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Urban Poultry at Garden Dreams

Urban Agriculture and Nutrition Mentor Hannah Reiff hosted PA-WAgN at Garden Dreams Urban Farm & Nursery for a Field Day focused on Urban Poultry. Garden Dreams is a certified organic farm that was built on two vacant lots in the Wilkinsburg section of Pittsburgh.
Urban Farming Mentor Hannah Reiff with one of their hens.

Urban Farming Mentor Hannah Reiff with one of their hens.

Urban Agriculture and Nutrition Mentor Hannah Reiff hosted PA-WAgN at Garden Dreams Urban Farm & Nursery for a Field Day focused on Urban Poultry. Garden Dreams is a certified organic farm that was built on two vacant lots in the Wilkinsburg section of Pittsburgh.  The farmers there produce more than 40,000 fruit & vegetable seedlings each year as well as offering a small CSA to the local community.  Garden Dreams is dedicated to community outreach and wholesales many of its seedlings to area schools to use for fundraisers.

 

First on the agenda for our Field Day was a tour of the beautiful gardens and facilities.  Hannah explained how Garden Dreams uses IPM, EM, and other sustainable farming practices. We saw raw wool being used around the base of eggplants to discourage flea beetles and looked at eggs of parasitic wasps that help to control asparagus beetles. As we walked around the farm, Hannah pointed out multiple found materials and recycled construction items that were used to build greenhouses, low tunnels, and more.  She pointed out some of the innovative techniques that they were testing such as planting potatoes above ground in a bed of soil that was enclosed with tarps and rope so that the potatoes could be extracted more easily when ripe.  We also saw their beehives that ensure all of their plants are pollinated.

 

After our tour, we gathered around the chicken run to learn about urban poultry care. Garden Dreams has eleven hens - a combination of selected varieties that they purchased as chicks from Meyer Hatchery. Now at three years old, the hens are still laying eggs consistently and appeared to be incredibly healthy. Hannah told us that she thinks happy, healthy chickens lay for the greatest number of years. However, Hannah wanted to share some important first considerations for anyone who is thinking about getting chickens before we learned too much about keeping urban chickens.

 

Hannah and her colleagues agreed that before anyone gets chickens, they must decide what their expectations are for the chickens.  Are you getting them for eggs, farm work, meat, pets, or some combination of these?  What course of action will you take if a chicken becomes sick or injured?  What will you do with the chickens when they are no longer able to provide the intended service(s) - do you have a "retirement plan" for them?  Hannah decided before getting Garden Dreams' chickens that they would be used for eggs and garden tilling.  She also knew that chickens that couldn't easily be nursed back to health from illness or injury would be culled.  Hannah's colleague Danielle discussed one "retirement" option of using tame chickens in therapy programs for autistic or elderly people.  No matter what you decide, it is important to make these decisions before getting chickens.

 

Two major considerations that must be addressed before getting chickens include provision of housing and a secure range area. A chicken coop must be predator-proof and dry, with good ventilation. It should contain a roost large enough for all of the chickens, as well as the proper ratio of nest boxes to chickens (3-4 hens per box is a good rule). Because the coop has to stay dry and chickens produce a large amount of waste, you must keep clean bedding on the floor. Decide whether you want to use the deep litter method or constantly remove and replace the bedding. Hannah warned that many online resources regarding chickens list inadequate space requirements for both coops and range, which can lead to major health problems, and possibly death, for all of your chickens. The outside range should include sun and shade areas, with both green and dirt areas. Chickens love to scratch so giving them some leaf mulch is a great way to keep them busy and happy. Talk with other farmers and refer to the books at the end of this report in order to make sure that your chickens have enough space.

 

Some of the other things to consider before getting chickens are predators in your area, shade, access to dirt baths, feed, water, grit/calcium, “toys”, and special feeds or snacks.  Hannah also warned of the dangers of allowing chickens to become overweight as well as the risks of using heat lamps.  She told us that as you get to know your chickens you will notice things like the hierarchy of hens, and the unique egg size & shape of each hen.  She also told us that every egg comes out of the hen with a white coating called a “bloom”.  This coating protects the egg and as long as it is on the shell, the egg will not spoil for several weeks.  Washing the egg removes the coating, and the egg must then be refrigerated.

 

In the afternoon we all worked together to build a cheap (materials less than $90) and lightweight chicken tractor from PVC, plastic poultry netting, and zip ties.  The tractor included clear polycarbonate lids and PVC handles.  Once it was constructed, we moved it to one of the garden beds, covered it with a shade cloth, and put two chickens in it.  Hannah and Danielle emphasized a few key points about using the tractor: 1) always put a shade cloth over the top, 2) always put drinking water in it for the chickens, 3) make sure you pin it to the ground with some tent stakes or something similar, and only use it when you will be home to monitor for predators, etc.

 

For more information, check out these books:

 

The Chicken Health Handbook by Gail Damerow

 

Free-Range Chicken Gardens by Jessi Bloom

 

The Small-Scale Poultry Flock by Harvey Ussery

 

Fresh-Air Poultry Houses by Prince T. Woods