Backyard Chickens: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

For us, pregnancy was a gestation phase not only for our little girl but for a new way of life.

We got pregnant three months after moving to Thailand and the move was predicated by years of working full time and striving to get debt-free. We intended to slow down once we arrived, but found ourselves caught up in the swing of cultural adjustment, Thai language learning, and monthly excursions to remote parts of Thailand to shoot for my work. Pregnancy forced us to slow down a little and we started taking time to reflect on the kind of life we wanted to to bring our baby into.

A big trend in our conversations was that we wanted her to see us living our values. From the start, she’ll learn from mimicking, so if we talk about what we believe in but don’t practice it, she won’t understand. Right now the world is so globalized (and we of all people are benefiting from that daily) that we wanted to do our best to localize the parts of our life that we can – getting food from as nearby and as healthy sources as we can, minimizing products and chemicals in our life, and trying to reduce waste.

So although we were living in an urban townhouse, Tory carved out our little plot of land between the back of our house and the street and began restoring it to make a home for chickens. He was determined to let our daughter be a catalyst for change in our lives, not an obstacle, so that meant he found himself scootering way south of the city at dawn to follow a lead to buy chickens at a water buffalo auction – one week after Camille’s birth!

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Tory wound his way through the field of buffalo and found a dusty corner where a man had a flock of birds for sale under a few woven bamboo baskets. When he explained to the man, in broken Thai, that he’d like to buy 5 chickens, the man reached under the basket and started stuffing the birds into a burlap sack. After a bit of shock, Tory bought a nearby crate, had the chickens transferred, and rigged it to the scooter.

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It was a hot ride back for him in the heat of the day with a box of five live chickens in tow but we unloaded and juggled baby Camille and the new additions. The first task was to clip their flying feathers so that they wouldn’t escape the bamboo fence only to encounter the neighborhood’s dog pack. So with the help of youtube, craft scissors, and our neighbor who passed by on her way to play ultimate frisbee, we managed to do a hack job that would hopefully protect them from their instincts to fly away.

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We bought five, knowing that we might lose one or two to unanticipated threats and the errors that inevitably come with having been city people for our whole adult lives.

Within a day, one was already dead.

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It’s hard to describe how disappointing it was to face the first loss of a little chicken life that was in our care. We try to avoid meat-eating for many reasons, but a big one is that we’re aware that the standard for raising animals is largely unethical (unless stated otherwise on the packaging and even then it’s often debatable) and we’re not at this point willing to take the life of an animal ourselves. Regardless, we are typically so disconnected from the farms (and factories) where animals are raised that we rarely face death of anything.

Within five days, all five chickens were dead.

Now, all chickens put themselves to bed every night. They hop up into their henhouse and roost before dark. But these chickens knew they were dying and they put themselves to rest permanently, each one of them. After the first chicken died, Tory dug a hole and buried it and covered the spot with hay. In the morning, the second chicken went to the grave of the first and laid down on top of it and died. It was bewildering and a little beautiful. Tory buried them in the same place. The following morning, two more did the same thing, followed by the last chicken the next day. It was a pretty big tragedy in our fledgeling urban homestead.

We have no idea what we could have done differently – while they were dying, we tried giving them sips from water droppers, kept everything as clean as we could, placed them near food, anything – but it was hopeless from the start. Tory started asking around about chicken care and sourcing and ended up chatting with the owner of a health food store in town. She connected us with a chicken farmer who was willing to meet up at her shop with four healthy hens. Tory was very cautious and asked a lot of questions but the farmer brushed them off, saying, “Those chickens that died were sick, were in very bad condition. These chickens are very healthy, organic fed chickens. They are strong. You don’t need to worry.”

Tory cracked open the crate and they all came popping out of the crate in different places like whack-a-moles! He had to chase two of them through the grocery store. These chickens were voracious, smashing snail shells and eating every green thing within reach. They thrived in the small fenced in yard nibbling banana leaves and moringa bushes our roommates planted. They laid so many eggs in a week that we couldn’t keep up with them.

