There’s nothing quite like having a box of cute, fluffy chicks arrive in the mail. It’s miraculous, notes author and homesteader Ben Hewitt, that a newly hatched chick can survive without food and water for exactly the amount of time it takes to mail a package from anywhere in the United States to anywhere else in the United States.
If you’re considering purchasing some mail-order chicks, read the following excerpt from Hewitt’s recently released The Nourishing Homestead for tips on housing, fencing, feed, and more.
Or, if you think ducks might be more your speed, here’s a comparison of ducks vs chickens from Carol Deppe’s The Resilient Gardener.
Chickens and Other Poultry
The crazy thing about chickens is that you can order them through the mail. Actually, this is not entirely true, because you don’t order chickens through the mail; you order chicks. Day-old chicks, to be exact, and it shouldn’t be possible but it is, because chicks hatch with just enough energy in their tiny bodies to live for two or three days without food or water. As it turns out, this is precisely long enough for them to be shipped via mail from pretty much anywhere in the United States to pretty much anywhere else in the United States.
Although I have become
accustomed to it by now, it
would be hard to overstate just
how extraordinary and delightful it is to walk into our post
office each spring and hear the
cheeping of our freshly hatched
birds from behind the counter.
The notion that something so
fragile and alive can be sent
through the mail seems to me
to border on the miraculous. I
mean, is it merely coincidence
that just-hatched chicks can survive without food and water for precisely the amount of time it takes them to traverse America by train, plane, and automobile? Surely it is. Surely there could not have been some sort of grand plan in place since the days of the Red junglefowl, the Asian bird from which all modern chickens have evolved over the past 5,000 years. But still: How many other newborn creatures can survive being enclosed in a cardboard box and then sent on a dark, hurtling journey across thousands of miles?
Every year, there comes a day in late May or early June when the boys and I drive home from the post office with a box of chicks on the passenger seat, filling the car with the smell of wood shavings and something that’s harder to identify, and which is perhaps best described as the smell of chick. It is a warm smell, and if it is possible for a smell to have a tactile sensation, it is the smell of soft. The boys always want to pull “just one or two” out of the box to hold on their laps for the ride home; imagining the chaos that would inevitably result, I always prevail upon them to wait for the three or four minutes it takes us to get home.
At home, we carry the box gingerly to our brooder setup, which consists of an open-floored “box” of screwed-together boards, about 12 feet by 12 feet. We assemble our brooder in one of the small greenhouses, although doing so requires constant monitoring, as only a short period of sun on an otherwise cool and cloudy day can fry the birds if the sides aren’t raised. A heat lamp dangles from overhead, low enough that the heat is directed into the box, but high enough that there’s no danger of fire. We make a crude “peak” with two-by-fours, over which we drape plastic to retain heat. This allows us to run the 250-watt heat lamp intermittently, saving electricity, and we can even swap the high-watt bulb for a 100-watt incandescent bulb on warmer days. For the next three weeks, until their feathers come in enough to insulate them from the cool nights of late spring and early summer, this is their home. We bring them clippings of grass and other organic material every day, along with whatever waste milk the pigs aren’t consuming.
Chickens are simple creatures. And while fast-growing meat birds seem to be particularly lacking in charisma, the same cannot be said of layers. Perhaps I should not be so quick to admit this, for it may reveal something unflattering about our general level of sophistication, but this family has passed many hours doing little more than watching our birds. This was particularly true in the early years of our homestead, when we allowed our small flock of layers to roam in the yard, close to the house. Owing to the preponderance of vegetables in this area today, and chickens’ fondness for perfectly formed green peppers, we no longer allow them to range near the house. But I won’t soon forget the times Penny and I sat on the front stoop of the house, watching those curious birds do their little dance.
Again we have a creature that is well adapted to a wide variety of landscapes and ecosystems. Like pigs, chickens do very well in forested areas; after all, every single chicken alive today evolved from jungle fowl. But so long as they have some shelter and shade, chickens also do very well on established pasture, and there’s nothing like a good dose of chicken shit to turn grass a shade of green so vibrant it looks digitally enhanced.
The surprising thing about chickens, particularly given how small and light they are, is their capacity to do tremendous damage to the soil via compaction. In remarkably short order, they can turn a small, fenced-in pen into a barren wasteland of stone-hard soil. Not only does this ensure they’re extracting few nutrients and calories from the ground, but it also does damage that can be remedied only over long periods of time or via mechanical intervention.
