Life

Backyard chickens become increasingly common in Eastern Iowa

Chickens gather around a feeder at the home of Kelli Kennon-Lane in rural Solon on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. Kennon-Lane
Chickens gather around a feeder at the home of Kelli Kennon-Lane in rural Solon on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. Kennon-Lane leads classes on keeping backyard chickens as part of her work with Indian Creek Nature Center. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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In Kelli Kennon-Lane’s opinion, chickens are a gardener’s best friend.

“Cut ’em loose in your garden because they will aerate your soil,” Kennon-Lane said. “They’ll search through the soil, and they’ll eat all of the little weed seeds, bugs and grubs, and all sorts of undesirable things that you don’t want. And while they’re doing that, they’ll be pooping all over in your garden and fertilizing it at the same time.

“It truly is quite cyclical, if you are a vegetable farmer, to have chickens.”

Her foray into backyard chickens began with a book.

A former high school language arts teacher, Kennon-Lane, 35, was tired of previewing young adult literature over her summer breaks and decided to read something more her style.

She picked up “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life” in which noted author Barbara Kingsolver tells about her family’s year of eating food that was grown within 100 miles of their home. When Kennon-Lane learned how much fossil fuel is used to transport food to the average American dinner plate, she was appalled.

“That just blew my mind. I thought, I live in Iowa, and I know how to grow things,” she said. “Why am I not growing some of my food?”

MAKING IT LEGAL

That summer she started a garden at her Marion home. She began to realize that when you grow your own vegetables, you often have a lot of scraps left over — tomato cores, broccoli leaves, carrot tops — scraps that chickens like to eat.

Kennon-Lane also was interested in getting her own eggs, so she started to look into getting chickens. At the time, Marion did not allow hens within city limits, so she and her husband, John Lane, worked with the city council to write a backyard chicken ordinance close to 10 years ago.

“People think that because they live within city limits that they can’t do a lot of these things. But actually, Marion and Cedar Rapids and the surrounding communities are really progressive,” she said. “A lot of them allow bees in the city, and many of them allow hens and ducks.”

When Kennon-Lane and her husband moved to a 5-acre property outside Mount Vernon, they brought their chickens with them.

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Kennon-Lane is now the director of education at the Indian Creek Nature Center in Cedar Rapids. As part of her job, she teaches the backyard chicken class that residents need to take to get a permit to have chickens within city limits. She also teaches a beekeeping class.

Interest in the classes has exploded since March, with 169 people taking a backyard chicken class and 121 people taking a beekeeping class. While the nature center typically doesn’t hold classes over the summer, it has continued to regularly provide the hour-and-a-half class — via Zoom — to meet demand.

CHORES EVERY DAY

Kennon-Lane tries to make sure people understand all that goes into the hobby before they get started.

“It does take a little bit of time, and you have to do chores every day, and you do have to get a pet sitter when you go out of town,” she said. “That’s just what happens when you have these animals.”

At home, Kennon-Lane has eight hens, with breeds ranging from Rhode Island Red to Buff Orpington and Majesty Maran.

“I, like many backyard chicken keepers, don’t stick to just one breed,” she said. “You want to sample every breed because you want that beautiful carton of eggs with all the different colors.”

In addition, Kennon-Lane has one rooster on her rural acreage. Typically, roosters are not allowed within city limits because they crow. Kennon-Lane got her rooster from a past student in the urban chicken class. While hatcheries try to sex chickens, there’s always a chance you’ll end up with a rooster instead of a hen, something she warns people about in her classes.

Kennon-Lane brings one of her hens to her in-person class so people can hold a chicken, perhaps for the first time. The hen she brings is from her original flock and is a favorite of her one-year-old son.

“She’s super tame. She’ll come right up to us if we’re sitting out in the yard,” she said. “The other day the rooster came up to our son, real close, and was looking at his toes. And I thought, ‘Oh, no. They look like little kernels of corn. Get his toes away.’ ”

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The family always has an abundance of eggs and gives them away to family and friends. When they lived in town, occasionally neighbors would stop by and buy a dozen eggs.

They let the chickens “go on an egg strike” in the winter, so sometimes they buy Sugar Grove Farm eggs from the nature center’s store.

While maintaining a large garden and chicken flock keeps her busy, Kennon-Lane is happy knowing she is self-sufficient and putting food on the table for her family.

“Chickens and keeping a vegetable garden are an expense, but it’s an expense of your time,” she said. “So you have to look at that trade-off.”

You can learn about Indian Creek Nature Center’s virtual backyard chicken certification course and the ordinances regarding urban chickens in Corridor cities at indiancreeknaturecenter.org/ urban-chickens.

Backyard chicken basics

Kelli Kennon-Lane shared some insider information on what goes into getting and keeping backyard chickens. She teaches a class at Indian Creek Nature Center that is offered monthly, online for the time being. Learn more about the class and register at indiancreeknaturecenter.org.

• In Linn County, the permitting process for legally keeping hens in the city is relatively easy. First, take the class at Indian Creek Nature Center, then complete your permit application and submit it to your City Hall with a site map and any applicable fees.

• Roosters are not allowed in city limits, but depending on your city’s ordinance you could keep up to 6 hens in your backyard.

• Residents are allowed to keep hens in the city for laying purposes only. On average, hens will lay an egg about every 26 hours.

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• The most costly and time-intensive part of preparing for keeping hens on your property is building or purchasing the coop and attached run. To save money, some homeowners retrofit a small shed, playhouse or other small structure. Some people build their own coop and run — many plans are available online. Others decide to purchase a pre-built coop.

• Check your city’s urban chicken ordinance for specific guidelines for placement of the coop and run.

• Items to have on hand before your hens arrive: layer feed, a feeder and waterer, scratch grains, calcium, grit, pine shavings (to use as bedding). You can also choose to purchase treats, like mealworms.

• Chicks need special equipment and care. They are commonly purchased in March through June from local farm stores or an Iowa hatchery, like Hoover’s Hatchery or Murray McMurray. The class at Indian Creek Nature Center covers this information.

• Predator protection, even in town, is important. Consider how you will keep your hens safe from rodents, dogs and cats.

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