Inspired by our local farm and feed store’s “chick days,” my husband and I talked about the possibility of getting a few laying hens and starting a backyard flock on our small acreage. After considering the upfront and continuing care costs and the actual day-to-day duties, we opted to save that idea for another time. After all, eggs are going for less than two bucks per dozen!

However, in the spirit of “homesteading,” and being self-sufficient in growing their own food source, many urban and rural Iowans think it's worth it to raise their own eggs. But I would caution those doing it with the goal of maintaining what they believe to be a “safer” food supply.

Last year, there were 1120 documented cases of salmonella in 48 states, resulting in 249 hospitalizations—all contracted from backyard chicken flocks! Twenty-four of these cases occurred in Iowa. The Center for Disease Control noted it was the largest number of illnesses ever recorded linked to backyard poultry.

Although most people associate salmonella with undercooked eggs and meat (or for those of you like me, you weigh the risk when considering that bite of raw cookie dough), salmonella can be contracted directly from handling the birds, with this bacteria being present on their feathers and beaks as well as their equipment and bedding. Rather than “chicken out” though on raising poultry, it’s important to take the time to learn about how to protect your family’s health.

When it comes to housing backyard chickens, USDA actually recommends fencing birds in and cooping them at night to protect them from predators and other disease-carrying animals or even insects like black flies causing chicken fatalities in Iowa. The eggs they lay can also be contaminated with salmonella. Tips like cleaning dirty eggs with light sandpaper (not water), refrigerating them after collection and cooking them thoroughly can reduce risk to your family.

It’s important to remember we all have a role in food safety. Especially when keeping foods at correct temperatures and proper handling to avoid sickness. In fact, those with questions on how to wash, store or cook foods can find answers from Iowa State University Extension’s AnswerLine.

As for my own backyard flock, maybe someday when we have kids who are a bit older, backyard chickens would be a way to teach them the responsibility of raising livestock, even if it is on a smaller scale.  In fact, I have some early ideas for that fancy henhouse I’d love to create with my husband and the kiddos can help manage the birds—as long as they wash their hands afterward!

By Caitlyn Lamm. Caitlyn is Iowa Farm Bureau’s public relations specialist.