Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
The fact that a single chicken produces 45 pounds of poop in one year didn’t dull my enthusiasm for starting a small flock of six chickens. That’s 270 pounds of dooky a year.
For an urban backyard flock, that’s a serious pile to consider, I suppose. But on Shuddering Squirrel Acres, where fruit trees, vegetable and flower gardens, and outdoor potted plants all need to be fertilized each growing season, it’s a potential heap of gold.
Composted for a year or two with the chickens’ bedding of straw and pine shavings — as well as kitchen food scraps, dead leaves, grass clippings, and a little bit of dirt — chicken manure becomes one of the finest natural fertilizers you can use. Try buying a five- or 10-pound bag at the garden supply shop, and the price will tell you its relative value.
Getting chicks and raising them was the first thing I wanted to do when we moved here, but more pressing concerns around the property delayed it for a year. At the end of last April, we bought the chicks at Tractor Supply, dipping them out of a big galvanized stock tank packed with peeping fuzz balls and warmed by a red heat lamp.
We wanted all laying hens, so we chose from the tank labeled “pullets”— the name for young female chickens. They were all supposed to have been sexed, found to be female, and separated from an adjoining tank labeled “straight run”— the term for unsexed, unsorted chicks that may be pullets or may be cockerels (young males).
I chose three red chicks, two blacks, and last, a single yellow chick just like those you see every Easter, given to temporarily interested little kids by unthinking parents who are soon stuck with the problem of how to get rid of them. I don’t much like to think of how they go about that.
The day after we brought the chicks home, we had a Sunday farm breakfast — albeit in mid-afternoon — thanks to a serendipitous Saturday. On the way back from Tractor Supply we saw a roadside, handmade sign for farm-fresh eggs, “None of them older than five days,” and met some good people we expect will become friends.
The Givens family is the real deal. There’s the dad, Little Grady, whose own father was Big Grady; the mom, Stacy, a do-it-yourself environmental activist and poultry raiser; and their son, Littlest Grady, who hustles eggs and drives a hard bargain.
Their eggs were in an old refrigerator standing out in the open with a slot mailbox for cash payment of $2 per dozen. Honor system all the way, and as the man who greeted us said, “We don’t really make anything on them, and if somebody’s hungry enough to steal eggs, they need them more than us.” This was the big man called Little Grady, current patriarch of a certified Century Farm that has been continuously operated by his family for 100 years or more. (Some of the few remaining members of my mom’s farming family in central Indiana continue to operate their own Century Farm.)
The Givenses also raise beef and pork on their big spread. We chatted a while about how the meat is raised and its probable prices in the fall, bought some frozen pork sausage to sample (it was exceptional), enjoyed a generous tour of their chicken houses, sage advice for raising our own, and left with a big blue plastic tub that Stacy said would be perfect for our chicks’ first brood box. In giving it to us, she asked only, “When you decide to get rid of it, promise me you’ll recycle.”
We’re dedicated to using local products whenever feasible, and will return for beef and pork as soon as we’re able to buy a sizeable freezer.
Back home in the garage, I set up our brood box complete with clip-on red heat lamp, water and feed dishes, and a thick layer of shaved pine bedding. In went the chicks, and a lifelong desire to have my own source of fresh eggs began. For the record, Vicki adores our chickens, but it was tacitly agreed that this was my idea and the bulk of their care was my responsibility.
From the beginning, the yellow chick was different, and not just because it was the only one of that color. The other chicks tended to gather around it, although it could be a little cranky if crowded. A photo taken on their first day here shows the three reds together and the two blacks together, formed into a circle dance around the yellow. This was a portent we did not recognize.
As the days and weeks went on, they began to show their personalities. One of the blacks, Sadie, had a permanent scowl on her face. The other, sweet and always happy to see me, I named Billie — to honor the spectacular heart-render, Billie Holiday. The reds were hard to tell apart, so they were temporarily Red, Her Sister Red, and Her Other Sister Red. And the yellow, who quickly whitened, was dubbed Roxy because my wicked stepdaughter, Jamie, said she had the sass and flash for that name.
Roxy’s bright red comb and wattles developed sooner than the others, and Vicki said she looked suspiciously like a rooster. Unhappy about that prospect, I went to the books and found several pictures of adult Leghorn females that looked just like her. Besides, I said, there was no sign of incipient spurs on the backs of her legs.
Once they had all their feathers and were old enough to move outside into the rather unusual coop I built for them, Roxy looked and acted suspiciously masculine.
All the chickens were making throaty noises, but Roxy seemed to be trying to raise her voice in a familiar declaration of dominance and pride. She had already established herself as the Boss Chicken, sometimes bullying the others or “herding” them to go where she wanted them to go.
Still, I was unwilling to accept that she may be a he, and tried to rationalize away her emerging roosterness. Vicki just kept saying, “Look, that’s a rooster,” but I wasn’t buying it yet.
I went back to the books, and online, and found one test that was dismissed as an old wives’ tale by some, but sworn to by others as a reliable method for sexing a young chicken. Pick it up, hold it away from your body, and look at the legs. Hens tend to draw theirs up close to their bodies when aloft like this; roosters let theirs hang loosely.
It took many days to get close enough to Roxy lay hands on her. While Billie and one of the reds – now named Sweet Red – reluctantly let me pick them up, then lie on one side in my hand, relaxed and enjoying my attention, both Roxy and Sadie kept a chary distance.
Finally, a struggling Roxy in hand, I performed the farmyard test.
Those legs were hanging.
I reluctantly changed her name to Rocky, but it seemed too pat. Now our Leghorn rooster’s name is Larry. Why? Ever heard of another chicken named Larry?
I must say he is a striking gent, snow white with a tail like a sailing jib (but in this case aft instead of fore), and big bright red comb and wattles. He is the archetypal, historic picture of a barnyard boss.
But it’s disappointing that our Leghorn won’t be laying any eggs. The breed is one of the most prolific of them all, commonly laying 360 or more eggs a year.
Now the question was, did we want or need a rooster?
For more on our homesteading trials, tribulations, joys and successes, please visit my blog, “I’m mildly concerned that one of my hens is a rooster…”.