Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Bawk!! Adventures in Chicken Farming

From the bean of Green Bean.

It was a cold December night when the knock came. Out front, the street sparkled with holiday lights. We ushered the stranger into our home - a friend of a friend who would whisk our loved ones away to another friend's house. Safe haven.

He talked with my husband and the children in the living room as I pulled on boots and trudged into the back yard. Cocking a flashlight under my chin, I fumbled with the raccoon locks and blinked back tears. Concerned peeps and shuffling echoed inside as I eased open the top. I peered in at our small flock - sleepy and alarmed on their perch. Pulling out the smallest two, I closed the flap and headed back to the house.

I held our bantam roosters close to my chest and bowed my head, protecting them from the dripping December rain. I remember the day I brought them home eight short weeks ago. Two smalls tufts of fluff - one full of life, loud, pushy. Lollipop. The other, quiet, hiding, reserved. Willow. I had been convinced he was a she and wondered even if she'd make it through chick-hood. "She" did. All the way to crowing.

But unfortunately, I, like many of my urban chicken farmer counterparts are not allowed to keep roosters. And roosters are just part of the downside to backyard chicken keeping.

Indeed, that rainy night was much easier than another a full month later. A windy country road, windshield wipers flying, eyes teared over as I had just had our first chicken (the chick shown in the top photo) put down at 15 weeks because she'd apparently swallowed a screw or sharp metal object weeks earlier. Chickens like shiny objects. Who knew? I do now, after watching the vet try time and again to retrieve said metal object with a magnet down her throat and then holding Fluff as the life convulsed out of her. Not a gentle seep but a wild, heartbreaking death.

You see chickens aren't like your other pets - your cats or dogs. They get strange diseases. Act in ways we're not used of. Need specials vets, feed and medicine.

I know all the urban farming blogs talk about how great chicken keeping is but I think it is important to go into things with your eyes open. If you are the kind of person who can handle taking your chicken around the back of the shed and lop its head off and eat it for dinner, then backyard chicken keeping is definitely for you. If you will look at your chicken as a chicken and not a pet, then right o! All systems go.

If you are the kind of person - like me - who will name your chicken, look at it as a pet and never ever think of eating it, well, then, here are a few words of warning.

- Only get sexed pullets. No matter how cute the breed is. Really. And have a plan in place to give your rooster a new home that you are comfortable with because even the occasional sexed chick can end up a boy.

- Use a rolling magnet (available at hardware stores) to pick up metal pieces, like staples, screws and nails. You know. All those things that you use to build a coop and run. If you free range your chickens, you'll want to check the whole yard.

- Find a local avian vet and be prepared to fork out the money to go see him or her. Sure, you could spend dozens of hours on Backyard Chickens, a fantastic resource for chicken keepers, trying to self diagnose any chicken health issues yourself but, in my experience, its a lot easier and even possibly cheaper in the long run to go see a vet. My chicken who ate the screw is case in point. I spent three weeks trying to figure out what was wrong with her. I guessed worms, mites and everything under the sun BUT eating a screw. If I'd taken her to the vet in the first place, I would have saved myself weeks of worry and possibly my son's favorite chicken. Second case in point, I was convinced that another chicken had a particular disease and shelled out $35 for the meds. Ultimately, and against the advice of folks on Backyard Chickens, I took her poop into the vet. Turns out she was loaded with worms and a few doses of his medicine cleared her right up. The beauty too is that for $25 for a fecal exam, I saved myself hours worth of worry.

- Don't get chicks in the late fall or winter. Nature doesn't work that way - even though we are now able to purchase chicks any time of year. I got my first batch at the end of October and have stocked up tons of carbon emissions by way of the heat lamp that I could have turned off weeks ago if it were spring.

- Don't expect eggs right away. My oldest girls are now 16 weeks and not an egg in sight. That's totally normal. Most hens don't lay until 16 weeks at the earliest but closer to 20-30 weeks. Oh, and when they molt, which they do every year, they don't lay then either. And many don't lay in the winter.

