The Sustainable Backyard Flock in an Industrial World

Backyard Feast is finally about to take the plunge with a Backyard Flock!

As I’ve been not-so-subtly hinting over the last few months, we’ve been planning to add some chickens and some ducks to the backyard homestead this spring.  And despite yesterday’s snowfall (!), spring is here, with the first local poultry swap scheduled for Sunday.  We took advantage of the snow day yesterday to gather our supplies for a brooder (to house the chicks and ducklings in a warm, temporary home) and the coop-to-be.  We’re just about ready!

But all this planning has been an interesting process for this city girl.  My total pet experience over my lifetime was a goldfish or two that got flushed not long after they joined my childhood family, 2 bunnies–one went to a racoon and one to the local feral population–and a small lapdog who joined our family for a few years while I was in my late teens.  Skipper’s experience was the complete opposite: he grew up very rural and with animals just around.  There was a big dog who lived outside, a rough pen with a couple of geese and some ducks.  These weren’t city pets brushed and groomed each day and let out of their cages to play with the kids for an hour now and again.

So when we started contemplating adding animals to the property, I started on the research.  But I was wary; we wanted to do things as naturally and sustainably as possible.  As always, though, in our industrial world, it can be ironically difficult to find reliable information, and nearly impossible to do things “the old-fashioned way,” even if you can find out what that means.

We all know, for instance, that “once upon a time,” everyone kept a few chickens around in a pretty laid back way.  But how many chickens?  How were they fed?  Did they keep a rooster or two?  How were they all housed?  What were the problems they encountered?  Are those practices still the best ones?  Details are sketchy and hard to come by.

My fantasy flock is a self-sustaining one.  I have a rooster and a harem of hens who spend their days happily foraging around the property for most of their feed, are friendly and calm, breed a new batch of chicks once in a while, and are tucked in at night in a cosy, clean coop.  It all looks something like this.

The unforseen challenges of my fantasy started quickly, with where and how to acquire chicks, and of what kind.  I had decided early on that I was interested in dual-purpose heritage breeds.  These are the traditional backyard breeds–hardy, calm, good egg layers, with enough substance to become meat birds if desired.  They are beautiful and have great storied histories, which is fun for me. 🙂  The “problem” with the heritage breeds, though, is that it’s difficult to tell the males and females apart until they are fairly mature.  This means that most often you buy chicks as “straight run” or as a mystery group, where you work with the hand you’re dealt.

So what does everyone do with the roosters that they end up with that they don’t want in their laying flock?  Why they eat them, of course. (or find someone else who will)  This may be glaringly obvious to everyone reading, but it was a bit of a puzzle to me–I haven’t eaten chicken in almost 20 years, and I had no idea I was eating rooster. 🙂  So first challenge: if we raised chicks, and wanted heritage breeds, then we get roosters, and the responsible thing to do is eat the roosters.  Hmmm.  (I’m leaving out the hours spent on the detective work of what age do you need to separate the roosters from the hens, do we have the space for that, when do they start to crow, and how loud would 6 roosters be housed together?!  Would they fight? etc etc…)  Luckily for us, we live just around the corner from a local pastured livestock farm that has invested in a processing facility for small farmers on the south island.  They will process as few as 1 bird at a time, and their prices are entirely reasonable.  So that’s an amazing option right in our backyard.

Keeping a rooster on hand to keep the flock going is more complicated than it seems.  You need more hens than we really want to keep one rooster.  You assume that all the eggs you collect are fertilized, which apparently creates no difference from regular eggs because we store them refrigerated which keeps any embryos from developing in any way that we could ever be aware of. know…city girl.  Hmmm.  Or you house your roo somewhere else, which is not really practical for us.  So for now, at least, we’ll be bringing in someone else’s chicks when we need them.  Which shouldn’t really be very often, as the heritage breeds can be decent layers for a number of years.  But our flock won’t be sustainable, as in self-sustaining.

