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Raising chickens at an urban school

 
                            
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Hi,

I'm looking for advice on raising chickens in an urban/suburban neighborhood elementary school (I'm taking this on a as a parent volunteer, but the teachers are very excited about it).  I am pretty settled on using the paddock rotation method that Paul Wheaton has described here, and I want to use a portable chicken coop that a couple of children could conceivably move (6-10 year olds).  I expect to have permanent fencing around the entire yard with paddock separation within that might be movable.  I have a few basic questions, and I hope you all don't mind me asking them here.

I want to keep the yard "natural."  That is, the property is grassy now, but we will plant a few perennials that will be beneficial as we go, but there are a few small trees and shrubs that can provide natural shade and (I'm hoping) some shelter from hawks.  We have a rather large space but will probably start sort of small.  I'm not planning to have roosters (consideration for the neighbors in terms of noise, and also concerned about aggressive behavior around the children, some of whom will be quite young (3 years to about 10 years).


  • [li]What are a couple of good suggestions for laying hens?  We are interested in harvesting eggs for the classrooms as the project grows.  Bantams seem to be popular around here, but I don't know a thing about them.[/li]
    [li]How much space should I plan for per chicken?  I expect to start with about half a dozen, but would like to grow from there.[/li]
    [li]We are planning to feed scraps from the school cafeteria to the chickens.  Are there any foods we should avoid (i.e., cooked vs. raw, for instance)?  Is it a good idea to separate plant scraps from other types of food?  I would assume avoiding meat for the smell factor, but if there are some meat scraps that would be good for their diet, we could include that.[/li]
    [li]How tall should the fencing be?  Do I need to consider fencing across the top of the yard?[/li]
    [li]Would it be crazy to include rabbits in the rotation?  Would they need to be in a separate paddock or would they coexist with the chickens?[/li]
    [li]I honestly don't know a thing about chicken coops.  What do I need to provide for sleeping vs. laying, for instance?  Is this all inside the coop?  I saw the ideas for using a doghouse design for a chicken coop, but would that be too small?  If the coop is on wheels, how big do you think would be too big for a couple of people to pull around to move from paddock to paddock?[/li]


  • Thanks for your patience and advice.  I've read some of the threads here and have picked up on a few things that are quite helpful, but I just needed to try to really hone in on some issues.  If you know of threads that would address my questions, please post a link for that, if you don't mind!

    wormlady
     
    Allan. Sterbinsky
    Posts: 13
    Location: Tennessee
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    Wormlady,

    Thanks for being interested in the kids and getting involved.  Parental involvement is so critical to the lives of children, and you are a great example of parental involvement in action! 

    I'll answer a few of the questions.  First, you'll need to plan a minimum of 2 square feet of space per chicken, assuming that you are using a movable coop (ala Joel Salatin or Andy Lee).  A good reference book on the coops is Andy Lee's chicken tractor book. 

    Secondly, the perimeter fence should be high enough to keep out predators.  I personally prefer 4 feet tall fences to keep out most dogs.  A chain link fence would work well for keeping out most predators and would fit into an urban landsape.  You may need to address about smaller predators such as rats or other creatures.  Personally I use poultry netting (Premierone fencing on the internet).  It is electrified and keeps out everything except hawks.  I'm not sure you could use an electric fence around kids without some kind of legal headaches. 
    Third, rabbits in the rotation... it depends on how you have the rabbits housed.  I like to use a chicken tractor design, but staple 2 or 3 inch mesh wire on the bottom to keep them from burrowing out (which they will try to do).  Always have the chickens follow the rabbits in the rotation.  If you could leave a week or two between the chicken and the rabbit rotation, that will let the rabbit "leavings" attract "goodies" from the soil and environment - the chickens will love you for it.  Unfortunately, rabbits don't do well in the rain, so you might want to build a regular rabbit hutch for them and let the chickens rotate under the hutch periodically.  Then you can have a more secure enviroment for the rabbits. 

    Coops on wheels, hmmmm.... the largest movable pen I have is 12 feet by 12 feet, and it takes a lot of strength to move it even with the wheels.  You may want to consider something smaller like 4 feet by 12 feet.  Easier for the kids to help move. 

    Just some thougts for your consideration.  What happens if the kids grow tired of caring for the animals.  Who will take care of them?  Also, do you have hawks around the school?  I've seen some in even large cities.  Hawks are hard to defend against. 

