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. Keeping chickens has become a sort of retro-hip thing to do as more and more budding suburban homesteaders add backyard flocks. I question whether raising chickens for eggs should be a priority on the new homestead, and today I will discuss my reasoning for that line of thinking. What are the implications of an increasing number of amateur backyard chicken keepers?
As homesteaders, we are all searching for ways to become more connected to the natural world and less dependent on the food industry. Whether or not we are able to spend our weeknights and weekends tending a garden and listening to the songbirds, keeping chickens may allow us to spend just a few minutes each day making that connection with animals that feed our need for self-reliance. But what if we don’t get it right?
Some considerations that I will discuss today are: human perception of animals, chicken instincts, chicken feed and foraging, chickens as they relate to self-reliance, and where livestock falls on our priority list of the development of our suburban homestead system.
I should first start out by saying that this is not a ‘if you keep chickens, you are wrong!’ kind of blog post. I know most homesteaders and permaculturists will disagree with me on this issue, which is just fine. Our perspective on homesteading is what makes us at Tenth Acre Farm unique, but in no way better than, the rest of the good folks in this movement. In fact, I know plenty of successful and caring backyard chicken keepers, and as I process the decision of whether or not to keep backyard livestock, I too am attracted to the vision of a happy flock of chickens and hope to reconcile some of my reasons for hesitation. I already know exactly where the coop and run would go in my backyard barnyard vision!
When looking into what you will need to keep backyard chickens, for example, usual information comes in the form of chicken run and coop design and placement considerations, chicken breeds, whether or not to start with baby chicks or pullets, and feed options. You might also be compelled to research some other details about watering, feeding schedules and nutrition, and some basic knowledge of common chicken ailments and cures.
However, we at Tenth Acre Farm are always seeking to relate our suburban homesteading actions to a deeper connection with nature and a sense of place. Because of this, we feel that there are some additional things to consider about our relationship with animals prior to being responsible for keeping confined livestock in a backyard.
Ultimately, the success of the suburban/urban homesteading experiment of keeping small quantities of livestock in confined areas near human living quarters may come down to our perceptions and attitudes toward animals.
Chickens are Animals
Didn’t you know??? Sometimes we forget that each animal species has its own instincts, and their behavior is a reflection of those instincts. Vince and I aspire to have a deeper relationship with wild and domestic animals than we’re taught is necessary, because it really comes down to how we view animals’ roles on earth. In our view, animals have not been put on this earth for the sole purpose of feeding humans. And we have much to learn from the animals, as they are connected to their instincts far more so than we are to our instincts as humans. We live in a miraculous world with billions of species living interconnected lives, feeding and serving one another in the circle of life. One is not king, the other is not stupid.
What if, while tending to our backyard chickens, we weren’t doing it with the attitude that they were put on this earth to serve us? What if we practiced feeling gratitude toward them as we tend to their daily needs, for their production of eggs and fertilizer, and compassion for their necessity to be confined to a smaller space than they would naturally desire? If we – as humans – were permanently confined to a space smaller than we would naturally desire, would we act a little cooky sometimes?
Lessons From a Cat About Animal Instinct
I’ve written before about the many good lessons about animal instinct we’ve learned from our cat. Here’s an example: In the winter, Molly the cat doesn’t go outside much. She wants to be outside and active, but she doesn’t like the cold. So she spends the days and nights pacing around the house, howling, clawing at things, and trying to get on the counters and window sills: cat cabin fever. We, for lack of a better description, thought she was being really annoying. ‘Stupid cat!’ we would say in our heads, even though we love her, there just didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason for her actions, and none of the cat toys we bought were curbing the behavior.
But then we were reminded from the TV show ‘My Cat From Hell’ (as funny as it sounds) about one of the natural instincts of cats. Cats like to be high off the ground and want perches from which to view their surroundings – just as they would do in the wild. As soon as we bought one of those seemingly stupid cat trees and placed it in the corner of a room between two windows, 90% of the strange behavior went away. She was instantly calm and was climbing that thing before we even had it completely built. She sleeps up there and scans her territory from the windows.
Translating this cat example to chickens, I believe it is important to pay attention to their behavior and not assume that they are stupid. Even if the argument is that some of the natural tendencies have been bred out of modern chickens, they are still animals and still have instinctual reasons for their actions. Maybe they aren’t eating the food provided to them or aren’t using the coop that was built for them. Perhaps the problem is the human, not the chickens! Cesar Millan teaches this as his central message of the Dog Whisperer philosophy, that it is usually the humans that need trained to realize – and accept – the instincts of the animal. It seems silly to require a confined animal that already has a reduced ability to display natural instincts to further conform to a human idea of what the chicken should like (‘This coop is amazing! The stupid chickens should like it!’).
Natural Animal Feed and Forage
Most pets and livestock eat dried food that comes in a bag. Again, we have to think, how is this similar to what they would naturally desire to eat?
