Why We Don’t Keep Chickens (Yet)

Why We Don't Keep Chickens (Yet)

As visions of homesteads dance in the heads of more and more city folk, they likely include dreams of bucolic mini backyard barnyards and the faint sounds of animals foraging. Here are three reasons why we don’t have chickens yet.

Keeping chickens has become a hip thing to do in the city in recent years, but I question whether raising chickens for eggs should be a top priority on the new homestead. What are the implications of an increasing number of amateur backyard chicken keepers? What if they don’t get it right?

New homesteads can be overwhelming. Many of us want a fully developed and functioning garden, barnyard, and homestead kitchen right out of the gate. The truth is, unless you grew up doing this stuff, it’s going to take years to learn about your property, learn a bunch of new skills, and then use them all in an efficient manner.

How long it takes you to learn new skills and develop your homestead will depend on many things. Did you grow up doing this stuff? Do you have a spouse who is helping you? Do you have young kids? Do you have a full-time job?

Learning New Skills

Any new homesteader knows that using new skills takes twice as long as you hoped it would! Suddenly it’s dark outside, you’ve spent all day trying to figure out a new canning recipe, you’re covered in sticky, sugary goo, and the results are still up in the air.

How do you prioritize the learning of all these skills? How do you decide in what order to develop the homestead and add components such as essential appliances, structures, garden space, and additional sentient creatures?

Mr. TAF and I have prioritized learning a bunch of other productive skills around the homestead over getting chickens. Does this mean you should, too? Not necessarily. Everyone is different and will be more excited to learn certain skills over others.

We don’t have chickens yet because we want to (1) give them a good home (2) with the right set-up, so that (3) it contributes to our self-reliance rather than causes stress. Here’s a look at these three reasons in more detail.

#1: Give Them a Good Home

I think most homesteaders – regardless of how overwhelmed they are – will make sure that their chickens and other livestock are well cared for. It has been my experience that most backyard homesteaders have a Mother Hen instinct that extends to new chickens, and they fret over every aspect of keeping chickens.

Caring homesteaders have a well-designed coop that is predator-proof, easy to collect eggs from, and easy to clean. They researched bedding materials and have made an educated decision. They have a properly-sized chicken run and/or monitor free-ranging. They have the best feeders and waterers.

They get the most nutritious feed, and share veggies and weeds that were destined for the compost with the chickens. They check for indicators of chickens’ health and happiness. They already have a plan in place to deal with the chickens’ end of life.

Speaking of Life and Death

On the flip side, and this goes especially for the urban chicken-keeping movement, I hear stories all the time about well-meaning folks who aren’t able to hack the additional responsibility in their lives, and the animals are the ones to suffer.

I’ve heard of new owners who didn’t do their research and build a predator-proof coop. Perhaps the new owners are too busy to collect eggs, let the chickens into the run, feed and water them regularly, or manage their comfort level in extreme weather.

Accidents happen to all responsible chicken owners, but the truth is, much like bringing home a dog or cat from the local animal shelter, overwhelmed new homesteaders aren’t always prepared and in the end it’s the animals that suffer, sometimes with their lives.

I take the life and death of other creatures very seriously, and I want to make absolutely sure that if I’m caring for another creature, especially one that will live its life in captivity to serve me, it will have a good life.

And I have so much other stuff I’m learning on a daily basis right now. Some people will prioritize livestock over other homesteading skills and that’s totally fine. But for me, I’m going to hold off on fretting over keeping more creatures alive at the moment. Now excuse me while I see what’s burning in the oven!

chicken-coop

#2: Have the Right Set-Up

I’m going to be frank and just come out and tell you the truth: This house is not our forever home, and the time for us to move could be just around the corner (Yippee!). So spending the time and money on a coop just doesn’t seem like a good idea as we prepare to move.

Perhaps the next owners of this house would appreciate it, but they’re already getting a front yard garden, so we don’t want to scare prospective buyers too much! Too bad there aren’t more people like you and me in the real estate market, eh?

Personally, I would be thrilled to find a house with established gardens and a chicken coop…

Natural Animal Feed and Forage

Chickens have an optimal diet that isn’t served well with the simple cup-of-dried-(certified organic!)-feed per day. Most pets and livestock eat dried food that comes in a bag, but I wonder how this is similar to what they would naturally desire to eat.

