Thoughtful Chicken Raising

admin April 22nd, 2011

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!

Sharon

Open Farm Day!

admin April 22nd, 2011

So have you always wanted to come and see the farm?  On Sunday, May 22 from 10-4pm we’ll be holding an open farm day.  We’ll have baby goats, baby rabbits, baby chicks and ducklings, goat milking and scything demonstrations, kid activities and lots of other fun stuff at our farm at 43 Crow Hill Road Delanson, NY 12053.  We’re about 40 minutes west of Albany or east of Oneonta, off of Rt. 88.

I’ll have books, herbs and herb products, heirloom vegetables, herb plants and flowers for sale, and possibly other stuff.  And time to hang out, chat and meet people.  I hope I’ll get to meet some of you!

Sharon

On Entering the Foster Parent World

Sharon April 7th, 2011

The story of where we are and what we’re up to is all over on the other blog!

Also, if you are around the Capital Region and want to see what I’m up to, I’m going to be here on Saturday! Come and say hi!

Sharon

Chad Gadya

admin April 4th, 2011

Chad Gadya

Pesach (Passover) is coming, and so is more than one kid goat at our farm,  as the famous Jewish seder song says (which you can hear above sung very traditionally).  ”Chad Gadya” means “One Kid Goat” and it is a kind of Jewish “Old Lady who Swallowed the Fly” song in some ways, but with other meanings as well.  As the story goes,  Father buys a kid goat for two zuzim (for the Pesach seder) but the goat is eaten by cat, the cat is chased by a dog, etc… until finally…

Along came the Holy One of Blessings, and slew the Angel of Death, who slew the ritual slaughterer, who slaughtered the ox , which drank the water,  which put out the fire, which burnt the stick, which hit the dog, which bit the cat, which ate the kid which Father bought for two zuzim. Chad gadya, chad gadya! One only kid, one only kid!

Bast and Arava are due to kid anytime now, and we’re checking our supplies and watching our girls carefully.  We know from experience that the does can handle things themselves, and our job is mostly to hang about and watch and be around just in case of problems.  The beauty of the Nigerian Dwarves is that they kid very easily – we’ve only once had to assist a birth, with Arava last year, because she jumped a fence and got pregnant at five months (they can breed earlier than 7 months but shouldn’t) and she was little and her daughter was huge.  This year Arava is in gorgeous shape and I don’t anticipate (knock wood, cross fingers, etc…) any trouble.  Just can’t wait to see the littles!

There is something about the arrival of baby goats around seder time that brings me back to the pastoralist past – the story of the Israelite’s emergence from Egypt with their flocks, and their refusal to go without them, to the last song at the seder table, Chad Gadya, Chad Gadya is a reminder that my faith emerged from people bound tightly to flocks of sheep and goats.  As Brad Kessel points out in _Goat Song_ (great book, btw), the history is bound into our language, into a very alphabet, which carries the record of the shepherd’s staff in the Lamed/L, and the horned animal in our A/Aleph.

This season is supposed to be one of new life – the first harvest of grain (barley) in ancient Israel marked the casting out of all of last year’s chametz (leavened food) and its replacement with fresh.  We clean out too – although it is much harder for stationary people with big houses than wandering pastoralists with tents – but we do our best.  Everything else is so much easier for us, due to our fossil fueled bounty it seems silly to complain about the Pesach cleaning.

As we wait for the babies, anticipating – how many?  How many does?  What shall we name them?  The names are coming from Greek Mythology for our spring kids this year – shall we name one Amalthea?  If we get nine does, could we name them after the muses?  The debates rage among the children.

We wait for the buds to unfurl, we plan for the growing garden that is too soggy and mucky to plant.  We wait for the births we know are coming – chicks in their eggs, rabbits in their mother’s womb, sheep waiting to birth in my neighbor’s barn, and most of all, for that first kid goat, chad gadya, chad gadya, it sounds like a blessing, a benediction in the original Aramaic.  It is a blessing when it is born in your barn.

An older woman from my synagogue won one kid goat this year.  Her little wether will come to live at our farm on Wednesday and join the to-come crop of baby goats boinging around the farm.  She visits him weekly on the farm where he was born and said to me “I never knew how wonderful they were!”  It is, in fact, a blessing.

