Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
Chickens - they're one of the main reasons I wanted to move to a rural property - so I could raise chickens and for my son to be able to collect fresh eggs. Seems odd that so many of us relate to this seemingly simple act, but ask most people about their rural living dream and it usually includes a small flock of chickens.
But how do you know if you’re the ‘chicken type’? How do you know if you’ve got the right personality for looking after livestock, even relatively simple livestock like chickens? Let’s face it – in generations past, chickens were part of well rounded family farms, and pretty much a necessity. They ate table scraps, weeds and bugs, and in return gave protein rich eggs and meat, as well as nitrogen rich fertilizer, to their keepers. It was a pretty efficient system.
Now, of course, we’ve complicated things with all the equipment and paraphernalia that we ‘have to have’ to raise chickens. Which, of course, is a bunch of bunk. But there is a lot to learn in order to do it right, and to do right by your captive charges. When we take animals into our care, we do have a responsibility to give them the best life possible. But what does that look like?
If you’re pondering a backyard flock, there are a few questions you need to ask yourself. These are the questions I’m working through right now, as we decide ‘chickens or no chickens’ - I think I have commitment issues... How about you?
Do you have enough space to give them a healthy life?
There are as many ways to raise chickens as there are chicken breeds, but some seem much more humane and healthy than others. Taking into account local predators, climate, location, and feed, chickens need the same things we do – food, water and shelter. Of course, with different individual requirements and much more rudimentary shelter, but you get the picture. But this is where all of the chicken systems diverge. Some involve keeping the chickens in small pens 24 hours a day, which requires a lot of cleaning and, I have to say, can’t be too much fun, or very good for, the chickens. Then there are systems with larger runs attached to coops, which gives the chickens more space, but still not much variety in their pecking and scratching. The next level is that of the chicken tractors, where the chickens are moved into a contraption that gets wheeled around the property, allowing them fresh grass and bugs and constantly rotating ‘manure’ deposits. Some chicken tractors are attached to tiny coops, but usually the birds are moved into a larger, secure shelter in the evening. Then we have ‘paddocking’, which is a system of allowing chickens to ‘free range’, but within rotating areas delineated by temporary fencing, then moved into secure shelter at night. Sounds great, allowing for grassy areas to grow back between pasturing stints, and more secure than true free ranging, where the birds can get into areas you maybe don’t want them to. But my concern here is with predators – it’s easy to secure a small area, but much more difficult to do so in a large paddock. So, space is critical for healthy birds.
Both small and large systems have their advantages and disadvantages – it’s up to you to decide your priorities and how much time and energy you’ll be able to dedicate to your flock.
Will you be home?
This is why we didn’t get chickens last year – I was still commuting to the city a couple of times per week, and with all the predators around our place (coyotes, weasels, ravens, owls, fishers, cougars, etc.), the birds really can’t be left alone for long periods of time. Now that I’m working from home, it seems more realistic. My only concern at this point is around us going out of town a few times a year – we’ll need to have someone available to feed, check on and move the chickens around the yard in our absence. Without such help, having a flock will be virtually impossible - unless we go to a system that seems to allow for longer term 'leaving' - I'll be doing more research on this topic, for sure.
Assess your lifestyle and see if chickens 'fit'.
Are you willing to do the research about predators, feed, behaviours, etc.?
I’ve talked to a few people who have run into problems with their flocks becoming unhealthy, falling prey to predators, or attacking each other because they didn’t do quite as much research beforehand as they probably should have. Find out what predators exist around your property, how they hunt, what you need to do to protect your birds, and what they need to remain healthy. Learn how to introduce new birds to your flock, when to not introduce new birds, and how to help the flock become cohesive after the introduction of new members.
Just as I feel strongly about people getting dogs without doing full scale breed research, I feel the same about chickens. When we take animals into our care, we’re accepting a big responsibility, and we owe it to them to do our very best to learn as much as possible about when they need to be happy and healthy.
What will you do with the chickens when they stop laying?
Sticky subject, this one, and one a lot of people I've talked to said they didn't really consider when they acquired their first flock. I know some people who keep the older chickens as pets, and others who have someone else who is willing to 'do the deed', well, do the deed. And some, of course, are comfortable with the process, and learn all they can about how to do it humanely, with little distress to the chicken and a lot of reverence for what the bird has given us. Worth considering before getting the birds.
Why do you want chickens?
This might sound like a redundant question, but it’s worth examining. You probably want eggs, maybe meat. But what about the entertainment factor (apparently chickens are pretty funny and make great pets if handled a lot), or the challenge of learning about how to care for another species? Maybe you’re interested in having your children learn about the responsibility of caring for animals, or having them participate in gathering food for the family? Do you want to teach them about the circle of life, and where our food comes from? Possibly you’re looking to make your household more self-sufficient and want the chickens to help ‘close the loop’ on outputs of waste and inputs of fertilizers for the garden?
There are many reasons for wanting chickens – what are yours? Your answer to this question will help guide you to a 'yes' or 'no' answer.
So, after all that, are you still considering the chicken game? Congratulations! I see fresh eggs and hours of fun (and, yes, work) in your near future. And if not, you’ve saved yourself some potential stress and the heartache of having to ‘get rid of’ a flock you don’t really want.
As for me, I’m still deciding. It's a big commitment, and as I mentioned, apparently I have commitment issues...
Do you have any advice for people considering getting chickens? Did I miss anything in the above article? If so, I’d love to hear it – please let us know in the comments below.