An argument for keeping your own flock of backyard chickens

There is an abundance of information on the Interwebs on why raising your own chickens is such a wonderful adventure (and raising chickens really is an adventure).  For me, I chose to start raising chickens because I loved the idea of having my own fresh supply of eggs from the girls.  I didn’t realize the other benefits I would reap from my flock.

For example:

I love interacting with my chickens.  I talk to them, coo at them, cluck to them, and encourage them along, especially in the dark days of winter when they are complaining about the cold and snow.  “Soon, girls.  Soon it will be spring and the green grass will appear again an you can roam around the newly fenced yard!”

I laugh at my chickens.  I had no idea how funny chickens were until I had my own flock.  They are wonderfully social, and if allowed to range free, they will come check out every little thing you are doing, to the point of aggravation.  While living in the South, I grew peanuts.  While harvesting the peanuts, I pulled the plants from the ground and set them aside, with the peanuts still attached to the mother plant.  The chickens decided to ‘help’ me harvest the peanuts, so they began plucking the peanuts from the plants to eat (or partially eat, as was the case) and then they got right under me to dig in the freshly disturbed soil to look for bugs.  Have you ever tried to tell a chicken to ‘move it’ because she’s in your way?  The plea falls on deaf ears, I tell you.

I have fewer bugs in my yard because of my chickens.  When living in the South, we had all sorts of bugs–ticks, fleas (and subsequently, tapeworms that showed up in MaeBelle’s system every couple of months), grasshoppers, and the like.  Once we brought home chickens and let them have free range of our 5 acres, I no longer got ticks while walking around the yard and MaeBelle stopped getting tapeworms.  The chickens were eating tons of bugs!  I was flabbergasted at the impact 7 chickens had on the bug population of such a large area.

Currently I live on a quarter acre city lot.  With the footprint of the house, driveway, sidewalks, shed, and sidewalks, our free range space for chickens is much, MUCH less than what we had at our previous place.  But we still have 7 chickens and they have plenty of space to roam free and peck for their food.  Soon they will have even more space as we have fenced our front yard with all the garden boxes, and they will have the run of this space come Spring.  We don’t really need 7 chickens, we could get by with 3 chickens.  But with 7, we get around 3 1/2 dozen eggs per week, so I can sell some at the CSA, give some away, or make tons of ice cream and angel food cake in the summer.  Like I mentioned earlier, the main reason I wanted a flock of chickens is for the delicious, and nutritious, eggs.  There are studies that show the nutritional differences between commercially raised chicken eggs and those that come from free ranging backyard chickens.  One study showed that free range backyard chicken eggs had more vitamin A, more beta carotene, more vitamin E, more omega-3 fatty acids, less cholesterol, and less saturated fat.  I can tell visually that my girls lay more nutritious eggs, especially in the beta carotene department.  Just look at this photo below:IMG_3691

The egg in the front is a store bought egg.  During the last half of December, the girls stopped laying and we finally broke down and bought eggs from the grocery (thankfully we only had to buy 2 dozen before the girls began laying again).  These store bought eggs were the “free range, vegetarian fed” kind.  First of all, “free range” in a commercial egg producing setting does not mean the same thing as free range in my back yard.  Don’t believe me?  Look it up.  There are plenty of sources out there explaining what “free range” means and what commercial producers can get away with and still call the eggs “free range.”  Second, CHICKENS ARE NOT VEGETARIANS!  They are omnivores and believe me, they WILL eat just about anything.  I once witnessed 3 of my girls ripping a snake into 3 pieces and chowing it down (after fighting over it, of course) before I could stop them.  “Vegetarian fed” is simply another way of saying the chickens are being fed corn, soy, or some other cheap, nutrient deficient food source.  The result?  Pale yellow, nutrient poor eggs.

One of my girls laid the egg at the back of the skillet.  See how golden orange that egg is compared to the store bought egg?  There’s nutrients in that baby!  And this is the middle of winter, so my girls are not getting the green grass and bug-filled diet that they get during the growing season.  They do get kitchen scraps in the winter, courtesy of us AND some friends and neighbors who don’t have compost piles and hate to see their vegetable scraps end up in the landfill.  And I have bags of leaves, also courtesy of my kind neighbors, that I can dump in their run and let them scratch around in on those nice days when they actually want to come outside.  This gives them some exercise and they find little tidbits of bugs, grass, seeds, and other goodies that keep them busy and happy until the snow flies again and they coop themselves up, complaining loudly about how long winter is in Montana.

Also, check out this photo:IMG_3692

See how perky the golden yolk is at the back and how flat and limp the yolk in the front is by comparison?  The longer an egg sits, the more flaccid the yolk becomes.  The eggs sitting on the shelves at the grocery were laid weeks (and WEEKS!) before you bought them.  Sometimes I collect a (still warm!) egg and crack it into a hot skillet before it has a chance to go in the refrigerator!  It’s the best.

So what if you want to raise your own flock of chickens?  How many chickens should you have?  Where do you buy chickens?  Where should they live?  How much space do they need?  What if you have a dog?  What breed of chicken is best?

There are all great questions and there are many answers, and many variations and opinions on the answers to these questions out there.  For starters, I recommend talking to someone who raises chickens in a setting similar to where you live.  Live out of town on a large farm?  Talk to someone who lives out of town on some acreage who has chickens.  Sure, you can talk to someone who lives on a small city lot, but the issues and concerns you have will be different depending on where you live.  Fox predation is not an issue in town, but noisy squawking potentially bothering the neighbors is.  Then do some more research, either online or by checking out a book from the library on housing and space requirements.  Look at coop designs.  Read about the different breeds.  Do you want meat birds as well?  Do you want to raise your own chicks?  Can you have a rooster?  Do you WANT a rooster?IMG_6784

I’ll provide some information on the breeds I have in a future post and give some pros and cons of each breed.  In my experience I’ve found that chickens are pretty easy to raise as long as you provide them the basics:  food, a clean water source, protection from predators, space to roam, a place to lay eggs, and a place to roost.  IMG_7111

If you can’t raise your own chickens, or you don’t want to, then think about finding a source of locally raised eggs from a neighbor or farmer in your area.  Not only will you be supporting a local food producer and reducing food miles, you’ll be adding more nutritious eggs to your diet.  That’s a win-win for everyone.

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