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The Home Flock for Beginners

This article is the most beginner-level introduction the site offers to our system of poultry husbandry.

It is the original version of my article “Incredible Homestead Chickens”, published in the December 2007/January 2008 issue of Mother Earth News.

It was added to the site December 30, 2008.

The Home Flock

Most natural ecologies feature complex communities of both animals and plants. If the homestead is to imitate natural systems, it should ideally include both livestock and plants if possible. Poultry are likely the best “starter livestock” for most homesteads, since their needs are more easily and cheaply met, and the homesteader can start on a smaller scale, than with other species.

Eggs from the backyard flock are of a quality and nutritional density those dependent on the supermarket can only dream of. Necessary culling of the flock (of excess males and no longer productive females) graces the table with poultry like our grandparents used to eat—in lieu of the insipid imitations from high confinement, industrialized flocks. As we will see, however, the homestead flock can contribute to the self-sufficiency enterprise elsewhere than on the family breakfast and dinner table.

Be on guard against the common fallacy—promulgated by the agricultural colleges, and likely your local Extension Agent—that the backyard flock is an analog in miniature of big commercial poultry operations. In almost every way, our homestead flock should diverge from the high-confinement commercial models—with their limited genetics, stress, constant outside inputs, and pollution—as we constantly seek more natural paradigms.

Selection of Breeds

Recent poultry breeding has been geared toward ever greater “specialization”—fast-growing meat hybrids, ready to slaughter in as little as 44 days; or egg hybrids that begin laying at seventeen weeks or less, and lay impressive numbers of eggs (at least for a couple of seasons). Such “souped-up” hybrids, however, are less hardy and long-lived than traditional breeds, and are apt to succumb to disease or environmental stresses more readily. They require more purchased inputs, of both feeds (since they have lower foraging skills) and medications (to compensate for weakened immune systems).

I much prefer the traditional farm breeds of earlier generations, many of them “dual purpose”—that is, good layers, usually of large brown eggs, with good rates of growth to table fowl size (though they do not match the super-hybrids in either separate category of production). Such breeds represent a priceless part of our agricultural heritage—Wyandottes, Buff Orpingtons, Plymouth Rocks, New Hampshire and Rhode Island Reds, Buckeyes, Delawares, Dominiques, Jersey Giants, and more. Check out American Livestock Breeds Conservancy for more information on these traditional breeds, many of whom are in need of preservation.

You may want to go back even further, to historic breeds out of which the modern breeds were developed. Dorkings, which hark back all the way to Roman times, are gentle, elegant birds that are a joy to work with. Old English Games have a thousand-year history as utilitarian fowl. Though rather small, at one time they were considered the stardard against which all other table fowl were judged. If given enough space in which to forage, they feed themselves almost entirely on their own. And the hens are among the best “chicken mamas” on the planet. Consider joining Society for the Preservation of Poultry Antiquities, dedicated to the preservation of the older breeds.

Don’t forget other domestic fowl as well as the more common chicken. Ducks, geese, turkeys, guineas and more are a colorful and useful part of our agricultural legacy.

Feeding

It is of course convenient to buy a bag of feed for our flocks, and we’d like to believe that such “scientifically formulated” feeds are the best diet we can offer our birds. Ask yourself, however: What would the Natural Chicken eat if completely on her own in a natural setting? Though we do not think of chickens as grazers, actually she would eat a fair amount of grasses, clovers, and broadleaved weeds. She would eat wild seeds of all sorts. And she would eat live animal foods such as earthworms, slugs and snails, insects, etc. What are the defining characteristics of all three classes of foods? They are alive, and they are raw (unprocessed). Commercial feeds are anything but alive or raw—they are made from highly processed (with heat and pressure) ingredients, often byproducts of other food-processing operations, in many cases already stale when formulation begins (as with recycled deep-fryer oils from fast food restaurants) or possibly containing residues from industrial processing (as with hexane residues in soybean meal left over from oil extraction).

I urge you to take the feeding of your flock into your own hands. There is nothing especially mysterious about the process—aside from a willingness to experiment, a bit of research about nutritional needs of poultry and access to primary (whole) ingredients available in your area are all that are required. I have made all my own feeds for years, starting with whole corn, small grains such as oats and wheat, field peas, and natural mineral supplements such as kelp meal.

