My disclaimer: I am not a poultry farming expert. The information I share here is based solely upon my own experience with our own backyard flock.
Q: Aren’t chickens very messy? Or stinky?
A: I don’t think so at all. I think chickens are actually quite ladylike compared to many other animals. Of course they are animals, so there is going to be some … manure to deal with. My husband built us a great little coop, though, with nice roosts, nesting boxes, and a wire floor. Most of the waste falls down through the the wiring. We cover the floors beneath the roosts and keep the nest boxes filled with fresh cedar shavings, and the coop only requires a major scoop-out and clean-up about twice a year.
We do have ten acres here, though, and so the coop is a good distance from our house. If it were directly outside my kitchen window, I might feel differently about the mess or the smell. I can tell you, however, that pigs are an awful lot stinkier. We used to raise a couple of pigs each year and you did not want to be downwind of those creatures. Especially when pregnant. Trust me.
Q: How much of the work are your kids able to do?
A: All of it. In the beginning, I did my fair share of hauling waterers and feeding the old biddies in sub-zero temperatures, but these days the chicken chores belong entirely to my oldest daughter Kateri who is almost 13. She handles feeding, watering, wing-clipping, cleaning, and gathering the eggs. It’s a labor of love. She’s crazy about those silly birds and they love her back. Even before she took on all the chores, Kateri was a big help with the flock, though. I would say that, with supervision, even kids as young as 7 are capable of handling many chicken chores by themselves.
Q: How are fresh eggs different from ones you might buy at the store? How do you store them? What do you do with excess eggs?
A: They taste tons better. When we first started eating fresh eggs, I did not notice much of a difference. But sometimes our flock’s production gets a little low and I resort to buying (*gasp*) eggs at the store. The first time I did this after having had the fresh eggs for an extended period of time, I really noticed the difference. Everything from their color to their texture is just … off. Though I buy eggs labeled hormone and antibiotic free, some of the kids still call them “sweatshop eggs” and refuse to eat them.
We store them in the fridge in egg cartons that we save and that friends have given us. They keep for a very long time that way. If we have any excess, we give them away or sell them for about $1 a dozen.
Q: Where do you get your chickens?
A: In the mail. Really. We order through this hatchery where we can get baby chicks of pretty much any breed we like. They ship overnight and I get a phone call from the post office bright and early in the morning where I can hear loud peeping in the background. “Mrs. Bean!” the postal worker shouts above the din. “You’ve got chickens!”
Q; Do you raise them for show at fairs and the like?
A: Oh yes. And we had three proud prize winners this year. Eamon’s rooster is not pictured in that link, because we sold him. He was a fine bird and he won the blue ribbon in his class, but wow he was a meanie. Good riddance, Muchacho!
Which brings us to the next question:
Q: Do any of the chickens hurt the children?
A: It’s been our experience that roosters are territorial and naturally aggressive. Through time and exposure, though, they can learn to see the children as “one of their own.” Because she handles them daily, Kateri’s roosters would never hurt her, but they would gladly eat me alive — and have tried. We don’t let small kids in or around the coop without supervision.
Q: Do you have a particular chicken book you recommend to a beginner?
A: This book has everything you could ever want to know. It’s my Chicken Bible.
Q: Those chickens are just too cute. They aren’t the kind of chickens a person would, well, you know, put on the dinner table, right?
A: Right. These days our chickens are pets. A few years back, I did a little experiment with raising meat birds. I got a dozen Jumbo Cornish X Rocks to raise for meat. Dan was skeptical, but he built yet another coop to house them. Let me tell you, all these things did was sit and eat. We fed them a high protein diet and they sat around packing on the pounds. By eight weeks, they were … um, quite ready.
Now I have never been a squeamish type. I liked dissection projects in high school anatomy class. Besides, I had promised Dan that if he let me do my little project, I would see it through to the end and it was time to make good.
I read up on all the details and had my dad (who dabbles in metal work) make me one of these contraptions. Dan attached it to a tree in the field and so I was ready. Supposedly. But oh, how I dreaded the task that lay ahead!
Dan was betting I wouldn’t follow through, so of course I had to. I got up early in the morning (I couldn’t have kids around!) and headed to the meat bird coop. I chose a lucky bird and grabbed hold of it (they were a bit on the “mean” side — no cuteness here), and made my way across the field to The Spot.
I will spare you the gory details, except to tell you that I did it. I did it! I killed a chicken, gutted it, plucked it, and bagged it for the freezer. Ugh. And there were only eleven more to go.
I spread the work out over the course of about five early mornings and I was so relieved when it was done. I won’t be doing the meat bird thing again, but in retrospect I can see that it was a good experience for me. It opened my eyes to the fact that I do indeed live a cushy life, with a ready supply of fresh, nutritious food ready and waiting for me at my local supermarket. It also made me realize just how far removed from our food so many of us are. We eat chicken without having any idea what it was fed or where it was raised, or in what manner it was killed it, gutted, plucked, and bagged for our convenience.
Anyway, my meat bird experiment was technically a success and I had a freezer full of organically raised roasters to show for it. They tell me the meat was good. I don’t know. I couldn’t bring myself to eat any of it.
Q: What sort of hair products does Rex use? Our rooster would like to know.
A: Tell your rooster that Kateri treats Rex with lavender baby bath. He also gets a “fluffing” with the blow dryer at fair time.
Comments open. Because I just love to talk about chickens, darn it.