I’m just going to go ahead and answer the question of my title right away: The answer is yes. It’s my belief that chickens are, indeed, the gateway farm animal. Right now, all we have on our little backyard farm is chickens, but I’ve got goat fever in a big way. Goats are next.
But it’s my chickens’ fault that I have a need to add to our farm animals, to add to my reasons that I will never, ever sleep late again as long as I live or have to shovel snow out of the chicken run and put down leaves saved from the fall so that the girls who are afraid of touching the snow will have a place to put their cute little feet. I know it’s going to snow again tomorrow, but those babies can’t stay cooped up all day!
But I enjoy every minute of it deep down. Our chickens have been amazing little animals that we let into our lives, and I’m so thankful for them.
Our chickens have been great layers and great friends. They give us breakfast, as well as loads of entertainment and joy. I even enjoy cleaning out their coop. I know it’s going to make their little days to have all that fresh straw to play in, and I lost my sense of smell, so I can’t even smell their poop. I was meant to be a farmer of some kind, right?
I’m not alone in my love for chickens. Backyard chickens are wildly popular in the United States as more Americans work to be more self sufficient and raise their own food. A recent study for the U.S. Department of Agriculture documented the popularity and attitudes toward keeping chickens and estimated a 400% growth in backyard coops in the next five years.
So, since it’s quite evident that chickens are awesome, it’s easy to see how one thing can lead to another, and the next thing you know, you’re thinking, “I wonder how tough it would be to raise goats, milk them, make goat cheese.” It’s well known among the chicken community that keeping backyard chickens leads to more and more and more chickens for many, but it also leads to ideas about different animals.
Before we got our backyard flock, I watched this video and thought surely this was an exaggeration. Nearly two years into raising chickens, I realize this video is exactly right. This woman knows the danger of keeping backyard chickens—you’re going to love them WAY too much.
Now, I want to go to goat school. I love goat milk. And we really need some bees one day. And maybe a pig. I think my husband is a little worried about me, but I’m thinking this is all a good thing. Well, maybe. I definitely have way more pictures of my chickens than my kids on my phone.
So what do you think? Are backyard chickens the gateway farm animal?
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about my anxiety surrounding our first “one bad day” as farmers. We had 14 chickens to process, and I had never experienced anything like it before. For me, it was a tough day. A long day. A draining day—and my husband did most of the work.
Still, that one bad day was profound for me, but I wanted to share my husband’s perspective with my readers because he bears the brunt of our farming endeavors so much more than I do. I invited him back for a guest blog post, and he writes about why we do what we do here.
We live in a world where most of us buy our lives from one store or another—the grocery store, the big-box, the mall conglomerate—ready-made and processed by others. Our appetites and desires are crafted and subtly honed; our satiation is often artificial and, at best, temporary, at worst potentially harmful. It is perfectly acceptable to mislead, obfuscate, and flat-out lie in this world. Television commercials, product labels and politicians do it all the time. Our truths are processed for us. The effectiveness of fact-checkers, like weather-forecasters, is subject to the winds.
Truth seemed different when I was young. When I was a boy, I had a step-grandmother. She kept a hatchet; the wooden handle was smooth and polished, and the edge on the head invariably was sharp enough to slice paper. We kept chickens; she came to help butcher the cockerels and old laying hens—she was a tough old bird herself. She would catch a chicken, grab it by the legs, flip it upside down, hold it until it settled, then lay it across the chopping block and whack! Her hatchet flashed like a guillotine. Sometimes, a headless bird would spring up and run, spewing blood around the yard, seemingly unwilling to accept the hardest of truths.
My step-grandmother was not a nurturing woman, but she was particularly grim on the days she butchered. She had no time for a foolish boy, and I did not understand her shortness. It took me many years to fully comprehend.
I left that world as an adult; I became busy, like most, with modern life and all its fixtures and conveniences. I moved with the times. But gradually, persistently, I started paying attention to where exactly “the times” where taking me. Terms like pesticides, preservatives, and factory farms began picking at the margins of my attention. I began to question the costs of my convenience, and with my wife, began to examine the modern truths.
