Raising Backyard Chickens

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My Daughter Enjoying Our Backyard Chickens

Written by Executive Director of Laudato Si Project Joe Meyer

The industrial food movement has allowed Americans to have more food available than ever before. No longer did we need to worry about the season or the distance, we could have what we wanted when we wanted it. Of course, there are some real social and environmental consequences to this. Namely, the creation of energy intensive, low nutrition foods at the expense of water and air quality, biodiversity, and the small family farm.

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A industrial chicken operation or CAFO-Confined Animal Feeding Operation

Many people are expressing their dismay with the industrial agricultural system by trying to buy local, organic foods at farmer’s markets, participating in CSA’s, or growing the food themselves. The goal of these individual efforts is to reduce our agricultural footprint on the land and eat healthier in the process.

As WI conservationist Aldo Leopold said best There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.” 

Many Americans want to know where their food is coming from and how it is grown. This has resulted in the increase of “Backyard Chickens.” Raising chickens yourself allows you to have fresh eggs, organic if you choose, whenever you want. It will cost you much less than the $5+/dozen you would pay in the store for organic free-range eggs, although there may be a small investment to get started: building a coop, any fencing, etc.

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I began raising chickens 4 years ago with the goal of being able to have fresh eggs daily and allow my children to experience where their food comes from (and have fun with the chickens in the meantime). There are a lot of questions when it comes to raising your own chickens so having a great “go-to” source is key. An online forum called Backyard Chickens: http://www.backyardchickens.com is the best on the web and any question at all can be answered by browsing their categories. Before raising chickens you might wonder “Do I need a rooster so that my chickens lay eggs?” (the answer is no). “What causes an egg to be brown vs white?” (the answer is it depends on the breed and you can tell by ear feather color: white ear feathers-white eggs, brown or dark feathers-brownish eggs).

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“Girdie” Our 3 year old Barred Rock laying hen who has begun to function more as a pet

Many people also decide to raise meat birds or broiler birds as they are often called. Usually these are specific breeds that produce more meat (like the very common cornish cross, also called Frankenbirds, which matures in a crazy fast 8 weeks and produces all that leg and breast meat we have come to expect). I prefer to choose more standard breeds that take around 18 weeks and tend to have more flavor and are not such freaks of selective breeding. Many of the birds I choose are hearty for our Wisconsin winters and can either be meat birds or laying hens. Typically, I will have the hens lay for 2 years and when their egg production declines, use them as a meat bird.

This spring, we ordered 36 new chicks. These day-old chicks came from a hatchery called Murray McMurray. I have had great success with their birds and you can choose from a huge selection of bird breeds. I chose 6 different breeds consisting of Red Star, Black Star, Buff Rock, White Rock, Partridge Rock, and Barred Rock. They are really fun to watch and, of course, to hold as well. In about 2 months time they will be big enough to mix them into my existing flock of birds.

So, you don’t need to be an expert to raise chickens. You can start small, just a few birds, and let the fun drive the process. Most townships now allow chickens to be raised but may have restrictions on “hen-only” or what type of enclosures. Even of you can’t raise them yourselves try to find a local small-scale farm to get your eggs or chicken meat (CSA’s or farmer’s markets work great for this). There will be a dramatic taste and nutritional difference and as Leopold quoted above, we will know where our breakfast comes from.

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