Next problem. Where do those chicks come from?  In the backyard chicken craze sweeping North America, I’m noticing that people seem to treat chickens as one more trendy consumer commodity.  Not that they treat them irresponsibly, necessarily, once they have them, but in the way that they’re obtained.  You see, few of us have the neighbour anymore that we would simply go to for some extra chicks if we wanted them.  There are very few self-sustaining, traditional backyard flocks around these days.

So most folks go online and research.  They look at pictures and read about breed temperaments and stories, and learn their way up the curve, just like I’m doing.  And then they go online, to a hatchery website, and hit the “buy now” button for the chicks and the breeds they want, enter their credit card numbers, and wait for the call from the post office that their day-old chicks are ready for them to pick up.  Who knew?!

This mail order chick business is not new at all; one of the biggest hatcheries, McMurray, has been around 95 years!  And the hatchery business is not inherently unethical.  I don’t think.  They are largely still family run by people who love the business, from what I can gather.  But still.  Tens of thousands of eggs line hundreds of incubators in dozens of buildings.  As the eggs hatch, they are carried in trays to people who sex them if possible and pack them up into boxes and send them out into the mail.  This is not exactly natural.  And in fact, commenters on the forums do seem to notice differences in personalities between “hatchery chickens” of particular breeds, and naturally raised birds.

But there are no guarantees that small breeders are raising chicks the “natural” way.  In fact, to be a responsible breeder, particularly to keep a heritage or endangered breed viable, takes incubators and carefully controlled scientific attention.  But at least that attention can be given to each bird when the scale is still small.

Then there’s the feed issue.  Again, luckily for us we live in a pretty strong granola region.  In our travels yesterday, I started asking questions at the feed stores.  We have access to all-veggie feeds, non-gmo’d feeds, and organic feeds.  In fact, we don’t have access to ordinary feeds that use meat meal at all!  I’m not actually sure that this is a good thing–chickens are omnivores, after all, and “veggie” = soy most of the time.  Hence the non-gmo’d or organic options.  Sustainable?  Hmmm…  Then there’s the medicated vs non-medicated options!  And you thought feeding yourself ethically was complicated!

So these are just a few of the pitfalls of keeping a “sustainable” backyard flock that I’ve encountered so far.  And I haven’t even got the chicks picked out or home yet!  But you get the idea.  It’s a difficult task, navigating through and around the systems of the industrial world!  I’ll save our specific management plans and the story of how things “used to be” for another post.  But meanwhile, wish us luck on Sunday!

6 thoughts on “The Sustainable Backyard Flock in an Industrial World

  1. Hi Toni,

    Whoa! Can I mention the term “baby steps” to you without your throwing something at me? I would say “start small,” by which I mean get only a few chicks…maybe 4-5, and preferably all girls. See how you like chicken-ranching, then introduce a rooster on Year #3, which is about when your original girls will naturally reduce their laying. One of the girls is bound to go broody, and from there, about 10 weeks after the chicks have hatched, you’ll find out who’s a boy and who’s a girl…and then you can do with them what you will.

    As the putative manager of a self-sustaining flock, I was overwhelmed by all the information too. And I started out as a vegetarian, but, ahem, after 16 years of being veg, and two years as being a chicken rancher, I grew (and ate) meat birds too (a separate batch entirely, tractored around for their short 16 week lives). Now, I do a mix of both: I have two boys in with my egg girls and I eat any boys/keep almost all the girls, and I get about 25 chicks for the freezer each year. With two roosters and 28 hens, I usually get another 15 boys for the freezer…that makes 40 chickens per year. And countless eggs that I can sell.

    I think it is quite fine and good for this process to grow naturally for you.

