Backyard Chickens Discussion Panel

In the third installment of the “Backyard Chickens” series, three panelists with different backgrounds described their experiences keeping chickens, March 26 in Litrenta Lecture Hall at Washington College.

In Easton, Maryland, no ordinance exists to prohibit urban chickens. Neoma Rohman explained how her family manages a small flock for egg production in city limits. Her friends and neighbors delight in the vibrancy that the birds bring to the community, including the songs each hen shares upon laying an egg.

Karly Kolaja spoke about her family’s operation on ten acres, from the joys of caretaking for free-range chickens and cautionary tales of loss to hawks and foxes. She described a successful treatment of mites.

Nathan Simmons recounted his perspective raising a variety of chickens while adhering to rigorous 4-H guidelines, and offered technical details to help illuminate questions posed by the audience. He described an encounter with a snake attempting to eat one of his pullets and the advantages of a fixed setup.

Each of the panelists viewed chickens as integral to the ecology of their lives by providing delicious eggs with deep golden yolks and nutrient-dense, thick albumens. Additionally, both audience and panelists described the multiplicity of functions chickens served, from pest control, entertainment, composting, social enrichment in the neighborhood, and personal motivation to lead active lives. When asked whether chickens were in their future, they all agreed they couldn’t imagine living without them.

Backyard Chickens 101: Raising Your Home Chicken Flock

In the first of three educational events, Jay Douthit from UMD Extension spoke to Chestertown residents about the basics of keeping backyard chickens for egg production in Litrenta Lecture Hall at Washington College. Download the slideshow from his presentation (PDF), find out about upcoming events, or watch the video of Jay’s talk.

Helpful Online Resources

Local Businesses

  • Kingstown Farm Home and Garden- Feed, supplies & chicks in spring: 410-778-1551
  • Delmarva Feed: 410-348-2505
  • Stoltzfus Outdoor Living – Chicken houses and storage sheds: 410-810-1504

Free Events Explore Risks and Rewards of Raising Hens

“Backyard Chickens,” a series of three free talks at Washington College, will educate interested local residents about the benefits of raising chickens in a backyard setting, as well as the practical aspects and potential pitfalls of the endeavor.

The first talk, “Backyard Chickens 101,” will take place on Tuesday, February 26, at 7:00 p.m. in the Litrenta Lecture Hall of Toll Science Center. The featured speaker is Jay Douthit, a Faculty Extension Assistant at the University of Maryland’s College of Agricultural and Natural Resources.

The second installment, “Companion Gardening: Having a Healthy Yard with Chickens,” is scheduled for Tuesday, March 5 with Brigid McRea, a Poultry Specialist at Delaware State University.

The third event, a panel discussion entitled “Chicken Roundtable: All Your Questions Answered,” will take place on Tuesday, March 26.

The series is sponsored by the Student Environmental Alliance (SEA) and the Center for Environment and Society, both at Washington College. SEA advisor Shane Brill says his group wants to gauge community interest in raising chickens, an activity that is growing in popularity across the country as a means to promote sustainability and health.

Chestertown presently has an ordinance preventing people from owning livestock, notes Brill. “We are simply saying, ‘Here’s what’s involved in having chickens,’ and hoping to spark discussion and consciousness about the benefits of raising your own food. The talks and panel discussion offer a framework for a larger conversation about nourishing the vitality of our community.

“Towns and cities across the country have rediscovered the health and environmental benefits of backyard egg production,” he adds. “The ‘Backyard Chickens’ series is an awareness campaign inspired by a commitment to sustainability through local food.”

All events are held at 7:00 p.m. in the Litrenta Lecture Hall of Toll Science Center. View a map of campus. No registration necessary. For more information, please contact or leave comments with questions or feedback.

Chickens and Egg Nutrition

What makes an egg healthy to eat? Supermarket egg cartons have labels spanning from “animal welfare approved” to “vegetarian”—all purportedly bearing different health benefits to influence selection of the brand by consumers.1 Peek under the lid to examine the nutrition in the average egg, which is determined by the USDA’s National Agricultural Library.2 The documentation for the research noted wide statistical swings for vitamin D in eggs, and explains “It is likely that this change is due to the fortification of specific feeds given to the laying hens.”3

While the USDA acknowledges that the eggs of well-nourished hens are richer in vitamins, the research doesn’t stop there. Mother Earth News built upon the government’s findings to compare commercial eggs with eggs from pastured chickens. In a series of nationwide tests, pastured eggs contained:

  • 1/3 less cholesterol
  • 1/4 less saturated fat
  • 2/3 more vitamin A
  • 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids
  • 3 times more vitamin E
  • 7 times more beta carotene

The article explains the jump in nutrient values: “True free-range birds eat a chicken’s natural diet—all kinds of seeds, green plants, insects and worms, usually along with grain or laying mash. Factory farm birds never even see the outdoors, let alone get to forage for their natural diet.”4

But what about those “free-range” eggs from the store? The devil is in the details: the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association defines “free range” as follows: Free-range eggs are from hens that live outdoors or have access to the outdoors.”5 The definition is dubious at best, given the loose regulations for access to the outdoors. Even in the best battery-chicken scenario, hens must compete with hundreds or thousands of compatriots for access to any wild food available in the limited space and time they are allowed outside.