Permaculturist Paul Wheaton thinks chickens are designed to eat grains for less than half of their diet. Where would the other more than half of their diet naturally come from?

After listening to this podcast and reading this article by Mr. Wheaton about his chicken-keeping philosophy, I’m concerned that having a coop and run for my chickens would not provide them with adequate space and forage to meet their needs any more so than a modified “cage-free” industrial egg operation.

In a coop and run where they eat all of the vegetation soon after inhabiting it and then continue to live on bare earth, they are basically living a vegetarian lifestyle (like in the industry operations). The problem is that they’re naturally omnivores.

They thrive on a combination of grains, fresh green vegetation, and carnivorous protein that usually comes from worms and bugs, and sure, we can throw our kitchen food scraps into the run, but what are the implications of the chickens not getting to display their natural tendency to forage day in and day out?

Greenery, therefore, is a big part of what chickens eat, yet in a coop and run, there usually isn’t any because they’ve eaten it all. According to Wheaton, if chickens have access to space for foraging fresh bugs and vegetation, they will eat 60% of the greenery in two weeks’ time.

This is considered the ‘first bite’, which is the vegetation that they consider to be food. The other 40% of the plants in that space will be poisonous to them, but if left there a few more weeks, they will eat that, too, out of desperation.

The Paddock System instead of a Chicken Run or Free Range

Wheaton’s chicken-keeping system includes rotating the animals around the yard in small paddocks, letting them eat only 30% of the vegetation in each – about one weeks’ time – before moving them on to another paddock. His writings suggest ways to organize a paddock system on a small city lot.

Imagine a coop surrounded by four runs and each week the chickens rotate to a different one. For an excellent picture of a chicken paddock system, see Jessi Bloom’s website. She’s the author of Free Range Chicken Gardens.

Paul Wheaton has also demonstrated that chickens in this system display far more of their natural tendencies – meaning that the environment they live in plays a big part in how they act.

Mark Shepard, permaculturist and author of Restoration Agriculture, also advocates leaving livestock in one area only long enough for them to eat the “first bite” and then moving them along.

Even if we were to stay in the current Tenth Acre Farm house long-term, the space we’d be able to devote to the chickens would be quite minimal and certainly wouldn’t accommodate a paddock system.  Perhaps not the end of the world – many people have coops and runs and provide happy lives for their chickens.

Since I’m telling the truth today, you might as well know that I’m a perfectionist, and now that I know about this paddock system I’m going to wait until I can give it a try!

Why We Don't Keep Chickens (Yet)

#3: Chickens and Self-Reliance

Do you have aspirations of being more self-reliant? At Tenth Acre Farm, we hope that all of this work of learning skills and creating a productive home leads to more self-reliance.

But, to play devil’s advocate, in order to raise chickens I must buy chicken feed, right?

Sure, depending on the amount of property I have, I could supplement their feed by seeding their ranging areas with a forage mix, growing fodder plants, and raising black soldier fly larvae.

But as I prioritize which homestead skills to focus my energy on, if I have to buy something, at this moment I’d rather buy a dozen eggs from a local farmer than buy chicken feed and have more live beings to care for.

And although it will be extremely rewarding when I do – one day – raise my own chickens, it is rarely cost-effective. As we save for our forever homestead, the recurring costs of chicken feed, bedding, and other supplies, along with the cost of coop construction just don’t seem to fit into the budget right now.

However, I sure look forward to the day when we have barnyard critters running around, are harvesting our own eggs and maybe meat, and getting the benefit of free fertilizer!

What We Prioritized Ahead of Chickens

I have always maintained that the primary reason we don’t have chickens yet is the fact that we’re probably soon moving, and who wants to build a coop and then move?

We’ve mastered quite a few skills around here that we might not have, had we prioritized raising chickens. That’s because there’s one thing I know about myself (and now you do, too): I’m a perfectionist. When I learn something, I go all in and I master it. It’s a fantastic trait…sometimes.

It means the time I spend mastering something comes at the expense of learning something else.

So what have I learned instead of chicken-keeping in the last 6 years that I’ve been homesteading?

1. Permaculture Design

I’ll never consider myself a master at permaculture, but I did get pretty good at understanding the permaculture concepts that helped us homestead our small space efficiently.

As an aside, one of the most important permaculture principles is to observe your land for at least a year before working on structural improvements, such as chicken coops. I’ve heard of multiple permaculturists who moved to a new homestead, built a coop, and got chickens, only later to admit that they jumped the gun and placed their coop in the wrong spot because they didn’t observe the land long enough.