    Hopefully others will jump in and write more advice, but the Andy Lee book should help get you started.  If you have any more questions, feel free to write me a message or just reply here.

    Best of luck, and thanks for doing this for the kids.
     
    Jeff Mathias
    Posts: 125
    Location: Westport, CA Zone 8-9; Off grid on 20 acres of redwood forest and floodplain with a seasonal creek.
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    Hi Wormlady,

    Backyardchickens.com is a pretty amazing resource for much of the information you are looking for. You probably want a larger breed instead of bantams as bantams can be more energetic. However you will need to tailor everything to your situation, some chickens are better for colder weather etc.

    A couple of thoughts, I think the paddock system is the best way to go whenever possible. If for no other reason because it allows the land a chance to rest. Portable coops on lots of land make this system pretty easy and painless. But since you are working on a school yard space is limited so it might be easier in your situation to put a stationary coop in the center of the paddock system and design it so the chickens can still be rotated through the paddocks. If you did it this way I would use the deep litter method to help reduce to effort required to maintain the chickens. You would be making a few trade offs but a stationary coop designed for easy cleaning is not a lot of effort and if done properly the deep litter only needs cleaning out a few times a year and with the paddocks right there you could easily rake out the litter, put it in a pile and let the chickens spread it for you the next time they are in that paddock. With deep litter if it stinks something is wrong.

    On hawks and raptors in general: I see many people who equate trees with protection from raptors. This simply isn't the case. Hawks use trees to their own benefit. What is needed to protect chickens from hawks and other avian predators are dense low growing bushes and hedges that the chickens can get under and hide in. Fruit trees like Sepp grows will work also, as will weeping anything. Basically the chickens need lots of dense vegetation to hide in and amongst, dense enough that the raptors cannot see into easily and will not try to dive into after the chickens.

    Chickens are a lot of fun and very educational. Also I think they are a lot easier to care for than some of the more regular pets.

    Good Luck,

    Jeff

     
                                
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    Allan.Sterbinsky wrote:
    I'll answer a few of the questions.  First, you'll need to plan a minimum of 2 square feet of space per chicken, assuming that you are using a movable coop (ala Joel Salatin or Andy Lee).  A good reference book on the coops is Andy Lee's Chicken Tractor book. 


    2 square feet within the coop?  What about yard space per chicken?

    Allan.Sterbinsky wrote:
    Coops on wheels, hmmmm.... the largest movable pen I have is 12 feet by 12 feet, and it takes a lot of strength to move it even with the wheels.  You may want to consider something smaller like 4 feet by 12 feet.  Easier for the kids to help move. 


    I was definitely hoping for a smaller coop than you describe.  But again, I don't have a clue about how much room they will want inside if they have freedom to choose indoor/outdoor.

    Allan.Sterbinsky wrote:Just some thougts for your consideration.  What happens if the kids grow tired of caring for the animals.  Who will take care of them?  Also, do you have hawks around the school?  I've seen some in even large cities.  Hawks are hard to defend against. 


    We definitely have hawks.  At least one pair, perhaps more.  We are sure that a momma hawk raised a baby this year; we heard them talking many mornings earlier in the summer.  Of course the fledgling may have moved on to stake out a new territory.  My home is only a mile from the school, so I expect that that falls within their range.

    The teachers are very invested in this idea, and we plan to encourage many children to participate (at least 80 in the most immediate classrooms, but I'm hoping for all classrooms to be involved, which would be considerably more children), so I'm hoping that flagging interest in a few children will not be a problem.  Of course, summers will be something we have to think about and plan for.

    Thanks!
    wormlady
     
                                
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    justhavinfun wrote:
    You probably want a larger breed instead of bantams as bantams can be more energetic. However you will need to tailor everything to your situation, some chickens are better for colder weather etc. 


    We are in the southeast, along the coastal plains, so it gets quite hot in the summer and not so cold in the winter...Freezing temps are not unusual, but rarely go on for more than a few nights in a row.