And again, I will first give an example from my cat. She, like humans, is not meant to eat dried pellets for food. Humans would be really miserable if we had to eat the same dried pellets everyday with the same flavor. She is a carnivore and naturally desires and hunts for meat. Cats do not have the capacity to digest grains. But when we got her, we didn’t know better. We fed her dried cat food (an all-natural premium kind!), and she would scarf up the day’s worth of food all in one sitting and then beg the rest of the day for more. She was overweight, carb-addicted, and, like most domestic cats, heading toward diabetes. She was so irritating, always begging for food. All that changed when we switched to a grain-free canned cat food. In every way, her thinking about -and begging for – food instantly vanished when we fed her something more akin to her natural diet. The weight just dropped, and she was far happier.
I know, I know, chickens aren’t cats. But chickens also have an optimal diet that isn’t served well with the simple cup-of-dried-(certified organic!)-feed per day. Chickens are designed to eat grains for less than half of their diet. Where does the other more-than-half of their diet naturally come from?
Deep observations about what chickens need to thrive (not just stay alive) bring to light a possibility that keeping chickens in small spaces isn’t as simple and healthy and cute as we would like to think. This is where it gets controversial, because we’ve made up our minds that we really want to have chickens, that we like the homesteading status that they bring us, and we aren’t willing to consider that they may – like most animals – need more than we can provide for them in the small backyard. Paul Wheaton is a well-known permaculturist and controversial expert in chicken keeping. After listening to this podcast and reading this article about his chicken-keeping philosophy, I am further 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), but are 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.
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. He 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.
For more information about the paddock system and the philosophies around this type of system, please check out the works of these two permaculture visionaries.
Because Vince and I want to be sure to have a system that gives the chickens a healthy life beyond that which can be found in an industrial cage free system (selfish, too, because we want healthy eggs), we hesitate to add chickens to our homestead system until the design is more mature and can accommodate the more complex paddock system of rotation. To reiterate, this is not to say that other methods for raising chickens are wrong. But even many of our devoted permaculture friends are instant chicken keepers upon gaining access to land because they have learned through their permaculture education that a closed-loop permaculture system must include food and fertilizer from livestock. I feel that there are a few snags in this prioritization of chickens over whole systems planning.
Chickens as They Relate to Self-Reliance
The benefits of having chickens include eggs, meat (at the end of the egg-layer’s useful life, if you wish), pest control, and fertilizer.
It is deceiving to say that because we get chicken eggs we are more self-reliant, since we must rely on outside sources to provide their feed. As I am busy figuring out this homesteading stuff and figuring out how to process all of the produce coming in so that it doesn’t go bad first, I question whether I am ready to also care for chickens in the humane way that I would prefer as mentioned above. After all, stopping at the farmers’ market once a week and buying a dozen eggs from a farmer who has more space, seems like a solid time-efficient solution for the time being.
Keeping hens for eggs can be a satisfying endeavor, yet it is rarely cost-effective. Adding the recurring costs of chicken feed and bedding, etc. with the one-time cost of construction of their living quarters, home-produced eggs are rarely cheaper than buying them.
Additionally, the fertilizer component is important, yet I can get horse manure for free from an outside source whenever I want it.
Pest control is also valuable, and I look forward to the day when we can use the chickens’ skills in this arena. But not having chickens right now has forced us to conduct an intimate, in-depth study into the workings of the plant world to find the mixtures of plants that produce the best pest-deterring or beneficial-insect-attracting combinations. We’ve made some unique discoveries in this regard that no one else seems to be talking about.
Priorities for Homestead Development
Everyone will have their own system for developing their homestead. Certain components of the lifestyle will be more attractive to certain people, and this interest will drive their decisions on prioritization. In our view, which will certainly differ from others’ views, learning how to grow and prepare the bulk of one’s produce is an amazing and overwhelming first step, and one that shouldn’t be overlooked for the enticing, romantic vision of chicken-keeping. Perennial food-bearing plants will live far longer than the instant gratification of having chickens.
Furthermore, if we go ahead and get chickens without the time and capacity for observing and caring for them properly, it may hurt those who are doing it responsibly, as neighbors and municipalities will have a bad taste in their mouth about this important component of homesteading.
Although chickens (and other livestock – maybe rabbits!) are an important contribution to the homestead, we will wait patiently to add these fun creatures to our system. Developing an integrated closed-loop permaculture homestead system will ultimately save us time and money as we seek to use the resources coming onto and leaving our property more efficiently. As suburban homestead development is time-intensive in the beginning years, we do not anticipate getting chickens for at least a few more years. And we would advise others to think carefully prior to adding chickens to their landscape, unless they foresee having the free time to enter into a compassionate and responsible relationship with the animals.
What do you think? Are we crazy? Should chickens come first in homestead development?