Thursday, May 28, 2009


These days more Americans—whether in the city, country, or suburbs—are keeping small farm animals, especially chickens. Here are several excerpts from Carla Emery’s Encyclopedia of Country Living offering a general overview of keeping animals, along with 10 Basic Principles of Chicken Management. Much more detailed information can be found in the book, where there is a chapter providing an Introduction to Animals and another devoted entirely to Poultry.

Considerations About Keeping Animals Home-grown meat and eggs will always taste better and probably be healthier for you. They may even be cheaper to produce than store-bought eggs. You may hope to sell surplus animals for a profit as meat, breeders, or pets. Or you may just want to keep the animals as food sources for your family, as pets, for their beauty, or to show at judged poultry events as a hobby — or any combination of those.

Responsibility: A basic question to ask about raising any livestock is whether you can afford the space, time, nuisance, and expense of adding them to your family. These domestic animals are basically human-created, symbiotic species. Most have been companions to people, caring for and being cared for, for literally millennia. For example, all but about 2 percent of the chicken varieties now sold in North America are breeds whose characteristics have been affected by careful selection by human breeders. Wild chickens, though they still run about in the jungles of Southeast Asia, are scarcely available for purchase elsewhere and would be impractical to own. The chicken as it now exists is dependent on its keeper to survive.

But in return for the responsibility you take for domestic animals’ care, feeding, housing, and doctoring, your animals eat your garden waste, kitchen surplus, and the field plants that humans can’t eat, like grass and brush; and they turn it into high-quality protein foods for your diet (eggs, milk, meat). They also contribute manure to renew your pasture, field, and garden soil, and they devour insects. They can be used as pack animals; they can provide transportation, pulling power, and by-products such as wool, feathers, hides, and horns. Truly, they are benevolently symbiotic species that have been carefully evolved by fine farmers throughout the world over thousands of years to be the best possible companions, economic and social, to food growers. They are not imprisoned wild animals! Most would quickly become extinct if not cared for by people. My humble friend Stephen Scott (who makes a living growing pork, chicken, and organic vegetables for mail-order and his local farmers’ market) has a wonderful way of putting things. He wrote me, “What raising pigs is all about, aside from the meat, is getting back to our roots as providers in a way that is much more important than just working at a job to put food on the table. I believe that the act of raising and caring for our own animals makes us more human.”

Basic Principles of Economic Chicken Management
1. Start your flock with quality chicks, bought from a local hatchery or mail-ordered, or incubate your own eggs.

2. Choose your best caretaking schedule: a small egg flock year-round, or a big meat production for a few months a year (or both). Choose a broiler breed for your fryers, a good laying breed for your layers, or a quality meat–eggs breed and eventually raise your own.

3. Feed your cockerels or capons only long enough to get them to the eating size you want, butcher them yourself, and then can or freeze them, so that you won’t have to feed them any longer than necessary.

4. Use home-grown feeds when possible: pasture, household, and garden scraps; surplus milk; garden squash and mangel beets raised and cooked for your birds’ winter veggies.

5. Feed your birds a generous (and diversified) diet. To a real extent, the more they eat, the more they grow, and the more they lay. Make sure your birds have adequate ventilation, space, sunshine, and gravel for their gizzards.

6. Buy or raise some new pullet chicks every year; periodically cull your existing flock of layers carefully and send to the stew pot any birds that are performing poorly.

7. Shovel out the chicken house at least twice a year, age the manure in your compost heap, and then use it to enrich your garden soil.

8. Sell your surplus eggs direct to other householders at a reasonable profit to help pay for the cash expenses of poultry-keeping.

9. Preserving eggs evens out the spring surplus with the winter shortage and enables you to get along feeding fewer laying hens.

10. Keep basic records so you know where your greatest expenses and best profits are.

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