It’s spring! Don’t you want chicks? Everyone wants chicks! When you first start considering backyard chickens (So cute! Eggs! I’ll save a fortune!), you find all the posts about the amazingness of backyard chicken keeping. If you are lucky, before you actually do the deed you’ll find the other posts about what a horrible idea it is and how expensive. About the predators. And the poop. And the having to be there to put them to bed every night. But what makes no sense is that people keep doing it. So here’s my honest take on why I keep chickens even though it’s arguably not worth it (my husband says it falls just on the far side of not worth it, I say it falls just on the near side of not worth it).
To be fair, the reasons have changed over the 4 years I’ve kept hens. I am a researcher by trade and I did my homework before getting my girls. I browsed around a lot on my favorite homesteading forums and on the backyard chickens website. I knew I probably wouldn’t save any money. I knew I’d probably confront predators. I’d seen my soft-hearted sister have to nurse a hen back to health after a fox tore into her coop and ripped off its wing before she could chase it off. In the middle of town. Since I was halfway through graduate school, with a two year old, I don’t remember many specifics about what was going through my head. But I was obsessed with homesteading and I considered hens a gateway livestock investment to figure out whether I had it in me to care for the sheep I really wanted someday.
This is an excellent reason to have chickens, though not one that applies to most people: if you dream of keeping livestock, small poultry are the best way to figure out whether you can handle it. You WILL have losses to predators or illness or accidents, but you probably won’t need a livestock vet and for whatever reason, bleeding and dying big animals are just more intense than small ones. It’s more manageable. If you can’t handle a dying chicken, you definitely can’t handle a dying something bigger. The requirements on your time are intermediate, but consistent enough to give you a taste of what actually being a small farmer would be like and probably make you think twice about it. But that’s the kind of thing you want to know before hand, so it’s a useful lesson.
But you probably don’t dream of being a farmer. The reasons most people want backyard chickens are for their kids, for the eggs, for the cuteness. I had a kid. I wanted eggs. They were cute. So once I had them, what were the pluses? It’s a little hard to say, which isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement.
My toddler wandered up to the pen naked and got nipped in a very unfortunate place, which he remembers vividly to this day. They are not pets in our family, in part because I planned to eat them eventually and in part because I couldn’t tell them apart. Our dogs would break into their pen and eat their food (luckily not them, as domestic dogs are the biggest predators of backyard chickens). Housing them in a way that kept them safe and kept them healthy and clean took a lot of experimentation. I wasted a good bit of money.
My 4 buff orpingtons were not ideally suited to the heat of southern summers and one of them never laid again after having some kind of heat stroke her first year. They ate all winter without laying. It took a while for me to iron out the kinks in my feed system because I was committed to feeding them in a way that minimized waste and maximized nutrition, so I made an organic sprouted whole grain feed myself. And it wasn’t cheap. They required a whole different kind of pet sitting if we wanted to go anywhere, and we travel a lot. One time I let them out of their enclosure into the (enclosed) vegetable garden to clean up the late-summer bugs and weeds (supposedly one of the best things about them) and just as twilight fell heard a strange sound. I ran into our backyard in central Durham and saw a pile of feathers in the garden and a raccoon running away into the dark night. Luckily I’d been fast enough and she was just in temporary shock and missing some feathers, but the nights were never the same after that. Whatever time of day sunset was, someone had to be home before that to lock them up.
But I’m really committed to keeping chickens, and I’ve had to think about why, given all the downsides. Because the downsides are big and obvious and in your face, especially if your partner thinks your homesteading notions are thoroughly unromantic.
My eggs are the best eggs I’ve ever had. They are orange yolked and delicious. I know exactly what’s in them and feed them to my kids with pride.
