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!


15 Responses to “Thoughtful Chicken Raising”

  1. Timely and useful! Nice

  2. JRB says:

    My hens aren’t keen on potatoes, or as far as I’ve noticed — I’ll give it another whirl! (I have some aged potatoes with sprouts that could go the hens instead of compost.)

    Soured milk? That I did not know. Is there a point at which the milk is, um, too far gone? =)

  3. Good post, though I have one minor quibble. You sort of contradicted yourself about the advantages/environmental of backyard chickens. I agree it’s not great to feed chickens gm grain, or grain brought from very far away. But even if someone were to do that, the damage would not be equivalent to a battery hen operation, for the reason you mentioned about the manure. The manure from battery farms amounts to toxic pollution. The manure from 4-8 hens in a backyard will be environmentally beneficial in almost any scenario.

    We got a Siberian peashrub this year and plan to see how it goes with feeding the pods to the chickens. Apparently they’re a hassle for humans to harvest, so I’ll probably try the chop and drop method and allow the girls to do their own harvesting, once the plant is well established. Also planning to see if we can get BSF cultivation to work for us here this year.

  4. cornish_k8 says:

    you mention cornish hens but not many americans understand what cornish means…a shame because the cornish basically taught the rest of the world how to mine tin, copper, silver, gold, and the rest.

  5. dixiebelle says:

    I was just starting a post the same the other day (chickens are quintessential urban homesteaders accessory) as we have been dreaming of backyard chickens for our permaculturally influenced gardens for a couple of years now… just waiting til we have the time to look after them properly without wearing ourselves out, because unlike vegetable beds or worm farms, these are living animals (OK, so the worms are alive, but they are very low maintenance!) that can’t be neglected cause we are having a bad week with the kids or work or whatever! Thank you for a great post… was just having this conversation with my husband yesterday, about how we can lower the need to buy grain when we get them.

  6. Cindy says:

    I had read that soybeans need to be cooked before feeding to chickens, anyone know if that’s true? I’ve grown them before and found them a hassle to pod and we don’t like them that much anyway but I’d be happy to grow them for the girls if I didn’t have to pod and cook them!

  7. Nicole C says:

    How about sweet potatoes?

    The only neighbor I have close enough to care about what’s in my backyard could be easily bribed with eggs, I think. I know cucumbers and zucchini get me a lot of mileage. She and her daughters have taken most of my projects either in stride or with interest. But the only major starch that grows easily year after year here is sweet potatoes. I can get local corn fairly easily, but it won’t be organic nor guaranteed to be non-GMO. I’m a couple of years away from chickens, but I so think about them often. Either that or ducks.

  8. Eden Balfour says:

    Great post. I fought an unsuccessful urban chicken fight last year in our city, but there’s always next year, and next election turnover…

    As a prairie girl, I have to respond to your comment about grains. These days, rises in grain prices are often due more to speculation on commodities than actual stocks of grain and what they are used for. More than that, however, I have to point out that much of the Global South is dependent on grains from the North because we destroyed their agriculture: undercut domestic markets with our cheap subsidized imports, forced them to reorient agriculture to produce luxury exports to us in order to get cash to service their foreign debt, made cuts to public spending on agriculture a requirement of structural adjustment programs. Think of Haiti – self-sufficient in rice until the US started dumping rice there. I am not saying that the hungry shouldn’t be fed emergency rations of our grain, but that there needs to be a solution that encourages the (re)development of their local and culturally appropriate food sources.

  9. Jadehawk says:

    how do chickens do on dried beans? we’ve been consistently overproducing beans in our garden. we’re scaling waaaay down this year, but if we got chickens, that would be an easy way for us to feed them, if they like that stuff…

  10. Todd says:

    I think it is also important to note that some areas do lend themselves to chickens, We live in a very rural area with lots of predators. We’ve had chickens several times but end up each time with dead or missing chickens. Short of building a chicken “Fort Knox” they aren’t practical for us…and I really like chickens.


  11. Sara in Alabama says:

    Thank you Sharon! We have ducks. Yet we still have the same trouble with predators the writer above mentioned. So we built a coop with 1/4 inch hardware cloth and recycled sliding glass windows. And we have just added 2 geese to the ducks for watch dogs. Ducks (and geese) herd, so we are able to herd them in at dusk, and close the door, and the predators have ceased in having ducks for dinner.
    I have 3 paddocks that I can rotate the ducks between and I grow wheat and other grains and legumes in the paddocks for the ducks, plus feeding them my weeds from the garden and fields. I need to decrease the store bought feed I give them and this has encouraged me to do so. Thanks again.

  12. admin says:

    Hi Folks – Lots of good stuff. We found that a dog was the most necessary tool to keeping predators off. We had a lot of losses (the coyotes den right across the road and we have foxes, bears, etc…) but not a single loss since then. Sara’s point about geese is a good one too, if you don’t want a dog.

    Kate, you are right that backyard chickens still would be a better choice than factory farmed chickens – but probably less good than buying your eggs from a local farmer if you are buying all your grains.

    Soybeans and dried beans must be cooked for chickens – they make great solar oven fodder, or back of the stove heating during the winter.

    Eden, sudden price fluctuations are generally due to speculation in grain markets, but the overall rise in grain prices over the last four or five years is largely due to biofuel production and more meat consumption – the UN did a very clear study of the price fluctuations of 2007 and 2008, and found that cars and meat outweighed market speculation (I’ll try and find the link). Moreover, the two are connected – rising prices attract speculation.

    It is absolutely true that dumping of low price grain has been a bad thing on world markets, and my argument is not that we should be exporting American grain, although having destroyed local markets, we can’t now stop doing so in areas that can’t feed themselves, but that world grain markets are now so tightly linked that greater consumption of meat and biofuels and the use of feed grains sets up a functional competition between the livestock of the Global North and the hungry of the Global South – unfortunately, this is quite well documented. In a perfect world, I’d disconnect all grain markets from one another, so that the price of grain in Haiti or Dhaka had nothing to do with the price of grain in Iowa. That’s not possible, and all of us have to live with that reality. IMHO, in a hungry world headed towards 9 billion people, animal agriculture *must* shift away from grain based production. That said, however, the good news is that that’s hardly an impossible task.


  13. richard houghton says:

    Chickens are great grazers with a good appetite for grass. Lots of grass in the diet leads to those rich golden yolked eggs. If they aren’t grazing for themselves (the best solution) make sure they get some greenchop every day. When I’m raising chicks I mow a strip of grass into a bagger every morning and dump it in the pen. Its pretty much gone by night.
    Siberian peashrubs are good chicken forage, both with the leaves and the seeds. Equally important they provide great bee forage for the wild bumblebees. Our peashrub hedge buzzes with hundreds of bumblebees in May, just before the raspberries bloom which they jump to next.
    I have also planted a high-protien variety of mulberry tree that mostly attracts robins, but more than enough fall on the ground for the chickens.
    Truly free-roaming chickens(my flock has access to five acres) are capable and adept at finding everything they need to thrive and produce fabulous eggs, as they do in the wild.

  14. Sandra says:

    Here in the UK we are not ‘permitted’ to feed kitchen scraps to hens. That’s a technicality of course because I don’t know how they could police such a rule. It is considered a bio-hazard I believe, with cross contamination scares due to our history of Mad Cow Disease and CJD.

  15. [...] Thoughtful Chicken Raising, by Sharon, April 22nd, 2011, Posted on The Chatelaine’s Keys [...]

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