
Even in urban areas, people who raise chickens should take precautions against predators such as foxes, skunks, hawks and even pets dogs and cats.
To protect chickens, Hampton suggested burying fence at least 6 inches below the ground and considering an electrical fence because some predators will climb over a fence to get to chickens. Chicken coops should be covered to protect chickens from predatory birds such as hawks or owls.
“There is so much country in town,” Hampton said. “I can show you fields and drainages on Patterson (Road). Fox, raccoon, skunk can all be problematic for people raising chickens. We have plenty of those critters around.”
The Shaffers know from experience that predators can be a problem.
Once, a hawk swooped down and tried to take an adult hen from their backyard. A neighbor saved the hen, Nick said.
COUNTING THE COST
Raising a chicken takes time and money, and it is debatable if it actually can save its owner money.
It can pay off when people eventually collect eggs every morning or butcher an eight-pound bird after several months, Page said.
“A chick is very efficient,” Page said. “A chick will convert a couple pounds of grain into a
pound of meat. ... I think it probably is cost effective if you don’t consider your own labor. The real benefit from this is having a product that you know where it came from and know what kind of food it got.”
Once a person has purchased the start-up materials, however, Page said raising chickens for eggs and meat can be worth the labor for some people.
Nick bought his chicks at Mesa Feed Mart for $7 or less per chick, depending on the breed, he said.
Before making his purchase, he spent weeks researching on the computer and in magazines what breeds of chicks he wanted. Some breeds are better for laying eggs, others are better for meat, he said.
The cost of raising chickens depends on the number of chickens a person has and their breed.
When factoring in start-up costs and an expected rise in utility bills, raising a chicken is not cheaper than just going to the grocery store and buying a bird, Kopasz said.
But the perception that raising chickens is cheaper than buying chicken meat and eggs at the grocery store is worth it for some consumers, Kopasz said.
People who purchase organic eggs at a grocery store will be asked to pay $3 to $4 a dozen.
Non-organic eggs are typically $2 cheaper.
Organic chicken meat averages $6 per pound. Non-organic is several dollars cheaper.
CONSIDERING THE RULES
Even though Nick lives in a residential Redlands area, his family’s three adult hens have the run of their backyard and a neighbor’s front yard, with the neighbor’s permission.
During the day, the Shaffers’ adult hens sit on evergreen branches and lay eggs in a makeshift coop built from old wood. They’ve never flown away.
Before purchasing chicks years ago, the Shaffers checked with Mesa County about the legality of having chickens in the urban area.
In Mesa County, 200 chickens are allowed on an acre in a rural zone. In an urban zone within the county, 150 chickens are allowed per acre, said Donna Ross, county development services and code enforcement director.
The number of chickens allowed goes down as acreage decreases, she said.
Inside Grand Junction, six adult chickens are the maximum allowed on parcels of a half-acre or less, according to the city’s Web site. The chickens also need to be penned at least 20 feet from a residence on an adjoining property.
Neither the county nor city has specific wording about roosters, although roosters crow and can be mean, Nick said.
Mesa County has fielded a number of calls this spring from first-time chicken owners curious about the regulations, Ross said.
Mesa County and Grand Junction aren’t the only places where rules regarding poultry have become increasingly interesting to residents. Some of the interest has led to community squabbles and rule changes.
Last year, a Moab, Utah, resident received a written warning for raising five chickens within city limits, said Sommar Johnson, Moab zoning administrator and planning assistant. Having chickens within the Moab city limits was prohibited.
That resident and about 20 others approached the Moab Planning Commission in December asking that chickens be allowed within city limits so people could raise their own hens for eggs.
After several discussions, the Moab City Council voted 3–2 on March 10 to allow backyard chickens for the specific purpose of laying eggs, Johnson said.
Now, 12 hens are allowed in city limits per property. Roosters aren’t permitted.
Fort Collins voted last summer to allow up to six hens, no roosters, on properties within the city. Longmont did the same. In Durango, the city is still in conversations about whether to allow chickens.