    I would think that energetic chickens would be good?  Any thoughts on which chickens are better for eggs?

    justhavinfun wrote:A couple of thoughts, I think the paddock system is the best way to go whenever possible. If for no other reason because it allows the land a chance to rest. Portable coops on lots of land make this system pretty easy and painless. But since you are working on a school yard space is limited so it might be easier in your situation to put a stationary coop in the center of the paddock system and design it so the chickens can still be rotated through the paddocks. If you did it this way I would use the deep litter method to help reduce to effort required to maintain the chickens. You would be making a few trade offs but a stationary coop designed for easy cleaning is not a lot of effort and if done properly the deep litter only needs cleaning out a few times a year and with the paddocks right there you could easily rake out the litter, put it in a pile and let the chickens spread it for you the next time they are in that paddock. With deep litter if it stinks something is wrong.


    This sounds like a reasonable option.  Would the bottom of the coop be raised well above the ground for this system?  I'm envisioning it this way, with it being rather easy to rake out the litter from underneath?  It seems like we could then either rake it out into a paddock that the chickens would be entering soon or even "harvest" the litter for a veggie garden?

    On hawks and raptors in general: I see many people who equate trees with protection from raptors. This simply isn't the case. Hawks use trees to their own benefit. What is needed to protect chickens from hawks and other avian predators are dense low growing bushes and hedges that the chickens can get under and hide in. Fruit trees like Sepp grows will work also, as will weeping anything. Basically the chickens need lots of dense vegetation to hide in and amongst, dense enough that the raptors cannot see into easily and will not try to dive into after the chickens.


    Thanks, I have been thinking that perhaps we need to ask some folks to plant a few more shrubs in the areas that we are looking to put the paddocks.  I was thinking of trees primarily for shade, with shrubs being more for cover.

    Chickens are a lot of fun and very educational. Also I think they are a lot easier to care for than some of the more regular pets.


    I hope that it will provide a lot of opportunities for the children to be engaged with using math and reading skills authentically.  Not to mention simply learning more about flora and fauna!

    Thanks to you both for your help!
    wormlady
     
    Kathleen Sanderson
    Posts: 985
    Location: Near Klamath Falls, Oregon
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    The two-square-feet per chicken figure would only be for young, growing meat chickens, not for layers, which need a MINIMUM of four square feet per bird.  If you over-crowd laying hens in a chicken tractor, you will end up with the birds picking at one another (it may sound harmless, but they can, and will, kill and eat their pen-mates, probably not quite what you have planned as an educational experience for the children!!!), and any eggs they lay on the floor of the chicken tractor will be trampled, filthy, and quite likely broken.  When they break eggs by accident, they learn to eat them, and then to break them on purpose.  This is why I am not using chicken tractors for my laying hens anymore.  I still use them for raising the young birds, to keep them safe, but once they start laying they are moved to semi-free-range. 

    You could manage this with the paddock system, as long as they have a coop where they can be put safely up for the nights.  One plan that I think is a good one is to have a coop centrally located, with several paddocks attached to the coop, and rotate the chickens to different paddocks as needed. 

    If you are going to start with half a dozen hens, I would suggest using six different breeds.  Children like to name animals, and it will be easier to know which is which if the hens are all different.  It would also be good to choose breeds that are good winter layers, as I'm sure the children would like to have eggs coming in all winter long (although even the good winter layers don't lay quite as well during the colder, dark months -- at least they don't completely stop laying, as many other breeds will do). 

    My breed suggestions would be: 

    Barred Rock

    Rhode Island Red

    Buckeye (almost the same color as the RIR, but different comb, and a nice personality)

    Salmon Faverolle

    Silver-laced Wyandotte

    Golden-laced Wyandotte

    A lot of people will probably recommend Buff Orpingtons, but in my experience they don't really lay all that well during the winter.  They are very pretty, and usually quite calm, though.  Another breed to consider would be Speckled Sussex.

    I wouldn't suggest bantams.  They are cute, and some breeds lay well, but they lay tiny eggs. 

    Hmm.  If you added a Leghorn (lots of colors to choose from), an Easter Egger (Ameraucana), and a Marans, you could have white, green, and dark brown eggs for the children in addition to the various shades of brown that the other breeds I've mentioned will lay.  Leghorns are not always as skittish as some people think they are -- mine are among the first to come running to me when I go out to do chores, although they don't like to be picked up (most chickens don't, and I don't try to make pets out of my birds).  I don't like their large combs in cold winters, but if you live in a fairly warm climate they are a good choice.

