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My husband likes to joke that our passion for growing things starts with chickens, or, as he likes to say, chickens – the gateway drug.
Why? Once you’ve raised a chicken, seen every aspect of its life cycle from day-old chick to laying hen to the proud parent of an incubator full of eggs to, yes, of course, becoming Sunday’s dinner, you’ll be hooked.
Chickens are a homesteader’s dream. They require minimal space (even if you’re doing it the natural, pasture-raised way, like us), are fun to watch, and are inexpensive to raise.
Here are my top ten reasons for raising chickens. And I promise, in later posts, we’ll walk you through every step of the process, from rearing day-old birds to selling eggs to hatching your own brood.
1. Obviously, those huevos
We started selling laying hens and chicks this year, and in doing so, I realized something very quickly – people really, really like fresh eggs. There’s value to raising roosters, too, and I’ll talk about that in another post. But for now, let’s focus on the eggs.
Caged hens are fed a steady diet of corn and soy – typically, crops that are mass-produced and genetically modified. While the jury’s still out on the pros vs cons of genetically enhanced foods, I think there’s a natural proclivity to want to eat things that are closer to their natural state. Enter pasture-raised eggs.
If you raise your own chickens to lay eggs, you not only have a constant supply of tasty eggs right outside your door, but you also have access to eggs that are better for you and for the planet. Free- or pasture- ranged eggs tend to have six or seven times the amount of Vitamin A and Beta Carotene of caged eggs, while they’re also higher in vitamin E and essential fatty acids. These eggs are better for maintaining healthy cholesterol levels and mental functioning, and they also have less saturated fats.
2. The meat
Before we started this whole backyard amateur farm thing, my husband and I used to get so excited when we saw chicken on sale at the supermarket for less than $1.50 a pound. We would buy a ton and then freeze it to use later.
It never seemed like there was enough to go around, though. The breasts would be massive – eight or nine ounces – but we never felt truly satisfied after dinner. Flashforward to four years later, and we each sit down to a five-ounce breast that feels like more than enough (we often have leftovers).
Herein lies the explanation. Most conventional chicken meat is filled with a brine (salt water) along with chicken stock, flavor-enhancing chemicals, and other fillers to help make up for roughly 30 percent of the product’s weight. So what you see is not always what you get – in eating a conventionally produced chicken breast, you’re also chowing down on a ton of extra sodium and garbage that you probably don’t want to be eating.
And again, these birds are typically raised in close confinement. Even birds marketed as “cage-free” aren’t produced in the way you might think. These birds are often kept in large houses, held in close confinement despite the absence of a cage. Plus, most supermarket birds are Cornish Crosses, breeds that are valued for their large breast size and rapid growth.
There’s nothing wrong with raising a Cornish Cross (and it’s actually something my husband and I plan to try this year), but the problem is that the birds raised in standard commercial operations often die because their internal organs can’t keep up with the fast pace of their muscle growth. These birds have tremendous health issues, exacerbated by close confinement and a poor standard of living.
When you raise your own chickens for meat, you do have to modify your expectations. There’s a lot of dirty work involved, and at the end of the day, you might not save a ton of money. But if you’re concerned about your health or animal welfare, raising your own meat birds is definitely the way to go.
And you don’t have to pick birds for just meat or eggs, either! There are plenty of dual-purpose breeds (like our New Hampshire Reds) that produce a fine, hefty supply of both throughout the year.
3. Nature’s garbage disposal
Chickens provide an easy way for you to get rid of that leftover kitchen waste (think food scraps, coffee grounds, and old bread) without requiring you to clog up the landfills. Chickens can eat just about anything – our chickens will scarf down pig liver, fish guts, and even expired yogurt. Giving your chickens kitchen scraps is a great way to diversify their nutrition, particularly during the winter months when their access to pasture is limited.
All you need to do is maintain a “scraps” bin on your counter, like this handy compost bin made by Utopia, and whenever it’s full, bring it on out to the birds. It will cut down on your food waste and also make it less of a hassle to dispose of all at once.
We also have pigs (who are more commonly regarded for their waste to bacon conversion rates) but I actually prefer giving scraps to the chickens. Why? Unlike pigs, who should not be fed meat scraps because of the dangers of trichinosis, chickens can eat just about anything. This helps cut down on your garbage disposal fees and, of course, helps save the planet in one tiny step.
4. Free poop
You never thought you’d be excited about free poop, now did you? But if you raise chickens or have a garden, you probably already know the value of fresh manure. Chicken manure is one of the best sources of nitrogen you can put on your plants, and if you raise chickens, you’ll have a steady supply as often as you want to scoop it.
If you’re familiar with the ideas of permaculture, you probably already know the value that chickens have when raised on a farm. They not only produce waste that can fertilize your crops, but they can take your food waste and then turn it back into fertilizer to create more food. Chickens can also scratch in your compost and help fertilize that, too, adding nitrogen and oxygen to create a more fertile, nutrient-dense garden amendment.
Long story short, by raising chickens, you can create a closed-loop system on your farm that will benefit you, your plants, your animals, and the soil.
5. Bone broth
Ironically, as I write this, I’m curled up under the covers, nursing a nasty cold. Although the head cold is preventing me from actually being able to smell it, I have a pot of flavorful chicken broth cooking on the stove at this very moment.
