One of my previous articles began with the quote of how my now-late husband often answered the phone and heard the inquiry, "Is the chicken lady at home?"
He thought it was beyond funny because he’d seen my progress as I "matured" from a "chicken novice" to "advice giver."
Lately, as the economy has hard hit so many in their home budgets – especially in their grocery budgets – AND with so many folks realizing the importance of eating fresh and local for their families’ health, those chicken questions are being asked of me every day, sometimes from more than one visitor, phone caller or emailer.
But I must warn you of a couple of things before I go any farther in this article: first, chickens are ADDICTIVE (more on that later); AND I am by no means a true chicken expert! I didn’t attend one of our fine agricultural universities. Everything I’ve learned has been either "hands on" in my own little farmyard or by asking zillions of questions of the great folks at the Blount County Farmers Co-op, on the Internet and other small homesteaders like me.
First of all (probably the Number One misunderstanding folks have about chickens), you DON’T need to own a rooster to get eggs! That is truly important if you live in one of the towns or cities that now allow a few laying hens. Most DON’T allow roosters because they believe the crowing will bother the neighbors.
A rooster is there to fertilize the eggs, but the eggs will be there nearly EVERY day whether your flock includes a rooster or not. I was surprised at how many people didn’t know that. A close family member, who is in her late 60s and who was raised on a very rural farm in our county, thought a rooster was a necessity.
But while I didn’t own any roosters the first three years of my chicken farming, now I wouldn’t be without one!
A rooster who was "accidentally" included in a batch of day-old chicks quickly showed me how vital a rooster can be for protection and contentment of your home flock. A rooster’s audible warning cluck will send hens racing to the protection of the henhouse or a safety tree or bush with low-hanging, chick-hiding branches if a hawk soars overhead. And a rooster will also fight to protect his ladies on the ground if need be.
And a rooster is a requirement if you want any of your hens to "set" and raise a family of her own. I’ve read all sorts of articles about how you need to provide a special box and remove the hen when she acts broody if you want her to set. You can read all that research if you’d like and it may be what you need to do.
Evidently my hens realized I was not "learned" enough to do all that at first so they then and now just take matters into their own hands.
I’ll give one special Ameraucana hen as an example. Just this last Sunday morning, I was watering the front pygmy goats in their fenced area. The mama hen and her 12 babies were munching on grass and bugs under a small apple tree. A hawk swooped down and tried to get one of the chicks.
I am a little too old to jump the fence nowadays, but I watched as that mama hen jumped on that hawk with feathers flying. She picked, slapped and clawed with both feet.
When my grown son Nathan asked a short time later if anybody was hurt, I could smile and reply "Only the hawk" because he hightailed it out of here WITHOUT A SINGLE CHICK.
That is the same mama hen that battled a raccoon under my back porch and saved seven of her last batch of chicks last spring.
So sometimes, nature is just the best teacher in that the chickens have an inborn sense of what they need to do.
Don’t get me wrong: some hens are not the brightest creatures in the barnyard!
I make absolutely sure the majority of my hens, roosters and chicks are safely shut in their chicken houses each night. Even the bravest chicken is no match for bobcats, most raccoons, ‘possums, skunks or coyotes!
It is my (and, if you decide to have chickens, your) responsibility to protect them as much as possible with a sturdy little building where they can roost at night and a wire fenced area so they can safely graze during the day.
If you only have room for a small fenced area for your chickens, you can let them outside if you are going to be nearby late in the afternoons for a short time so they can forage for themselves.
If you visit my little homestead, you will likely see between 200 and 300 hens and roosters (and about 40 Muscovy ducks) roaming contentedly throughout the yards, pastures and woods throughout the day. But they are trained at night to go back into their houses where they are shut up securely.
How were they trained? Just make sure the housing enclosure is where they have feed and water for the first few days they are on your little farm or in your backyard.
I promise, once you taste a farm-fresh egg you will never want to eat any other kind.
And they are better for you, in spite of what those in big agriculture may tell you.
The Mother Earth News magazine has done at least three studies showing that "compared to official U.S. Department of Agriculture nutrient data for commercial eggs, eggs from hens raised on pasture may contain 1/3 less cholesterol, ¼ less saturated fat, 2/3 more vitamin A,; 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids, 3 times more vitamin E, and up to 7 times more beta carotene." (Their studies can be read by going to www.motherearthnews.com and entering "egg studies.")
The late Jerry Sterling at Blount County Farmers Co-op helped me pick my first order of Golden Comets (Red Sex Links), showed me the starter baby chick feed they required, and showed me the 2 one-quart waterers to make sure they got off to a good start.
I also bought a heat lamp there (which I hung from a broomstick laid across the top of the cardboard box where I brooded those initial chicks).
All those items are still available at your local Co-op as is the egg ration pellets or scratch feed you need as they grow to mature hens or if you start with pullets or grown hens. (If you buy grown hens, make sure the farm where you buy them is neat and CLEAN, and the hens are happily clucking and eating and walking around with clear eyes and their heads held high! A "droopy chicken" is likely a sick one!)
Three or four hens are usually ample to supply all the egg needs of a small family, and your children or grandchildren – and you – will get the joy of feeling the warm, fresh eggs right in the nesting box!
Additionally, the hens’ antics and their contented clucking will entertain you at no additional cost and provide a soothing balm only God-given nature can provide in this hectic world.
Suzy Lowry Geno lives on a small Blount County farm and can be reached through her website at www.suzysfarm.com.