The Weston A. Price Way

Friday, April 29, 2011

Sustainable Friday: City Chic with Chickens~Whys and Hows

 Back yard chickens in the urban setting have become 'the rage', and there are plenty of good reasons why, economic and self-sustaining factors weighing in heavily. In the area of urban chickens, however, we Americans seem to run a bit behind...and I'm not making the comparison between ourselves and third-world countries. European settings would be almost non-European without some backyard chickens-even in 'postage-stamp' sized yards.

Gathering information to share with a WAPF* group we will soon be talking to about backyard chickens, my husband and I took a trip to the local bookstore to see what magazines 'might' be available carrying information on chickens. We thought it might be nice to have the magazines out for our guests to browse through at their leisure. We have dealt with chickens on a number of levels over the past 15+ years, sometimes pasture-grazing broilers for our own meat, another time, my husband worked with farmers who raised them for, (gulp), a large corporation, other times, having a fixed coop for our own layers or as now, a portable coop for our backyard layers. Still, we wanted to know what people are talking about in regards to chickens in the city.

When we finally found the section holding magazines about sustainable living, farming and gardening, we were  surprised to see how many either catered to chicken-lovers only or held an article about the subject. We knew we wanted to bring some home, but there were so many that we had a difficult time choosing which ones. We have also gone on line for information, and there is much good to be found there as well. However, I felt that much of what I found on line attempted to sell a product as well. That's not a bad thing, but I didn't want the information I gathered to be swayed. -Or maybe I just like holding a magazine in my hands.

It almost goes without saying that chickens for eggs, or meat, are economically sound. Either way, they are food on the table when instability in the economy manifests itself in so many different ways. If we can't agree on whether or not to have some form of nationalized health care, we certainly can agree that health care costs are exorbitant. The eggs and meat of a bird who is 'yard-grazed' on grass, bugs and worms without pesticides is a very healthy choice for food. Even cholesterol is lowered. (In reality, the presence of cholesterol should not put us off of eating the truly incredible egg...We will cover truths about cholesterol at a later date, but if you want info on that now, look here.) The nutrient difference between a 'grazed egg' and a 'store-bought' egg are nearly as far apart as east and west...Two entirely different creatures altogether. Read on and we'll get to those specifics.

The egg business is also quite lucrative. More and more people are learning about the advantages of the grazed egg and they want some of that! In fact, we want some of that so much that we pay $4.10/doz. in our area. Our egg supplier who kindly meets our group at our milk pick-up spot, usually goes home with an empty trunk and a pocket full of cash...and we all smile as we go home with our 'spoils'. It's a win-win situation. The backyard chicken keeper who finds himself consistently with extras may want to look into selling.

Then there's chicken manure. When 'farming' backyard chickens as we do, the pen is on wheels and moved to a new spot daily. Here, they get a fresh opportunity to aerate (scratch), and fertilize (poop) the lawn. It's free maintenance! The spot where they are today, will in two days become more lush and green than it was before the birds were there. Beneath the roost in our coop, free manure falls onto fine wood chips. Weekly, this is transported to the compost pile. Chicken manure is high in soil nutrient's most wanted list: Nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Patricia L. Foreman, author of "The Chicken Have-More Plan", writes that commercial NPK fertilizers contain no trace minerals, whereas chicken manure contains both abundant micronutrients and trace minerals...more goodies for the soil. Without good soil, we have no good food, or grass, or other green plants that  feed us directly, via plants, and indirectly via eggs or meat from grass-eating animals. These plants also clean and improve air quality-an extra-special benefit for us city dwellers. Chickens can help us help the soil so it can help us. That's a sweet equation.

I have to mention here that I know there are many who fear the waste and odor factor they believe comes from chickens. I wish you could stick your nose in our coop. Because they are 'ranging' through the day, there is less manure in the coop. But more than that, with proper care, the odor can be zilch! The poop left behind as the coop is moved each day, can easily be sprayed into the soil with the garden hose to prevent 'shoe-poo', and discourage 'fly-gatherings'. Patricia Foreman tells us that "a 40-lb. dog generates more solid waste than 10 chickens." And while other 'pet poo' shouldn't be added to compost, chicken poo is highly beneficial. So beneficial, in fact that someone came up with the fabulous idea of bagging it for sale. It's called, "Cockadoodle Doo" and sells for around $15./20-lb bag.

I have an example: Every year since moving here, we have had a spring burst of the ant population in and around our home. Talking to friends and relatives lately, I have heard complaints about the ants that are plaguing their kitchens and homes. We just got our chickens in February. We move their home-made pen to a new spot daily, and I guess they're on about their third trip around. For the first time since moving here, I believe it was nine years ago, we have no ants. I keep expecting them to show. We have raw honey in the cupboard and I've always had to try to outsmart the ants to keep them out of it. I can't yet give a definite on this yet, but I think we're on to something here.

