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The $100 egg

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Flo Phillips calls her little backyard chicken flock with a “Chick, Chick, Chick” and a handful of stale bread. They come running to peck a piece out of her hand.

Phillips, who lives in the Waverly Creek neighborhood with her husband, Phil, was one of several people who spoke before the Georgetown County Planning Commission and County Council about the benefits and enjoyment of raising chickens before rules were altered to allow them in limited numbers in five residential zones.

Phillips has named her chickens after friends and former students — she is an elementary school teacher. She treats the birds like pets, picking them up to stroke their feathers. She gives away most of the eggs. Her friends have taken to leaving empty egg cartons to be filled with brown, white and blue eggs she gets from her little flock.

She said winter weather is hard on the birds, and two of her cutest chickens died. She lost a little one when it crawled under the fence where Phil’s bird dogs have run of a part of the yard. She’s starting her flock on antibiotics to help them survive until spring.

Phillips started her venture with six biddies from Tractor Supply Co. That’s a good way to get started, according to Lee Van Vlake of Clemson Extension in Florence. Owners have to feed a chick for at least six months before it’s big enough to begin laying eggs. Starting with baby chicks takes lots of time and effort to get the right balance of heat, housing and feed for them to survive into healthy adulthood. A middle ground is to buy pullets, slightly older birds that can withstand more petting from children. One rule of thumb is not to mix older birds with babies. Putting younger chickens into an older flock is traumatic for all.

Chicks can be raised indoors in a cardboard box at first. Curt Hileman, manager at Tractor Supply in Georgetown, said they will need some chick starter feed (10 pounds for $5), and containers for water ($6.99) and food ($2.99), antibiotics ($4.99), electrolytes ($1.99), a heat lamp ($8), and bulbs (two for $8). Wood shavings make good bedding while they are in the box.

‘This is not something people do for cheap eggs,” Hileman said. “It’s a hobby.” Depending on the cost of wire for a run ($59.99 for 100 feet), posts ($3.99 each), and a coop, the first egg could easily cost a few hundred dollars. The good news is that the second egg is only half as expensive.

The cost is not stopping people. Van Vlake said Clemson Extension is seeing a huge increase in backyard poultry in town and out of town. “Folks want to have a say in where their food comes from,” he said.

Phil Phillips agrees that having backyard chickens is far from cost-effective. “It will take a long time for me to get my money back,” Phil said, “but she loves it.” He built a coop from materials that cost between $350 and $400. The Phillips’ chicken run is protected on the sides with heavy gauge wire that’s buried 6 inches deep to keep predators from digging inside and covers the top to keep hawks out. A possum crawled through a 2-inch gap above the door to steal eggs, or maybe kill a chicken, before he added more wire.

Mature egg-layers are worth protecting. They cost around $35 each and produce between 200 and 300 eggs a year in the right environment. Van Vlake said an average hen needs between 4 and 6 square feet of space to roost, lay and forage. New owners often fail to provide enough fresh, clean water for chickens. “That would seem elementary,” he said, “but a lot of people overlook that.” He advises owners to clean watering equipment regularly as dirty waterers can harbor diseases and attract pests.

Chickens are voracious eaters. If allowed to roam out of the coop, they will strip the landscape bare of grass and plants as well as worms and insects. Their ancestry to majestic birds of prey also means they will kill chicks, snakes and mice. Hens will even gang up and kill another member of the flock on occasion.

Van Vlake said Clemson Extension will conduct a “Chickens 101” course in Florence next Friday to teach about care and feeding, but owners should know that fat hens aren’t happy hens. Some backyard chicken hobbyists leave the chicken feed out all day in a sort of buffet-style setup so hens can eat whenever they want. Other hobbyists dole out the feed in measured portions two or three times daily. Owners should avoid the temptation to feed hens too much. It’s better to focus on keeping feeding implements clean to reduce the chance of disease carried by rodents stealing the food.

Coops are most important for the survival of the birds. Mail-order coops can cost hundreds if not thousands of dollars, but an amateur carpenter can build one that stands up to unfavorable weather while providing the right balance between enclosed shelter and open ventilation. Good designs are easy to clean with a pull-out drawer and several windows and doors for owners to get to the birds and the eggs.

Happy hens love being able to see their friends around them. Proper lighting is important for chickens’ sense of well-being. It’s also necessary to stimulate egg production in layer hens. Strategically placed windows in the south wall of a backyard coop will provide both natural sunlight, ventilation during the warm months and additional warmth during the cool months. Flo Phillips has an electric light suspended inside her coop for warmth.

Chickens want to sleep perched off the ground on a roost. Their ancestors slept in trees for safety. Coops need nesting boxes lined with straw for hens to lay their eggs. Plan to have one nest for every three to four layer hens. Each nest should be properly sized, otherwise the hen will become stressed and may not use the nest. For optimal egg-laying, the nest should be 1.5 times bigger than the hens.

Backyard chicken flocks have become a phenomenon in a short time. “People seem to enjoy it very much,” Van Vlake said. “It’s a growing thing. It certainly is.”

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