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The Chicken & Egg story!

It all began last summer when the Lavakumar children asked for a pet. Like other families with young children at home during the school holidays, the Lavakumars wanted meaningful activities to fill the long summer days.  13-year-old Avneesh and 11-year old Laiyaa were keen on a dog. Or a cat. That was not going to happen, said mom Priya Lavakumar.

She already had her hands full with a 2-year-old toddler Lavya, and a job as an operations manager.

In April last year, the Lavakumars had taken their kids to visit a local farm in Wilton. It had a small petting zoo – goats and chicks.

“We had fun, and we came back.” Two months later, it was summer break. “The kids didn’t have anything to do. So, I said, ok, let’s do a pet project,” said their dad, Lavakumar Baskaran. “Let’s raise chickens and see how it works.”

Priya was aghast at her husband’s suggestion. “I was totally against it. Why? This was something very new. I did not want to get into something like this.”

And the Lavakumars are vegetarian.

But a lot can happen in a year.

Laiyaa, age 11 and Lavya, age 3, look to see if an egg has been laid. Photo: Sree Sripathy for India Currents/CatchLight Local.

Rooster Not Required

When they learned that roosters weren’t needed to make eggs, the decision became easier. “You just need the chicks,” explained Lava. “So that was the major trigger.”

The white, yellow, and purple-colored eggs had excited the children at the farm “We never knew that different colored eggs came from different chicks, said Lava. “That was the most unique aspect. These were not factory eggs.”

Raising chickens may seem like a burdensome, year-round endeavor. They aren’t quite pets, they need to be housed safely away from predators, and their cages need mucking out. None of this deterred the Lavakumars.

Today, their backyard is home to four Rhode Island Reds—Anu, Abby, Avi, and Allie. The Lavakumar kids named three chicks, while their dad chose Anu for the fourth. Like a posse of identical quadruplets, they are difficult to tell apart, aside from the colored zip ties around their feet. “Now we know who’s who,” says Priya.

The Elk Grove farming community

Elk Grove is very connected to its rural farm community. Its small urban setting is less than 10 to 15 minutes—about 5 miles away from surrounding farms and fields, says Lava.

It is familiar territory for Lava who grew up in Salem in Tamil Nadu, near a rural community where cows and chickens foraged in the fields on his aunt’s farm.

The Lavakumars did some research. They discovered that Elk Grove city codes allow up to six cooped chickens at least five feet from a property line. The Council voted to let residents keep “up to 12 free-range chickens if they are at least 40 feet from a property line.”

They also learned that roosters required more space. “If you need a rooster, you need to have at least a quarter acre of land.” But with 10,000 square feet “you can raise up to six chickens,” said Priya.

Armed with that information, the Lavakumars went to work.

A computer scientist turns carpenter

Their initial investment was minimal. Each chicken was just $5.

“I spent $50 for four chickens,” says Lava. “I bought some food for $10, and a water bucket for another $10. So my initial investment was only $50. Then the heat bulb was another $50. It was less than $100 for the startup.”

Lava ordered the first 5×2 coop online and taught himself to assemble it. He calls himself a computer science guy turned carpenter. He had never built anything like this before. The coop sat in their garage with a heat lamp to keep the baby chicks warm.

But the chickens outgrew their little home in six months “They grew so big so fast!” say the Lavakumars.  

Lava graduated from installing pre-assembled coops in his garage into a full-fledged DIY expert. “Somehow, I learned. And my kids helped me measure and plan,” admits Lava. The new coop cost between $300 to $400.

It was a process of trial and error, he says ruefully. He broke several saws, but now understands the difference between “a circular saw and a jigsaw.” It was a science lesson happening in their own backyard.  

Lavakumar Baskaran talks to his daughter Laiyaa, age 11, about their chickens. Photo: Sree Sripathy for India Currents/CatchLight Local.

The chicken coop

Today, a very professional-looking, eight by four backyard chicken run sits on raised planter beds made of untreated wood. A cover of netting keeps predators at bay (a hawk sighting happened recently). An automatic door opens into the yard and links to a series of tunnels that let the chickens wander at will in protected passageways.

“These girls are good at escaping,” says Lava. To keep their chickens from literally flying the nest, the Lavakumars learned to clip flight feathers. “You do it only on one side so that it offsets the balance. You trim only the flight feathers and they’re good to go for a year.”

“The chickens can go from their coop under that planter box, roam around and then come back to their coop,” explains Lava. The coop features nesting beds for eggs, and a solar panel stores heat for year-round warmth and stress-free chickens. “If the chickens spend more energy to produce body heat, they don’t lay eggs. The heater really reduces their stress.”

