As visions of homesteads dance in the heads of more and more city folk, they likely include dreams of mini backyard barnyards and the faint sounds of animals foraging. Here are three reasons why we don’t have chickens yet (and what we’re doing instead).
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Keeping chickens has become a hip thing to do in the city in recent years, but I don’t think raising chickens for eggs should be a top priority for everyone on a new homestead.
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 (and perhaps, even if you did), 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.
Learning New Skills
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?
Any new homesteader knows that learning and 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.
Realistically, we all have to pick and choose skills to learn. There just aren’t enough hours in the day. How do you decide in what order to develop the homestead and add different components like essential appliances, structures, garden space, and additional sentient creatures? (Side note: A permaculture designer can help with that.)
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. We will all be more excited to learn certain skills over others.
Here’s the skinny on why we don’t have chickens yet: 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.
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 closely monitor free-ranging. They have the best feeders and waterers.
They get the most nutritious feed, and share fresh veggies and weeds that were destined for the compost with the chickens. They check for indicators of 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 to 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! 🙂
#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 with currants, black raspberries, and cherry trees; rain barrels, and compost bins, 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. (Here’s my rant about cats and dry food.)
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?
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.
According to Wheaton, chickens in a paddock system display far more of their natural tendencies.
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 Mr. TAF and I were to stay in the original 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!
#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 at such a small scale. 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, we’re harvesting our own eggs and maybe meat, and getting the benefit of free fertilizer!
What We Prioritized Ahead of Chickens for Self-Reliance
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 do my best to master it. It’s a fantastic trait…sometimes.
It means the time I spend mastering something comes at the expense of learning something else. I’m not the ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’ type.
So what have I learned instead of chicken-keeping in the last 7 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 principles that helped us homestead our small space efficiently.
As an aside, one of the most important permaculture principles is to observe your land before working on structural improvements, such as chicken coops. Many permaculturists consider a year to be the logical length of time for initial observation, as it allows you to learn about the land throughout the seasons of the year before making big, lasting decisions.
I’ve heard from a few 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 using techniques for catching rainwater in the landscape. (See How to construct a swale in the residential landscape and A quick way to terrace a hill.)
I would argue that it is more sustainable to learn how to manage existing resources (water) before adding more elements (chickens). But of course, I’m biased.
2. Garden Skills
In the 7 years that we’ve been doing this homesteading thing, I’ve spent my time improving my skills at gardening, edible landscaping, and weaving in permaculture design. 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’m getting better at preserving the harvest, and building a larder for emergency preps.
And I’m learning about utilizing my homegrown herbs for culinary and medicinal uses.
In the end, each of us will decide to prioritize learning certain skills over others. 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 also learning how to garden and produce food in the kitchen. I will already know that stuff.
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.
In the meantime, I’m grateful for the other skills I’m learning and mastering.
What do you think? Are we crazy? Should chickens come first in homestead development?