    As far as feeding the chickens goes, the FIRST priority from the kitchen would be to give them all the meat and dairy scraps they can get.  They NEED protein in order to grow well, and especially in order to lay well.  Second priority would be fruit and veggie scraps, and third would be stuff like bread.  Chickens are omnivorous scavengers -- I promise you, they won't leave meat laying around long enough for it to start smelling!  (Just don't over-feed them -- you'll probably have to keep an eye on things, and make sure that food isn't left laying around uneaten for more than 24 hours.  If it is, then you are giving them more than they can eat, and need to reduce the amounts somewhat.)  If you are feeding scraps and no chicken feed from the feed store, then you'll need to provide extra calcium (which could be from left-over cheese, cottage cheese, and milk -- they'll drink quite a bit of milk, even if it's spoiled, but still need to have clean water available).  They may also need grit provided, if there isn't any available in their pens.

    One thing to consider is that if feeding scraps, their feed pans will need to be washed every day.  They'll clean things up pretty well, but benefit from cleanliness, just as we do. 

    It sounds like a fun project -- I hope it goes well!

    Kathleen
     
    Leila Rich
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    Location: Wellington, New Zealand. Temperate, coastal, sandy, windy,
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    Definately take on Kathleen's feed suggestions!
    One way of getting the calcium back into the chooks is to dry the shells for a few days and crush finely with the bottom of a bottle or something, then mix in with ther feed. I remember loving that job as a kid.
    I'd suggest it's safer to feed them at least a portion of their diet in pellets, they could miss out on some important nutrients if they're just eating lunch scraps.
    Adding to general hygiene concerns, providing clean water daily is really important: chooks will dirty their drinking water quickly.
    Something to keep in mind  is will the kids have gumboots (or whatever they're called in your neck of the woods) that won't come indoors? Chooks pooh A LOT and you really don't want it trampled inside.
     
                                
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    Thanks for the feeding suggestions!!  That is definitely helpful.

    Here's a question I probably should have asked at the beginning...what are we going to do on weekends/holidays?  I have been dreaming about having some super compost going with whatever is leftover from the kitchen scraps during the week to raise worms for them, but I'm not sure that's gonna cut it for feeding over the weekend.  We could certainly start with store bought feed for that in the beginning.  But I suppose we really will have to check on them daily and collect eggs at the very least.

    Also, do you generally have to lock up your chickens overnight in the coop?  This could be an issue since the school is pretty much emptied out by 3:30pm, and in the warmer months this would be brutal to the poor dears.

    I'm starting to feel like this may be beyond our little school.  I don't want to give up though, and you folks are kindly encouraging! 

    wormlady
    p.s. for calcium, I think I ought to be able to get oyster shells around here...do you generally need to crush them, or will they peck at them enough to get something out of it?
     
    Kathleen Sanderson
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    Can you get the night janitor on board?  He (or she) should be able to shut the door on the coop after the chickens go to roost.

    Holidays and weekends -- classroom pets generally go home with a student over the weekend and on holidays.  That wouldn't work very well with chickens, but maybe a mature, responsible child who lives near the school could be put in charge of collecting eggs and checking feeders and waterers on those days.  There are bulk feeders (for commercial chicken feed) and large waterers that should hold enough to keep your small flock for several days at a time, although the waterer will need to be put up off the ground.  Set it up on top of a couple of cement blocks, and the water will stay cleaner.  Do the same with the feeder, or hang it from the ceiling, to keep the hens from scratching all of their feed out.

    The hens really should be locked up overnight.  Otherwise you are likely to lose them to predators. 

    Calcium -- if you are feeding surplus milk from the cafeteria (plus cottage cheese, yogurt, cheese, etc.), and supplementing with commercial layer pellets, they won't need any oyster shell.  But if you do give them oyster shell, it will need to be crushed somehow. 

    Kathleen
     
                                
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    Kathleen Sanderson wrote:
    Can you get the night janitor on board?  He (or she) should be able to shut the door on the coop after the chickens go to roost.

    Holidays and weekends -- classroom pets generally go home with a student over the weekend and on holidays.  That wouldn't work very well with chickens, but maybe a mature, responsible child who lives near the school could be put in charge of collecting eggs and checking feeders and waterers on those days.  There are bulk feeders (for commercial chicken feed) and large waterers that should hold enough to keep your small flock for several days at a time, although the waterer will need to be put up off the ground.  Set it up on top of a couple of cement blocks, and the water will stay cleaner.  Do the same with the feeder, or hang it from the ceiling, to keep the hens from scratching all of their feed out.

