Last year, Sam Tobin’s fifth grade teacher brought in cute little chicks for the students to pet. Instantly, Sam knew he wanted chicks and chickens of his own. Love at first sight would not be enough to convince his parents. Sam did 20 hours of research before he presented his chicken coop plan.

A year later, he has a county license to manage a chicken coop, which houses more than a dozen chicken in his family’s backyard. Despite his success, he never rests on his hay bed; instead he diligently follows Art and Bri and Justin Rhodes to hone his skills as a Charlotte-based urban farmer.

He convinced his parents with the numbers: by selling his eggs at $5/dozen, he would be able to pay off the Craigslist-bought $800 coop within a year. The math didn’t turn out exactly that way: he had not accounted for the price of food (bought at Tractor Supply Company) and that four chickens would fall prey to a coyote before their egg-laying life had ended, after which he would have to buy a new batch of chicks, of which most would die during the transport due to bad handling by the delivery company.

After re-crunching the numbers, he is confident that he is only a few months behind paying off the coop.

He had, however, accounted for what it involves. The sixth of six children, his mother running a daycare, his father gone often on business, siblings who are busy scholars and musicians, he knew this venture would be all his responsibility. It is up to him twice a day, seven days a week, to feed the “girls”, let them run around after he gets home from school, and lock them back up at night.

Caregiving is the easy part for him. He loves the personality of his “girls”. He knows their favorite spots, their games, their grooming needs, their pecking orders, and how they act in a group and as individuals. He has a special fondness for Dewey, who came with the original batch.

But it’s not all about playing and petting.

The “babies”

Sam bought his first five one-day-old chicks at Renfrow Hardware Store in Matthews. The first four weeks the chicks must be kept warm and indoors. This is the messiest part.

The  “teenagers”

At around four weeks, depending on outdoor temperatures, young chickens can be transferred outside, still protected in the coop from prey and older pecking chickens. They can be let out to run, but must be monitored, until they get a sense of space and routine.

The “ladies”

Once they reach their final weight, Sam will let them run free, since they know the routine and whereabouts, and they are big enough to defend themselves from older pecking chickens. They start laying eggs at five to six months.

Sam has figured out how and what to feed them in order to fatten them up in winter and slim them down in summer, to maximize happiness and egg production. Mixing used egg shells to the feed is also beneficial!

Retiring the “girls”?

Egg production drops off by 10 percent at about two years and declines quickly from there.

Sam is considering butchering his at two to three years of age, since after that, chickens are prone to illness, which negatively affects their quality of life, and for which treatment puts the bottom line in the red.

When a few of his chicks, at five to seven months, turned into loud crowing roosters bothering the neighborhood, he brought them to Blonde Farming Rescue.

Practical coop tips

Sam has fortified his coop against snakes and opossums, and he now has an alarm set every night  to remind him to bring in the “girls”, since it only took one night to forget to lock them up for a coyote to catch and kill four of them.

Chickens and coops have a smell, but it does not bother Sam, he says as he shoves a stick into a chicken dropping, explaining how long manure has to be composted before it can be used as fertilizer.

This coop is his happy place.

Photos: Karin Lukas-Cox

This story was written for CharlotteFive’s latest channel for parents in the QC, called QC Playground. Sign up for the weekly QC Playground newsletter here.

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