The purpose of poultry is to scavenge spilled nutrients. Manure spreading, parasite and pest control, and on-the-spot clean up are the chickens’ primary contribution to the farm; eggs and meat are bonuses. Shutting up a chicken and feeding it grain is as pointless as shutting up a cow and feeding it grain; they’ll both harvest their own farm-produced dinners if you’ll let them, and they (and the farm) will be the better for it. If you want many eggs, though, you’ll need to supplement what they pick up on the farm. The normal household will easily produce enough food waste to feed as many chickens as it contains people, but most people want to keep more chickens than their farm will support on just kitchen scraps, raw milk and foraging. That’s just fine, because the normal farm will have work for a good many tame scratching scavengers, in which case you have to figure out what—and how much – your birds will need besides worms, bugs and grass.
Fortunately, the well-employed chicken is an animal worth her hire even in the dead of winter. Remember that the first purpose of the scratching bird is as weed-seed-and-insect cleanup, with a lot of surface-litter aeration thrown in. Add to that a generous harvest of very high-nitrogen manure and you have an animal whose value and natural setting make it an invaluable garden assistant. NOT as free-range patrol birds in your vegetables – one chicken at liberty in the garden can scrap out fifty row feet of sprouted corn, or peck holes in all your prettiest tomatoes, in less time than it takes to chase her out again – but behind netting or (our favorite) in tractors moved daily over fallow beds, green manures, or cover crops, chickens are first-class fertilization and tillage. Watch a few chickens rip out an invasion of chickweed or purslane; or, if you want to see synergism in action, take a dozen birds in a sliding pen over a mature cover crop like weed-smothering buckwheat. Here’s what you’ll see: the buckwheat laid over as mulch, the birds harvesting buckwheat grains and dropping hot manure, the manure taken up by the carbon mulch, and, after the first rain, a second sowing of buckwheat (this one planted by the chickens) coming up to trap any excess nitrogen and continue smothering weeds. Or try running a bunch of chickens over a bed you’ve mulched for the winter; they’ll stir the mulch and add nitrogen so that in the spring you’ve got a friable, half-composted cover that is easy to rake into the furrows when it’s time to plant. We love what chickens can do in the garden so much that they are an indispensable part of our ongoing garden fertility program, and we generally have anywhere from four to eight dozen hens on the farm.
This means, of course, that we have more chickens than the farm can usually feed on farm-raised nutrients alone, an issue we expect to be working on for a long time. While we can and have raised small grains – wheat, barley, oats – as well as a good deal of corn, we haven’t yet found the way to make small-scale grain production a practical part of our rotation. Farmers around here tell us that the first five acres or so of any grain belong to the deer and turkeys, and good luck trying to convince the animals otherwise. If you want to harvest any grain for yourself, you have to plant more than five acres. Well, that’s not happening on our little place, but grain isn’t the only thing chickens love to eat. Some of the others are things our farm produces in abundance, like clabbered milk and butchering scraps, things which fill the expensive item on the feed bill: protein supplement. Potatoes, cooked, and winter squash, especially the seeds, are other chicken favorites; in fact, they’ll enjoy pretty much anything that comes out of the garden or anything that comes from your kitchen. We don’t yet grow enough potatoes and squash to feed the chickens as well as the humans year-round, but since we do produce plenty of surplus protein we can dispense with commercially-compounded crumbles and fill out the birds’ diet with locally grown wheat, oats and barley, which we lacto-ferment for flavor and food value. Not only does this eliminate dubious additives and food sources, and drastically reduce the amount of petroleum required to produce and ship their feed, it’s also much less expensive – like, one-fourth the price. And although our active birds lay at a slower rate than confinement birds on their hyped-up fare, they do a lot more for us than just lay eggs, and with a productive life span of four or more years, they’re around and being helpful for a lot longer.
We like to keep the larger dual-purpose breeds like the Rhode Island Red and used just to order them from a hatchery; but in recent years these once-meaty birds have been diminishing in size, due, we are told, to cross-breeding with Leghorns to satisfy customer preference for heavy laying over large egg and carcass size, so a couple of years ago we bought breeding stock for a native Ohioan, the Buckeye, to hatch our own replacement birds. While we work on that project, though, we are still buying hatchery birds as well, since our farm has plenty of work for them.
It is a fact of life that chicks come from an incubator. Yes, I know the Good Lord told all the animals to produce offspring after their own kind, but the Industrial Establishment has since ordered them to the convenience of mass production, and the result is that broodiness has been bred out of most of our common breeds — just look at the details of your hatchery catalogue descriptions — and modern chickens, although they lay more eggs than ever, don’t really know what to do with them after that, unless they get cannibalistic (not an uncommon occurrence), and then they eat them. The mothering instinct has been bred out of them. Our attempts to build up a flock of breeding birds is slow, but not entirely without results; with banties to do our brooding, we are hatching about 20% of our replacement birds right now.
Your one-cow revolutionary has an advantage over his cow-less kin in the raising of chicks. Baby chickens are apt to get an intestinal bug called coccidiosis, to which many little birds succumb; the usual defense among organic farmers is to put some cider vinegar in their water. Maybe it helps, but not, in our experience, as much as you might like it to. One of the signs of coccidiosis is blood in the chicks’ droppings, and the addition of cider vinegar to our birds’ water hasn’t had a noteable effect on that symptom.
The remedy par excellence is raw milk. The lactobaccili in raw milk seem to be just what the babies’ little systems need to combat the coccidio-bacteria. Since we began feeding raw milk to our baby birds several years ago, we have had no trouble with coccidiosis; not, we admit, a scientific survey complete with control, but evidence sufficient for the farmer to go on as he is going.
The new chicks, when they arrive, are put into a half-barrel on about two inches of hay or wood shavings, and given water with electrolytes (see your feed store; one package lasts approximately six hundred years), unmedicated chick starter, and a small waterer half-full of raw milk. A shop light or heat lamp is hung over the barrel, and a thermometer is set on one side of the lamp so we can monitor the temperature, which should stay between ninety and one hundred degrees. A drop cloth, usually one of the split sheets we use around here for a number of purposes (frost-covers, shade cloths, and drying herbs on the picnic table), is clipped to the light cord and to the edges of the barrel to exclude drafts. Done. They are checked every few hours for the first several days.
Additionally, for luxury meat birds we raise Cornish Rock Crosses, the broiler chicken that is not a ‘breed’, but only found as a cross. This is because the offspring of Cornish and White Rock chickens are fast-growing, obese, slow-moving to an extreme, and severely heart-attack prone due to their rate of frame growth outdistancing that of their vital parts. These crosses are the standard broiler bird on the North American market. There is no Independent Farmstead excuse for these birds, the majority of whose diet is organic grower crumbles (NOT a farm-produced feed), and which at eight weeks and about seven pounds live weight are slaughtered before they die of inanition. Here (and we hope nowhere else) we follow the conventional model (buy the animal, buy the feed), and the sooner we figure out how we can efficiently hatch our own cockerels, the better.