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The Rise of Backyard Chickens
Backyard chickens have only become more popular in the last 10 years, becoming an almost common addition to suburban households. One of the reasons people tout in their decision to start keeping backyard chickens is their environmental benefits and a growing discomfort with the many downsides of industrial agriculture. While the cultural conversation around industrial agriculture was for a long time centered only on how inhumane it was for the animals caught up in it, the discourse has shifted in recent years to its economic, and especially its environmental downsides, a conversation that has only been exacerbated by the recent disruptions to food supply chains caused by the covid-19 pandemic.
While it’s easy to say that people should be starting their own flocks of hens to help combat climate change, it’s a lot harder to do. For all their myriad benefits, both for the planet and for the person keeping them, they are one thing above all others; backyard chickens are a lot of work. While their recent rise in popularity has been accompanied by the proliferation of helpful information online about how to choose, buy, outfit, and care for a wide variety of chickens in a smallholder poultry operation, having all that information at your fingertips only makes chicken keeping easier – not necessarily easy. Whether populating their backyard with white chickens beside the red wheelbarrow is the right decision for them, their families, their schedules, and their wallets, everyone whose ever considered keeping backyard chickens has to make that decision for themselves, and environmental factors rarely outweigh the more immediate questions of budget, time, and labor. However, they are a consideration, as they always should be, and people worried about their environmental impact should rest assured that a backyard flock is unlikely to make it worse.
Just How Sustainable Are Backyard Chickens?
Calculating how good or bad our individual choices are for the environment can be a difficult task. After all, what makes something “good” for the environment? Is it more important to reduce emissions or physical waste? What about the ripple effects and indirect costs? All of these questions are hard to answer, and a lot of time, money, and research has gone into trying to answer them. With backyard chickens, though, the answer is a pretty straightforward; Yes, they are more sustainable than industrial agriculture. Most small-scale agricultural alternatives are more sustainable than industrial agriculture as our society currently practices it.
There are environmental costs associating with having a backyard chicken coop; no practice is 100% free of environmental impact. Heating the chicken coop will add to your household’s energy consumption, and keeping them washed and watered will mean consuming more water. Hens, while feeding you, also have to feed themselves, and the grain for their chicken feed has to be grown and shipped from somewhere. Chicken coops are either wooden and harvested from trees, or plastic which contributes to oil consumption and pollution.
Fortunately, all of these effects can be accounted for and minimized with a little bit of thought and planning. There’s a wealth of information online about the easy ways to lower your household electricity usage and reduce your household water consumption to help minimize your overall carbon footprint. The more hens are allowed to free range and forage for themselves, the less grain they’ll need – and the increased protein and variety in their diet will lead to more vitamin-rich eggs and tastier meat. Owners can also diversify their birds’ diet by giving them some table scraps, which will both benefit the birds and reduce the household’s overall food waste. People looking to build wooden coops can make sure they use reclaimed wood or sustainably sourced, untreated lumber than won’t leach dangerous chemicals into the soil (the way pressure-treated lumber will), and those who prefer plastic should look for recycled plastic coops. As with most things, it is important to take steps to make sure coops remain usable for as long as possible, then see if they can repurpose or recycle them when they’re no longer livable.
Reasons Why Backyard Chickens Reduce Your Carbon Footprint
Figuring out exactly what your household’s carbon footprint is only an estimate, but luckily, you don’t need raw numbers for the relative calculation that keeping chickens in your backyard will reduce it. One reason for this has to do with distance. Simply put, however sustainably, organically, and humanely your eggs are produced, they still need to get from the hen to you, and all the planes, trucks, refrigeration, and processing that requires takes energy. While the impact of food miles from cattle on a product’s carbon footprint is not something the average locavores can easily impact if they want to eat meat, it is true that walking eggs from your backyard to your kitchen produces fewer emissions than delivering them to your local supermarket for you to then bring home.
Of course, at the other end of the supply chains, there’s industrial agriculture. While the chicken industry has a lower impact than the environmental impact of cattle, industrial farms have very little incentive to run their businesses in a sustainable or energy-efficient way. Hens laying for a large-scale operation usually only produce for 18 months or maybe two years before they’re considered “spent” and usually landfilled, though they’re sometimes processed into pet food. Neither of these options are very humane, but they’re also not sustainable – sending millions of chickens to landfills every year because they aren’t laying as quickly as they used to, even if they still have several years of decent productivity ahead of them, is wasteful and inhumane to the extreme. Backyard chickens, though, get to live out their lives and continue producing eggs into their old age, which is both kinder and more sustainable.
Keeping backyard chickens isn’t just sustainable in itself, but can also lead to sustainability in other aspects of the household, specifically gardening. Chickens are some of the best gardening assistants around, perhaps second only to worms in how helpful they can be to a vegetable plot or flower bed. Their poop makes an excellent natural fertilizer, and the birds themselves are the perfect pesticide, eating troublesome insects but leaving beneficial ones, like worms, undisturbed under the soil. Growing your own vegetables in the backyard is good for your body and the planet for many of the same reasons keeping chickens is, so using the latter to help you accomplish the former is an obvious way to improve your diet and minimize your carbon footprint.
Store Bought Vs. Backyard Chicken Eggs: An Environmental Analysis
One of the biggest reason most people start raising their own chickens usually isn’t for the planet, but another kind of ovoid object: eggs. Specifically, they want access to the freshest eggs possible, and they want to know exactly where they’ve come from and how the birds who produced them were treated. All of these are excellent reasons to prefer backyard eggs to the store-bought variety, as are the fact that farm-fresh eggs tend to be more flavorful and higher in certain nutrients, because they are produced by healthier chickens. However, one reason not to switch is economics; raising your own chickens for backyard eggs won’t save you money unless you live a very, very long way away from the store or your grocer has an unorthodox egg-pricing policy. In addition to all of this, though, homegrown
eggs are usually much better for the environment than their industrial, store-bought counterparts.
The main reason for the environmental benefits of backyard eggs is the sheer wastefulness of the industrial agriculture business, and the comparative ease which with smallholders and homesteaders can repurpose, recycle, and reuse their supplies and products, especially when they aren’t worried about reducing costs by pennies to maximize profits over sustainability, kindness, or quality. A backyard chicken operation, especially in conjunction with a vegetable garden, not only reduces the emissions involved in storing, transporting, and processing food, but also replaces toxic fertilizers with natural chicken poop, dangerous pesticides with chicken pest control, and gets as much use as possible out of each hen, instead of landfilling them a quarter of the way through their lifespan. Chickens raised in small flocks also won’t be exposed to large levels of antibiotics to combat diseases that are relatively easy to prevent and contain with safe living conditions and well-ventilated, spacious coops, which can only help to slow the rising tide of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Fighting against an industry so indifferent to its detrimental impact on the environment, it’s almost impossible for backyard eggs to come out the loser.
Questions of environmental impact, even as they become more pressing by the day, can feel impossible to answer with any certainty. Fortunately for the chicken owners of the world, though, it’s easy to say definitively that their little backyard flock isn’t hurting anything. As a matter of fact, it’s probably helping quite a bit.
Our thanks to Chris Lesley, Editor-in-Chief at Chickens And More for putting together this post for us to share with you. Chris is a backyard chicken lover and has been keeping them as pets for over 20 years. She now keeps Silkies and Buffs and has a flock of 12 hens.
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Table Of Contents The Rise of Backyard Chickens Just How Sustainable Are Backyard Chickens? Reasons Why Chickens Reduce Your Carbon
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