Raising chickens can be expensive and a lot of work, so why do people do it? There are definite benefits to raising chickens at home – for eggs, meat, insect reduction, or just companionship. And they’re not really as expensive as you might think.
“They accepted our offer. We’re going to be homesteading on our own property! So … what’s our next step?”
“Chickens. We need to order chickens. Like – right now.”
While that’s not the way I’d recommend anyone go about it, I have to admit it’s pretty much what we did. The moment we knew we had the property, I started looking for a local place to get chicks.
We didn’t even have a chicken coop built.
In fact, we still hadn’t moved to our off grid cabin!
For us, it was Black Australorps – large heritage birds that forage well and do a fabulous job at hatching and raising chicks.
Your reasons for wanting chickens might not be the same as mine were. And you might wish to actually have the coop built before you order your chicks. Starting a homestead is difficult enough – avoid some of the foolish mistakes we made.
Maybe your children have been doing a school project on chickens and now they’re fascinated. You could have a future chicken farmer on your hands.
Or have you heard that chickens are great at controlling flies and turning the compost pile? They are!
You might just like to see chickens roaming the yard. It’s a lovely sight, especially since they’re eating weed seeds and insect larvae, and aerating your lawn as they go.
Are you tired of whimpering at the price of free range eggs and pastured chicken? Or you’ve found out exactly how factory chickens are grown? Yuck – that’s enough to make anyone either start forking out the money for free range eggs or researching how to build a chicken coop.
And it’s possible that you don’t fit into any of these, and you’re not even sure you want to raise chickens.
Let’s Define the Chicken Egg
Everyone knows what an egg is, right? It’s a baby chicken. But the truth is that it’s not, no matter how much some people want to insist that it is.
In human biological terms, an egg is the female reproductive cell and it is not visible to the naked eye.
A chicken egg, though, is a large food supply stored around a tiny amount of female genetic material.
Since chickens aren’t inside the womb of a mother chicken, the chicks can’t feed from her body like mammals do. Because of this, the entire food supply for the chick is stored inside the egg.
An unfertilized egg, or a fertilized egg that has not been incubated, remains exactly that – a food supply. The egg we eat for breakfast is the food preserved for the development of a chick that never happened.
It’s not a baby chicken unless a rooster fertilized it AND a mother hen sat on it for 21 days.
What do Chickens Eat?
There are some very familiar fast food restaurants (at least here in Canada) bragging about the ‘vegetarian’ diet that their chickens eat.
The problem is that chickens are certainly not vegetarian. Their omnivorous diet might be an inconvenience if you’re raising them in large factories without sun, dirt, or grass, but for the backyard homesteader, it’s one of the best reasons to keep chickens.
Given access to the green space around your garden, chickens will happily eat June bug larvae, ants, beetles, ticks, mites, and worms (okay, THAT one isn’t good). If it moves around in the grass, chickens will eat it.
That also includes mice – if a flock of chickens finds a nest of mice, there will be a feeding frenzy.
Don’t let your birds too close to your garden (because they’ll eat the broccoli just as happily as they’ll eat the potato beetles on it) but if they are allowed to range just outside of your garden, they will decimate the pest population.
And if you’re thinking of raising pigs, too, be sure to have chickens roaming nearby. Pigs attract flies, and I don’t think there’s anything chickens like to eat more than a juicy fly.
What About Meat Birds?
The most common bird raised as a quick-growing meat bird is the Cornish X. That’s the chicken grown for the fast food places.
They don’t hunt insects. They don’t scratch in the grass or scratch their litter. They wouldn’t know what to do with a fly. They don’t develop unique personalities. They are eating, drinking, pooping machines that grow extremely rapidly and show almost nothing we consider ‘chicken’ traits.
I have heard people express distress that they must be slaughtered at 8 weeks, but anyone who has raised them tells me it’s a relief to get rid of them. And in fact, if they aren’t slaughtered before 12 weeks, they collapse on their weak legs and have heart attacks.
When I lived in the city, someone who worked at a factory that raised chickens for a famous chicken-serving fast food restaurant brought one back to our apartment building. It was eight weeks old, he said, just about ready to be slaughtered. The poor thing huddled in the corner, terrified. It could only stand long enough to take one or two shakey steps, and then it would collapse. Its feathers were uneven and ragged and its beak was chopped short.
You’d have be pretty much starving to look at that and think ‘yum, good eating on that bird’. It was horrible.
I have been told, and it’s worth experimenting with, that Cornish X chickens fostered under a very good mother hen will act much more like regular chickens, including scratching and eating bugs. It’s possible that limiting their food and raising them with non-Cornish X chicks will do the same.
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Is it worth the hassle?
I have friends who raise chickens all over the world, from here in chilly Canada to the beating heat of Africa.
An Old Order Mennonite once told me “Chickens are just about the best thing you can raise. Feed it – and it’ll eat anything – and it’ll give you an egg every day. Have a chicken for each person in your family, and you’ll always have food.”
Is it worth the hassle, though?
Cleaning the litter, dealing with aggressive roosters (yes, they happen), fretting over sick and wounded birds – there’s a lot of work involved even when things go well. And Murphy rules on the homestead. Things always go wrong, usually just when you most need things to go right.
So don’t expect that you’ll get eggs and meat without any work.
And it probably won’t save you money over buying your chickens at the butcher and your eggs from the deli.
However, remember what you’re buying.
The butcher’s chicken was raised in a disgustingly-crowded factory, likely never saw daylight and certainly never saw grass or bugs. It ate a perfectly controlled diet, with the food dish positioned so it never had to move, until it was slaughtered at 8 weeks. Its beak was probably clipped to prevent pecking each other and pulling out feathers (which chickens do when they’re stressed). It’s just one step away from machines pushing out pink glop and forcing it into chicken-form.
And the factory eggs? In a dark room, crowded three to a tiny cage, the hens spend a year – never more – dropping an egg a day while standing on a wire floor. No sunlight, no grass, very little movement.
If all of that makes you shudder, and you’re currently buying meat and eggs from pastured, organically (and ethically) raised chickens that get to scratch and peck and eat bugs in the sunlight, then you probably will save money.
If you’re a homeschooler, raising chickens from chick (or even egg if you have an incubator) to dinner gives countless learning opportunities. All children should learn where their food comes from.
Some people like keeping chickens as a hobby or as pets. In this case, cost becomes less of an issue since they’ll be like your cats or dogs.
There are SO many reasons to raise chickens – you’re doing something by yourself, for yourself, increasing your self reliance. While many people will disagree with me, I think it’s a good thing for all of us to be personally involved in our food, to realize that meat doesn’t originate from styrofoam trays at the meat market.
You can rest easy knowing that you’re giving your chickens the best possible ‘chicken’ life they can have, and a kind death at the end of a useful life.
Chickens add to the personality of your homestead, and if given the opportunity, pay back ever bit of time and work you invest in them.
And in these fluctuating economic and political times, it’s always nice to have an ever-filling nest egg that you can eat.