We decided we no longer wanted to support agricultural systems designed around convenience for profit, where animals are abused and foods are poisoned with pesticides. We no longer wanted to support a food industry whose colorful and elaborate claims of health and nutrition form the foundational architecture for products propped up by preservatives and additives. So, as much as we could, we deliberately and steadily began moving away from this modern version of the truth.
We started with a garden. Each year we worked it, the area we planted grew—along with our vegetables—and our reliance upon the grocery store diminished. Three years after we started gardening, we bought chicks—Rhode Island Reds (stalwart layers)—and we began to collect eggs. My wife previously had insisted on buying eggs from cage free, humanely raised chickens. Having our own was a substantial cost savings. A year into raising laying hens, and subsequently increasing our flock with the addition of ISA Browns (the little French maids of laying hens), we bought a flock of Freedom Rangers—a type of broiler chicken.
Broiler chickens are also known by the anti-euphemism “meat-birds,” which is a truth that isn’t processed.
Ironically, the first batch of broilers were the friendliest chickens to date. I initially housed them in our garage in a brood-box I had fabricated out of scrap wood and old, closet doors. They quickly outgrew this arrangement, and I extended their garage area with a pallet enclosure bedded with straw. During this time, I also built a mobile chicken coop (not out of scrap wood and closet doors). I had it finished when the broilers were almost a month old and ready to move outside.
I wanted to keep them separate from the main flock, so I fenced an area approximately 1250 square feet about 50 feet from our back door, and I moved the broilers and their coop into it. There was some initial trepidation and some awkwardness among the fourteen young birds. The contrast between blue sky and 8-foot garage ceiling must have been somewhere north of tremendous. And the coop, being two-and-a-half feet off the ground, made for some precarious, initial forays down the ramp into the new world. Still, it didn’t take long before the fourteen were scratching and pecking and having their little chest-bumping show-downs over the new territory.
We had deliberately attempted to humanize the Reds and Browns. But we did not with the Rangers, for obvious reasons. Despite this, the Rangers regularly crowded the fence whenever one of us came out the back door. I could walk among them without having them shy away as the Reds and Browns tended to. They often came to me instead, and I found, I could pet many of them if I wanted. This was before the treats started pouring out the back door.
Freedom Rangers finish in about 80 days, unlike the Cornish Cross broilers, which reach maturity in six to eight weeks and do little more than eat and excrete. The Rangers lead more of a “normal” chicken life, and I have read, taste better for it. The flip-side—in 80 days, I got to know them.
They were ready in mid-September, a few days before my birthday. I decided I would take care of business the weekend after. But I didn’t. I kept finding other, more urgent things to do, and it wasn’t until the morning of the 25th that I finally settled in to the task. I thought about my step-grandmother that day.
Like her, I am now a chicken serial killer. I slaughtered the fourteen—one after another. I held them by their feet, placed them in the killing cone, cut their jugulars, and then quickly pushed a knife through their palates into their brains. Each went instantly limp. It was one bad day for those chickens and one of many bad days for me. But there is truth in it.
It was late in the day when I asked my seven-year-old son to catch the final bird, which he did, his first involvement. He chased her around the pen then solemnly brought her to me. We talked over that final chicken, and he understood we should be grateful for, and respectful of, her sacrifice. We thanked her, as I had for each, and I explained that chickens do not have much of an opportunity to affect positive change in this world, but that he did. And she would help nourish him on his journey toward becoming a good man. There is truth in that too.
I’ve tried three times in my life to be a vegetarian. The longest I ever made it without eating meat was about 9 months. One day, I just couldn’t take it anymore. I went to a local burger joint and scarfed a giant cheeseburger. It was so good, and though I felt quite guilty, I decided that this would be the last time I tried to be a vegetarian. I’m just a darn omnivore, I suppose.
