Raising chickens at home can transport us to a simpler and bucolic place in time where we can gather more than eggs amid clucking, pecking, and scratching.
Backyard chickens touch the heart while filling the belly, enriching the landscape, and reconnecting people with their food. Forcing their keepers out of comfortable homes into sweltering heat and bone-chilling gales, backyard chickens connect moderns to agrarian times of yore. Karen Rosene, Kathy and Dick Elliott, and Cliff McConville and Konda Dees of Barrington Hills are a few folks who share the joys and challenges of raising chickens in their backyards. From the benefits of fresh, local food to problems with predators, these farmers share a common bond admitting that greener pastures are yet to come.
Karen Rosene’s son and daughter-in-law brought her into the backyard chicken fold. After allowing her son and daughter-in-law to create an organic garden on 1/3 of an acre of her property, her son asked if they could build a chicken coop, and Rosene agreed. Buying a lot of organic food already, she was open to the idea of hosting a flock of 10 hens and enjoying fresh,
untreated eggs from her own backyard.
“Very, very fresh eggs have a really brightly colored yellow yoke,” says Dick Elliott, “and they taste really good.” In a 2007 study conducted by
"Mother Earth News", free-range backyard chicken eggs compared with commercially-raised eggs contained less cholesterol and fat, more vitamins A and E, more omega-3 fatty acids, and higher levels of beta carotene. (Source: "Mother Earth News").
For some backyard farmers, keeping chickens connects them with more than barnyards. These quintessential farm birds help them relate to their
Chasing chickens around the barnyard at his grandparents’ dairy farm when he was about 10 years old, Dick Elliott hadn’t thought about keeping chickens until three years ago, when he and a contractor friend were looking at his Barrington Hills horse barn and thought it would be the perfect place to build a chicken coop.
Elliott researched breeds that would be friendly, hearty enough to endure Northern Illinois winters, and able to provide a generous supply of colorful eggs. His current laying platoon of 18 hens includes Bluff Orpingtons, Silver-laced Wyandottes, Brahmas, Barred Rocks, Ameraucanas, Parched and Blue Cochins, Marins, Speckled Sussex, and Egyptian Fayoumis with eggs that range in color from light brown and dark brown to olive green and light blue.
After three to four productive years laying eggs, the hens at the Elliott’s house are allowed to “retire” rather than be harvested. “When we let them free range, that’s entertainment for my wife Kathy and me,” Elliott says. “Our neighbors love to watch them, too. Each flock wanders in different directions [because] our backyard is basically pasture.”
Using electric fencing to enclose a 1-2 acre paddock in their pasture, Konda Dees and her husband, Cliff McConville, provide a mobile 24’ x 32’ shelter for their brood. Starting what would eventually become Barrington Natural Farms, the couple’s adventures in farming began with backyard chickens. (See our feature on Barrington Natural Farms in this issue.)
Dees, who grew up on a small farm in Indiana, saw a show about backyard chickens and couldn’t stop reading articles about the subject. Noticing his wife’s heightened interest in chickens, McConville built a coop that he attached to the barn for her birthday in 2001, and started with a flock of 25 hens.
Feeling that “chickens are very easy to raise and very low maintenance,” McConville and Dees decided to add to their flock until they reached the 300 chickens they have today. Their chickens include Gold Star hybrids and heritage breeds such as Rhode Island Reds, Barred Rock, and Black Australorps, that produce mostly brown eggs along with some green and white ones.
“White Leghorns [commonly reared on factory farms] are the most productive egg layers, [but] they are not good foragers, and have little meat after they are done laying eggs,” McConville says. Selecting productive egg layers that are nearly twice the weight of White Leghorns, McConville and Dees’ organically-fed, free-range chickens become stewing hens after two years of laying.
Every flock has an alpha hen along with a pecking order. The alpha hen presides over her charges from the highest perch in the coop to not only demonstrate her superiority, but avoid predation. Introductions of young birds should not be done until the new birds are close to the size of the older ones, otherwise the younger birds may be bullied.
Elliott observes roughly half of all the chicks he has encountered make it to 20 weeks which is laying age. The gender of “sex-link chicks” is determined by their colors. Black sex-links, resulting from relations between Rhode Island Red roosters and Barred Plymouth Rock hens, lead to chicks that can be differentiated by a dot, as only males possess this distinctive coloration upon their heads.
males with White Plymouth Rock, Rhode Island White, Silver Laced Wyandotte, or Delaware females. Male chicks emerge white, while females are buff or red, depending on cross.
If chickens are hybrid, rather than heritage varieties, sex-link might not be a dependable way to find out if the chicken is a rooster or hen. Karen Rosene purchases “pullets” (chickens less than a year old) that are just about to start laying, to ensure she has hens, instead of roosters.
Furnishing commercial feed high in Omega-3 acids minimizes cholesterol in eggs (a benefit for human consumers) and provides supplemental feed to free-range chickens that also eat bugs, worms, seeds, fruits, and vegetables. Beef and pork scraps from the table satiate the carnivorous side of these toothless omnivores, while ground oyster shells provide calcium for stronger eggshells. Grit, fine gravel, or sand is essential for digestion as well as dirt baths to combat mites and lice.
Allowing chickens to roam within a fenced pasture or “free-range” during daylight hours can nourish soil and reduce the accumulation of waste in the coop. However, leaving chickens unattended can be catastrophic.
While barn cats can be their friends, chickens face a host of other predators from coyotes, raccoons, fox, and opossums to owls and Cooper’s hawks. Each predator leaves its own “calling card” – from missing hens to feathery messes of partially consumed carcasses.
Ground predators have led McConville to surround his chickens with electric fences, while predators from the sky have caused him to experiment with a solar-powered owl with a moving head to scare away these soaring threats.
Elliott discourages coyotes from attacking his chickens by making loud noises and chasing them away, after half of his first flock disappeared over the course of a few days four years ago.
Later, he discovered some raccoons had learned how to open the hand door leading to the coop. Using a horizontal door with 3,000 pounds of pressure, Elliott has not had any more problems with these furry masked thieves. For Karen Rosene, raccoons consumed nine of her ten hens at the beginning of March, leaving her to regroup with the lone survivor late this spring. Like Elliott, Rosene is now locking her chicken coop to bar further raids.
Raising backyard chickens is a way of reconnecting with the past while embracing a shift to local, organic food cultivation. It’s a great avocation for Dick Elliott and Karen Rosene, while the foundation of a growing organic business for Cliff McConville and Konda Dees.
Backyard chickens provide eggs and meat that is as organic as the land on which is raised, and not processed like so many other things moderns consume. Understanding daily care requirements and planning for hens that stop laying is essential to long-term success and enjoyment.
- - - - - - - - -
April Anderson is a freelance naturalist and writer who can be reached at: email@example.com.