Fans of backyard eggs will say that you can taste the difference. You can see it, too. Back in 1965, the poultry industry had a PR problem—consumers remembered what healthy egg yolks look like. Foraged hens produce eggs with deep orange yolks, and researchers set out to discover how to mimic the coloration for battery chicken operations.6

Check out these photos comparing “organic” eggs with eggs from pastured hens.7


Backyard hens offer us nutrient-rich eggs with golden yolks, no extra fortification necessary. By being caretakers for a small flock, we can regulate their access to the outside to the satisfaction of our own definitions. And we can help to sustain positive health for our families and friends through the nutritional benefits of small-scale pastured eggs.


1. “What’s In A Name? The Beyond Organic Backyard Egg Question,” Northwest Edible Life: Life on Garden Time. An entertaining take on labels.
2. USDA’s National Agricultural Library
3. Composition of Foods Raw, Processed, Prepared USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 25
4. Meet Real Free-Range Eggs, Mother Earth News.
5. U.S. Poultry and Egg Association
6. “Production of Egg Yolk Coloring Material by a
Fermentation Process
,” Applied Microbiology, Vol. 13, No. 6; Nov., 1965.
7. Photos by Chicama Run Farm and The Art of Doing Stuff

Chickens and Biosecurity

The University of Maryland Extension provides following information in a publication titled “Protecting Your Small Flock.”

Biosecurity is a set of measures you practice everyday designed to prevent the spread of disease onto your property and into your flock.

Good Biosecurity Practices1

Confine your birds to a designated area; includes keeping other animals out keeping doors on houses (if applicable).

Traffic Control
Know who is coming onto and around your property. Keep unauthorized people out of poultry areas.

Disinfecting materials, equipment, and people that work on your property.

Introduction of new birds and traffic onto and around your property pose the greatest risk to bird health.

Biosecurity does not have to be elaborate, as long as the basic measures are practiced regularly.

Understanding the Chain of Infection 2

Infectious Agent > Reservoir > Portal of Exit > Transmission > Portal of Entry > Susceptible Host > Infectious Agent

Infectious Agent: The organism that causes the disease (also called the pathogen)

Reservoir: The source of the infection. There are four categories in which a reservoir is classified: 1. Living animals; 2. Dead animals; 3. Animal by-products (eggs, blood, etc.); 4. Environment (soil, equipment, etc.)

Portal of Exit: How the organism leaves the reservoir either by direct contact with other birds or by vectors. A vector can be mechanical (vehicles, equipment, people) or biological (wild birds, rodents, insects).

Transmission: The way the infection is carried or transported between two individuals or areas.

Portal of entry: How the infection enters an animal or facility.

Susceptible Host: The animal that could be infected. Animals with a lower or suppressed immunity are the most susceptible to illness and disease.

By practicing sanitation and using disinfectants in your biosecurity program, you break the chain of infection, thus preventing disease.

Sanitation and Disinfectants

When choosing a type of chemical sanitation agents or disinfectant, the following should be considered:

A disinfectant should be:

  • Effective against many pathogens
  • Cost effective
  • Effective at normal temperatures

A disinfectant should not:

  • Have objectionable odors
  • Damage the material it is applied to
  • Corrode metals or equipment

Suggested disinfectants: bleach, Virex, Lysol, soap and water

Easy Ways to Reduce Disease in Your Flock

Preventing disease on your property is key to keeping a healthy flock. It’s easy! Wash your hands after handling birds in isolation or that are from a different flock. Use footbaths when entering or exiting a flock area. Remember, footpaths are only effective if maintained. These are simple and inexpensive steps that take less than five minutes and can stop the disease cycle.

Prevention is always cheaper than treatment! Disease can gain entry onto your property in many ways: traffic, pets, water, people, old litter, insects, wild animals, sharing equipment, mixing bird species.