The reason I wanted to become a vegetarian is pretty simple: I love animals and didn’t want to eat them. Even now, ten years after my last attempt at becoming a vegetarian, part of me doesn’t want to eat animals, and that’s making this weekend an extra difficult one for this wannabe chicken farmer.
Earlier this summer, my husband and I purchased some broiler chickens as a part of our efforts to become more self-sufficient and frugal. We didn’t purchase the Cornish Cross chickens because they seem to have a lot of problems related to growing too quickly. We wanted a bird that could get around and have a good life—right up until his or her “one bad day.”
So we purchased some Freedom Ranger chicks and have had good luck. They take longer to develop than the Cornish Crosses, so they are not as much of a cost-saver. However, according to some experts, the meat tastes better because they can live a natural chicken life. We’ve not lost any birds to health issues or predators, and, well, unless something happens today, we’ll have had success in raising them.
Tomorrow is their “one bad day.”
My husband and I picked up this expression after watching a Michael Pollan documentary. In the film, a pig farmer discussed her struggles killing her pigs that she has cared for so much. She admitted to having a hard time, but she focused on making the pigs’ lives really good ones so that they just had “one bad day,” the day of their deaths.
This seemed profound to me, and my husband and I have made this our focus. We have worked to make sure they have had good lives.
The birds we have are pretty tame and curious and busy, and they also learned quickly how to get what they want from me and my husband, especially my husband.
As an aside, in an effort to protect me, my husband has done most of the raising of the broilers. I mostly handle the layers; they get to be my babies. And my husband mostly handles the birds for meat.
So my husband, who is definitely a believer in the good life until the “one bad day,” has taken those chickens more scones than I can count and has ensured they’re never without fresh food, water, and a clean place to live and play.
But, this weekend, the “one bad day” is upon us, and there’s definitely a tension in the air.
When we first decided we wanted to be hobby farmers, I did a lot of reading about farmers who love animals, eat meat, and struggle emotionally with the killing of their animals. It seems it’s quite common for the dread to creep in the days before “processing.” That’s where we are. Tomorrow is the day.
My husband says I don’t have to help, but I want to. First of all, it’s a lot of work, and this whole “self-sufficient farm thing” was my idea too. I don’t work outside the home as much as I used to, not nearly so much, so I do see the work on our hobby farm as my responsibility as well. But, second, it feels important to me. I feel like I should mourn those birds. I feel like I should have to know where my dinner is coming from and what the costs of it are.
I don’t know how much I’ll be able to write about it. I’m pretty sure I won’t be able to be the blogger who provides the step-by-step support for the process, as some helpful bloggers do—at least not for some time. But I hope to share what it feels like emotionally, and I do hope to be able to share some tips about things people can do to ensure a humane death for their chickens. We have done a lot of research. We’ll see how it goes tomorrow.
If nothing else, a goal I have for my writing is to help raise awareness about our food we eat. It’s way too easy not to think about where our food comes from. I think we should have to think about it, at least some. I think we should give thanks to the animals.
And we’ll see how I do with this. This time next week, I may be on another quest to become a vegetarian. I really hope not.
One day last week, a little girl from our neighborhood was at our house playing with our youngest son when she saw the coop for the broilers and asked why it was smaller. “How will they have room to lay eggs?” she asked. I told her that these birds would never lay eggs, that they were for meat. I worried about how she might take it.
“It’s a little sad, yes?” I asked her.
“It is,” she said, “but at least you’ll have food.”
This week, I have my first guest blogger post. My husband, Ron Sands, agreed to write about our duck ducks for me. I’ve been wanting to devote a post to the ducks for months, but I’ve found myself unable to do the duck ducks justice. The duck ducks are really my husband’s babies. I think you’ll find his talent for duck-duck description quite enjoyable.