    Not to overwhelm you further with choices, but: as far as heritage or not, I have noticed a world of difference *within* a breed. In other words, these critters are very much individuals. So if someone claims X breed is docile and lays well, they mean most but not all of them are such. These, however, are constants: A hand-reared chick will always be friendlier, more docile…but a hen-raised chick is worlds smarter in the ways of being a chicken. (Hen-raised chicks are also a lot less work for the chicken rancher herself…as long as the hen is a good mom.) So the moms that are hand-raised will have friendlier chicks, whereas the moms that aren’t will have easily spooked chicks…unless you can grab them and train them for tricks, which we do.

    boy, that’s wordy. I am mostly saying “welcome aboard!”

    1. Baby steps? Not sure I know what those are?! Just kidding. 🙂 Part of this whole process has been just figuring out what the most sustainable option would be, and then scaling down considerably to fit our current lifestyle and space. But scaling down also changes the sustainability factor (like in the total chicken population necessary to keep a rooster, etc). I think the plans that we’ve finally come up with will work well, and the plan, really, is just to learn by doing. I absolutely love hearing about how people start small and then end up somewhere quite different! Who knows, maybe we will end up “chicken ranchers” too!

      Thanks so much for sharing all your hard-won wisdom, El. I look often to your blog for inspiration…cheese-making from our own goats is a long-term dream!

  2. Another great post, Toni. I don’t comment often, but thought I’d add a little insight from my small farm upbringing to this issue. My parents always had a small flock, usually a dozen hens, for eggs. We also raised chickens in the summer for meat – they would become nice roasters weighing up to 8 lbs. The hens lived and laid eggs for a few years, we never kept a rooster with them, and when their egg production was getting too low they became stewing chickens. The hens did not lay as many in winter, even though they were kept in a heated barn. They were let outside to run and forage everyday in the warm months. We also had our own cow so the chickens were given excess milk in addition to water. We fed them slops and table scraps from the house. Pigs and chickens are good recyclers. My parents bought oyster shells for the chickens because they needed more calcium to make the shells strong. They may have given them some ground corn to round our their diet, esp. in winter, but didn’t buy any fancy feeds. It is easy to be sold on all these specialty feeds in our scientific times, but as with many aspects of life I like to consider what worked for animals and humans though out history and keep it simple.
    Good luck with the chicks!

  3. Ruth, how lovely to hear from you, and thanks so much for sharing that snapshot of your childhood farm. One of the things that becomes really clear the more I read about the traditional family farm is the symbiosis that existed between all the animals (including the people) and products of the property. When you find the right balance, very few outside inputs are necessary. The challenge today, for us, but I think for many others too, is finding a new way to balance when we simply cannot afford the property size or time investment that would support the natural diversity of products and livestock. Maybe I’ll do another post about this–cost and lifestyle issues that are also changing what the small homestead looks like…

    Thanks for your thoughts–I’d love to hear more about your upbringing one of these days!

  4. In the last place I lived, the landlords had one rooster and about five hens. A second rooster was introduced, but being a different breed he was about 1/3 the size of the big guy and… well… didn’t last long. The little cock (as I liked to call him) had his own girlfriend while all the other gals hung around the big guy. When they were back down to one male, they were all housed together.

    They were given feed (and I couldn’t tell you exactly what), but they *loved* it when I would throw out kitchen scraps for them. They especially liked brassica – even the leaves from the Brussels sprouts plants and the peel from fresh pineapple. I also gave them slugs whenever I found them near my vegetable garden. They loved that.

    One other thing: when you are introducing new chicks to your current flock, you’ll want to do it at night while the birds are sleeping. That way there won’t be any New Bird drama (as in upset the pecking order) and the birds will just think the new bird(s) have always been there.

    Can’t wait to meet the new flock!

  5. Wow! It’s awesome that you are taking this step. The rooster question is a tough one. We tried to keep a rooster for awhile, but it didn’t work out for us. Of course, we probably were not patient enough and we were not focused on creating a self-sustaining flock like you are. I’m fine with buying 3 – 4 new baby chicks every few years.

    Have a great time getting your flock set up!


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