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Starting a Small Flock of Chickens

Table of Contents

1: Basics2: Management3: Questions and Answers

3. Miscellaneous Questions and Observations

Nomenclature

An immature female chicken is a pullet; an immature male, a cockerel. A mature female is a hen; a mature male, a cock.

At what age will pullets start to lay?

Onset of lay can vary by breed. However, you can expect "your basic barnyard breed" to start laying at about 22 weeks or so.

Is it necessary to keep a cock with a flock of hens?

No, it is not. Even without a cock, a group of hens will establish their hierarchical social order; and they will lay just as well without the cock's "encouragement" (though of course the eggs will not be fertile). So if you think the crowing of a cock on your place might cause problems with neighbors, you could keep a flock of hens only. However, I recommend including the cock in the flock if possible. He completes the social structure in a way that seems natural and balanced; and we enjoy watching him preening and strutting and taking care of his ladies.

How well do chickens lay in the winter?

All chickens reduce egg production greatly in winter, some breeds more than others. They molt during this period (that is, replace all their feathers); so are putting most of their resources into production of feathers (which are almost pure protein) rather than eggs. Because production is also keyed to day length, some folks put lights on the birds in winter (to make the total exposure to light fourteen hours a day) to stimulate greater production. I have never adopted this practice myself. I figure the demands of the molt are an excellent reason for the hens to reduce production; and that it would be ungenerous to push them to lay more eggs.

Are fertilized eggs more nutritious?

I have read arguments on both sides of this issue, and don't know that there is a definitive answer. Certainly the major influences on nutritional values of eggs are diet and overall health. If you feel it is better for you to manage your flock without a cock, you need not be concerned about a possibly real but minuscule difference in nutritional value in the eggs.

Are brown eggs more nutritious than white?

No, the tint of the egg shell is determined by the genetics of the various breeds and has no relation to nutritional values of the contents. Probably the myth of "brown versus white" emerged because the breeds exploited by the commercial egg industry lay white shelled eggs; while brown eggs are more likely to be from smaller, better-nurtured farm flocks and thus to be superior in quality.

Is a natural egg more nutritious than a "factory" egg?

Most definitely! Anyone who has compared the two will attest to the marked difference in flavor, viscosity of whites, color of yolks, and cooking properties. If these characteristics are indicators of nutritional quality—as I believe in a natural, unprocessed food they are—then the more natural egg your hens produce will be superior in nutrition as well as culinary pleasure to any egg you can buy.

Indeed, there is serious question in my mind whether we should consider the factory egg and the natural egg to be the same food at all. For example, I think that the much-debated question, "Is eating eggs good for you?" is totally meaningless until we clarify whether we are talking about a natural or a factory egg, and the differences between them. For example: Egg yolks are rich in Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids; and how well our bodies utilize these fatty acids depends to a large extent on the ratio between the two. The fatty acid profiles in a natural egg and a factory egg are completely different; and thus their metabolism by the body is different as well.

Consider this: Why is an egg one of the most nutrient-dense of all foods? It is not because the hen feels an obligation to nourish you. It is because the conversion of the egg's contents into a living baby chicken in twenty-one days requires a powerhouse of nutrients! And a supermarket egg, even if fertilized, would not support the growth of an embryo and hatch out a chick—the required nutrients to do so are simply not there.

Will my own home-dressed chicken be better than supermarket chicken?

Again, most definitely, yes! A more natural chicken-raised with better feed and with greens and insects as a part of the diet; not stressed by intense confinement in unsanitary conditions nor pushed with growth stimulants and antibiotics—will be vastly superior in flavor, texture, and nutrition than the supermarket equivalent.

Consider also this: The typical market broiler is raised with fifty-five thousand other birds in a space which allows only half a square foot per bird. Chickens have a strong instinct for social order, and will naturally fashion a flock hierarchy if permitted to. In the chaos of high-confinement housing, however, they are unable to do so. I think it is not at all a stretch to say that -- even aside from the filth, dust, noise, and other environmental stresses—psychically, a commercial broiler lives every day of its life in chicken hell. And I hope I will not be accused of waxing "mystical" here if I offer my firm belief that, when we eat that bird, we are quite literally eating that anguish.

Finally, there is the question of sanitation. Perhaps you have never yourself slaughtered a chicken. You will find it easy to imagine, however, that even the rankest amateur when eviscerating a bird by hand will exercise great care to avoid tearing open the gastrointestinal tract. We know what is on the inside of those entrails, and we are very certain we don't want it spilled onto meat we intend to eat! In commercial plants that may slaughter 25 million or more birds a week, the whole process is of course highly automated. After the carcass is slit open, a loop of stainless steel wire is robotically inserted into the cavity. It encircles the entrails and is withdrawn, pulling them out. Anyone who has done the process by hand will understand intuitively what happens next: The tract is torn open and spills its contents into the body cavity. The carcass then goes into a chill tank, where the spilled intestine contents accumulate into a fecal sludge a couple inches deep. Not to worry, however: The carcasses then soak in up to fourteen different chlorine baths to sanitize them. Then they are shrink-wrapped and offered pristine and pretty in the supermarket refrigerator case. Bon apetit!

