Thursday, May 30, 2013

Living Roofs: An Old Idea Made New

Image courtesy of Evgeni Dinev/
Have you ever noticed how old-fashioned ideas find their way back into modern life?  One example of this is the living roof.

Several years ago my children and I visited a pioneer village in northern Utah.  They had a pioneer home from the 1800s that was built mostly underground with a sod walls and a sod roof.  Although we were over-heated from the July desert sun, when we stepped inside the home we were amazed at how cool the interior temperature was without any air conditioning.  In frontier design, the sod house, or "soddy" was a way for pioneers to build shelter when timber or masonry was limited. 

Today, sustainable designers have incorporated ideas from the soddy into modern design.   One of the goals of sustainable design is to reduce our need to use electrical or natural gas resources from the grid.  Environmental designers know that although the surface temperature of the earth absorbs and loses heat, four feet under the earth's surface maintains a constant temperature of about 58 degrees -- or the average temperature for your location.  (For those who have basements, just think of how much cooler they are in the summer than the top levels of your home.)  When building four feet into the earth, both the pioneer and modern builders are able to tap into the stable temperature of the earth.  Further, the sod roof would act as insulation -- keeping the cool temperatures in the home during the summer and keeping the heat in during the winter.

As you may know, my husband and I are soon to be the proud parents to four chicks.  Chickens are sensitive to extremes in temperatures.  There can be some risks associated with different methods of heating and cooling the coop for the chickens.  In the summer, cooling systems that add humidity (such as misters used in the desert spas) can cause respiratory problems.  And many heat sources can cause possible fire hazards.  So, although we will be researching safe modern methods of climate control for our chickens, we also want to incorporate some green design.

We began by noting the placement of the hen's house.  We picked breeds that are tolerant of the cold climate.  However, the extreme  heat we also receive can be more of a problem.  So, we have placed the coop in a location that receives a lot of shade from our home and backyard trees.

Although the coop will not be built into the ground -- we are going to incorporate the insulating features of a living roof.  Our roof will contain four inches of lighter-weight growing medium and will contain drought-tolerant plants including sedums, creeping thyme, and (of course) some hens and chicks.  We are currently propagating several plants from our yard to be used on the roof -- this will help keep the cost down, as well as ensure that the plants we are using will grow well in our area.

Retrofitting a home for a living roof may involve hiring an engineer to determine if your existing roof has sufficient support for the additional weight.  However, since we are building from scratch -- we will be designing the structure to hold the additional weight.  We can't wait to try out this old idea to help keep our chickens comfortable and add more plants to our backyard.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

How to choose chickens to raise in my backyard

Image courtesy of Simon Howden/
Local zoning laws have some restrictions on my chicken keeping.  In my neighborhood I am allowed to have up to six hens.  Although my husband is probably relieved to know there is a  limit to the number of chickens we'll be raising - this puts me in a dilemma.  With so many different kinds of chickens, how do I choose? 

I started by reading blogs, browsing poultry catalogs, and pinning all things chicken on Pinterest.  I talked to friends, read books, and came up with four things I was looking for:
    1)  Quantity of eggs;
    2)  Climate considerations;
    3)  Ability to be "cooped up" (confined); and
    4)  Friendly or gentle disposition
At a glance, I found several chickens that looked like they would work well for the suburban chicken keeper.

Sampling of Possible Backyard Chickens

Egg Laying
Free Range/
Heat tolerant
Active, talkative
Cold and heat hardy
Docile, quiet, friendly
Cold hardy, damp
Docile, calm, friendly
Very good
Very cold and heat hardy
Golden Buff
Cold tolerant
Jersey Giant
Very cold hardy
Calm, easy going
Heat tolerant
Active, skittish
Calm, quiet, gentle
Very cold hardy
Docile, quiet, affectionate
Plymouth Rock
Very good
Very cold hardy
Docile, curious, friendly
Rhode Island Red
Cold and heat hardy
Docile (hens) but bossy
Very good
Very cold hardy
Calm, curious
Very good
Cold hardy
Generally docile

Chickens for Eggs

I admit it.  I feel grocery store guilt when I buy my eggs.  Even though I buy cage-free eggs, I worry over the treatment of the hens in factory facilities.  I prefer to gather eggs from pampered hens.  The number of eggs each hen lays in a given week varies by breed and environmental conditions.  For example, most chickens tend to lay less eggs in the winter due to decreased sunlight.  If you are raising chickens to have a healthier egg (less cholesterol, higher Omega-3's) you should know that this is a result of good feed and not based on shell color.  Also, newbies should know that a hen does not need to have a rooster in order to have eggs.