  • Vaccinate your birds, as appropriate.
  • Constantly monitor the health status of your flock.
  • Register your flock with the Maryland Department of Agriculture.
  • Always obtain birds from dealers/hatcheries that participate in the National Poultry Improvement Plan (NPIP).
  • Keep accurate records on your birds. Document where and when birds were acquired, when birds were medicated, and dates they were vaccinated.
  • Post “restricted” signs at the entrance to all bird areas.
  • Wear dedicated clothing and footwear when working with your birds. Do not use these clothes and footwear for off-farm activities.
  • Wash your hands before and after handling birds.

Jeffrey, J.S. 1997. Biosecurity for Poultry Flocks. University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine.
Vallancourt, J. and Stringham, M. 2007. Infectious Disease Risk Management. The U.S. Poultry & Egg Association. Tucker, GA.

Chickens and Peak Oil

Not only are fossil fuels the catalyst for anthropogenic climate change, but diminishing reserves of oil threaten food production. As cheap oil declines, the price of food will increase.

Everyone alive today has only ever lived in a world of increasing oil supply, which has enabled the expansion of food distribution chains and factory-based livestock. As we descend from the peak of world oil production, higher costs will be felt at the gas pump and the supermarket checkout. The Department of Energy admits it has “no formal strategy to coordinate and prioritize federal programs and activities dealing with peak oil issues.”1 Food security of the coming decades will not be national, but local.

The American Journal of Public Health measured the amount of petroleum required for many industrial agriculture processes, including egg production, and recommends the pursuit of lower-oil agriculture that combines new science with “historical wisdom for resilient food yields.”2 It applauds the burgeoning movement among cities exploring the necessary zoning changes to scale up localized urban production.

As the price of oil rises, “the effects on public health will depend on how successfully planners and public health officials respond with improvements in urban design and healthy behaviors.”3 Backyard chickens mark the return of historical wisdom and local resilience that succumbed to the illusory veneer of oil. A small flock is a significant step to provide local food security, no matter what happens on the world oil stage.

To this end, there is a lively conversation in communities across the nation about the pros and cons of urban chickens, which bring a fun, healthy dimension to gardening and symbolize dedication to the wellbeing of our local community and the world.

The mechanized model of egg production made possible by fossil fuels comes with hidden costs to air, land and water contamination. With domestic hens, the results of our actions are more obvious, and we are able to participate in the community of life that sustains us.

1. ”Crude Oil: Uncertainty About Future Oil Supply Makes It Important To Develop A Strategy For Addressing A Peak And Decline In Oil Production: GAO-07-283.” GAO Reports (2007): 1. Military & Government Collection.
2. American Journal of Public Health; September 2011, Vol. 101 Issue 9, “Peak Oil, Food Systems, and Public Health.”
3. American Journal of Public Health; September 2011, Vol. 101 Issue 9, “Peak Oil, Urban Form, and Public Health: Exploring the Connections.”

Chickens and Climate Change

In 2007 when Chestertown committed to the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, our town took a stance to protect the environmental and economic health of our local, regional, and global community. That commitment signified an acknowledgement that there have been many unquestioned implications of an industrial way of life. It helps to illuminate the consequences of our fast-paced consumer culture, from questioning the vehicles we drive to the food that nourishes us.

Intensive poultry farming brings us cheap eggs and appears to use less land than free-range production. But the efficiency comes with environmental costs. The volume of feed demanded by factory chicken operations requires petrochemical fertilizers manufactured by burning large volumes of fossil fuels. Not only are the intensive poultry operations exhausting topsoil vitality for their feed, the method of restoring nitrogen to the soil contributes to climate change. Petrochemical feedstocks account for about 2% of the world’s annual energy use.The alternative that can capture greenhouse gases is organic farming, such as in backyard homesteads.2

A small flock of backyard chickens doesn’t need large volumes of industrial feed. Their diet is supplemented by tablescraps, compost from vegetable gardens, and whatever worms and insects they happen to find. And that extra flavor comes packed with extra nourishment when we enjoy eggs from stress-free, free range birds that enjoy sunlight, fresh air, and our company.

At its heart, raising a small flock of chickens is about community. It’s about sharing eggs with friends and neighbors. It’s about educating children where their food comes from. It’s about participating in a life-serving economy by keeping those hens alive and healthy. It’s about commitment, and having fun, and sometimes it’s about saving the world.

1. U.S. Energy Information Administration. 60% of the chemicals sector of global energy goes toward feedstocks, which is 33% of total energy.
2. U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. Lots of related info about greenhouse gas production and mitigation.
Further reading:
Washington State Department of Agriculture‘s detailed explanation of the global energy relationship to agriculture and recommendation for production shifts toward less energy intensive systems.