Whether you buy prepared feeds or make your own replacement mixes, however, the heart of your feeding program should be: maximizing your flock’s access to whole, natural foods. If you pasture your birds (about which more below), they will find a lot of high quality food on their own. If you practice vermicomposting to recycle kitchen wastes or manage manure responsibly, you can harvest the worms to feed your flock. If like me you live in an area “blessed” with lots of Japanese beetles, you can collect them (in the cool of the morning or evening, when they are less likely to fly, shaking them off plants into a bucket with water in the bottom) to feed your eager birds. (Other options will be considered later.)

Housing

One reason poultry are the easiest of all livestock is that their housing can be simple and inexpensive. All domestic poultry are hardy, and will do well if given protection from predators and the extremes of weather. Any housing that protects the birds from the wind and from getting wet in the harshest conditions will be adequate for your flock. (Remember too their need for shade on the hottest summer days.) You should allow a minimum of three square feet per adult bird (twice that allowed in even so-called “free range” commercial laying houses)—four or five would be even better.

All the common gallinaceous domestic fowl—chickens, guineas, turkeys—have an instinct to roost at night, and will be more content if given perches to do so. Roosts need not be either high or complicated—any structure that allows them to sleep perched above ground level will satisfy their urge to roost. I make what amounts to a wide “ladder” from 2x4’s, and lean it against the wall at about a 60 degree angle. Since I leave it unattached, it is easy to move aside for cleaning. Waterfowl—ducks and geese—do not require roosts, and will be happy to bed down at night in a corner of the house.

Nests should be provided if there are laying hens in the flock. Though nest box units can be purchased, I make my own—12 inches high and wide, 16 inches deep—and fill them with straw or other clean, soft organic material. I recommend flooring them with ½-inch wire mesh (“hardware cloth”) rather than solid bottoms—broken-down straw and the occasional dried dropping sift through the wire mesh, keeping the nests cleaner. Avoid egg eating in the flock by mounting the nests above floor level (to keep the cocks of the flock from pecking at them curiously), providing enough nests (one for every eight hens or so), and collecting eggs regularly. (As for egg care, we never wash eggs if they come from the nest absolutely clean. For cleaning up those with a smear or stain, we use a paper towel dipped in a half-and-half mix of water and white vinegar. Fresh eggs do not need to be refrigerated if eaten within a week or so.)

Many people starting a flock convert an existing outbuilding to house them, and almost any structure can be made to serve satisfactorily. If you are starting from scratch, however, I strongly advise leaving an earth floor in the coop, and covering it with a deep layer (up to twelve inches) of organic matter—the best possible arrangement for safe, pleasant, and less labor intensive manure management. Chickens, forever scratching, quickly work all their droppings into the litter, where a decomposition process takes place driven by billions of microbes of the sort at work in a compost heap. Metabolites of the microbes (byproducts of their life processes) include vitamins B12 and K and immune-enhancing substances, which the chickens ingest as they peck up little critters they find in the litter to eat. The manure, otherwise a potential source of pathogens, thus becomes a substrate for health.

Materials for litter should be as high in carbon as possible (to balance the high nitrogen in the droppings), and include leaves (oak leaves are my favorite) and wood shavings. Sawdust and woodchips can be used, though they should be aged first, never used in their “green” state. I avoid straw because it can support growth of Aspergillus molds, whose spores do the lungs of neither you nor your birds any good. I read reports, however, of folks who use straw over an earth floor with satisfactory results.

As in a compost heap, the decompositional microbes use the nitrogen in the droppings as energy (food) source as they break down the litter into simpler elements. As the carbon in the litter is used up, the nitrogen can no longer be utilized efficiently by the microbes and begins outgassing to the atmosphere as ammonia, a compound of nitrogen and hydrogen. Breathing ammonia is bad for your birds’ delicate respiratory tissues, so that first whiff of ammonia is your signal to clean out the litter, or add fresh high-carbon material.

Materials higher in nitrogen such as hay and threshed soybean vines are not appropriate for litter, since they decompose too quickly, and release ammonia.