But isn't killing your own chickens just awful?

The concern expressed here tends to go in one of two directions:

“How can you bear to eat an animal you've known personally?”

To which the logical answer seems to be: "How can you bear to eat one you haven't?!" Seriously, the moral questions raised by killing a beautiful animal in order to consume its flesh for food are profound ones; and I hope you will never be able to take them lightly. In the context of actually nurturing a flock, however, the question is not an abstract or theoretical one—nor one that focuses solely (morbidly?) on the killing of the bird. The relationship with the flock involves a giving, a nurturing—a support of the other's well-being—on both sides. In many of our meals, we have the experience of knowing the particular individual that graces our table. Our reaction is not one of horror or guilt, but of profound gratitude and respect.

“Isn't cleaning a chicken just too gross?”

Reactions to the mechanics of killing and eviscerating a bird—the physical contact with blood and entrails—are highly personal; and I will not assume that you could ever overcome them if you are troubled by them. Often, however, such feelings are rooted in a sense of helpless uncertainty about how to pull the whole thing off; dread of causing the bird unnecessary suffering; or fear of making an awful mess of the process. It can help tremendously to seek out a more experienced person who is willing to walk you through the process the first time or two.

Once you actually try your hand at butchering fowl, however, you will find it rather simple. You will need a large pot for scalding (the key to a good pluck is a good scald), a comfortable workspace with running water, a sharp knife (a good poultry shears is a nice bonus), and a bucket for feathers and entrails. The whole process can easily be done by hand for small numbers of fowl. Thermostatically controlled scalders and mechanical pluckers are available, but their high cost would likely be justified only if you are processing a lot of birds. (See the article "Homestead Poultry Butchering" for a detailed description of the process.)

Culling the flock

Even if you never get into selectively breeding your own stock, you will do well to cull the flock periodically. If you start a group of straight-run chicks, you will end up with far more males than you are likely to want to keep. Also, as hens age they lay fewer and fewer eggs. Thus most people choose periodically to "cull" the excess males and older females as they continually renew the flock.

Be aware that older birds call for different culinary uses. They have a lot of flavor, but are tough and stringy. Long, slow, moist cooking (such as in braises and stews) is called for. An even better use for an old bird is to make it into the best, most nutritious broth you ever tasted! Check the recipe for "Ellen's Fabulous Chicken Broth" to find out how she makes her superior stock. And be sure to include the feet in the stock pot! I usually keep the heads as well, but you must at a minimum clean and keep the feet. The additional collagen they contribute to the broth is extremely beneficial to the digestive tract and to overall health.

How can you cause a hen to “go broody”?

The natural instinct to assemble a clutch of eggs, hatch them out, and nurture the chicks has been selected against in most modern poultry breeding, with considerable success. (If you make "going broody" a capital offense, it doesn't take long for the hens to get the message!) Thus broodiness is a rarity among modern breeds. Some breeds—e.g., Buff Orpingtons, Cochins—are considered more likely to express the trait than others. Even with these breeds, however, broodiness is very much "hit-or-miss" with regard to individual hens.

A better strategy if you want to have a couple of reliable working mothers in your flock is to locate hens of some of the historic breeds among whom broodiness is the norm rather than the exception—e.g., Old English and Madagascar Games, Cubalayas, Shamos, and Malays. Dorkings would also be a good breed to try, though they might not express the trait at anywhere close to 100%.

I now have an established sub-flock of reliable broody hens who hatch out all my new stock. The core of the broody group are half a dozen Old English Game hens, supplemented by hens of other breeds who volunteered to do this work—a Dorking, a Partridge Chantecler, a Russian Orlof, even (surprisingly, since they are Mediterranean class) a Blue Andalusian and a Silver Campine. (See "Working with Broody Hens: Let Mama Do It" for an extended discussion of using hens to hatch and nurture new stock.

Soil fertility: Too much of a good thing?

When the flock is rotated frequently over the available pasture, the dispersed droppings have a positive effect on soil fertility. However, if they remain on one plot for long periods of time—or even if you make heavy applications of poultry-litter-based compost to the garden year after year—the soil can eventually accumulate levels of phosphorus that are not beneficial to plants. If poultry manure is a significant part of your fertility program, do not apply any other source of supplemental phosphorus; and have your soil tested periodically to monitor phosphate levels.

Also, be wary of over-fertilization in the orchard. Fruit trees do not require high levels of nitrogen; and excessive application of nitrogen in the form of poultry droppings can stimulate lush, too-rapid growth which makes the trees more subject to winter damage and to fire blight (especially pears and apples). Limit the flock's "bug patrol" duties in the orchard to brief periods in spring and fall when insects that overwinter in the soil are emerging or going to ground.

Conclusion

I hope that nothing I have said makes you think that keeping poultry need be at all complicated or a lot of trouble. If you do "make the leap" and start a small flock, you will find that daily chores quickly become a routine requiring just minutes a day. The whole family—especially if you have young children —will find the flock fascinating, beautiful, and inspirational (even more so if you allow a mother hen to raise a clutch of chicks).