Coming home to roost

Editor’s Note: The City Council of Webster City recently passed an ordinance allowing hens to be kept in the backyards of residential areas. The issue prompted debate with many views for and against the issue presented. This story presents the idea of backyard chickens from the perspectives of several people who have owned them.

Over the past 15 years, backyard chickens have been scratching their return to American neighborhoods while local municipalities scramble to catch up.

Even though backyard poultry has been staging a comeback over the past decade, its roots began over a century ago, according to the USDA. Before the industrial food revolution when refrigeration was introduced and canned food production shifted from homes to manufacturing facilities, most people owned a few backyard chickens.

In fact, during both world wars the U.S. government promoted Victory Gardens and family-owned chickens for egg and meat production.

“Uncle Sam expects you to keep hens and raise chickens,” touted one promotional poster.

The first indications of the renaissance of home-raised chickens occurred around 1999 when an initial study of private poultry ownership was monitored by the USDA. In 2004, an additional study showed a dramatic increase in ownership.

By 2010, the USDA estimated urban poultry flock ownership grew from 3.5 million to 9.3 million households nationwide. And, the USDA expects the trend to increase by another four percent in 2014 or an additional 4.64 million private owners.

Chris Huseman, director of marketing at Murray McMurray Hatchery in Webster City, cites several reasons why people are drawn to raising their own chickens.

“We all know the food horror stories with large growers and also the issue of food additives,” said Huseman.

He said one of the reasons for raising chickens is that the backyard enthusiast has control of their own food source.

“As Americans become more health conscious, they become more particular about the food they are eating,” he said.

Raising your own chickens gives a consumer the ability to determine their own food source which might include freshness of product, personal on-site supervised treatment of the animals, and providing feeds that are organic or with fewer additives, said Huseman.

“The big thing for us is the fresh eggs,” admitted Huseman, whose family raises several breeds of chickens as well as pheasants and turkeys.

According to the USDA, the average shelf life of store-bought eggs is 50 – 60 days, explained Huseman. With the ability to raise one’s own layers, a consumer knows the age of the egg.

“I only have to wonder, did I get this egg this morning or yesterday,” he said.

While chickens are a meat source, many private owners use them primarily for egg production with the brown egg from a chicken like the Rhode Island Red the preferred choice, said Huseman.

Eggs provide the highest quality of protein with six grams of protein, 13 essential nutrients and only 70 calories in one large egg, according to the American Egg Board.

While advocates insist brown eggs are higher in nutrients, the AEB reports the nutrients in all eggs are the same. The only variable in egg quality would be the level of freshness.

But there are many options for choosing the right bird besides egg color, Huseman said. Murray McMurray Hatchery offers over 100 breeds which serve a variety of purposes including meat, egg production, pet or just ornamental.

“It’s just like flowers in your garden,” said Huseman. “There are rare and exotic flowers that are just gorgeous and add to the beauty of one’s property.”

One unexpected consequence of backyard poultry can be the companionship they provide.

“I have wanted chickens forever,” stated Webster City’s Mary Lou Fisher who acquired her four hens a couple of months ago. “I don’t have any other pets, so these are my hobby.”

Henrietta, Sally, Grace and Emma provide hours of entertainment for Fisher, as well as four eggs a day.

“It is so much fun to watch them scratch around in the grass and talk to each other,” said Fisher who houses the chickens in a mobile coop that she can move daily. “And oh, when they lay an egg, how they cackle!”

While Fisher enjoys the companionship and benefits of her flock, she accepts reality and the prospect of housing them over the winter months.

“I was raised on a farm, so I know why chickens are raised and I realize what happens,” said Fisher, whose grandson is a butcher. “I just don’t know if I could eat them.”

Bill and Josi Greenley started raising chickens in 2007 when they moved to an acreage south of Webster City.

“Our son worked at Murray McMurray Hatchery and we sort of had it in our minds that was part of the experience of living on an acreage,” said Greenley.

The Greenley’s “experience” started out by housing a few chickens in a small shed but has grown to a 16-foot x 32-foot hen house with 55 different breeds producing three dozen eggs a day.

“We have gone a little overboard, but we have enjoyed it,” admits Greenley, who also has guinea hens and an abandoned Canada goose. “They are a lot of fun.”

While the Greenleys have butchered a few chickens over the years, they keep most of the flock over the winter which brings Bill to offer some advice.

“Remember in Iowa, we have winter,” said Greenley who has had to tote water to the henhouse when the hydrants freeze.

“Chickens tolerate cold pretty well but you can’t keep water from freezing,” he said.

With the growing trend, communities across the nation have been forced to address chicken ownership and Webster City is no exception.

The Webster City City Council addressed the issue in July when it revised its animal protection and control ordinance to include urban chickens.

The ordinance requires flocks within the city limits to include only hens which must be housed in a backyard coop.

Whether as a food source or a pet, chickens are a good choice, said Huseman.

“Chickens are very easy to raise,” he explained. “They are not as disruptive as dogs. And with dogs, they have to be exercised daily. Chickens don’t need a lot of space – just water and feed. They are easy to maintain and give you food in return. They make a wonderful pet.”