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Cooped up in quarantine? Raise chickens

Samantha Murray Special to
the Times
The Apalach Times

In the early days of the pandemic, as bare grocery store shelves prompted concerns about the food supply, many became interested in producing more of their food at home. Some flocked to local agricultural feed stores in search of baby chicks that would grow up to produce eggs fresh from the backyard.

The manager of one Pensacola store told Aly Schortinghouse, 4-H agent for UF/IFAS Extension Escambia County, that weekly orders of 350 chicks sold out by the end of each week, four weeks in a row.

Agents like Schortinghouse and many others across Florida are a resource to adult, youth and families interested in raising fowl at home. Now UF/IFAS has published a new guide to raising backyard chickens for eggs, available in hard copy from the UF/IFAS Extension Bookstore, or as a free download.

“This book is for any individual who is looking for a science-based introduction to keeping backyard chickens as egg layers,” said Alicia Halbritter, one of the book’s authors, and the agriculture and natural resources agent for UF/IFAS Extension Baker County. “This book should be used a resource for new and experienced chicken owners to make sure they are meeting all of their chickens’ needs.”

Raising Backyard Chickens for Eggs covers everything from understanding your local ordinances, to building coops and selecting chicken breeds. Fun fact: different breeds of chicken produce different colored eggs and lay at different rates.

The guide also debunks some common chicken myths.

For example, some assume chickens will lay an egg a day, but that’s not always true, Halbritter said.

“Chickens have very specific needs for egg laying and if those needs are not met, they simply will not lay an egg,” she said.

Another common misconception is that roosters are needed for hens to lay eggs. Hens lay unfertilized eggs - the kind we eat - as a natural part of their reproductive cycle, even when roosters are not around. This is good news, as some local ordinances do not allow residents to keep roosters.

“You don’t need a rooster to get eggs to eat, only to fertilize eggs to get baby chicks,” said Jessica Ryals, a sustainable food systems agent with UF/IFAS Extension Collier County and one of the book’s authors.

An important note about chicks: chicks purchased when they are only a few weeks old will not start producing eggs right away. Hens usually start producing eggs when they are about five months old, said Nick Simmons, agriculture agent and director of UF/IFAS Extension Escambia County.

Many first-time chicken owners in Escambia learned this fact only after purchasing chicks, leading to some disappointment, Simmons said.

The guide’s authors say raising backyard chickens requires planning, appropriate supplies and consistent care. At the same time, backyard flocks can be very rewarding and lead some people to start small farms and other agricultural businesses.

“Backyard chickens bring a lot of joy, but they are a commitment, like any other pet or livestock animal,” Ryals said. “Having fresh feed, proper housing and a clean home for them not only ensures their health and safety but also your family’s.”

The pandemic has certainly sparked more interest in backyard chickens and other forms of home food production, but this interest has been growing for some time, the authors said.

“I believe the food-conscious movement has driven a lot of interest in backyard chickens. Individuals are seeking a connection to their food source and chickens are a great way to do that in a variety of living situations and are relatively easy to manage for all ages,” Halbritter said.

Samantha Murray can be reached at grenrosa@ufl.edu.