It hasn’t quite greened up here yet, but I’m hoping – many things are about to begin.  There’s this short pause before the rush of new life, while things build up and unfold – unfold like the legs of a newborn kid that shakily comes to stand and reach for the milk of life.  Unfolds like the blessings of spring, the bursting forth of renewal and the things that come back again anew.

Sharon


Adapting In Place Class!

admin April 1st, 2011

I still have space in the Adapting in Place Class that starts next week – the last one for some time, I suspect, given other projects (I have to write the book about Adapting in Place, for example ;-) ).

aron and I will be running our Adapting in Place Class online for six weeks beginning April 5. The class covers every element of adapting your life both for things to come and things that are now, from going inside the walls of your home or apartment to community, family and security issues, from the ordinary (laundry) to the extraordinary (handling life transitions).

This is our most fascinating and intense class, and for the very first time, Aaron and I are planning on offering a sequel, for people who have taken the AIP class and who would get something out of an advanced class to build on what you want to add. Not exactly sure when that will be, but there’s every chance that this will be the last Adapting in Place class before the advanced one – so if you’ve always wanted to take it, now’s the time. Cost of the class is $175, or equivalent barter. We also happily take donations of any size to make more free spots available (all scholarship spots are presently taken)  to those who need them – 100% of your donation goes to other participants. Email me at [email protected] with questions or to enroll!

Here’s the syllabus:

Week 1 – How to evaluate what you have. We’re going to concentrate on figuring out what the major concerns are for your place and your community. We’ll talk about your region and its climate, culture and resources, your house itself, your community and neighborhood – the challenges you forsee and maybe ones you haven’t thought about yet, and your personal circumstances – how much money, time and energy you have to deal with it. How does the definition of home change when we do this? We’ll also talk about when adapting in place is not an option, or when you should consider relocating, and what your options are if you do need to leave or move.

***BEFORE THIS CLASS – I’d ask everyone to send me a fairly detailed (2-4 pages) description of who you and your family are, your home, your neighborhood, your town/city and your region. I want to know as much as I can about things like your local climate, how much insulation you have, what kind of neighborhood you have, how you get along with the neighbors, what your goals are, what your concerns are. You have until the first day of class, although we’d prefer you do it earlier. Please do put in Caps – AIP SELF-EVALUATION in the header, though, especially if you send it early, so that it doesn’t get lost among other emails. Please send it both to [email protected] (me) and [email protected] (Aaron).

Week 2 – This week will focus on your house itself – we’ll talk primarily about low energy infrastructure for heating, cooling, cooking, lighting, washing, etc… About costs and options and choices for both private homes and for communities. We will also cover some renewable, especially low cost options.

Week 3 – We’re going to go into the walls of your building and into other mysterious home infrastructure- water, plumbing and toileting, insulation, keeping warm and cool and all the other things that your shelter does or could do for you. We’ll also talk a bit about what’s in your soil and on your property (this won’t get heavy emphasis in this class since we teach a whole class, garden design, on just this subject).

Week 4 We’ll focus on Family Issues – Sharing resources with both immediate and extended family (and chosen family), dealing with people who aren’t on board, Building collective infrastructure, cannibalizing what you have, dealing with the brother-in-law on the couch, helping kids adapt, disability, aging, college

Week 5 – We’ll talk about Finances, money, employment, making do, getting along on a shoestring, thrift, subsistence labor, starting cottage industries and businesses and community economics. This is also when we’ll talk about transportation of all sorts. We’ll also begin discussing building a set of plans – 1 year, 5 year – to adapt to different scenarios.

Week 6 – We’ll talk about Community at every level, about how to build it, what to bring to it, how to get your neighbors to help, even if they are weird. How to get along with them even if you are weird ;-) , about models and ideas for bringing resilience and community to every level from the neighborhood to the state. We’ll also talk about security, dealing with unrest or violence, and try and get those plans finished.

Also, if you are in the area, on April 9 at 7pm, I’ll be at the Sanctuary for Independent Media in Troy, NY, talking about food, energy and our future with a focus on our bioregion’s food future. This is part of an all-day event, a reskilling festival with a lot of cool stuff happening – I’ll be there on Saturday afternoon learning as well,.so definitely come by!

Happy Weekend!

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