Tipping Points 9
May 17, 2010
We got six chickens in mid-March. We had planned for four hens, but we bought five hens and a rooster! We named them almost immediately as each one has a distinct personality. A chicken can live as long as twelve years. Hens are born with a finite number of eggs. Once the eggs are gone, decisions must be made about the difference between pets and stew-pot candidates.
For me, getting chickens has been a long-held dream. For John, raised in urban Boston, getting chickens has been a huge leap into an unknown terrain of increased responsibility, pressure on our limited yard space, and the Maine winter. Nevertheless, John found our chicken coop at the Maine Organic Farmers and Growers Association’s Common Ground Fair last September.
Designed and made by Stephen Gingras of Augusta, Maine, our coop is made for four chickens. Upon seeing it, we knew we could never make something so perfect. Our coop has an internal roost; three egg boxes, one of which we use for food; an inside power switch so we can use a light bulb for heat on cold nights; a free-range opening under the egg boxes which our tall rooster finds undignified; a let-down door with a window for easy coop cleaning; a tin roof; a detachable cage; and wheels.
You can see more views of our coop at www.rootscoopsandmore.com. Gingras coops are kits, but Stephen and Lori delivered ours assembled and helped us drag it up a steep incline.
I didn’t need to obtain chickens for good eggs. In the Camden, Maine, area we are blessed with many small flocks of healthy, free-range chickens whose eggs can be found at local markets. My personal favorites are the eggs Rose and Peter Thomas produce and sell at their Vegetable Shed, which is on 173 in Lincolnville. I visit this farm frequently, so I know these chickens free range, eat organic food, and have yolks that are a deep gold to pumpkin orange.
We traveled to see our children in November, and winter, which is hard on chickens, was closing in when we got home. Getting chickens would be a spring project.
I am reminded how egg-spoiled I have become when I travel. Commercial eggs, organic or not, have yolks that are the same color nearly as the white. They taste bitter, and when hard-boiled are rubbery and altogether disgusting. It’s sad that most people these days do not realize how delicious a good egg is or that a good egg takes good chicken feed. Indeed, I doubt eggs from commercial layers, even if fertilized, could make a chick.
So, the problem I researched all winter was what to feed the chickens. All the commercial feeds, including the organic feeds, are 90 percent corn; 10 percent soy; and have about 20 chemicals, meal waste products from other industrial processes, and soybean oil that my research warns goes rancid and can be both highly processed and trans fat laden. The corn/soy ratio does not contain enough protein, so organic rules allow the addition of a synthetic essential amino acid, methionine. The organic brand our chickens were eating is all mashed up so it is predigestable, which means a chicken will eat more of it. Industrial theory is a stuffed chicken lays more eggs. This feed looks like bran cereal, and our chickens eat it last when it is mixed with our feed.
Organic rules stopped the addition of unspeakable animal by-products into chicken feeds, but rather than choosing a healthy protein source or a better grain/legume ratio, the organic industry chose cheapness. Corn and soy are cheap. Corn fattens, and while soy, which must be cooked, provides protein, it has a dangerous antinutrient package that American industry has never been able to fully detoxify. If soy antinutrients slowly poison animals, what are they doing to humans eating chicken eggs and flesh?
Also, all commercial chicken feed is throwing off the omega 3 and 6 ratios in both eggs and meat. Human diets should have a ratio of 1:1, or not more than 1:3 (omega 6). The American diet today is giving most Americans an omega 3 to 6 ratio of 1:20-25. This boosted omega 6 imbalance is not healthy and is likely part of why so many people have chronic illnesses.
Further, chickens are omnivores, not vegetarians. They will eat grains and legumes, which are low in omega 3, only after choosing greens, insects, meat, fish, and milk products. Grain/legume mixtures should be supplements only, offered for free choice, and should include at least five different whole grains.
Bolstered by reading G. F. Heuser’s FEEDING POULTRY, published in 1955 at the advent of the commercial chicken industry when people still had small flocks, and by my own research (see, for instance, www.lionsgrip.com/chickensidealfeed.html), I determined a feeding program. The chickens would free range for greens and insects, and I would supplement with meat; fish; milk products like yogurt, milk, whey, and buttermilk from making butter; some leftovers from the kitchen; and a grain, legume (no soy), and seed mixture that I found from Greener Pastures Farm, www.greenerpasturesfarm.com. I don’t always mix everything listed, but I do include the major grains and the two legumes. I wish our Maine farmers would offer an organic, whole-grain, no-soy legume mixture.
Rose and I began hunting pullets, which are coming into laying, in early March. Since I only wanted four hens, Rose offered to give me four of a larger order. Most commercially raised pullets have been debeaked, which prevents chickens crowded close together from pecking each other. When I see these maimed creatures, I feel like I’m going to burst into tears and vomit. I wanted also to avoid shipping day-old baby chicks. Surely, I believed, someone local has some pullets.
And, someone in Vassalboro, Maine, about 40 minutes away, did. There were some year-old Copper Black Marans that were not breeding quality and some excess Wheaten Ameraucanas. The Marans, a solid, docile, friendly breed, are common in France, but in America are rare. Chefs highly prize the deep chocolate brown Maran egg. The Wheatens, which streak about the yard like flashes of wily quicksilver, lay a blue egg.
I have the Maran rooster, Rose has the Ameraucana rooster, and we each have a selection of both breeds that is weighted toward our rooster. We’ve gotten an incubator and plan to hatch eggs to replenish our flocks and to offer local baby chicks next spring. Rose now has gorgeous egg colors ranging from deep chocolate brown, to light brown, to rose, to blue, to white.
In addition to being fascinated with chickens, I wanted to create a holistic garden circle where I could add composted animal manure to our vegetable beds which, in turn, would help feed the animals. The chickens don’t produce as much fecal matter as I had expected. It’s easy to collect droppings around the yard for the dedicated composter which will compost for a year. I only need to change out coop bedding once a month as I remove fecal matter daily .
Our chickens are scratching only bare soil surface. And, while they walk sometimes on emerging plants, they are light enough and not numerous enough to do damage. Though they pruned some new leaves on the raspberries, so far they have not destroyed one single plant. They do make dirt baths in bare soil, so we got some wood ash from friend Margaret Rauenhorst and made a dedicated space. Dirt baths are important deterrents for chicken pests.
I also wanted to use the chickens for pest patrol. Our chickens steadily work our beds, so I am expecting fewer pests this year. For the moment, I may also have fewer worms since I am a sucker for the company and conversation that starts if I weed with a trowel. Worms are generally at a deeper level, so if I weed, all six come to supervise and to eat whatever worms they can get.
When our asparagras started emerging and it was time to plant peas, we got some flexible plastic fencing for the big vegetable garden. Next, we enclosed temporarily the strawberry patch. I know we will have to pen our chickens in early June when it’s time to plant potatoes, seedlings, and seeds in non-fenced beds. But we hate to pen them as it limits their “chickeness.”
We’ll have to pen the rooster when the grandchildren are here in July. Napolean is as tall as our two little girls, and he is unpredictably protective of the hens, as our irrepressible rat terrier, No No Penny, will testify. She is scared to death of him. He does not seem to think the calmer rat terrier, Reynolds, is a problem. But, when I forget and wear my red rain clogs, he decides I am a threat. Otherwise, he is a sweet boy and lets me pick him up and hold him, which I do frequently.
In April, our five hens laid 110 eggs, or an average of 3.6 eggs a day. On many days now, we are blessed with five eggs. The yolks are a deep, rich, golden orange, and all six chickens seem healthy and happy.