Also, I’ve learned a lot about setting up permaculture techniques for catching rainwater in the landscape. I would argue that it is more sustainable to learn how to manage existing resources (water) before adding more resources (chickens). But of course, I’m biased.

Why We Don't Keep Chickens (Yet)

2. Garden Skills

In the 6 years that we’ve been doing this homesteading thing, I’ve spent my time getting really good at gardening and weaving in permaculture techniques and plant combinations. Gardening goes so much faster now that I don’t have to do a ton of research before planting the tomatoes or harvesting the potatoes.

3. Kitchen Skills

This is the biggest area of learning, because no matter how much we grow or raise ourselves, we have to eat!

I’ve gotten really good at meal planning, grocery shopping on a budget, and cooking from scratch.

I’m getting better at preserving food through canning and dehydrating, and building a larder for emergency preps.

And I’m learning about utilizing my homegrown herbs more to produce medicines and bath products.

In the end, all of us will decide to prioritize learning certain skills over others, but overall I’m happy with the skills I’ve learned so far. I know that whenever we decide to add chickens to our homestead, I won’t feel overwhelmed by having to take care of them while learning how to garden and produce food in the kitchen.

I will already know that stuff. Not that it isn’t naturally overwhelming to have a productive homestead, but remember, learning a new skill takes twice as long!

I know one day we’ll be able to give chickens a good home.

Although chickens are an important contribution to the small-scale homestead, I will wait patiently to add these fun creatures to our system. I want to make sure I can give chickens a good home with a fantastic coop and paddock system, and I want to add them only when they will contribute to our self-reliance rather than breaking the budget or making me feel overwhelmed.

I feel happy and grateful for all of the other skills I’m learning and mastering in the meantime.

What do you think? Are we crazy? Should chickens come first in homestead development?

Why We Don't Keep Chickens (Yet)

Comments

  1. says

    I would agree to stating that chickens would not be very high on the list for someone starting down the homesteading road. Chickens were on my short list and my experience has taught me that it is more of an investment then initially thought, keeping them safe is no joke because everything likes the taste of chicken, and feeding them without supporting big gmo monoculture grain production can be tough. However, they are a lot of fun! When the time is right and the space is available go for it.

  2. says

    Jake, thanks for this valuable feedback. It’s nice to know the perspective of those who are already keeping chickens. I can’t wait to watch chicken TV on my own homestead! We would love to meet your backyard girls sometime :)

  3. says

    If desiring chickens for eggs, another important consideration is what to do after their egg production drops. Will you cull your flock, and who will do the the culling? Will you eat them? Or would you keep them – they will still be excellent composters, just sans eggs.

    • says

      Good point – many people simply neglect to consider what they will do when the chickens are finished laying. It’s like getting that pot-bellied pig as a baby and then realizing that they grow up and get big!

  4. Amy says

    I think you make an excellent point. There are lots of things to think about, be it selfish or not. I think it is very responsible to think about ALL the options involved. Not only for you and your family, but, also for the animals.
    I love this page, by the way. I learn something new and interesting every time I read it! Thank you for sharing!

  5. Egypt says

    I really appreciate this post. I’m an urban homesteader in MI, just a few weeks in to turning my new house into (hopefully) a productive homestead. For me, animals are a priority- I grew up on a large dairy farm surrounded by livestock, and somehow my life feels more whole with livestock around. building a run for my chicken flock and herd of meat rabbits was one of my very first projects. But I too struggle with finding ways to care for, and feed my animals in a way that works for them. I don’t like feeding commercial feed, so am working to feed both species a natural diet. this would be a far easier project if I had waited for my landscape to mature as you are, and I can really respect that decision. Right now, I’m feeding my rabbits foraged weeds, some hay, and a small amount of whole grains. The hens are on a deep litter system and get fed grains, our kitchen scraps and fruit scraps from work, earthworms from my bin and fly larvae from our compost, slaughter waste, and fresh greens. I’m hopeful that I can keep them healthy, productive, and strong on this without having to buy much feed, as long as I stay resourceful and pay attention. But it would be far easier, and better for the system as a whole, if I could just rotate them through paddocks!

    • says

      Sounds like you have a really great system to try to keep your hens and rabbits as happy and well fed with resources from your land!