In addition to providing more wholesome manure management, deep litter is also labor-saving. Rather than having to make frequent attacks on hardened layers of accumulated droppings, then laboriously compost it, you might need to shovel out what amounts to finished compost once a year or so, and use it in the garden without further processing.

If you need to use an existing building with a wood or concrete floor, that’s okay. You can still make a deep layer of organic material the foundation of proper manure management. Use of straw in this context is fine, since it stays drier and doesn’t support growth of Aspergillus. In this case as well, the litter does not break down as completely, and will need to be composted before use in the garden.

Set off against its many benefits, there is one potential problem with deep litter over an earth floor—the exposure of your sleeping flock to digging predators such as dogs or foxes. It’s a grueling initial chore, but it is imperative to dig into the ground a barrier—metal roof flashing or ½-inch hardware cloth works well—to eighteen inches deep around the entire perimeter of your poultry house to deter such predators.

One of the most frequently asked questions about poultry housing is whether provision should be made for heating it in winter. All domestic poultry I’ve worked with (chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys, even guineas, which evolved in the central and western plains of Africa) are quite cold hardy. They do not need any added heat in the sort of winters I experience here (Zone 6b), so long as they are well protected from the wind in the coldest weather. I therefore ensure that their house is tight against drafts, while at the same time providing essential ventilation. Occasionally cocks such as Old English Games or Dorkings will suffer frostbite to their large combs and wattles, though they soon recover with no problem. If you live farther north, you might want to consider breeds such as the Chantecler, bred in Canada, which have minimal combs and wattles and are almost impervious to frostbite.

Another winter care question concerns the use of artificial lighting in order to mitigate the natural drop in egg production in the dark winter months. My own practice is not to use such lighting. The early winter is the time of the molt, when the bird sheds all her feathers and grows new ones. Since feathers are almost pure protein, that’s a lot of resource required to replace them; and I feel it is ungenerous to “push” the hen to keep up egg production at the same time. We simply adjust to a greatly reduced egg supply in the winter. However, if your flock is in good health and you are feeding them well, you can certainly keep lights on them in the winter without ill effect. It is most convenient to put the light on a timer, since erratic photoperiods could be confusing to your birds’ circadian rhythms. Set the timer to provide earlier light in the morning, and later light in the evening, for a total of fourteen hours. You don’t need strong light to trigger photoperiod response—a single 40- or 60-watt bulb should be adequate.

Pasturing the Flock

I strongly urge you to avoid the conventional paradigm of the homestead flock, with the birds confined to their coop and a small, static chicken run. Such a run is quickly denuded of the last vestige of green, and then accumulates droppings that breed flies and pathogens, and toxic levels of nitrates and phosphates in the soil, becoming a point source for serious runoff pollution. Please, let us home flock owners not join “the big boys” of the poultry industry in their appalling and irresponsible pollution of our groundwater and streams.

It is far better to get the birds out onto healthy, growing pasture. The birds enjoy the sunshine, fresh air, and exercise, and forage a significant part of their diet. Their droppings are a valuable source of fertility for the sward, rather than a nuisance or potential source of disease.

Some flock owners have good results allowing their birds to free range during the day, then closing them up at night for protection, since most predators are nocturnal by preference. For others, however, different levels and types of predation (and remember that your neighbor’s dog, or even your own, could be your most devastating predator)—or proximity of neighbors’ gardens or flower beds—prohibits such a laissez faire approach. Does that dictate a return of the flock to their wretched static run? Not at all. Though I am a decidedly low-tech guy for most homestead strategies, electric net fencing (electronet) is a technological solution that has been a fundamental management tool for me for many years. I cannot recommend it highly enough for providing the benefits of pasturing the flock, confining them where you want them, and protecting them from the heavy hitters of the neighborhood.

Electronet is a plastic mesh fence with interwoven spiked posts for standing it up, the horizontal strands of which are intertwined with almost hair-fine stainless steel wires. Attached to a good fence energizer properly grounded, the fence carries an unpleasant surprise for unwelcome curiosity seekers. It does not provide protection from aerial predation, of course, but it will stop almost anything on the ground with a nervous system. I purchase all my electric net fencing and equipment from Premier Fencing Supply, and give them my unqualified recommendation. Friends whose judgment I trust give Kencove Fence Supplies an equally high endorsement.

