Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.
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Steamboat Springs In a changing world where urban Americans are planting vegetable gardens in vacant lots and people are flocking to farmers markets for fresh organic produce, chickens make the most sense in Steamboat Springs.
Don't panic. I'm not crazy enough to advocate for roosters that crow at 3:30 a.m., and I'm not talking about that gruff cartoon character Foghorn Leghorn ("That kid don't stop talkin' so much, he's gonna get his tongue sunburned!"). However, I did meet some well-behaved laying hens this week.
I'm talking about chickens that are willing to deliver several wholesome eggs a week in exchange for all the succulent weeds and grasshoppers they can eat. And I'm wondering why more of us Steamboaters don't have chicken coops in the backyard.
The City of Steamboat Springs Municipal Code forbids pigs, goats, sheep, cows and monkeys. But it doesn't say anything about chickens.
If you want to know how to raise your food closer to home and make a tiny reduction in your carbon footprint at the same time, Herald Stout is your man. He hosted a tour of his chicken coop on the edge of Old Town Steamboat this week. About eight would-be chicken farmers flocked at the chance to peck his brain. The event was hosted by Deep Roots, the community food trust.
Stout isn't the likeliest candidate to become a poultry hobbyist. He is a Realtor, a developer and, yes, a small-scale chicken farmer. He's known around town for building several large, Victorian-style homes on Ninth Street and successfully redeveloping the old hospital site into a residential subdivision known as Park Place.
Stout didn't grow up on a farm - he grew up on military bases from Kansas to Honduras. And most of what he learned about laying hens came from networking on the Internet. He enjoys caring for the animals and uses them as a way to teach his children to respect animals while also connecting with the source of their daily sustenance. It's more of a lifestyle than it is a way to save money, he clarified.
Stout even joked that he probably spends $60 on each egg he collects. That's when you consider the electric fences he has purchased to allow his hens to forage inside a grassy area on his property, the cost of concrete foundations to keep foxes and dogs out of an outdoor enclosure, and taxes on the land.
The good news is that he's able to swap the eggs his family doesn't consume with neighbors who are happy to provide him with elk steaks.
Home egg producers don't need to go all out, as Stout has.
Stout has found that his hens tolerate harsh Steamboat winters well. Their shed captures a modest amount of passive solar, and they don't require an extra heat source as long as they are exposed to strong drafts.
Stout has 25 hens of varying breeds that produce from 12 to 16 eggs a week. Curiously, the timing of daily egg production and the volume of eggs produced by the flock are governed by the sun.
The birds are most active at twilight and before dawn. They retreat to the shade of their coop during the middle of the day and climb into their nests to lay eggs when the sun is highest.
When Stout hears the hens clucking, he knows they are preparing to lay an egg. The eggs range in hue from the color of coffee with cream to pale blue and green.
If you get your eggs from the supermarket as I do, you may not know that fresh eggs don't need to be refrigerated. The hens deliver eggs with a protective coating that protects them in nature. Our store-bought eggs lose that protective coating when they are washed in preparation for shipping. The Stouts keep their eggs on the kitchen counter.
The greatest egg production each year comes in a six-week period that straddles the summer solstice in the third week in June, Stout said.
Different breeds produce varying numbers of eggs. The stars of Stout's chicken coop are the hens known as barred rocks. He purchases them as chicks from Elk River Farm and Feed in Steamboat.
Stout often has thought about raising chickens for meat, but he plans to keep his hens until they die of natural causes after about five years.
The hens are allowed to forage for grass, weeds and grasshoppers on the Stout's property. He moves them from one area to another through the use of his electric fence, which keeps predators away. The chicken manure is composted, then fed to red wiggle worms whose castings are used to enrich the soil in the family garden.
Just in case you and your neighbors are contemplating starting a laying hen cooperative on your subdivision's open space, here are some of the many sources of information on poultry science for urbanites:
- Mississippi State University maintains a site called "The Home Flock" at www.msstate.edu/dept/poultry/exthome.htm
- Kansas State University offers similar information here:
- Penn State University has detailed report on home egg production here:
- Mother Earth News has a chicken and egg page including plans for a portable mini chicken coop here:
- To reach Tom Ross, call 871-4205
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