Free-range chicken complaints

According to Elk Grove’s City Code Enforcement Manager Shane Diller, most anti-free-range chicken complaints are about smell and proximity to fences marking property lines.

Fortunately for the Lavakumars their next-door neighbors are at ease with the chickens across the fence. They obliged a neighbor with a swimming pool who asked that the coop sit away from his side. And when they travel, another friendly neighbor lends a helping hand. “My neighbor says she’ll take care because her husband grew up on a farm like Lava,” says Priya.

The Daily Egg

By the time they were 18 to 20 weeks old, the chickens started laying organic, ‘unfertilized’ eggs. Each chicken lays one egg a day. “Some days the chickens may take a break. You get three eggs, but most of the days we get four,” says Priya.

She adds their chicks are a genial brood, chosen for their gentle disposition. When they picked their chicks at the farm shop, a helpful checklist pinned to the cage identified each breed, how many eggs it would produce, the egg color, and if the chick was ‘kid friendly.’

“What does that mean? Some chickens are aggressive. So, the ones we got are very docile. And they are adaptable to all temperatures.”

  • The image shows a house and backyard

Chicken Watchdogs

Interestingly, says Priya, chickens can remember up to 100 faces, especially mean people. The next time that person appears, the leader of the flock will immediately alert the rest of the brood. And they make great neighborhood watchdogs. When there’s a disturbance in the neighborhoods, their feathers ruffle like a dog’s raised hackles and they cluck loudly, says Priya.

“We don’t recognize their intelligence.”

When she goes to the coop, the hens run to her. “They want food from me. They know I will feed something.” That ‘something’ adds Priya, is dried mealworm treat.

A Little Mother Hen!

She has foresworn any other responsibility for the chickens, apart from collecting the eggs, a task she shares with her daughter Laiyaa. Every day Laiyaa checks in on the coop to collect organic eggs in pale shades of beige. She calls the chickens “my babies.”

“As chicks, they were small, cute, and very fluffy. But as time went on, they became bigger. It’s been a great experience caring for four girls.”

Laiyaa is mother-hen-in-chief. “My elder daughter is like a guardian for my chickens,” says Lava.

In fact, say her parents, the chickens play with Laiyaa and listen to her. She uses mealworm as a treat to get them to obey her commands. “It’s like getting dogs to come to you with a treat,” Priya laughs.

The food you eat

What’s remarkable about this backyard experiment says Priya, is that her children and even their friends are making connections to the food they eat. They usually see food packaged in the grocery store, but now “it makes children think twice.”

Though she balked at raising chickens, they seem to have won Priya over.

“You just have to collect eggs, give them some treats and they’re good to go.”

Priya Lavakumar

In February, the NYT reported that the rising costs of consumer egg production made egg prices soar and forced a national egg shortage. But, rearing chickens at home was not the answer, they advised, because it was expensive and meant also a lot more work.

The Lava family’s chickens. Photo: Sree Sripathy for India Currents/CatchLight Local.

Low maintenance chicks

Priya disagrees. Chickens aren’t high maintenance, she says. A bag of feed costs about $50 and lasts a month. “They forage most of the food that they want. And I feed them kitchen scraps like vegetable peels, cauliflower cores, and cabbage.”

As long as they have food, water, and a roof over their head, the chickens thrive independently. Lava has built what he calls a “chicken coop with a good playground and protection layer.”

Inside the coop, he has installed a water bucket with an automatic feeder, and a bucket drilled with holes so the chickens can peck inside for food when hungry. Passageways lead into the backyard where the chickens can access natural nutrients in the soil they need to keep healthy.

“Food itself is not good enough,” says Priya. “They need to eat soil, dirt, and pebble grit.”

Eco-friendly egg-makers

Their chickens are an eco-friendly venture. They poop in their coop on woodchips which absorb moisture. Once a week, says Lava, he removes those woodchips and mixes them into his plant beds, because they are an excellent natural fertilizer for the soil.

“They call it black gold,” adds Priya. “It’s very good manure for plants.”

In an environmental ‘coup’, the Lavakumars grow vegetables in their elevated planter beds and greenhouse. Tomatoes and eggplant. Spinach and basil. They recycle vegetable waste by sharing it with the chickens. “It’s all completely green,” says Lava who now has plans to build a two-story chicken coop, after his successful first experiment raising chickens.

“The chickens really give the money back to us. We’ll put it back in the planter box. It’s the full cycle.”

Meera Kymal is the Managing Editor at India Currents and Founder/Producer at She produces multi-platform content on the South Asian diaspora through the lens of social justice,...