- It is not exactly recommended that chickens eat the worms and slugs they find in your yard - even though that was part of the reason I got chickens. You see, slugs can give your chickens "gape worm" which can kill them, earthworms can give them another type of worm and so on. Of course, they will find bugs in the yard but apparently one just gets into the habit of worming them once or twice a year.

- Expect expense. I've shelled out a fair amount of money for wood shavings for their coop (and before that the brooder box). Some people use leaves (that didn't work for us), pine needles or shredded paper - though apparently you are supposed to mix the latter with shavings or something as paper will stay wet. Anyway, I'm not sure how "green" it is to haul home plastic bag after plastic bag of pine shavings.

- Make a plan for free ranging. Our run is fairly small because I thought I'd let the hens free range. Well, after the screw debacle and the fact that they keep trying to eat the leftover recycled rubber mulch from our former play area (so much for "closing the loop"), I'm a bit worried about what they might get into. Moreover, our yard is small. Very small. And its hard to advise guests just how to dodge the piles of chicken poo all over the yard. Finally, there are issues like cats and hawks to keep an eye out for.

Does this mean that I'm done with keeping chickens? Well, not after this super cute chicken coop that Mr. Bean built me!

But if I had to do it all again, well, I would have paid a bit more attention to that note you hear in the voice of other, more experienced chicken keepers. My sister - whose two hens (the third died of unknown causes and much heartbreak last year) haven't laid since last August. JAM who posted here on Raising Chickens in the Suburbs noted "I've enjoyed them, but I'm not sure if I'll replace these hens as they die or stop laying." Expense was the problem there. My friend who previously kept chickens but says she'd never go back. She likes her yard without all the poop, thank you very much.

But now that I've got my girls, I'll enjoy their personalities. The Queen of the Roost contests. The way they run with their heads down or the glare when a nap on the roost is interrupted. I'll anxiously await their eggs - which I've heard brightens one's day like a little miracle. I'll pour their poop into the compost bin, the raised beds and look forward to heartier crops next year. I'll likely explore new breeds. I'll delight in the experience they've given two city boys. I'll cherish the memory of cupping a chick in my hand as I softly stroke a feathered head.

And I'll never ever look at a box of store bought eggs the same way again.


Wendy said...

We've had our suburban flock of chickens for going-on three years, and I still love having them - poopy yard and all *grin*.

But our choice to have chickens stems from the desire to be self-sufficient, and you are absolutely correct when you say that if one is going to embark on the "homesteading" adventure, one needs to be prepared for the entire adventure, which involves dealing with the life-cycle - from beginning to end. It's certainly not an "easy" thing to do, but neither should it be easy, and I would be concerned about people who say they have no problem with it.

Nicole said...

Thank you for such an honest post about chicken farming. I don't have any chickens but am contemplating getting them in the future. I feel this article gives me the "real deal" on what to expect. Thank you for that.

Donna said...

I was wondering how you were doing with your chickens! Thanks for a real-life post. The chicks are cute, but maybe when we're ready to have a pet we'll stick with a dog. Another option, if you can handle giving them up, is what a friend of mine did. She bought a little flock of chicks and she and her kids raised them indoors until they (the chicks, not the kids) were old enough to move to Grandma's farm.

daharja said...

Thanks for the chicken post. I've just inherited some chooks in our new home, and any advice and experience is really welcome!

Daisy said...

A rooster made headlines last year in a nearby city. The neighbors didn't like the crowing, so away he went, and in came a new city ordinance. As for chickens, I'm not sure if they're allowed in our small city or not.

Green Bean said...

Wendy: Thank you for your comment. I do think that there are wonderful things about chicken keeping. But it is not for everyone and it is not all shiny happiness. One needs to be prepared for that and, alas, I don't think I was.

Nicole: My pleasure. I debated getting chickens for 3 years or so. When I finally took the plunge, I thought I'd really thought things through. I've been a tad unlucky in my adventures but even beyond that, it was just more difficult than I thought it would be.

Donna: Well that is a good option. Problem is that I'm so darned attached to them now! I do love the girls and don't mind the daily chores. Its the heartache I'm not cut out for.

Daharja: Happy to present a side that is not often discussed.

Daisy: Oh but I do wish I'd been able to keep my roos!


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