  6. says

    I absolutely agree with this post! I have had chickens for a lot of my life, and know that their natural behavior is to roam and explore and forage and be on the constant hunt for bugs and tender greens. I actually thought that when I finally have the space, I would absolutely do a rotated paddock system as you have described! In fact, I would likely keep a composting area in one, the grubs that love the compost are a chicken’s dream. They love digging through dry leaves and taking baths in dirt daily. I visited a farm once where they did tractor pastured poultry, but sadly those chickens definitely did not have enough space. Despite the lush grass and wholesome feed many were picked on by others and could not get away from their pursuer. Chickens need space because of their pecking order. Unless raised together, newly integrated chickens sadly never really fit in, and chicken cliques will bicker with each other and will need space to get away from each other. A good rooster tends to keep the peace and really changes the flock dynamics (in a good way) but not everyone can have them. However, this really is the best of the best for chickens, and not everyone has the space, money, or compassion, or really ‘go by the book’. Oh, each chicken needs this much square feet? And this many lbs of feed? So it is, but then again this post won’t appeal to that sort of audience. I feed my cat a raw food diet I have to make myself (with added supplements according to an online source). It is a pain in the butt and takes a ton of time, but it saves quite a lot of money and has done wonders for her health. No, it isn’t for everyone, but ultimately I am glad that it is one of the better things we can do for her health and happiness. The same goes for my chickens (chickens are also much much more vocal when they are not happy lol).

    • says

      Thank you for your insights about the chickens. I didn’t know they were more vocal with unhappiness.

      As for the cat – I totally respect your decision to take the time to do raw food! I hope we can fit that into our routine one day as the quality of health it provides is undeniable.

  7. says

    It’s amazing how fast a small flock of chickens can denude a carefully planted yard.
    We’ve kept chickens in two of our gardens (well, one garden and one farm) and look forward to adding them to our new place – also about .1 acre. They’re a vital part of our pest control plan (i.e. I’m going to throw aphid-infested plant parts in there and let the hens go to town on them. Also, snails).
    Gardeners tend to underestimate how much greenery chickens can pack away. Put a blown-out asparagus stalk where they can peck at it and see how much they love it. Also, protein. We’re looking forward to making a soldier fly breeder for their benefit and they will get all of our meat scraps. People who think chickens are happy on a vegetarian diet have never seen them go after rats and mice.
    The other really important thing to chicken happiness is making their run long enough. Chickens get into fights with each other all the time, and can really hurt each other. The trick is to remember that the chicken attention span is never more than about 10 feet long at a full run. Make the run that long or longer and by the time they get to the other end of the yard, they’ll forget that they were fighting.
    Thank you for encouraging people to do the key part of the design process – figuring out if your plan will work for everyone involved – non-human animals included.

  8. Ellen T. says

    I have been keeping a small flock of chickens ever since we moved to “the country” – about 23 years now. We began with the oh-so-typical square foot of space for each chicken and just bagged grains. It wasn’t until our second home that we provided a nice long chicken run outside of our hen house/enclosed chicken yard. You are so right that they quickly deplete the area of all growing matter in short order. My chickens have never pecked at each other or themselves probably because of all the space that they have, but I have always wanted to give them more free-roaming and free-feeding area. When we do let our chickens out to forage on the accompanying hillside they completely feed themselves, but unfortunately they do, from time to time, feed the coyotes and foxes as well. Its the circle-of-life part of giving them some freedom.

    I look forward to our next home where I can do as you describe and give my hens a rotating paddock system. We’ll all be happier for it. They will be healthier, we won’t need to supply as much additional feed, and the chicken TV will be nicer and cleaner to watch.

    From a long time hen mother, you’re advice and decision to hold off until you can do it right is the correct way to go.

    • says

      That circle-of-life thing really forces us to get up close and personal to that Buddhist ideal of non-attachment, doesn’t it? I applaud your willingness to ebb and flow with that possibility. Thanks for your encouragement to wait.

  9. says

    I’ve kept silky chickens for several years in a pasture along with sheep, ducks, and geese. I added full-sized chickens last fall and so this spring they started flying over the pasture fence to be well and truly free-roaming. Unfortunately, Since I also raise produce for market, I’ve had to fence off my garden plots to keep them safe from the chickens. So basically the chickens are free and the produce is fenced. Seems backwards, but so far it works.

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