Raising Your Own Chickens: The Underrated Players
Over the past few years we’ve learned much about starting a small-scale farm. It’s a constant learning curve that surprises us at every turn and leaves us amazed at how rewarding it can really be to grow your own food. Apart from growing a variety of fruits and vegetables, we take pride in raising all kinds of animals. We have tried almost everything now from sheep, pigs, goats, ducks, turkeys to even fish…but nothing has been more productive and entertaining than the humble chicken.
I must admit I wasn’t expecting too much out of chickens, apart from eggs and a roast every now and then, but they have totally surprised me with their unique and charismatic personalities and ability to make us laugh. They are also the most useful animals we have. They have the ability to scratch and forage through just about everything and can be used to turn vegetable scraps into compost in no time.
They’re able to spread other animal manure around while looking for flies and bugs, thus increasing the fertility of the soil. New sustainable practices now utilize chickens in a rotating movement with grazing animals so that when your cows and sheep come back to the same patch the chickens have been through, the grass is richer and greener than it was before.
Chickens, as far as my experience goes, are very intelligent, and in fact can be trained just like your dog. They put themselves to bed after spending a few nights in their coop, and they learn very quickly where the best grass is, when a gate is left open, or how to get to that new seed you just spread in the garden. They will come when called and will be running after you if you happen to have food scraps in your hand!
Their number one prize is, of course, the eggs that they produce. Every day, another delicious, protein rich egg is popped out into a carefully constructed nest, waiting for you to find and collect it. No sooner have they laid them than they’re in our frying pan boasting their bright orange yolks. It’s without a doubt the best way to start our day’s work. We let our laying girls range freely all over the farm, and we love watching their daily antics and social interactions, which we often refer to as “Chicken TV.”
Unfortunately, we aren’t the only ones that like chickens. Depending on your area, predators can take out your flock in a single night if you’re not careful. We have dealt with just about everything now, from raccoons, owls, eagles, mink, and even the neighbor’s dog! The best practice for keeping your chickens safe is to provide a “bomb proof” coop that will keep them warm and dry from the elements, but also keep those predators out.
During the day, chickens are pretty good at avoiding most predators. They’ll make warning calls when they hear or see birds of prey, and will quickly retreat to their coop or the cover of a tree – but during the night, they become easy pickings, as their eyesight is poor in the dark and they generally don’t move from their roost. Night hunters like raccoons and mink take full advantage if they’re able to get into the coop. They’ll kill everything they can get their little paws on. Mink will squeeze through any gaps larger than 1 inch, so make sure your mesh has a small diameter and covers all gaps.
Raising your own chickens from day-olds can be a lot of fun, and a real learning experience, but make sure you keep a close eye on them. Constant monitoring of their area’s temperature and having clean water and food is essential for young chicks and their development.
Laying chickens come in all kinds of breeds and lay all shapes, sizes and colors of eggs. The Ameraucana chickens even lay blue colored eggs! They’ll start laying at around 5 months old and lay pretty consistently for a year or two before slowing down. Birds used for meat are normally specific breeds that grow larger than egg laying breeds. Be careful with some of the more common meat birds that will be ready for the table only 8 weeks from hatching; they grow at an astonishing rate but can often have heart attacks and leg problems from growing too fast. Try a breed that likes to forage more, it will save you on grain costs and give you a much better tasting bird.
Today, it seems you can get easily lost when buying fresh chicken with the lingo that comes with how it’s raised and what it’s fed. From a producer’s point of view, the only way to make a lot of money off of chicken meat is to go big and grow tens of thousands of birds. However, this is where quality is lost.
The best taste comes from chickens raised outside who are able to forage on grass, bugs and worms, giving you the most amazing tasting chicken you’ve had, without having to add a cup of seasoning or a jar of sauce. This also provides the birds with a much better and more natural life. Raising your own chickens, or buying from a local, small-scale farmer typically results in the best quality meat. You’ll pay more, but once you take that first bite, you’ll never buy supermarket chicken again.Featured Image: A Fully Mature and Independent Chicken Leads the Way to Sustainable Farming Practice.