cover pic

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Wednesday, February 24, 2016

What It's Like to Raise a Few Chickens on a Preppy Farm

Who can resist the little fluffy chicks peeping at you at your local Tractor Supply store a few weeks before Easter?  They're soft, clean, fluffy balls that you can hold in the palm of your hand.  I know.  We're about to order another batch of chicks through the mail for the fourth time.  We've taken a few years off, but I'm now finally excited to get a new flock of spring peeps so we'll have our own jumbo brown eggs again by early fall.  Chickens seem to be the trendy animal to have in your own backyard if your neighborhood doesn't prohibit them.  They not only give you eggs, but they eat up bugs and food scraps, and they give your gardens great fertilizer.  Everything is not picture perfect with poultry, however.  I'll share with you our personal experiences with chickens over the past six years.

About a year after our last child was born, I finally conceded to getting a dozen chicks. I was hesitant for so long because I had a feeling that once we started with chickens, there would be more livestock to come.  I was right. We chose golden sex links because they were supposed to be dual egg layers and meat birds.  We figured we'd keep the hens and butcher the roosters.  The neat thing about sex links is that you can determine the sex of them right away by their color.  The girls are brown, and the boys are white.  As they grow, the differences are even more noticeable.  We knew the day the freshly hatched chicks were to arrive at the post office, and my little ones were bouncing off the walls waiting for the postmaster to call and let us know they had arrived.  We could hear them peeping over the phone.

The thing about chicks in March is that they are nowhere near ready to live outside, especially if you live in the northern part of the U.S.  We kept them in our basement under a heat lamp for many weeks until I couldn't stand the smell of them wafting upstairs into the main part of the house any longer.  The employees at Tractor Supply keep those metal washtubs meticulously clean, and you'll notice the chicks aren't very big there either.  The truth is that chicks grow quickly, and they fill their container before you know it.  Oh, and they poop a lot.  You'll end up cleaning out their shavings often or you end up with a smelly mess, and then the chicks and their feed and water containers are messy too.  That first year, we only had a dozen chicks, but they still outgrew their initial storage bin within a few weeks.  By late May, they were finally big enough to move outside to the portable chicken tractor my husband and children built and painted.  Once outside, all we had to do was fill their water containers once a day and toss in some feed and scraps in the morning and in the evening.  My husband moved the chicken tractor every other day so they would have fresh pasture to scratch in, and by four months of age, there were eggs to collect up in the nesting boxes.

One of the first things we learned about egg layers and dual-purpose chickens is that they don't have much meat on them.  If you hope to eat your chickens, don't waste your time on any type of poultry except meat birds.  When we butchered the cockerels, they were only about 1 1/2 pounds after they'd been cleaned and were ready to be cooked.  We also realized that butchering chickens is a gruesome, time-consuming, messy job.  Even after we became experienced and rather efficient at doing so, we still came to the conclusion that it just wasn't worth our time.  Although we loved knowing that the meat we were eating was natural, healthy, and fresh, it was hours of our day spent on only a few pounds of meat for dinner.  We haven't butchered any subsequent chickens in years.  They now either start free-ranging and migrate to our Amish neighbors' farms or they live out their old age here long after they've stopped laying eggs.

Although none of our hens or roosters have ever been aggressive toward us, we were enlightened to the horrific fact that they will be aggressive toward each other.  Once you have a flock of chickens, especially if they are confined in any sized pen, you understand where the term "hen pecked" comes from.  Our second batch of chicks began cannibalizing each other from the start.  We probably made the mistake of buying too many, but their home was still bigger than the recommendations laid out in any of the livestock books we had.  The children were shocked when they would go out to the garage to feed these little chicks in the morning (by the second year, new chicks no longer started out in my house,) only to find one or two of them dead with their eyes plucked out and pieces of them nibbled on.  No matter how much food we gave them, how spacious of a pen we put them in, nor how small the flock gradually became, the remaining birds would single out one and peck it to death within a few days.  If we removed a few, they would still repeat the same behavior.  We still aren't sure if it was the breed (Golden-laced Wyandottes) or the fact that there were 50 of them initially, and once they began this horrible practice, it became a habit.  Regardless, we never purchased such a large quantity or this breed again.  We eventually let the few survivors free-range to spare their lives.  It was a morbid learning experience for us all.

While I am on the subject of free-range birds, let me state right now that I love the idea of it.  To see the chickens roam free, happily scratching and pecking away does my heart good.  The above four year old rooster is still alive and well; although, he has moved uphill to our Amish neighbor's farmstead to hang with their hens.  He makes an appearance at our place once every few months and struts around the farmhouse as he crows under the windows.  But free-range birds come with a price.  Our chickens have always migrated to our porches.  They have acres of ground they could cover throughout the day, but they end up on our porches, patio, and flower beds to steal the cat food, children's snacks, newly planted seeds, and ripe strawberries from the strawberry patch.  Not only are they thieves, but they peck the cats' noses and leave unwanted chicken "fertilizer" everywhere, including the welcome mats in front of the doors.  I have no idea how people entertain friends outdoors in the summertime with chickens free-ranging because they come right up to the picnic or cookout to eat the food and drop their chicken splat.  As long as the chickens are free-ranging out in the pastures and barnyard, I am fine.  But that's not what our chickens do, which is why we end up putting them in chicken tractors most of the year and the barn or hoophouse in the winter. 

The other problem with loose hens is that you literally need to go on egg hunts daily to find their eggs unless your hens go to their nesting boxes to lay.  Ours do not.  We have found clutches of eggs in all kinds of high grassy patches, under bushes and porches, out in the woods, and numerous other places.  That's fine if it's spring or fall and temperatures are mild, but if it's in the heat of summer, I don't feel comfortable eating eggs that might have been sitting in 90 degree days for who knows how long.  I like our chickens and eggs as long as they are in their designated chicken-friendly areas.

Aside from the hassles which we have learned from, chickens are a neat species to have around---even on a potentially preppy property.  This spring we'll only purchase about a half dozen chicks since we don't need over a dozen eggs per day.  Once they start laying, you quickly fill up your refrigerator with lots of cartons of large, fresh eggs.  You'll start digging out every egg recipe you can find, and you'll still be giving them away.  One thing I did try one spring when we had an overabundance of eggs was freezing them for the winter.  You just crack them and stir them up, then freeze them in plastic containers.  These work great for scrambled eggs or for baking in the winter when your hens won't lay again until the sunlight increases past twelve hours a day or so.

Since it's been four years since we've had chicks, I have a feeling there will be growing anticipation around here for that box of peeps to arrive at the post office next month.  Can't wait for spring!

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