Ducks. As a matter of fact—ducks unlimited. No, not the wildlife, conservation organization, our fenced backyard. At least, at times, it seems so. We have six Indian Runners. They are the duck coterie, the crew, the collective—the Borg. We named one Seven; she is Seven of Six. She is Seven of Six because she is absolutely loud enough to be two ducks. She is also the smallest, which perhaps explains her emphatic and raucous need for attention.
This might be the point in the narration were the reader stops and asks, “Why in the world do you have six Indian Runner Ducks?” Believe me, I’m asking myself that at this point, too. According to the internet of all things, Indian Runner Ducks are excellent egg layers, compliment a garden well, and their antics are great fun to watch.
Well then, I thought maybe I’d get some eggs. That would be a great perk; I understand duck eggs are large and delicious. Rather than go online, we ordered the cheap ducks from a local Farmer’s Union—straight run only, minimum of six. I am always unrealistic about these things in that I always expect to lose a few birds. But, so far, out of 48 birds, counting chickens, we have lost just two—one was DOA, and the other died at around a year from being egg bound. That’s a 4% death ratio.
The ducks are showing no signs of ill health; four percent of six is roughly a quarter of a percent, which means their mortality, at best, likely will be limited to the loss of a few feathers. And the lottery gave us a 4-2 split that the house did not win. Four of those ducks are never going to lay anything but down. The only perk—males are far quieter than females.
Okay, so they will help control insects in the garden. Yes, well, Indian runners apparently do not have it in their DNA to “go around.” They are tramplers—single-minded, seemingly-oblivious tramplers. They recognize nothing as an obstacle that cannot be waddled, tripped, and flopped over. They do eat insects, however, and Japanese Beetles, for which our garden seems to be a destination resort, are a favorite. But vegetables in their path take a cumbrous and prolonged beating. I am amazed at how long it takes a duck to scramble, waddle, and quack through a bean plant.
Accordingly, I am now adept at catching Japanese Beetles. I’ve caught probably 200 this summer. Those ducks are eating right out of my hand. I guess it beats the beetle-drowning bucket.
Well, they’ll be cute and the wife and the kid will enjoy them. That statement was rock-solid for the first month, mainly because the ducks were mostly too small to effectively express their ethnocentric-flavored xenophobia. (Their first swimming pool was a 9 x 6 baking dish.) While it is true, they will reliably show up for food—and eat beetles out of my hand—at any other time, they look at me as if I’m coming to collect the rent. Considering the 4-2 split, they might be on to something.
At the beginning of their second month, we turned them out; we also bought them a kiddie pool. I have since learned, it’s likely no accident the words foul and fowl are homonyms. Duck “tea” is not a pleasant liquid, and six ducks can brew it black, potent, and surprisingly quick. On the upside, it gets the compost pile “cooking,” and our corn is taller this year than it has ever been.
And, now, after three months and a recent pool-side exhibition worthy of a honeymoon hotel at Cabo, one that brought color to my somewhat worldly cheeks, I’m having to explain the farm facts of life to my seven-year-old. Indeed, the ducks are no longer cute.
Which brings me back to that rent. Just how delicious are recycled Japanese Beetles?
This year’s going to be the fourth summer my husband and I do a big vegetable garden together. Right now, we have only the peas, carrots, potatoes, and onions in the ground, but in Maine, this is to be expected. It was pretty chilly until last week. Sometimes, I forget that growing up in Texas we were wearing shorts by May.
I’ve seen friends from other parts of the country post pictures on social media of food they’ve already grown in their gardens, and I feel confused at first because we just started planting. It’s almost surreal for me to see a fully-grown vegetable in May.
But I digress…
This post is supposed to be about my green thumb I thought I had.
The story goes like this.
Every year, even our first year of vegetable gardening, though we had some failures for sure, my husband I have had some pretty good successes growing food. We always have a good harvest, at least to me, and last year, we grew so much food that we were really able to see a cost savings on our grocery bills from late summer until early winter. That’s pretty good, right?
