CHAPTER ONE: INTRODUCTION
Know what you want
The first step is to figure out what your ideal result is. When you close your eyes and imagine what it’ll be like to have your lovely group of family chickens, what are you picturing?
And, more important, is it realistic?
Realistic: You can have a steady supply of incredibly delicious eggs, eggs that will make you wonder how anyone can eat store-bought. These will be eggs you will literally run over and show the neighbors, and suddenly family gatherings will prominently feature quiche, breakfast casserole, pound cakes, and omelets.
You can be absolutely sure that the eggs you and your family eat are clean, fresh, and (probably) disease-free.
Bursting your bubble: You’ll pay about $10 a dozen for them (if you have to build a coop from scratch you can bump this to somewhere between a scream and a stifled sob per dozen), and you’ll have a steady part-time job gathering them, managing angry hens, soul-searching about the fate of roosters, and making sure they stay as clean and fresh as when they were laid.
You also may not avoid the danger of salmonella, since a few hens carry it in their ovaries and lay eggs with the bacteria already inside (and those chicks grow up with the same problem, etc.). The way you avoid this is by NOT getting birds from auctions or flea markets or similar. It’s really smart to start off with NPIP/salmonella-tested hatcheries and breeders, which we’ll talk about later.
Realistic: You can fill your freezer with the freshest meat there is, and you can be sure your meat was raised in a humane and appropriate way. Home-raised heritage-breed meat has a fuller, more complex flavor and is a dark-meat-lover’s dream.
Bursting your bubble: You will pay substantially more than grocery prices per pound, and if you were planning on selling extras to make up your investment you’d better have a group of people willing to pay through the nose for it.
You will also wrestle with the short-term issues of butchering and cleaning, and the longer-term issues of sustainable production and ethical raising. We’ll go into that more in another chapter, but there are not easy answers.
Realistic: Chickens are hilarious, just about every second of every day. They have an endearing mix of instinct and a tiny glimmer of personality, and many breeds exist purely as eye candy.
Bursting your bubble: That tiny glimmer of personality hides what’s basically a lizard with feathers. Chickens can be shockingly cruel to each other – henpecked is not an accidental adjective, and if they decide that one in the flock is vulnerable they will kill and even eat her in a matter of hours. Roosters don’t know when to call it quits and can damage or kill a “favorite” hen.
Even if you manage to avoid chicken-on-chicken violence or the rape and pillage of the boys, you will almost certainly have to deal with injury, death, parasites that make you shudder, and an unconscionable amount of poop.
Give kids the experience
Realistic: I’ve never much believed that dogs teach kids responsibility – they require too much of a relationship to fit that role well. But chickens – heck yes. Actually, it’s not so much “responsibility” as “I don’t care how far along you are on the Poptropica island, you have living things that take precedence and need you.” It’s a focus away from self and on to hard work and a good amount of honest dirty labor. Since chickens don’t need a relationship, but do need quite a bit of shoveling and fetching and carrying, they can give kids a bit of much-needed work.
Bursting your bubble: Kids will also get a view into death that you may not be ready for. Chickens are fragile and they don’t help themselves to stay alive very well. I don’t know anybody who hasn’t had at least one major predator-related loss (which usually means coming in to find half your flock slaughtered and several other major injuries) and chicks seem to want to throw themselves off the metaphorical cliff to their doom. Chicks drown in their water dishes, they try to jump off things and die, they croak from infections and digestive problems, they can be born deformed… it’s not Mary Poppins. I personally think it’s great for kids to experience the reality of life and death, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t rocked kids who were stormily weeping for hours over the death of a favorite bird.
Realistic: You can be part of the movement away from factory production of eggs and meat. Because your flock will be small and well cared for, it will be less likely to need pesticides and other chemical intervention. If you plan well, your poultry can do wonders for your garden and give back to your lawn and trees as well.
Bursting your bubble: It’s been my experience that all too often owners buy into the “if a little is good, a lot is better” mindset and absolutely inundate their animals with chemicals. I’ve got news for you – if you’re dosing with ivermectin every three months and creating dust baths with Sevin insecticide and lashing coccidiostat all over the place, you’re actually creating foodstuffs that are MORE contaminated than the store would sell you. At least the commercial poultry houses have somebody saying “Wow, enough!”
It’ll be your responsibility to know enough about the various medications and interventions to find a balance between keeping your flock healthy and keeping your food and your kids uncontaminated. We’ll go over common interventions later.
I’m just going to burst your bubble on this immediately. Store-bought eggs and chicken meat are cheaper than you’re ever going to get in your own backyard. Once you count the cost of housing, medicating, raising them to laying or butchering age, and the feed you’ll be buying in little high-priced sacks instead of by the ton like the big guys do, there’s not any hope for you.
However, having your own chickens can get you through brief periods of poverty and can work some real miracles when you desperately need it. Yes, you had to pay $15 for food last week, but when you’re down to your last two bucks this week it feels like manna from heaven to have a big fat casserole to put on the table thanks to your hens.
Next: How to start right