In regard to the flies that are attracted to poop, the chickens can pluck a fly out of air mid-stride. And it does occur to me that if the flies are occupied elsewhere, they'll leave me alone on the deck.-But realistically, spraying down the poo into the soil once the pen is moved, makes this a pretty moot matter.

I mentioned snakes, didn't I? Another truth tidbit many don't know about chickens is that they are carnivorous  and will eat not only grain and bugs, but small snakes, mice and baby rats as well. The community of chickens raised in a portable pen as ours are, as we believe all urban chickens should be, is protected from predators such as owls, hawks and raccoons. Chickens do not attract rodents and pests as some believe. Chicken feed won't attract snakes or anything else any more than bird feeders and outdoor pet food will.

I've mentioned the fact that we move our coop daily. We learned this from one of our favorite guys, Joel Salatin, years before he became an international symbol for sustainable living and farming. We wanted to earn extra income by raising chickens according to his plan. We called, he invited, we went out to see how things are done 'The Salatin Way' and truly, it was the beginning of a metamorphosis in our lives. It became less about money and more about caring. They invited us to dinner and I was moved nearly to tears when all- his family, his helpers, and us- stood and sang the blessing, loudly and robustly, before sitting to eat. We later returned to learn the proper way to process birds and joined his family for hands-on experience. And after getting some experience under our belts with our own broilers, we began to share Joel's methods with friends who were interested. One of those friends bought a large farm and we now get our pasture-grazed broilers from them.

But we want eggs, too. And since we're currently limited to chickens, here we are...Oh, there is so much more!...But to wrap this up, I share our current experience:

The Coop:
We believe that if you're going to raise chickens in the city, they need to be protected and they need to have access to fresh grass every day. The portable coop affords both and gives results that will keep both you and your neighbors happy.
Jim made our portable coop with an attached run area and space for shelter from heavy rain and sun. Chickens need 4 square foot per bird outside, and 2 square foot in the coop. The coop has several air holes running along the top edges so heat can escape this summer. These can be covered in the cold months.The roof is slanted and covered with lightweight aluminum to deflect the sun's heat. The coop area sits on top of the penned run, with a ramp leading into it from the pen. The wheels are beneath this heavy end, and a heavy nylon rope is affixed to the opposite end for moving. The food and water containers are removed via a hinged top door, just before moving and then replaced.
Inside, there is a roost running the length of the coop. We started by using bedding of straw, but that was too messy, so Jim changed over to fine wood chips, like you might use for hamsters or rabbits. That has been a good fix. Another fact we first learned from Salatin when he showed us his sows in the barn, and later, rabbits in another section, was the importance of layering this base. Not only does it allow for composting right there, the action of composting gives off consistent warmth. We change the litter of the coop weekly at present, while it is warm, but will most likely do so less when winter approaches.
Because we are anticipating the beginning of egg collecting, Jim has now added nesting boxes. We have five hens. One nesting box per five birds is the standard, but because we are at the max of that ratio, Jim opted to provide them with two. We can tell they have tried them out, as the chips in them have been hollowed to the form of a sitting bird...but no eggs yet. We're hopeful for any day now, as they will be six months old in May and most birds lay between four and six months, with six being what we have heard most often.
An additional improvement Jim will make to the coop within the next week is to add wiring to the bottom because the birds we have are keen scratchers, as chickens tend to be. We want to use something that gives them room to scratch without allowing them to scratch holes in the yard, our one and only complaint at this time.

Breeds and Sex:
I won't attempt to cover the varieties of  birds there are for the choosing. We settled on Orphingtons. (Some call them Orpingtons.) These are buff-colored and domicile, and they generally don't attempt to fly. One of the reasons we decided chickens are a good thing is our grandchildren. They see pictures, but generally, as far as they are concerned, eggs come from the store. This will bring them closer to the truth. We see some of our grandchildren at least five days a week, the others, at least once a week. When we first brought the pullets home, the grandchildren would get right in the pen with them so they could pet and love them. That has changed unless we have just moved the pen because of poop accumulation. So, because there is less contact now, the birds have grown a tad squeamish with the kids, but if I open the coop while they're in there, they will still allow me to pet or hold them without pecking. Score 10 for that in my book. (I do not like aggressive animals.)
If you are interested in shopping around for your chicken breed or breeds, there are lots of online resources as well as books and magazines to get you going. Consider looking into the heirloom breeds, the smaller 'bantie hens', and those that lay colored eggs.
While there are those who say there are things to be done to 'de-crow' the rooster, my thoughts are that the urban setting should be rooster-free. Roosters are good, mostly for one thing...reproduction. We don't need the rooster in order to get eggs, only to get baby chicks. Even though 'back-yard chickening' in some places has become so chic that according to Patricia Foreman, Realtors are offering a free coop with every sale, it is still in the early stages of revival in many urban communities. Know your community and where it stands. There's no faster way to thwart your fun than a rooster waking neighbors at 3 a.m, and contrary to popular belief, a rooster often crows in those wee-small hours of the morning!

