20 January 2013

The Nitty Gritty of Locavorism - Backyard Chickens

The permaculture chicken
The term "locavore" officially entered the English lexicon in 2007, when it made it into the New Oxford American Dictionary. I read that just a few days after receiving a copy of The 100 Mile Diet, a book I loved when I read it back in 2007. And I received that book just before attending a Poultry Raising workshop in my community, put on by our Transition group.

When I was vegetarian, I considered cheese and eggs to be gifts from the animals who gave them. It took me 30 years to acknowledge something important: "Gifts" taken, indeed stolen, are not gifts at all. My husband and I switched to a vegan diet when we finally clued in that the horrendous ways we treat animals in our industrialized food system - even those we don't kill - made a mockery of our denial. 

I was happily vegan for a few months until a sweet student of mine who lovingly raises chickens very proudly gifted me with a dozen of her eggs. I took those eggs home and told my hubby we were eating them. We still eat eggs very rarely, but if we've met the chickens and know their human, we're open to accepting their eggs as a gift. (So I can't really say I'm vegan, can I? But the label keeps me from eating milk chocolate, which is a good thing.)

Zorah's "Mom with Chicks"
That's why I attended the Poultry Raising workshop yesterday. What I discovered is why a vegan friend of ours in the city fought against her municipality's move to allow backyard chickens. These animals take a lot of care! Raising them is not a lark, it's hard work! I've decided to never again look a gift egg in the mouth.

I thought I'd share with you some of what I learned:
  • There are about 100 poultry diseases. Vigilance is necessary at every step. You can never put new chicks in with an older flock, and you've got to dedicate one pair of boots just for the chicken coop.
  • I was in my 50s before I realized that chickens don't naturally lay eggs all year. (Obviously a city girl.) Without artificial light to fool them, hens go into "molt" during the shortest days of the year and stop laying. The rest of the time, they're churning out about one egg per day, although one speaker said they go in cycles, laying for about 14 days, then taking a few days off. Heritage breeds aren't as productive as hybrid birds, but they'll lay for a longer period.

  • Chickens know what they need in their diet and, if allowed to roam freely, will go out and get it. (Chickens are sometimes used to help baby turkeys learn how to feed.) Their food of "mash" or pellets can be supplemented with sprouts and insects. One of the speakers is developing a mealworm farm!
  • Chickens also need grit and calcium (crushed oyster shells or something similar).
  • Broodiness (the inclination to sit on eggs until they hatch) has been bred out of many chicken breeds, but if a hen does become broody, it's important to give it a nice nest of straw or hay (so her eggs won't roll out). You can keep hens from becoming broody by collecting their eggs often.
  • Keeping a rooster is a good idea if you're going to let your chickens range freely. He'll act as the flock's protector, sometimes losing tail feathers (or worse) in very brave encounters with birds of prey.
  • Turkeys like to sleep in trees - and they LOVE to eat walnuts and blackberries!
  • You should always act as though your poultry has salmonella. For example, eggs must be washed in water slightly warmer than the egg. Washing them in cold water sucks bacteria into the shell.
  • If pecking at each other becomes a problem, simply paint red dots on a piece of wood and nail it up on the outside of their coop. They'll start pecking at the red dots, hurt their beaks - and stop! (If only people learned that easily.)
Chickens are smart, fun and loving animals, I learned. Like dogs, they seem to have domesticated us humans thousands of years ago. What role can they now play in helping us assure their - and our own - survival in a world of climate chaos?

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I would appreciate hearing your thoughts or questions on this post or anything else you've read here. What is your take on courage and compassion being an important part of the solution to the climate change emergency?