Thoughtful Chicken Raising, by Sharon, April 22nd, 2011, Posted on The Chatelaine’s Keys
Poultry is the new black, right? Well, maybe not, but when you think about greater self-sufficiency and backyard farming and such, the first thing a lot of people imagine is getting some chickens.
Now on one hand, I think that’s a good idea. There are many compelling reasons to keep chickens. First of all, industrial chicken and egg production is one of the filthiest, most inhumane, most grotesque industries of all time. You probably already know that the chickens are essentially tortured during their short lives, living in filth, crammed in tiny cages, etc… I won’t bother reiterating what we all already know, but if you buy eggs or chicken at the supermarket, you are, with your dollars, saying, “I’m ok with torturing animals and polluting the planet just so I can have meat and eggs.” Organics, industrial kosher and “free range” (which really doesn’t mean what you think it does) are marginally better, but much more like industrial production than not.
So what is a person who likes to eat eggs and the occasional bowl of chicken soup to do? If you raise four laying hens in your backyard, you will average 2 eggs per day – enough for a household of four to have an egg each every other day. 8 hens, which would fit comfortably in your average suburban backyard, will keep you in all the eggs you want much of the year. Eggs are a superb source of protein, and quite delicious. They enhance most baked goods.
In addition, you will get chicken manure (in industrial concentrated production, chicken manure is a problem – in your yard, it is a blessing on your garden), and when the hens get older, and stop laying so well, if you are brave about this sort of thing, you can make chicken and dumplings out of them. Or you can keep the hen as a pet. They are friendly things, make pleasant noises (you don’t need a rooster to get eggs, and in fact most people in close proximity to neighbors shouldn’t keep a rooster) , and good natured. Children can pet them, and there isn’t a child or adult in the world who doesn’t get excited when they find an egg. All my children have grown up with chickens, but the excitement has never waned.
Chickens will eat your food scraps, including meats and things you can’t put on the compost pile, and return you beautiful eggs. They will eat bugs, including japanese beetles, slugs and ticks that pester us. All they require is an area of grass to scratch on, the most basic housing (4 hens can live comfortably in a doghouse, but for gathering eggs and straw removal you might want something else).
Now some areas do not permit chickens, but surprisingly many do, and if they don’t, this is something to take up with your town board or whoever is in charge. Get your neighbors to help – promise them as many delicious, orange yolked, lovely eggs as they want if they will help you. Show them how cute the baby chicks are, and how sweet natured a Buff Orpington hen is when a five year old picks her up and carries her around. 6 hens make far less noise, mess and trouble than one Golden Retriever for neighbors, and are infinitely more useful. Their manure is less dangerous than a dog’s poop, they carry fewer human-dangerous diseases. Any society that permits household dogs can rationally accept household chickens, so do not let nonsense about salmonella and bird flu deter you or your city. That does not mean it will always be easy, but it is well worth a try.
But – and I want everyone to pause at that but – it is worth thinking about how we’re going to feed these chickens. Because a lot of people get chickens and think their work on the path to sustainability is done. But if your chickens are eating a lot of grains, it would probably be more productive for you to simply eat the grains. And if those grains come from long distances, and are not organic, you’ve done something, but not enough. If you are feeding your chickens GM corn and Roundup-ready soybeans, then you will both get out of them what you put in, and are again, with your dollars, tacitly saying “these practices are ok.”
So how do we feed chickens so that they produce eggs and meat for us, but don’t require us to violate basic principles about raising things sustainably? Well, chickens are always going to need some grain, but they can get quite a lot of their food foraging in your yard for bugs, eating grass, and from your household scraps. Most American households could easily feed half a dozen chickens more than 80% of their diets from their own scraps, scraps obtained from their neighborhood (talk to neighbors, your local coffee shop, the market, etc…) lawn and bugs.
Lots of people raising poultry and feeding them mostly grains raises a major problem – among other difficulties, besides the fact that your eggs may or may not be any lower in environmental impact than the other eggs, when grain is fed to livestock in the industrial world, it raises grain prices in the Global south, where much of the grain is fed directly to humans. Competitions between the livestock and pets of industrial people and the world’s poor are always a losing battle for the world’s poor – they can’t compete. So finding ways to keep your chickens on homegrown feed or food scraps, as is done in much of the world, is essential.
Now back to the lawn. Presumably, you didn’t want the bugs, mostly anyway. The lawn might bother you a bit – after all, if you live in a suburban neighborhood, you may have one of those lawns that looks like it was painted on, and the thought of chickens pooping on your lawn may be traumatic. But if you build a chicken tractor (that is, a small pen that can be moved easily), and put the chickens in a small spot on your lawn each day, you’ll fertilize that spot, won’t have excessive quantities of manure, and get your grass trimmed too. Or, you can build them a yard where they can poop their heart’s content, and you can bring them your weeds, lawn clippings, as well as the scraps from your garden, and keep them blissfully happy. Generally speaking you’ll want breeds of hen that are good foragers – we’ve had great luck with Buff Orpingtons, Dark Cornish and Aracaunas.
For the other 20% of their diet you’ll need grains and a source of fairly intense protein, and maybe a source of calcium. If they have open ground, you won’t need to worry about grit too much. Now we shouldn’t be trying to duplicate commercial diets – the idea is not to maximize meat or egg production, but to get the most out of the animals without either shortening their lives or making your own life stressful.
Locally produced staple grains can feed chickens – you can grow them in your garden if you have enough room. Dry corn, for example, is not hard to grow, and it wouldn’t take much space to grow a year’s supply for a small number of hens. Wheat, oats or millet need not be threshed or anything. Just grow them (they grow like grass, because they are grasses), cut them down, and toss a bundle in with the hens now and then – the straw will make bedding for them and they’ll scratch out all the grain. Even potatoes can be used, and potatoes are the easiest staple starch to grow in cold, rocky areas like the Northeast. Potatoes must be cooked, but you could easily boil a big pot of potatoes every few days and toss the rest to them gradually. Or you can buy grains from a local small producer.
As for protein, if you have enough land, you could use extra milk from goats or cows (chickens will also happily drink milk you let sour in the fridge.) If you can find enough scraps to support them and the chickens, you could raise either earth or meal worms in your house, and use them as a supplementary source of protein. Or, of course, there’s soybeans, if you can buy them locally. Your own meat scraps will provide some. If you have spare eggs, you can even cook them and feed them back to the hens (you don’t want to teach them to eat raw eggs, trust me). In any case, any shells you don’t need should be cooked, crushed and fed back to the chickens for calcium supplementation. With that, you’ll need only a little oyster shell or other source of calcium.
At most, you should be bringing in a small percentage of the hens’ total diet, if you are working towards sustainability – because those sacks of feed will probably not be available forever. Might as well make good eggs now!