I post pictures to Facebook of our beautiful garden starting in early summer. The peas are ready to eat; the bean bushes look big and lush; the carrot and potato plants look big and healthy. I’m always so proud of this garden.
I do help my husband a lot. He definitely does the lion’s share of the work–tills by hand, gets the soil ready, fertilizes, waters, hoes weeds. Wait, why do I think I help a lot?
Well, I do plant, pull weeds, pick bugs off one at a time for hours on end, and help harvest. But as I write this down, I am realizing a deeper lesson I learned this week. I think my husband really is making all this good food happen. I thought I was helping more.
He has always had a green thumb and this love of plants that I didn’t understand until we had a garden. He’s got some real skill at making plants grow healthy and strong, and I envy it. I’ve always been horrible at plants. I’ve killed everything from roses to sunflowers to a wide variety of houseplants. I don’t think I’ve ever grown more than a weed successfully, and if I had tried to grow said weed, I probably would have killed said weed.
But, then, there was this beautiful garden. I thought I was helping to grow it. I thought my husband had somehow lifted the “curse” I had with plants. I thought I was becoming a good gardener, too.
So, I’m guessing you can imagine that things didn’t go so well.
We always do well in our garden starting most of our plants from seed, but I wanted to try to get a few starters going this season of things we sometimes buy as plants from the local nursery–peppers, tomatoes, and such. Unfortunately, pretty much everything I started died!
I planted like 25 broccoli starters and about 20 tomato starters. Not a single one of them made it. I also planted several kinds of peppers, about 30 plants total. I have 6 plants that made it.
I’m not sure what happened. Mostly, between part-time work, homeschooling, and feeding both people and creatures three times a day, I would somehow forget to water the little plants every day. It would seem like I just watered them, and then, sadly, some would die. Apparently, I had not just watered them. <sigh>
But my greatest mistake came when I put the plants out in the sunlight to grow stronger during the day; on the fourth day, I forgot to bring the plants in at night. I lost every tomato plant that night! I woke up at like 4:00 in the morning that chilly, fateful night, realized what I had done, and went back to sleep with sadness and disappointment in my heart.
So, yeah, now I have 6 plants left, and I’m hanging onto them for dear life!
Ironically, this year, my husband is putting up a fence around our property, and, when I say he’s putting up a fence, I mean he’s digging hundreds of holes through rocky earth with a shovel and putting up a fence the old-fashioned way. It’s pretty epic!
So I’m working to get the garden planted while he puts up the fence. After my little experience with the starters, this is making me really nervous. But, so far, so good. I have battled the black flies and mosquitoes, tilled that garden with a shovel (one slow row at a time), and we have a few things in the ground. The peas look great. Nothing else has had time to grow, but it’s still early.
I’m optimistic, but it’s a cautious optimism. I’ve learned a hard lesson of late.
We still have the kale, red beans, green beans, tomatoes, lettuce, and corn to plant, but, this afternoon, we took a break from the tilling and the sowing and the fence making and had a late lunch at Jimmie’s, bought a kiddie pool for the baby ducks, and watched them have a blast in the pool. I think my husband and I are both a bit worn out this week, as living the simple life can be a lot of hard word, so taking the afternoon off seemed to be the best medicine.
This weekend, however, is Memorial Day weekend, which is always the weekend we finish planting our garden. After discovering some truths about my gardening skills, I hope you’ll wish me luck. I’m going to need it!
I’m an introvert in a pretty extreme way, and the older I get, the worse it seems to get. I mean, I can function when I have to, and for nearly twenty years, I stood in front of a classroom as a teacher. But it’s hard.
And, as an introvert, I always find it interesting that I both love people and feel drained by being around people. From my perspective, it’s definitely a myth that introverts don’t want to be around people. I’m so interested in people and love to hear their stories, but I get so nervous on the inside when I am around people that I end up being worn out from trying to pretend like I’m “normal.”
