There are pluses and minuses to everything in life. In every effort, the balance between benefit and cost should be carefully weighed. Likewise, the decision to maintain chickens depends on what one hopes to achieve in the endeavor. There are many reasons why you might want to raise a flock. You may be interested in doing it for food, pets, a hobby, or as a 4H project with the kids. Raising chickens can have many benefits and could be a huge help in an off-the-grid situation; not only do they serve as a food source, but they also creating byproducts that can be used to increase productivity.
Your reason behind raising chickens is important, because your choice of chicken breed depends largely on the purpose they will serve. There are breeds that are beautiful in appearance but are neither good egg layers nor are they good to eat. These are bred by the hobbyist and entered into fairs and competitions. Some are raised for the resale value from the breeder to the collector hobbyist. There are “collector” breeds that are tiny, large, lay colored eggs, or have interesting feather shapes and designs. There are also some breeds that are raised solely for egg or meat production
And then there are owners that wish to produce both eggs and meat, thus required the so-called “dual-purpose” breeds. Breeds such as Rhode Island Reds, New Hampshires, and Plymouth Rocks are fairly good layers, and both the hens and cockerels of these breeds are satisfactory for home meat production. Any breed makes for a good pet. Chickens surprisingly can become very attached to humans, following them around and allowing themselves to be picked up and petted.
So you’ve decided you want chickens—where do you start? There are several ways to get your flock of chickens going. They can be purchased as adults or as chicks. A young female less than a year old is called a pullet. After a year of age, she becomes a hen. Young males are cockerels, but adults are cocks or roosters. Castrated roosters are capons. If you are only interested in eggs, you don’t need a rooster. If you want to increase your flock and allow eggs to hatch the average is a single rooster to service a dozen hens. Be careful as you are purchasing your stock—unless you learn the subtle differences between a pullet and a cockerel, you could end up with too many roosters and not enough hens.
There are a couple of ways to approach raising “yard birds” (as they are known in the Deep South). You can build a chicken coop with an enclosed pen, also called “yarding,” or you can allow the birds to free range. A benefit to yarding is that the droppings make very good fertilizer for the plants in your garden. It is much easier to collect in a confined space than distributed over an acre of land. However, you will save money on feed costs if you allow the chickens to roam around eating bugs and seeds. You don’t need a lot of land; a good-sized flock needs only an acre or two in order to feed themselves. If you provide a small, enclosed area for the hens to roost, they will return there at night; otherwise, you will have to search for their nesting places. Free ranging is not always a good idea if you have plants, either ornamental or produce, as they will eat whatever they find. And of course, if there are predatory animals about, the chickens need to be protected with a fence. Whether you go with yarding or free ranging, there must be a source of fresh water available to the birds. Also, in cold climates the birds will need enclosed confinement with a heat source to keep them alive until the weather warms.
Hens start to lay eggs at about six months of age. At first the eggs will be very small and may not contain a yolk. In general a laying hen provides one egg a day, usually in the morning. When collecting the eggs, it is best to not wash them, as there is a protective film surrounding the egg. If the egg is soiled, wash it immediately before use. If you collect the eggs daily, the hen will continue to lay up to thirty or so days in a row before taking a break. If the eggs accumulate, the hen becomes what is called broody, meaning she will sit on the nest of eggs instead of walking away after laying. If an egg is fertilized and the hen walks away, the egg cools, suspending the development of the embryo for a time. If the hen becomes broody and a clutch of eggs are warmed by her sitting, they all begin to develop simultaneously so that they are hatched about the same time. Otherwise, if some hatched and left the nest, the hen couldn’t protect them while continuing to sit on the unhatched ones. And a mother hen is very protective: she will keep them warm under her feathers, lead them to water and feed, and keep the others in the flock away.
There are several environmental issues that can affect egg production. Temperature, either hot or cold, can inhibit laying, as does the amount of daylight. The longer the daylight, the more eggs are layed; keep this in mind in cold weather—that heat has two functions, not only to keep them warm but also to encourage laying.
Chicken feed comes in many varieties if you choose to yard your flock or want to supplement a free-range diet. Again there are pros and cons, depending on your philosophy. There is layer feed that are crumbles enriched with calcium for stronger egg shells; starter feed for hatchlings that contain antibiotics to prevent some of the common diseases that chicks are more prone to; and cracked corn that helps fatten the birds for denser meat. Additionally, the yolks of eggs produced by corn-fed hens are a beautiful deep golden color and taste differently. Some commercial producers use hormone supplements in the feed to create larger breasts and eggs. There are vaccines available also to inoculate the chicks against common viruses.
One way to ensure your chicken dinner doesn’t contain any unusual hormones and was raised in a humanitarian way is to grow your own broilers, the name given to chickens used for food. Broilers are used at eight to nine weeks instead of the normal twelve to thirteen weeks for the roasting variety. A typical method of preparing a broiler is to remove its head on a chopping block and allow the blood to drain. Take care and use a sharp instrument; if the bird is traumatized during this process, the meat can turn a greenish color from bruising. The body can then be submerged in boiling water, which loosens the feather attachment, making the plucking easier.
Chickens are an excellent source of proteins and fertilizer, assuming you can maintain the flock and pay attention to the needs of the birds. It’s important to weigh the benefits and the trade-offs that come with being a “breeder” and determine if it ultimately makes sense for you as a self-sufficient off-the-grid proponent.
©2011 Off the Grid News