It’s hard to prescribe a fixed amount of pasture per chicken; what I can say is that we keep our flock of about 20 layers enclosed in a single length of flexnet for perhaps two weeks before moving them. We move our meat birds much more frequently, mostly because there are 500 percent more of them, but also because they are much larger than our layers.
We utilize the same flexnet for our chickens as we do for the goats and sheep. It’s important to move their shelter regularly within the flexnet, or they’ll quickly “burn” the ground under the shelter with nitrogen-rich manure. How often you have to move it depends entirely on how many birds and at what stage of growth they’re at; when we have 100 mature meat birds, we move it at least twice per day. When we have a dozen layers, maybe only every other week.
There are innumerable designs for portable chicken coops, and if none of those ring your bell, you can always buy a $1,500 unit from Williams-Sonoma that comes with “white glove delivery” including on-site assembly. Or you can do like we do and knock together simple structures from materials on hand. We have constructed a variety of mobile structures over the years and have come to rely on a very light “chicken tractor” built on skids and covered by a tarp for our meat birds. The lack of weight is critical, since we’re often moving it twice per day and because the nature of our land means that many of these moves are in an uphill direction.
For the layers, we prefer a somewhat sturdier structure that of course accommodates nest boxes and roost poles. In general, the simpler and lighter the design, the better it’s worked for us. We prefer structures that offer plentiful headroom for those times we need to enter the coop and that feature at least one clear roof panel to provide more natural light for the birds. We’re also extremely fond of having nest box access from outside the coop.
By winter, the meat birds’ home is the freezer (with a last move to the oven or pot of bubbling lard) and the layers usually move into the tomato greenhouse, which has been outfitted with nest boxes, roost poles, and copious amounts of bedding to reduce compaction.
We also maintain a permanent, fenced-in run with an old coop that we semi-jokingly refer to as the “Problem Poultry Pen.” The PPP becomes home to any birds with a propensity to escape their portable coops, until we can either determine how they’re escaping or eat them. In keeping with our theory of building flexibility into our animal housing, the PPP has also served as a winter home for pigs.
Both our layers and meat birds receive organic grain, table scraps, and, if there’s more than the pigs can consume, waste milk. The milk is particularly helpful in curbing the meat birds’ enormous appetite for grain. We are constantly scheming ways to reduce the grain inputs to this small farm, but we have not yet evolved to the place where our birds do not require grain. This summer, we are planning to incorporate Harvey Ussery’s maggot feeding system (sticking the carcass of a small animal into a bucket with lots of holes and letting the maggots that form drop to the ground for the birds), as well as cultivate a plot of comfrey for chicken feed.
I know some homesteads that simply allow their layers to have run of the place, and the hens seem to find plenty to eat without supplemental feed, at least during the warmer months. But they also seem to find places to lay their eggs that are never seen by the human eye. Never mind what a flock of hungry hens can do to a row of almost-ripe green peppers.
In a further attempt to curtail our grain habit, we are also experimenting with ducks again, in the hope that their proclivity for foraging will reduce our dependence on purchased grain. During the brooding stage for all our poultry, we bring clippings of grass and other greenery. Another trick we learned from Harvey Ussery is to feed hard-boiled eggs. Of course, this only works when we have an excess of eggs.
In the winter, we mix a couple of cups of kelp with every 50-pound bag of grain. In addition to supporting the health of the birds, the kelp helps to keep the yolks dark yellow when there is a lack of other greenery to eat.
We’ve been all over the map with chicken breeds, from heritage to commonplace. In all the years we’ve kept poultry for eggs and meat, the only breed that’s really stuck is the Kosher King. Kosher Kings are relatively fast-growing meat birds that in our experience, are vigorous, prone to foraging, and still capable of producing 6- to 7-pound roasters at 10 weeks. They are also exceptionally tasty, producing a large quantity of the dark meat we covet. We purchase cockerels from a small hatchery in Pennsylvania called Clearview Hatchery. There is no website, and the owner always answers the phone himself, which might be part of the reason his prices are so reasonable.
Interestingly, Kosher Kings are the very breed permaculturist Ben Falk discusses in his book The Resilient Farm and Homestead as being difficult to contain and
generally unsuited to his
farm. Our divergent experi
ences with the exact same
breed are yet another
reminder that the powers of
observation should always
trump the dogma of concept.
For layers, we have experimented widely, looking for catchphrases like great forager, exceptionally cold hardy, and consistent layer. We’ve been quite satisfied with Golden Comets, Rhode Island Reds, and Lace Winged Wyandottes, but we’re always experimenting. This year, we’re getting Black Javas, mostly because we have a local source for chicks.