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When we moved to the country, their quality of life went up tenfold. They stopped eating much feed at all and mainly foraged and continued the endless egg supply. Sadly, months later our neighbor broke the news that two of them died after being exposed to a new brood of market chickens introduced to the property by the neighbors while we were visiting family in Canada, but two sister hens live on happily and producing enough eggs for the two of us to not purchase eggs at the market. They continue to be a good first lesson and a great source of protein for our little family. Two remaining hens out of nine though? I hope the odds improve over the years.

Things we’ve learned so far:

  1. If you’re buying laying hens, only get them from a clean, reputable farm. We read this in a book beforehand, but there’s nothing like good first hand experience to drive the point home and dig a little deeper.
  2. Chickens can  die easily. We have learned that, while generally great survivors, these birds are prone to diseases that can be easily spread within the brood. Get ready to experience some real facts of nature when you bring animals into your life. However, from the many happy chicken owners we have met, everyone seems to agree our brood is not representative of typical ownership.
  3. You can use Effective Microorganisms in chicken feed to keep them healthier and cleaner. There are good instructions four posts down on this http://www.BackyardChickens.com forum.
  4. Eggs from your own backyard taste better!
  5. Chickens contained to a small footprint are messy. This is probably pretty obvious, but we were trying to do our best with what we had so we turned our entire “yard” into a chicken coop. We were fine with losing the yard to the chickens but we learned quickly that the lack of buffer space between the chicken yard and the back door to our house was really challenging. I understand now why farms have a “mud room” as a middle ground between the barn and the house.
  6. Raising chickens is a really frugal way to get an excellent (dare I say ‘eggsellent”?) source of protein.
    I have heard of people saying that it’s not a good deal once you add up all the costs. Depending on if you’re in the city and have a permitting fee or not, the startup cost can be next to nothing. For us, Tory got free scrap bamboo from the remnants of a funeral to build the fence and we were blessed to align perfectly with a guy just a few blocks from us who posted on the Backyard Chickens Thailand facebook group that week that he was getting rid of a henhouse – free to anyone who could pick it up! Our friends were gracious enough to lend us their truck and some manpower one morning after brunch at our place.

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The Frugal Corner

We live outside of Chiang Mai, where the cost of living is significantly lower than many places in the world, but here are our start up costs for anyone who is local or just curious.
– Free henhouse and water feeder
– DIY fencing from scrap wood
– 1100 baht for screws and welded wire mesh                                                                                  – 80 baht per chicken for the initial five
– 300 baht for the wooden crate to carry them home
– 100 baht per chicken for the group of four
– 500 baht for feed (about 6 months worth)
– 40 baht for the initial hay bedding
Total: 2740 baht = $80 USD

We get approximately 4 eggs per day, so let’s say 3.5 eggs per day for 1 year – adding 200 baht more to re-up on two more healthy hens and 500 baht for more feed.

Total: 3440 baht = $100 USD

That’s approximately $100 for 106 dozen eggs, or $1.06 per dozen of fresh organic eggs. And the deal only gets better as the years go by. Most hens lay eggs well for five years or more so there’s lots of room for cost inflation while remaining an incredible deal.

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I’m curious if anyone has experience to share about winterizing a coop – something we’re blissfully ignorant to in balmy Thailand. Although chickens have been a challenging growing experience, we love having them as part of our life and food economy and can’t imagine not having them no matter where we live in the future. They’ve become a normal part of life – that’s an upside of this adventure for sure. So share your winter chicken tips below, please!

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4 thoughts on “Backyard Chickens: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

  1. Hi! Chickens are VERY hardy animals, actually, presuming you can avoid diseases. Here on the Great Lakes in the US it gets down to -10 in many winters. Chicken coops rarely need insulation, instead, they need lots of airflow/ventilation. Chickens needs things VERY dry in the coop or they can get frostbite and get sick. I think this is a good post about it.
    https://scratchcradle.wordpress.com/2012/12/16/fresh-air-for-winter/
    For me, specifically, I have a 4’x4′ coop that is loosely built and has an air vent. It’s thin plywood and for winter I just lay down a lot of straw and shredded newspaper. Sheltered from moisture and the elements, the chickens keep themselves warm.

    Like

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