This January Nashville joined dozens of other cities across the nation in legalizing backyard laying hens in most of the metro area. Eight council members opted to exempt their districts from the new ordinance (districts 12, 20, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, and 33.) For those lucky enough to reside in a hen-friendly district, it is a great time to begin planning your flock.
Though at first the idea of chickens in the city may seem odd, hens are ideally suited to life in a backyard. They are quiet, fun to watch and provide nutritious fresh eggs. Additional benefits from chickens include making organic fertilizer for a garden and ridding the yard of pests. Backyard hen owners help preserve heritage breeds, since they desire the beautiful feathers and colorful eggs unique to these old-fashioned birds.
Before getting chicks or building a coop, be sure that you are eligible under the new ordinance to keep hens. Homeowners' association rules override the new ordinance, so check your local covenants before proceeding. Keep in mind that coops must be located 10' from a property line and at least 25' from neighbors' residences. Coops should be in the back yard. Front yards are prohibited. If located in a side yard, they must be screened from view of the street. The maximum number of hens allowed is determined by your lot size (between 2 and 6 birds.) Roosters and slaughter are prohibited. Feed must be stored in a lidded metal container. Hens should be confined to a fenced run and may not be permitted to run at large. The Metro Public Health Department requires a $25 annual permit.
Since Nashville's ordinance forbids roosters, it is a good idea to purchase 'sexed' hens. These baby chicks have had their gender determined. Buy from a reputable hatchery or purchase pullets. Pullets are young hens - less than a year old. If you opt for baby chicks raising them is a fun process, although it does require a bit of extra equipment, like a draft- free brooder. A brooder is a simple box with a 75-watt heat lamp, aspen shavings, and a practice roost. Provide chicks with clean water and "starter feed" of 20% protein. Brooders should be kept at 95 degrees when chicks are young. They will want it cooler as they age. Feed "layer" rations of 16% protein beginning around 20 weeks of age and transition the birds to the outdoor coop when they are feathered and the weather warms.
Most importantly, build a solid coop. Many problems with backyard flocks can be entirely avoided by a thoughtful coop design. A coop should allow at least 2-4 square feet of space per hen and be well-ventilated with no openings larger than1/2 inch. Hens need perches for roosting, plenty of wood shavings for bedding, and a nest box for every 3-4 hens. Include in your plans a fenced enclosure, or run, of at least 6 square feet per hen. It is a good idea to bury wire mesh around the bottom edge of the run to prevent unwanted guests from burrowing. Clean your coop frequently and remove those valuable droppings to a well-aerated compost pile. Wash hands thoroughly and do not wear your "coop shoes" to someone else's coop without disinfecting them. It's important to prevent spreading germs between flocks. Be sure to provide fresh food and clean water at all times and lock hens in their coop at night.
Hens begin laying eggs around 20-24 weeks of age. The chicks this spring should be providing eggs by fall. Be sure to gather and refrigerate eggs promptly and they will keep for at least six weeks.
Don't be surprised if you begin to find endless entertainment in the antics of your hens or start having lengthy conversations with fellow hen owners about the personalities of each bird. Once you enter the world of backyard hens, it is hard to imagine life without "the girls." After all, what other pet makes you breakfast?
For more information about the ordinance, permit process, hen care classes and links to coop ideas: visit http://ucanNashville.org