Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Keeping Backyard Chickens ... My Experience

My long journey to being vegan began, in part, by keeping chickens. Many years ago, I was living on about six acres in a rural area when I got the brilliant idea to get chickens. I devoted several months to reading about the care of chickens, and about keeping chickens for eggs. How hard could it be, right?

Well, we got about a dozen unsexed baby chicks (I wasn't comfortable with the sexed ones ... where did the baby roosters go, I wondered even then). They were a mix of Aracaunas and Barred Rocks. Three turned out to be baby roosters.

After about the first day, our chickens were already out of their ridiculously cute stage. Their legs got gangly, their fluff started shedding. And they pooped. A lot. In their food, in their water. Everywhere. Their quarters had to be cleaned and food and water replaced at least a few times a day. A more finicky person would have done it several times a day.

The whole operation smelled. Like chicken poo. Chicken poo is not a good smell.

So, lots of expensive supplies and food and box cleaning later, we had a group of adolescent chickens. They were pretty big, too. Not full sized, but close. They were ready to go outside. But it was still chilly. So, we spent several hundred dollars and built a coop (which also gets full of poo, by the way) and installed heat lights.

Then the roosters started fighting with each other, and before we realized it was serious, one killed another. That left two behind. Thankfully, for some reason the remaining two didn't mind each other too much at that point and didn’t feel the need to fight to the death.

We’d gotten the baby chicks in March and took care of them inside until late May when we relocated them to the newly built coop. They continued to poop. A lot. The 20’x30’ outside fenced area we’d thought would be enough for them was soon what seemed inches deep in poo. Seriously, until you see it, you can’t imagine how much poo a chicken will produce. It soaks into the ground and is impossible to get genuinely clean. And when it rains? You don't even want to know.

Chickens don’t start laying eggs until they’re several months old or even older. So, there weren’t many eggs that first summer. We continued feeding and watering … and shoveling poo.

Winter came, and it was cold. We're in Michigan, so it can be below zero for days and weeks at a stretch. We had to put more heat lights inside to keep the chickens warm, and waterproof heat coils in their outside water buckets to keep their water from freezing.

Then, it was summer again. The chickens were big and beautiful. Chickens really are beautiful. The Aracaunas had markings like penguins, which prompted my seven year old daughter, Jessica, to name one “Penguin.” Jessica would carry Penguin around in her arms like a baby, and the chicken would lay her head on her shoulder.The Aracaunas were quite friendly. The Barred Rocks, not so much. But they all had different personalities and their own individual likes and dislikes.

When Penguin got an infection in her foot, it took several calls to find a vet who would take care of her. We all trudged off to the vet with the chicken. We didn’t need a box because Jessica carried her into the vet’s office and sat her on her lap. The vet lanced the infection and prescribed an antibiotic. We felt it was well worth the couple hundred dollars to make the chicken well. We did have to wrap her foot and keep her inside for about a week. There was more poo.

Finally, more than a year after we got them, our chickens started laying eggs reliably. They would start clucking and carrying on at sunrise. By noon, they would be in their nesting boxes. Finally, after several hours of clucking and pacing, the egg would come out.

The first egg I saw from one of our chickens, and many that came after, was covered with threads of mucus and blood. I couldn’t help but compare laying eggs every day to giving birth every day …

We still had two roosters. I worried about them fighting with each other. I didn’t have to worry long. One day, I went out to check on the chickens, and one of the roosters appeared to have exploded right there in the yard of the chicken coop. The rooster himself was gone, but there was a ring of bloody feathers left behind as a clue to his violent end. We had no idea what or who could have done that. I would later figure out it was a red tailed hawk, but not before we’d lost more chickens.

I’d always loved eggs for breakfast. One of my favorite childhood memories is of my dad making my sister and me breakfast, which always included fried eggs done over easy. But, after watching eggs actually coming out of the chickens, and seeing what effort it took and the blood …and seeing that it came out of a chicken … I lost my taste for eggs. It never really came back.

