Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
I can still remember the day my husband said, "let's get chickens". It wasn't a pleasant moment. You see, I had been tossing the idea around for awhile, but he was never very fond of it. It happens that way though -- until it becomes "his" idea, it's not fun for him. But the sad reality is that someone else had started talking about chickens, and now, all of a sudden, it was a wonderful idea!
Let's skip that part....
Now we have chickens....and they aren't always as easy and fun as some might think. But they are the best things ever. Chickens truly were the "gateway animal" for the beginning of our homestead. And over all, they are generally quite easy to tend to. As with everything, however, there's the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Our chicken journey began with two sweet little hens who needed a new home. Their previous owner had to move and could not take them with her. Therefore, enter me...with my brilliant idea. Yes, yes, we will take them and this will force Mountain Man to build that coop he bought materials for a month ago. Our two little hens lived in a make shift run with bird netting (JUST, bird netting) for almost 2 weeks. They were happy, though. And that's all that mattered. I can still remember watching one of them lay their first egg. Farm kid and I hopped around like two kids on Christmas, and Mountain Man rolled his eyes and wondered what on earth he got himself into...as he continued building our large 8 feet x 8 feet walk-in coop. Finally, our coop was finished and two hens quickly turned into 5 hens...then 10 hens....then 25 hens....then 50 chickens....then some roosters....then some chicks...and...and....
And then we hit a road block....
Last summer we had over 50 chickens on our property, all free ranging on a 1/4 of our 1/2 acre plot of land. All housing in this 8-by-8 coop. And I wasn't getting one single egg....at all....nada. According to my math, I should have been getting several DOZEN eggs a day....and nothing...absolutely nothing....
We are now down to 20-25 chickens....more isn't always better. You see, the truth is, there is good and bad in everything, and we were about to find this out on our own.
• Chickens are fairly inexpensive when allowed to free range.
• They provide eggs for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You'll be surprised by how much you actually use the eggs you get. You'll find new and amazing things to make.
• You can sell eggs (even if just two dozen a week) and completely offset your feed cost, leaving you with potentially free eggs right from your backyard.
• Chickens are humorous and a joy to interact with. Depending on the breed, many will come and sit with you and lay on your lap while you feed them treats.
• Chickens can provide your family with meat on your homestead.
• They are as easy to tend to as the family dog — taking little time to feed and water each day. They really should only take less than 15 minutes a day to tend to if you have a small backyard flock. If you have a larger, more production-like flock, it will take a bit longer.
• There is an incredible community of chicken lovers out there. Most are pretty amazing and helpful in all situations — it's like an underground world I never knew about!
• They are addicting. Really, don't think you can get away from the chicken addiction. It will find you and devour you! One chicken will turn into 100 chickens if you allow it to!
• Chickens must be checked over, weekly, to ensure they are healthy and parasite free. Chickens are like any other livestock, they are susceptible to sickness and bugs. And it is your responsibility to make sure they are OK.
• You have to clean the coop. If you have a little coop, you're OK. But if you have a big coop like us, it's never a fun chore. Especially in the Summer months.
• You will lose chickens to predators or mishaps, especially if you free range. We have been condemned multiple times for free-ranging, but it's livestock. We don't coop cows up in "runs" or small coops, so why can't our chickens roam free? Either way, it is inevitable. Eventually, at some point, you will have to deal with death -- whether it be in your first year, or your twentieth year.
• They can rack up a feed bill in the Winter months. But you must remember how amazing they are in the Spring, Summer, and Fall!
• They can get sick or hurt. And not just that, they can quickly spread their illness to your entire flock without you even realizing what is happening. They are susceptible to avian influenza (which cannot be spread to humans by birds). They are susceptible to foot and wing injuries. Are you prepared to help and heal whenever a chicken is ill or hurt? With the proper precautions, you most likely won't have to deal with sickness or injury on a regular basis, but sometimes, life gives us lemons.
• You might have to make the decision to cull a chicken. On our homestead, everything has a purpose. But if a chicken is sick or injured to the point where we cannot see the point in allowing it to live (because it can spread quickly or it is not worth the time and money), we must cull to save our flock or to put our bird out of its misery. This doesn't mean we give the bird a shot and it goes to sleep, though that is an option for many. This means that we, personally, kill the chicken ourselves — by ax or knife.
• You can bring sick or parasite infested birds into your flock and not realize it. Which is exactly what happened to us. We bought birds from a friend that were infested with lice, without us knowing. Which then infected the rest of our flock. It was a very long and tedious process, but we rid our coop and all of our birds of lice and parasites. They are as healthy as can be now, but it was not a pretty thing. Which brings me to my next point....
• You have to treat your birds with all natural or chemical treatments. And it's up to you to decide which it will be. We strive to do everything all natural, but sometimes, it's not possible if you want a "quick fix". I would say that 95 percent of the time we treat naturally, and the remaining 5 percent, for extremely hard situations, we treat with vet/chemical treatments (such as our lice outbreak). But the big question is, are you prepared to put the money and time into it? If your chicken has an infected goopy and oozing eye, can you handle it? If your chicken needs a foot surgery, could you do it? The sad reality is that there aren't very many "chicken" vets in most areas. You will be your own vet in many cases.
Overall, they are amazing. We love them, and I couldn't imagine life without them. They are incredibly self-sufficient, entertaining, and easy to take care of. The bad and the ugly come and go sometimes, but mostly, it's all good.
People often ask me, "is it worth it? can I handle it?"
And I tell them, "get through your first summer, and then you tell me if you think it's worth it or not."
And I'll tell you the same -- don't fall in love with chickens until you truly know that they are the right fit for your family. If you plan on having more than 15 chickens, get through your first Summer before adding more. Get used to chickens and raising them before taking on a large poultry project. Add to your flock slowly -- and most of all, enjoy it. These creatures, as simple as they are, truly do bring a satisfaction that is unimaginable. You take the good with the bad, and keep on truckin'!
Amy Fewell is a work-at-home mom, homesteader, blogger and writer. Her and her family live on a mini-homestead in Virginia where they raise Icelandic Chickens, standard Rex rabbits, ducks, and more! For more information about their homestead, visit them online at The Fewell Homestead.
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