Keeping hens forces me to appreciate how labor intensive the production of animal protein is and how to use it more sparingly and not take it for granted. The inputs required for keeping a flock of layers in good health, with pasture, is substantial in terms of space and feed. I know that nothing I ever get at the store, even those $8 a dozen pastured organic eggs from Whole Foods, comes close. Currently my 8 hens rotate around on 1/4 acre of land and they wear it down in the blink of an eye. We gobble up eggs and chicken without thinking twice about the tremendous amount of inputs it takes to grow that animal. Doing it ourselves has been humbling and sobering, which I value for myself and my kids.
They eat all my kitchen scraps and almost-too old leftovers. I am a compulsive food not-waster. It hurts me in a deep, physical way to throw food away or let things go bad. But if you have kids you know that they will mush things around in ways that make it no longer edible to any other human and then reject 80% of it. No guilt, the girls take care of it. While you don’t want to give chickens things that would make a human really sick to eat, there’s a lot that technically wouldn’t hurt us that we don’t eat. Nothing gets wasted here. I will admit to keeping edible compost in a ziploc bag in the cooler or mini-fridge when we travel domestically and bringing it home for the chickens. My marriage has taken a beating, but my soul is in good shape.
I get free fertilizer for the garden. This is a huge one for me. I have a big garden and as it has grown I have struggled with the notion of purchasing and shipping in soil amendments. Now I just buy a big load of straw every few years and use it for their bedding, then compost it in the garden when I clean out the coop. My soil is so so happy and unlike anything I buy, I know exactly what my girls eat and what’s in their manure and it’s exactly what I want in my compost.
My family is probably healthier. Living among livestock is one of the few clear correlates of decreased asthma and improved immune health (here’s a nice lay person’s summary). At the very least when I was 9 months pregnant and cleaning out the coop I told myself the poop smell was good for baby and it became more bearable.
It’s a lesson in long term planning and commitment. Most of the investments and wasted money are upfront, so you really lose money if you don’t keep going once you’ve set up housing and learned the ropes. I’ve got my feed system rolling efficiently now. I maximize their consumption of weeds and scraps to minimize food costs. My eggs are half the cost of pastured organic eggs at the store, even factoring in my original set up costs. I do save money now.
We learn to be humble about the challenge of taking responsibility for life. Chickens have just about zero capacity for self preservation. If you have a rooster, he’ll help out, but there are a host of other challenges that come with him, like having enough hens so he can ravage them all the time and not wear down more than the feathers on their backs, or your neighbors hating you. The decision to keep backyard hens begins a pendulum swinging back and forth between protection and freedom. If you want to give them any freedom, you take the risk of something eating them. You and only you bear the responsibility for that when it happens.
I did a bad job of trying to integrate my flocks when I expanded and lost a hen to fratricide. Two years in a row when the hawks were trying to feed their own new babies, I lost a hen to their hunting. I caught them in the act the second time and explained to my son, who was with me, why I was recovering the decapitated body of my hen and throwing it out in the woods near where the hawks roost. I wanted him to understand that they have to feed their babies too. That if I’ve already lost her, they will be less likely to return if they can finish their meal. That we don’t let a life be lost for no reason and in nature, nothing is wasted. We don’t put light bulbs in the nesting box to kill the black snake that steals eggs in the summer, even though it’s super scary and makes me cringe to think of the lost investment. Sharing is a part of life. The black snake eats rodents that damage our garden. And baby copperheads that could kill my children. These have been poignant and valuable lessons for him, particularly when so much of the world is presented to children as a fallacious black and white.
Keeping hens connects me to my (and most of our) roots. Most farms were diverse and had chickens before the industrialization of our food supply beginning in the interwar period. Pretty much everyone has rural roots, if you go back far enough, no matter what your culture. I’m not mystical about this stuff, but there is something grounding about doing some dirty, real, work in your own backyard the way your ancestors did.
To most friends who ask about backyard chickens, I give it a resounding and honest no. But if any of these reasons resonate with you and you are willing to have their lives in your hands, then give it a shot. Try and do housing on the cheap (I find a homemade roost inside a craigslist dog kennel with a nice kitty litter dome for nesting works great to start out). I’m still doing it and, perhaps surprisingly, finding it more and more satisfying as time passes.