Erin Geesaman Rabke and her husband Carl purchased a home in downtown Salt Lake City a few years ago that came complete with chicken coop and a small flock of cheerful Rhode Island red hens. We discussed the pro's and con's of urban chicken farming with Erin.
Legally speaking, chickens are welcome in Salt Lake City. The Rabkes' coop is a simple structure attached to the side of their backyard shed that gives the birds warmth in the winter and protection from coons at night and a simple nest box where they lay their eggs. "It's a piece of cake to maintain," Erin says.The addition of a simple red heat-light helps keep the birds warm on freezing nights.
What do they do about the estimated 100 pounds of manure a chicken produces annually? For a flock of five, that's just over a pound a day, including liquid. "Chicken manure is high in nitrogen and makes awesome compost," Erin says. Their friends vie for whatever the Rabke garden doesn't need. The chickens, who have free range of the fenced-in yard (excluding the gardens) are efficient recyclers, too: "Our chickens eat our veggie and grain compost scraps. They have cleaned up the box elder bug problem. We feed them simple grain-which lets us go shopping at the oh-so-fun farm store Rockin' E in Bountiful. And they turn it all into compost and awesome eggs. We supplement their diet with flax seeds which makes their eggs omega-rich and so delicious."
Is it difficult to keep them safe from predators? Rabkes learned the hard way that raccoons are clever, and prevalent even in downtown Salt Lake. "We lost two of our girls to coons," Erin admits. "My favorite, Sweet Pea, is especially missed." Now they are religious about closing up their coop at night with a coon-proof lock.
Erin does not discount the value of the chicken/child connection and recalls the relationship the previous owners' daughter, five-year-old Sofie, had with the small red hens. "It was a great learning/bonding opportunity for her. She was good with them and they with her."
A stable daily schedule helps, and if you travel, you need to hire a chicken-sitter-no dropping your hens off at a kennel. But overall, Erin concludes, it's worth it. "We love our chickens. We have no rooster to crow at odd hours, just five sweet hens who lay beautiful brown eggs for us every day. They get along well with the neighborhood cats and are very friendly to people. And everyone loves those eggs-which are significantly lower in cholesterol and higher in beneficial nutrients than store bought. 'Mother Earth News' recently had an article about the glories of raising chickens and the specific health benefits of their eggs. Ginger, Nadine, Bernice, Loretta and Blackie rock. Go girls!"