    The hens really should be locked up overnight.  Otherwise you are likely to lose them to predators. 

    Calcium -- if you are feeding surplus milk from the cafeteria (plus cottage cheese, yogurt, cheese, etc.), and supplementing with commercial layer pellets, they won't need any oyster shell.  But if you do give them oyster shell, it will need to be crushed somehow. 

    Kathleen


    Thanks!

    I am thinking that we will need to get some families on board (the children are 5-10 years old, so really shouldn't come out by themselves).  I'm thinking that it will help that the family that does come out on a weekend would get to keep the eggs, perhaps.

    Has anyone used an egloo?  I was thinking about starting with this (if we can afford it) for our portable coop, but the one that says it works for 6-8 hens looks awfully small to me in the pictures I've seen posted.  What I like best is that it appears to have a tiny run/cage around it that would deter predators at night.  In the day, I would want them to be able to run in and out of it.  I also wondered if it is portable enough to consider the possibility of taking the chickens to my home (or other families, as well) over the weekend.  Just trying to think out loud.

    wormlady
     
    Kathleen Sanderson
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    I've only seen pictures of the egglu, but a small chicken tractor would work for taking hens home over the weekend, if you end up having to do that (make a floor in the tractor that you use for transporting them, or keep a tractor at your home, and move the hens in a smaller cage).  The problem with moving hens around is they are stressed by it and will quit laying for several days each time, which won't do much for your egg production!  Even just moving them from one coop to another, or from a chicken tractor to a coop, on the same property, will stress them and make them stop laying for a bit.  Ditto for letting them run out of food -- and if they run out of water during hot weather, they could all die of heat stroke.  Don't mean to be discouraging, as I think you have a good idea, but livestock are a lot more responsibility than pets, if you want to keep them productive.

    Kathleen
     
                                
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    I appreciate your comments.  I have to be realistic going into this, or it will be a huge flop!  And that would be so discouraging to everyone involved.  It may be that we decide that we don't have the resources to do it, but even thinking about it carefully may help us come up with something else that we can do.

    I didn't realize that moving the chickens would be so stressful.  How does Paul Wheaton deal with this in moving his chickens around from paddock to paddock (and moving the coop as well, as I understand it)?  I had been thinking of moving to a new paddock on Friday afternoons, since it would offer the chickens new vegetation and bugs over the weekend, and if laying is slightly disrupted over the weekend, this might not be such a big loss to us.

    wormlady
     
    Kathleen Sanderson
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    Same coop all the time, though, right?  I used to move my hens from spot to spot in their chicken tractors, without any problems (no stress), but they were in the same tractor all the time.  If I moved birds from one tractor to another they were stressed and would stop laying for a few days. 

    There's a big learning curve involved in taking on any kind of productive livestock -- as I said above, it's a whole different ball of wax compared to having pet animals that aren't expected to produce anything.  Don't feel bad about asking a lot of questions.  That's how you learn -- and some of your questions have reminded us of things we'd forgotten to mention.

    Kathleen
     
                                        
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    All chickens need to have grit in a pan in their pen to eat.  A bird has no teeth, that's why they have a gizzard.  The bird eats the grit, stores the grit in the gizzard to act as teeth to grind it's food.  The grit can be ground up eggs shells, or oyster shells; but IT MUST BE FINELY GROUND, and must be available to the birds at all times.
     
    Kathleen Sanderson
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    madamspinner wrote:
    All chickens need to have grit in a pan in their pen to eat.  A bird has no teeth, that's why they have a gizzard.  The bird eats the grit, stores the grit in the gizzard to act as teeth to grind it's food.  The grit can be ground up eggs shells, or oyster shells; but IT MUST BE FINELY GROUND, and must be available to the birds at all times.


    This is only necessary if there isn't any grit in the soil.  I've never had to provide grit to my chickens, as they've always been on the ground, whether loose, in a pen, or in a chicken tractor.  However, if there is absolutely no grit in the soil (feel it, rub some between your fingers), then, yes, you would need to provide some to your chickens.

    Kathleen
     
                                            
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    Hi to Wormlady from her August 2010 post--

    I'd love to know what happened at the school.

    I am just looking now into whether a school in Miami can keep hens. There are many practical problems, and it is way harder than a school garden.

    Please let me know if you have found any schools that succeeded at keeping laying hens at the school.

    THANKS.
     
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