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Living with Chickens

Living with Chickens
Everything You Need to Know 
to Raise Your Own Backyard Flock
by Jay Rossier
Lyons Press, 2004

Not everyone was meant to live with chickens. They can be noisy, messy and cantankerous creatures. They peck, they scratch and they move with a herky-jerky motion that is disturbingly reptilian.

But if you live in the country and have some space and time to devote them, chickens are an easy-entry, low-maintenance livestock option for small farmers, homesteaders and even backyard gardeners.

Flock of Free Range Chickens

"Chickens have a charm that will affect even those with no bird experience," claims Jay Rossier in a new guide on raising chickens titled "Living with Chickens: Everything You Need to Know to Raise Your Own Backyard Flock" (Lyons Press, 2004).

"They are stately, dignified, and industrious creatures that take their work of scratching and eating and laying and setting seriously... the eggs and meat they provide is superior to what you can get from the store. If what you want is home-grown animal protein, you'll soon discover that these birds can offer it -- and that they are a lot cheaper and easier to house, feed, herd, and transport than sheep, goats, pigs, cows, ostriches, or what have you."

Rossier, who lives with chickens on a Vermont farmstead, provides instructions for constructing a chicken coop, including schematics for roosts and nesting boxes. Rules of thumb call for somewhere between two and ten square feet of space per bird in the coop, plus a chicken run.

"I would encourage you to let your birds roam as free as possible, within reason," he advises. "Chickens that can spend time outside need less floor space inside. Keeping chickens on range, which is to say in a field of grass, can benefit both the chickens and the grass if they don't stay in one patch too long."

Growers with pasture may want to try a "chicken tractor," a portable coop devised by Joel Salatin. The coop is basically a two-foot-high cage of about 10 by 12 feet that can be moved to a new location on the pasture daily. The chickens inside will fatten themselves by mowing the grass low to the ground and consume weeds and insects, leaving behind manure as fertilizer. If moved daily, their mobstocking will give grasses a competitive advantage over weeds and improve the pasture. 

"Living with Chickens" explains how and where to buy fertilized eggs and raise chicks or purchase adult birds. For meat birds, the Jersey Giant, Cochin, Brahman and Cornish breeds are recommended. Among the laying hen breeds, the White Leghorn is the most common and recognizable. Dual purpose, or old-time breeds, include the New Hampshire, Rhode Island Red, Wyandotte, Dominique and Plymouth Rock.

Young pullets begin laying eggs at 4-5 months and will produce continually until they molt about a year later. None will be as productive after molting, but some will continue to lay steadily for up to 10 years or more. 

Among the meat breeds, a Cornish-Rock cross -- bred for commercial  farms -- may be ready for butchering in as little as six weeks, but most meat birds won't be of decent size for eight weeks or more.

Rossier devotes a chapter to butchering and encourages even backyard smallholders to do it themselves. "For most of us, it has been at least a generation, or several, since the act of slaughter was a regular practice in our families, and both the knowledge of the mechanics and the willingness to do it have been lost.  This is reason enough to try it yourself," he points out.

"The hardest part for the beginner is taking the knife to the neck of a living bird while it blinks at you as it hangs upside down from a string wrapped around its feet; and after, when the blood drains, and the bird jerks and flaps in reflex. These are confusing, terrifying moments, as well they should be."

"Living With Chickens" also offers detailed instructions on feeding, hatching eggs and keeping chickens healthy. Illustrated with color photos and spiced with real-life examples, it provides informed inspiration for anyone interested in chicken husbandry.

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Living With Chickens

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