SIGMA — The allure of having chickens got the best of me about two decades ago. I ran a farm in Pungo that sold veggies, fruits, herbs and flowers. I wanted to add fresh eggs to the products sold at my stand while reaping other benefits.
If only for their eggs, these birds are good business, and they help soil and crops through fertilization and fighting pests.
I’ve written about chickens in the past, especially in praise of their eggs. Made under the right conditions, eggs can be a perfect food. There is no comparison between fresh eggs and what you find at the supermarket.
Over the next few columns, I’ll dive into the benefits of owning hens as a food source and to help with gardening and farming. I’ll discuss lessons I’ve learned between my initial flock of 30 birds and now. I still raise hens for eggs, but I also breed them for others.
I’ll also get into the practical aspects of caring for hens, which is important whether you are farming or essentially keeping pets.
From time to time, there are conversations in Virginia Beach about allowing backyard hens in suburban areas. I support this, but anyone who wants to keep chickens needs to go into it with open eyes and a clear understanding that it takes work.
So back to where it started for me — getting my first flock nearly 20 years ago.
There were three main reasons I wanted hens.
First, I wanted the healthiest food I could get so I could eat and sell them. Eggs contain complete protein and lots of trace minerals. They are easy to cook, eat and digest. When you keep them on grass, weeds or pasture, the result is another level of health for them and us. They can eat bugs, seeds, weeds, worms, just about anything.
They also provide a fertility program for the soil. Their manure is an awesome soil amendment with high nitrogen and most things needed for life. Understanding how you expect your hens to be housed, such as whether the coop will be portable, is an important first step.
Before I made my own leap, I called a chicken guru for guidance. Back then, Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm in Swoope, Va., was already famous as a farmer and author. We were acquaintances, so we chatted.
I decided to start with a coop design like his first one – on wheels and capable of holding 30 chickens. We named it the Coop Da’ Villa, a kind of engineering marvel that was light enough to roll around the property so the birds could fertilize and eat pests.
Since it was on wheels, I could move it to different parts of the farm. No one part of the farm got too much manure. It kept the soil from getting torn up with too much scratching. The earth could digest that amount of manure.
We loved the hens, too. My wife used to sit with her banjo and sing to them, convinced they preferred the banjo over the guitar. They would come around to listen.
She named them as well. Once, we even appeared in a political ad for a wannabe governor who aimed to appear farm friendly. During the making of the ad, he wanted to call the chicken Sam. Most of us know hens are girls – and that most politicians shouldn’t run farms.
My wife gently corrected him. The hen’s name was Eileen.
We fed the chickens a high-quality organic feed, which I later sold at the farm, and kept them on grass. The eggs were incredible – yolks a kind of golden orange color that stood tall and firm in the pan.
But there is always work. I had to learn about predation because chicken dinner is on everybody’s menu.
Four of our early birds were roosters. Mean ones. They looked relaxed and calm when I entered their area, but they would strike at my legs when I turned around.
At the same time, a predator was coming in and getting a chicken seemingly whenever it wanted. I thought four mean roosters should prevent that. I gave them a lecture: You guys protect the hens – and stop attacking me – or it’s curtains for you.
The next morning, I found four dead roosters and a dead fox. It must have been an epic battle. Had the roosters understood me to the point that they gave their lives for the flock?
I improved my fencing and took better care closing the hens in promptly each evening.
There can be some hard lessons in owning hens, but the benefits are great. I like selling people a perfect food – the egg – from an animal that benefits our soil and eats things that want to eat our crops.
Wilson, a farmer and consultant, writes about sustainable farming and gardening for The Independent News. Reach him via firstname.lastname@example.org.
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