Chicken soup is not just good for the soul, as the old book series testifies – it’s also good for the body. Chicken bone broth has nearly two dozen different essential and nonessential amino acids which are critical for detoxification and overall health. It is a great source of collagen, which helps to form connective tissue, and also hosts a ton of nutrients to support immunity and brain health.
Chicken broth is one of the best foods you can eat for your health, particularly if you’re under the weather. Pasture-raised chickens produce some of the most nutrient-dense bones, and if you’re willing to save the bones after butchering your chickens, you’ll have access to fresh chicken broth throughout the year (it’s really easy to can using a pressure canner, like the one I have here, too).
If you’re feeling extra ambitious, you can also grind the bones and use them as fertilizer for your garden. While whole bones alone are great for the soil, they take far too long to break down. Instead, you can supply your soil with ground-up bone meal to add essential phosphorus and calcium – as well as a wide range of other nutrients that are often missing from synthetic N-P-K fertilizers.
6. You can make some serious coin
This is a point that my husband I became aware of just recently. We were just puttering along, raising our yearly allotment of chickens to keep our refrigerator full of eggs and our freezers full of meat. Then it hit us. We drove to the supermarket and started doing a basic cost comparison.
Depending on where you shop, and whether you go for organic, free-range, or basic commercial products, chicken breasts can cost anywhere between $1.50 and $7 per pound. A dozen eggs costs anywhere between $2 and $5 (with organic or pasture-raised eggs fetching significantly higher prices, of course). Raise your own chicks or laying hens for sale, and you can make even more side money.
We were missing out.
Chickens are a great source of side income, particularly if you’re already raising them for your own family and the minimal overhead expenses are not a factor. They probably won’t make you rich on their own, but you can supplement the income you are already making with your farm or your full-time job to help take some of the edge off those monthly feed or electricity bills.
7. They’ll help keep pests at bay
Letting a chicken simply be a chicken is a great way to cut down on the pests that have been afflicting you for however-many years. When we first purchased our land, it was riddled with mosquitoes, ticks, and other pests.
Over time, we’ve noticed that these pests have all but gone away. Chickens love eating bugs, and letting them scratch in the dirt for these tasty morsels is a great way to increase their nutrition and fertilize your land. You won’t need to use pesticides or other chemicals to get rid of your pests – your chickens will do that for you, going to town on everything from beetles to ants to slugs and, yes, ticks.
Chickens are a great asset to any garden, helping reduce your reliance on pesticides (as I mentioned above) but also on herbicides. Chickens will weed your garden for free! Now, there’s some finesse involved in this, as given the chance chickens will also dig up all of your newly planted onion sets and ravage your lettuce plants, too. However, they can be left to their own devices around certain plants (like tomatoes, which they will not eat until they set fruit) to help keep the patch free of weeds.
9. They have great educational value
We don’t have kids of our own yet, but have played host to many of our friends’ and family’s children over the years. They absolutely love watching and interacting with the chickens, and don’t even realize that they’re learning while they’re doing it.
Chickens have a lot of lessons to teach about life. There is strong evidence that caring for chickens can help children become more responsible adults, as they learn the value of life and hard work early on. They also learn harder lessons about real-world issues – take pecking order, for example.
When we first started raising chickens, I was absolutely appalled at how mean the birds were to each other. And we’re not just talking about breeding-age roosters competing with each other, either.
We’re talking about a bird with a small open cut being pecked to death by the other birds simply because it had a bit of blood exposed, or hens chasing each other away from the food because they simply didn’t want to be around each other. Chicken relationships are tough, but they have a lot to teach, too.
Raising chickens helps kids learn where their food comes from, but also about the nuances of life. It’s not all sunshine and rainbows in the natural world, and learning these lessons firsthand at a young age is, I believe, absolutely vital to having a realistic outlook on life later on.
10. It’s a cheap hobby (and a cheap date)
There’s no way around it -raising chickens is fun. Sure, there’s some work involved, from daily feeding and watering to coop construction and, inevitably, butchering. But they’re also super enjoyable to watch. And it’s cost-effective! What other hobby allows for such a fantastic return on investment? I also love running, but I have to say, my running shoes have never pooped breakfast.
Chickens aren’t the smartest animals in the world, but they certainly aren’t the dumbest, either. They each have individual personalities and quirks, and I’d be lying if I said my husband and I hadn’t spent our fair share of nights sitting outside, watching the birds chase each other around.
In fact, that’s actually how I got (read: almost didn’t get) engaged. One humid evening in June, we were sitting on the grass, watching the chickens as they pecked and scratched in the dirt.
Being the incredibly awkward (yet delightful) individual that I am, I had picked up a long piece of grass and was tickling the chicken with it, laughing hysterically to myself as I poked it gently in the bottom. I was so preoccupied that I didn’t notice my soon-to-be-fiance kneeling with the ring out.
Long story short, we got engaged, but I think to this day I may have tarnished his “how did you pop the question?” story. Oh well. I guess tickling a chicken’s butt and being distracted is probably better than accidentally swallowing the ring submerged in a glass of champagne!
If you’re thinking about raising chickens this year, don’t delay. It’s incredibly rewarding, and not tough to do. In the weeks that follow, I’ll be posting updates on all the nitty-gritty details involved in the process – from incubation to common problems and more.
Chime in with your most burning questions, and make sure you follow us on Instagram @jrpiercefamilyfarm and Pinterest (J&R Pierce Family Farm) for live updates.