A backyard chicken will typically live 8-10 years, but will have limited egg production after age 3.  So, if I want to maintain egg production, I will need to start with less than my allowed 6 hens, and in 3-4 years add a few more chickens to my flock.  When choosing chickens, it's also good to remember chickens are social and will be lonely with less than 3 in their flock at a given time.

We have a small family, so a dozen eggs a week is plenty for our tribe.  I plan on having extras for friends and family. (Hint!  Nice comments on this blog may get you on the extra egg list.)  I focused first on hens that did a good job of laying large eggs.
  • Excellent layers lay 5+ eggs a week
  • Very Good layers lay 4-5 eggs a week
  • Good layers lay 3-4 eggs a week
We chose one excellent layer, two very good layers, and one good layer for a weekly average of approximately 16-20 eggs.

Chickens by Climate

Chickens are a lot like Goldilocks -- they like their room temperatures to be "not too hot" and "not too cold."  I live in central Utah.  Spring and fall are temperate and should be comfortable for most chickens.  However, we have hot summers and very cold winters.  In addition to climate-control provisions in our chicken coop, we selected hens that are all cold hardy.  Two of the four are also heat hardy. 

Chickens and Confinement

I work away from my home during the day.  While I am away from home, I want to make certain that my chickens are kept safe in a coop with a screened run.  I looked for breeds of chickens that were comfortable being in a confined space versus free range.  This way, when I am away from the home I know that my chickens are not only safe from predators, but comfortable.  Then, when I am home, I can let the chickens have supervised free-range time in our yard.

Chickens as Pets

I love animals.  Over the years I have had a variety of pets, including cats, dogs, ducks, geese, chickens, rabbits, and sheep.  So, although egg production is a nice perk with chickens, there will be many years where my backyard hens are not going to be laying eggs.  In commercial farming, many hens are butchered when the key laying years are over.  However, like many suburban chicken keepers, the idea of having our pet chickens butchered is unthinkable!  Yes.  I know that to the rural farmer, this is ridiculous -- as I will still be driving to the store to pick up chicken for dinner.  Just not my chickens!  So, I wanted to pick out chickens that had personalities that would interact with me and my family.  Friendly and docile hens are a must.

And Our Chickens Will Be...

We have chosen a Black Australorp, a Delaware, a Buff Orpington, and a Silver-Laced Wyandotte.  The girls are due to be hatched on June 3rd.  The brooder box is ready.  Now, to come up with names.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Should we raise backyard chickens?

image courtesy of artur84/
"I want to raise chickens," I said.  He gave me one of those looks - eyes laughing, small smirk.  He was used to my list of unconventional projects - but this wasn't like the retro trailer I still haven't restored or the harpsichord building project that never got off the ground.  These were animals that need daily care.  And we live in the suburbs.


Maybe it was from my experience with chickens as a child.  When I was in elementary school I had a pet chicken.  I grew up in a large family - and we were each given a chicken to name and help care for.  I thought of the most beautiful name my 7-year-old mind could think of:  Julie.  Julie was an Araucana hen.  She would lay eggs with aqua-blue shells.  I really remember very little of the chickens, other than collecting eggs (the warm bellies of the hens), their quiet clucks and occasional cackles, and how I was afraid of the roosters.

Or maybe I was influenced by social documentaries on the food industry.  Watching Robert Kenner's movie "Food, Inc."  made me feel a little less-than-pious when I bought eggs from cartons touting they came cage-free hens.  Prior to watching the show, I imagined the hens free-ranging on a small neighborhood farm.  But pictures of the hens overcrowded in dusty conditions erased the story I told myself when I bought my weekly eggs.

Maybe I wanted chickens because of health considerations.  I had been organic gardening for about four years and I heard that backyard chickens frequently have a better quality egg.  They have beautiful orange yolks that are higher in Omega-3's and lower in cholesterol.

Perhaps this new idea came when two of my neighbors started raising hens.  Before they did, I didn't even know that our suburban neighborhood permitted backyard poultry.  Two phone calls later (city hall and our community management company) I learned that I too could be the proud adoptive parent to these lovely birds.

Whether for the health of my family, the chickens, or just to have a pet -- I wanted chickens.  "I'm sure I will learn to love chickens," he said.  And so my chicken raising adventure begins.