Interestingly, there are some people who can, somehow, actually add to my energy levels when I am around them—people who are warm, safe, and highly interesting to me. I wonder if they know who they are, if they know how wonderful they are to me. And, since I am not drained from being around them, I always wonder if I am draining them.
Anyway, since human-to-human friendships have been difficult for me, I have always been a good friend to animals. I remember loving animals a little more than the average kid when I was younger, but I was mainly just a dog person. As I have grown older, I have found great joy in just hanging out with animals and a greater variety of animals. It started with our first cat we adopted.
I’m allergic to cats, so I have never been around them too much, though I have always had a great admiration of them and always wanted one. When we moved to Maine and I learned that Maine Coon Cats are a little easier on people with allergies, I knew this was my solution to my conundrum. Then, I found out how much Maine Coon Cats cost, and I realized I had not really found my solution.
So, we just decided to find a cat that had some Maine Coon “leanings” and hope for the best. I was willing to take allergy meds if necessary. I really wanted a kitty.
One day, pretty much out of the blue, my husband said, “Let’s go see what they have at the Humane Society in the way of cats.” I was surprised but ready—and nervous. I didn’t know how to be around cats at all. My general impression of them was that they were more aloof than dogs and could be grumpy and less forgiving. That, plus my allergies, made me a little nervous, but I didn’t want to admit this to my husband. I had been considering a kitty for a long time. I thought this might be my chance.
When we arrived at the Humane Society in Bangor, Maine that day in February, they had one cat available for adoption. One cat! The rest were not ready for homes yet. I was like, “Well, let’s see this kitty!”
In the cage sat a beautiful but skinny kitty who definitely had some Maine Coon leanings, at least I thought—big feet, tufts on her ears and feet, and she was super soft. I decided to give her a test: I would give her a pet, and if she responded well, I figured she passed the test. I reached in to pet her, and she leaned in so hard to my petting that she fell off of the ledge she had been on. This was my cat! Love with gusto, even if it hurts sometimes!
In the days after we brought her home, my allergies flared horribly, so I had to go on allergy meds. And, sadly, our beautiful kitty I named Sophie seemed terrified in our house. She hid in the basement a lot. But we hung in there, and we found that Sophie and I have one key thing in common—we love, love, love soft fuzzy things.
Enter my robe. Since it was February, I was wearing my robe around every morning and every evening. It’s a thick, soft, fleecy robe, and I soon realized that Sophie loved it. She would stay in my lap when I had on the robe. And, soon, she was kneading on my tummy and purring. It was a process, but Sophie and I fell in love with each other.
In the last year, I have also learned how to be friends with my chickens. I like to hang out with them and watch them do what they do. They are always busy and have so much personality. Now, I don’t want to give a false impression: We have 17 chickens, plus 8 baby chickens. Not all of them are sweet little birds. Some really are. Some are pretty ornery.
There’s one girl, the smallest of our original 17, who escapes the run, even when it’s not time for free range, runs around like mad, won’t let me pick her up in my arms like many of the others, and generally just drives me crazy. One time, I yelled at her that she was going to the chicken stew first, but then I felt really badly and decided this would not be true.
If you have been following my posts, you know that I hang out with animals a lot, maybe too much. I have found that even just watching the squirrels and birds at the feeders brings me great satisfaction. I’m convinced I have made friends with one of the red squirels in our yard. I still love people, but animals are way easier for me to hang out with. There’s no judgment, real or imaginary. At least I don’t think so.
And, hopefully, my kitties and my chickens are good with being my friends as well. Of course, I don’t know what’s going to happen when my chicky girls quit laying eggs. I’m not sure how I’m going to separate friendship from farming. I have been reading about it and trying to prepare myself. I think I can do it when it’s time, but I’m not sure.
For now, I have some really good friends to help me get through the days, to help me feel happiness and joy. In fact, this week, we added 6 animal friends—baby Indian Runner ducks, and they are hilarious. Already, I can’t wait to write stories about them! And, in the meantime, I think we should all take a lesson from Sophie–love with gusto!