I do not want my birds eating thyroid-suppressing soy and transferring it into my eggs. Nor do I want arsenic or a bunch of corn filler. Because of this, our feed cost is a bit higher than the everyday feed. However, because our birds are munching grass and bugs all day, they do not need as much feed. We were told by a 'typical' farmer that we would need to buy a 20 lb. bag of feed every month for our little flock of five. I needed better odds, so I have been holding my breath as we waited to see how much they really need. That was in March and in two days, we're into May. We're not quite finished with the first bag. (We did use another feed for a week while we were waiting to get the better feed.)
 I also know we will be further reducing food cost as I have learned that chickens will eat nearly anything leftover from the kitchen. Less to the dump, more good to our manure. Win-win. And don't forget, they're eating insect pests, even small snakes and rodents if they come across them. Win-win-win.

Our chickens are nearly ready to lay their eggs. Orpingtons are known to be good producers, laying a medium to large, buff-colored egg. In the extra-productive summer months, chickens often lay an egg a day, but to guesstimate an average, expect two eggs for every three birds.
Not only do we get to know more about what's going into our birds and therefore, our eggs, we also know that because they are eating fresh grass daily, the nutrients within their eggs are intensified.
An accredited laboratory recently conducted an analysis for "Mother Earth News" magazine. The comparison was between typical supermarket eggs from factory farm settings and grass-fed eggs, or what are truly 'free-ranged'. (There are inconsistencies when it comes to labeling.)
The results showed that our back-yard, grass fed eggs should offer:
1/3 less cholesterol, 1/4 less saturated fat, 2/3 more vitamin A, 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids, 3 times more vitamin E and 7 times more beta-carotene. And this is just one report. Another report  additionally tells us pastured hens give eggs with "50 times more folic acid and 70% more vitamin B-12" (British Journal of Nutrition, 1974).

Every city and town has it's own set of laws pertaining to the raising of agriculture. (Cleveland, Ohio recently received applause because of it's positive approach to urban agriculture.) If you are interested, know the laws and restrictions. Here, we are on the line of 'okay-ness' in one section of the yard. But we know our neighbors, (some are waiting for our eggs right along with us!) and our birds don't stink, nor do they crow. We want to be MORE than barely okay, so we hope to work with others to get the law adjusted. One big reason for this is the fact that our yard is bigger than most in our community and we know others would benefit from the changes even more than we would.

Lead by Example:
It is so important, as some attempt to pioneer urban agriculture projects, to do it well. As a pioneer, we pave a way, and we don't want to pave a way that pits neighbor against neighbor and law against citizen. Teach those who approach cynically with patience and acceptance. Let them see your excitement and hear your story. Find and talk to others having your same passion for the sustainable life. Numbers not only bring safety, they can bring a sense of belonging and security as well as wisdom, action and success.

~Happy Chickening!

P.S. A final word about Cholesterol:
Recently I was in a social setting and a child told me she didn't like the yellow part of the deviled egg, just the white part. A nearby adult commented about how fortunate that was, to only like the part that was good for you. It is unfortunate that cholesterol scares have so brain-washed the adult population of our country. I am learning more and more to first consider God's way...HE made the whole thing, egg complete with whites and yolk. As it just so happens, when we're talking nutrition, both parts are necessary to enable our bodies to assimilate the good that is in each part. In other words, egg yolks and whites work synergistically. Want the good of the yolk? Also eat the whites. Want the good of the whites? Also eat the yolk.

If you want to know the truth about cholesterol, check out "Myths and Truths about Cholesterol". You'll be surprised and freed.

*Weston A. Price Foundation

So, of course, we had to take a mug shot!
Then, I couldn't resist making it
part of my kitchen 'decor'!
(Being a 'first' egg, it is a little on
the small side...the eggs will get
a bit bigger as the chicken mature.)

And then, of course, we had to inspect
it for quality...Note the fresh and healthy
raised albumen and orange yolk,
(actually, more orange than photo here displays.)
And then, of course, we had to fry it up and eat it!
~Here you can see the depth of the orange color better!~

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