There are multiple benefits to keeping chickens in your backyard. Beyond egg and meat production, chickens produce manure for your garden and eat waste food and some garden scraps. Some methods of chicken keeping also use chickens to help reduce weed and insect problems in the garden. Finally, chickens are fun to watch, and if you have the stomach for it an old layer makes good soup.
Before you go any further, it is a good idea to check if your municipality allows chickens, and under what circumstances. Rules vary from no chickens to no rules. While more cities are allowing chickens these days there are often specific requirements that must met, such as no roosters, a maximum number of birds, and a certain amount of space per bird. It is possible to keep poultry “under the radar” in spite of local bylaws if your neighbors don’t mind, but you risk a fine and having to give up your birds.
In order to get the most benefits from chicken keeping, you need to decide what your goals are, and what resources of time, space and money you want to devote to your chickens. Different goals will have you picking different breeds, different numbers of chickens and different types of chicken housing.
How gardening and chicken keeping benefit each other
Chickens produce manure. Aged and composted with any straw from the chicken coop, this makes a wonderful fertilizer for your garden. Never use fresh chicken manure on live plants because it is so high in nitrogen it will burn them.
You can feed many of your food scraps, so long as they aren’t moldy, to your chickens. You can also feed extra produce from your vegetable garden or fruit trees to the chickens. Providing you have a fence, you may be able to use chickens for pest and weed control. The main limits are that a) the chickens need to be safe from predators in your garden and can’t wander into other people’s yards, and b) the chickens must not be allowed into areas where new crops are sprouting, because they will dig them up and eat them. They will also peck at fruit or berries within their reach.
If you have bare soil, grass, shrubs, or well-started crops you can let them out. The chickens will scratch up the bare soil, remove young weeds and peck at insects everywhere. Unfortunately, chickens often won’t eat large slugs. If you want slug control, ducks are better.
If you have an orchard or just a fruit tree, running some sort of poultry beneath it is traditional. The birds eat windfall fruit, insects, and reduce weeds. If you get geese instead of chickens, they will also help keep the grass under control.
Benefits of different chicken breeds
If your main goal is egg production, then you probably want a breed of chicken that is a good layer, such as white or brown Leghorns. If you want chickens for both eggs and meat, then you want a dual-purpose breed such as a Rhode Island Red. If you are looking for meat, then there are meat breeds like the Cornish. Or perhaps you want them for pets or for showing, in which case one of the fancier breeds like the Polish might be what you are looking for. If space is very limited, it might be best to get bantams such as Japanese Bantams.
If you are interested in helping preserve a rare breed, there are plenty of rare chickens to choose from. However, some are a lot easier to get hold of than others so you might want to check what is available locally or from major hatcheries.