Putting the Flock to Work

There are many ways we can enlist the natural behaviors of the flock to achieve key homestead goals. Use of electronet often enhances opportunities to utilize their services while keeping them secure from predators.

Before the era of Monsanto and Cargill, with their toxic arsenals for a lunatic “war” on the insect world, free ranging farm poultry flocks helped control excess insect predation in orchards. We can utilize our flocks in the same way, confining them to their work if necessary with electronet. Another useful service the flock provides in the orchard is the cleaning up of dropped fruit, which can be a vector for disease or overwintering insects. Geese are especially efficient (read “greedy”), seeming to “vacuum” up fallen fruit.

Geese are grazers to a greater degree than any other domestic fowl—why not take advantage of that trait? Geese have been widely used as weeders in appropriate crops (potatoes, garlic and onions, tomatoes, carrots, blueberries, strawberries and brambles, vineyards). For three years now, we have rotated our ducks and geese over four or five areas of our lawn. The grazing birds greatly reduce mowing chores, fertilize the grass with their droppings, and convert all that lovely grass to special winter dinners and high quality cooking fats.

Though chickens could destroy an established garden with their constant scratching (and they like ripe tomatoes as much as you do!), I usually precede the garden season by netting the flock onto the garden for two to four weeks. The birds eat sprouting weed seeds, as well as slugs and snails. It takes several months for the slug population to reconstitute itself to potentially damaging levels. Though ducks would not be appropriate with all crops, with careful design and garden layout they can coexist with some growing crops and provide slug and snail control throughout the season.

Guineas do little scratching, so I use a few in my winter squash patch each year. I allow the squash plants to grow until I see the first squash bug (which spreads serious viral diseases and is difficult to control without resort to toxic sprays), usually about the time the vines start to run and to blossom. At that point, I net three or four guineas into the squash patch, and leave them there until frost closes out the season, for complete control of the squash bug.

For years I have taken an increasingly no-till approach to garden care. What tilling I need to do I usually assign to my chickens: To till in heavily weed-grown plots or cover crops, I net the chickens onto the plot as long as necessary for them to do their work. Often I will allow the cover crop—small grains like wheat or barley, cowpeas, buckwheat—to mature its seeds before introducing the birds, offering them even greater opportunities for self-harvesting their own food without additional effort or expense on my part. If I need to develop new ground for garden, you won’t find me out wrestling a stinky, noisy, bone-jarring power tiller—I net a flock of chickens onto the plot and let them do what they love to do best, scratching away at that tough grass sod until it is killed and turned into the top few inches of the soil, in the process boosting soil fertility with their droppings. (Such shallow scratching of the top layers does not have the destructive effects of deep tillage and inversion of soil layers so frequently practiced in today’s agriculture.) I then move the flock elsewhere, grow a mixed cover crop in the new plot to loosen the soil and increase its biomass, then return the flock for another tilling session. At that point the new ground is ready to be planted to garden crops.

The Integrated Flock

There are so many ways our flocks can be integrated into the effort to develop more food self-sufficiency on the homestead—the examples I have given only hint at the possibilities. The key is liberating them from a separate, isolated corner, making them part of broader, interwoven patterns in the homestead endeavor. Note how many services we gain from the integrated flock: Instead of being closely confined to boredom, stress, and unsanitary conditions in a coop and static run, they enjoy the benefits of sunshine, fresh air, exercise, and engage in interesting natural behaviors—socializing and satisfying their abundant natural curiosity. Their manure—otherwise a repellant part of the enterprise for us and a potential vector of disease for the birds—is exposed by the birds’ scratching to oxygen and sunlight, nature’s sanitizers, and worked into the grass sod of the pasture or into the most bio-active part of our garden’s soil profile, its fertility captured to build our soil, not squandered as runoff pollution of groundwater and stream. The flock offers nurturing alternatives to expensive, stressful (for both us and the soil), fossil fuel dependent power tillage. They help control insect populations that can damage our crops if they rise to excessive levels. And in the process of all these activities, they self-feed on a variety of live, natural foods of a quality and nutrient density unmatched by any dry, dusty meal from a bag.

Please do give poultry a try—they’re the ideal “starter livestock” for the homestead and small farm. But make them a part of the “big picture” from the beginning.