We realized the chickens were getting attacked by red tailed hawks about the time the poo in the coop yard reached critical mass. We just seemed to lose control and not be able to keep up with it. Our poo cup overflowed. And smelled.

Our neighbors were pretty good about it all, and we didn’t receive any actual complaints. But I’m sure they cursed us when we weren’t around.

So, between the hawks and the poo, we decided to let the chickens out. We did have six acres for them to roam, and we’d heard they’d eat bugs out of the garden. And they did eat the bugs … and everything else. In just a few days, every tomato in our garden had been eaten by the chickens. In just a few more days, everything else had at least a bite taken out.

At this point, we had a smelly enclosure and a decimated garden. We’d spent at least $1500, lost several chickens to fighting or predation, and I’d lost my taste for eggs. It was time to throw in the towel. The towel was probably covered in chicken poo anyway.

I found someone who had a small farm and also kept chickens and we gave her ours. It was a nice farm, but what happened when they stopped laying? What about if they got sick? I didn’t even know to ask.

I didn’t know a lot of things. I didn’t know that taking care of chickens was so much work and expense. I didn’t know hawks would attack them from the air. I didn’t know they would turn almost half an acre of garden into a barren dust bowl in just a few weeks.

Here’s what else I didn’t know. I didn’t know that chickens DO NOT naturally lay eggs nearly every day of the year. In nature, wild ducks and geese, for example, will lay several eggs over a period of several days, and then care for the eggs and the chicks that hatch. It will be several months or even a full year before they lay eggs again. If left alone, chickens do the same thing. They will lay several eggs and then they stop laying. Removing the eggs every day is what causes them to lay more … it’s not a natural thing. Leaving the eggs causes the chickens to get “broody,” which means they stop laying and will sit on their eggs. Many chicken breeds are advertised as “not broody.” That’s what that means. They’ve been bred to be less inclined to want to care for their eggs and will keep laying and laying and laying as long as their eggs are taken away.

I also didn’t know then that there was a whole world of vegan foods that were better than anything I’d eaten up to that point. And that the memories I cherished were of my dad and not of the eggs he made us. And there are new memories to be made with foods that don’t require such a sacrifice on so many levels.

I’m vegan for ethical reasons. I think it’s right and good to leave other animals alone as much as possible, and to help them when I can. But, I also learned that exploiting animals is hard work, and messy, and the return is far less than the input.

Just from a purely practical standpoint, keeping chickens is insane. I honestly can’t think of a better word to describe it. We garden about three quarters of an acre now. From that, we’ll get literally thousands of pounds of food. There will be enough to feed us much of the year, enough to sell some surplus, and enough to donate quite a bit to a local food bank. We use mostly organic methods (and are moving to veganic), so at the end of the year, our soil is in better shape than in the beginning. It’s win-win-win-win.

We do that … grow thousands of pounds of food … for less than the cost and not all that much more work than keeping a dozen chickens. The net gain of gardening plants is astronomical compared to trying to raise animals. Any backyard gardener, either rural or urban, will get a huge return on the seeds or plants they grow. Animals are expensive and lots and lots of work. I can only guess that it’s extreme naiveté that causes people to choose animals over plants. Certainly, that was the case with us.

I was inspired to write this after reading a blog post by historian and vegan James McWilliams (his blog is HERE). He writes often about the urban farming and locavore movements. (I’ve been inspired by his posts before … HERE). And I think this is a conversation worth having. No matter how one does the math, under normal conditions, keeping animals results in a net loss. It requires more food, energy, effort, time, labor, space, and everything else, than producing plant foods. And that’s BEFORE any animals are exploited or killed. 

The locavore movement is often, and with good reason, accused of romanticizing the keeping and killing of animals. But growing plants can be romanticized, too. There is little more exciting than planting a seed the size of a grain of sand and coming back in a few weeks or months and getting mounds and mounds of food. 

It’s like magic.
This is my dinner … straight from the garden.