It All Comes Down to Chickens

The coop, completed and painted.
The coop, completed and painted.
Granny Jessie kept chickens during the Depression – quite a lot of them, if my childhood memories of the huge and by then crumbling and disused chicken-wire enclosure, the adjoining hutch and the nesting boxes are anything to go by. Some of her neighbors went on keeping backyard livestock well into the 1960s – we occasionally sampled goose eggs at Granny Jessie’s house where we could hear a donkey braying now and again. Mom had to help care for the chickens, as child and teenager – and wound up detesting them so much that this was the one back-yard DIY farm element that we never ventured into when we were growing up. Mom hated chickens, profoundly. It seems that keeping chickens is one of those fall-back things, when hard times loom.

But my daughter and I were considering it over the last couple of years, along with all of our other ventures into suburban self-efficiency – the garden, the cheese-making, the home-brewing and canning, the deep-freeze stocked full, the pantry likewise. I put off doing anything about chickens until two things happened: we finally encountered the woman in our neighborhood who keeps a small flock of backyard chickens, and she took us to see her flock. She told us that it was not much trouble, really, and the eggs were amazingly flavorful. In comparison, supermarket eggs – even the expensive organic and supposedly free-range kind were insipid and tasteless.

The second thing was spotting a ready-made coop at Sam’s Club a good few months ago. We kept going back and looking at it, whenever we made our monthly stock-up. It had a hutch, an attached roofed run with open sides secured with hardware cloth, and an appended nesting box accessed through a removable roof. But still … the price for it was what I considered excessive. Then, at the beginning of the month, the coop was marked down by half. Seeing this, we transferred some money from the household savings account, and with the aid of a husky Sam’s Club box-boy, stuffed all 150 pounds of the box which contained all the necessary flat-packed panels into my daughter’s Montero.

I put it together over Mother’s Day weekend, painting it the same colors as the house: sort of a primrose-peach color with cream trim. The coop and run was constructed of rather soft pine, with some kind of greenish wood-stain slathered over it all, which took two coats of paint to cover entirely. I wish that I had gotten out the electric drill with the screwdriver attachment a little earlier in the game; the side and roof panels were all attached together with 67 2-in and 2 ½ inch Phillips-head screws. Yes, I counted; I did about the first forty by hand … sigh. The remains of half a can of polyurethane spar varnish went on the roof to make it entirely waterproof. We topped it with a wind vane ornamented with a chicken, and it all went together on a bedding of concrete pavers set in decomposed granite, wedged underneath the major shade tree in the back yard. By municipal guidelines we are permitted up to three chickens and two of any other kind of farmyard animal: goat, cow, horse, llama, whatever – as long as their enclosure is at least a hundred feet from your neighbors house. The chicken coop may not, strictly speaking, be 100 feet from the next door neighbor’s house on the near side, but he is the one with the basset hounds, one of whom can hear a mouse fart in a high wind, and can be heard about a block away when he really puts his back into his bark.

The door side of the coop
The door side of the coop
Lorena, Maureen and Carly - arriving.
Lorena, Maureen and Carly – arriving.

We went out to a feed store in Bracken for feed pellets, bedding chips, a feeder and a water dispenser. The feed store also had artificial eggs made from heavy plastic, but so cunningly textured they looked very real. The feed store manager said that what they are also used for is as a means of dealing with local snakes that prey on chicken eggs … they slither into the nesting boxes, swallow an egg whole and slither away. If you suspect your nest is being raided in that fashion, you bait the nest with a plastic egg. Snake swallows it, but can’t digest, pass or vomit up the egg and so dies, in the words of one of Blackadder’s foes – “horribly-horribly.” (Ick-making to consider, but then I’ve gotten quite testy about critters predating on my vegetables, and set out traps for rats and dispose of dead rats without any qualms.) From many different places; Sam’s, our local HEB which now offers stacks of chicken feed in the pet food aisle, and now the semi-rural feed store – we are getting the notion that keeping back-yard chickens is getting to be a wide-spread thing. I wonder how much Martha Stewart is responsible for this development.

This morning we were off to the south of town, to a small enterprise in Von Ormy for three pullets. We had wanted Orpingtons, but they weren’t available at any of the close-in providers, and the owner recommended Barred Rocks – those are those pretty black and white chickens with bright red combs. My daughter wants to name them Lorena, Maureen and Carly – Larry, Moe and Curly, feminized. They are supposed to start laying when they are mature, in about late summer, according to the owner of the bird-providing enterprise. Our three pullets are about ten weeks old, and somewhat timid yet – little knowing that they have won the grand prize in the chicken lottery of life. Eventually, they will have the run of the garden; we are assured they will brutally diminish bugs of every sort, gratefully fall upon green vegetable scraps, and come to be quite friendly with us. Early days, yet. And that was my week. Yours?

29 thoughts on “It All Comes Down to Chickens”

  1. WhenI was a kid about 10 we got baby chicks and ducklings for Easter, like lots of kids did then. My father, who grew up on a farm, made a coop out of an old dog house by drilling holes in the sides and making perches of long dowels. The chicks and ducks did fine and summer came. By mid-July, the roosters were crowing and the hens were laying pullet eggs.

    I was sent off for about three weeks to visit friends who had a house in Wisconsin. When I came back, the chickens were gone and my father and grandfather said they had sent them to the farm. That was the family farm near Dwight IL. I didn’t question it and didn’t even notice how we were having fried chicken several times that week.

    I don’t know what happened to the ducks.

    I would be careful about the freezer. My father used to buy beef by the side or half side, which meant a lot of hamburger. One summer, we were gone to Michigan for a couple of weeks and the power went off. We could never get the smell out of the freezer. Backup power would be good, if possible. I had a refrigerator in Tucson fail twice in 6 months and each time the mother board had failed. It was a mess. We were not there except alternate weekends then.

  2. When I was 12, I started the first of many summer visits to my aunt & uncle at the family farm in WV. My uncle was a contractor but he rented out the farm to a family whose main interest was dairy production, but they had a huge chicken coop.

    When I say huge there must have been a couple of thousand chickens in there.

    Most mornings my aunt would give me eggs for breakfast and since she never bought them in the store, would send me to the chicken coop to bring a few.

    Never will forget the odor but finally, after a few visits, my aunt had to remind this city boy not to pick the eggs with too much chicken s@@@ on them ;-)

    I was naive but the eggs were far better than store bought.

    Best wishes in your endeavor Sgt Mom!

  3. We love our chickens and have around 7 at any given point in time. They really are not much trouble save for the semi annual manure removal feativals. I would argue with what some say about the taste of free range/hand raised vs. mass farmed. We have done several blind tastes with fried eggs, scrambles, and in cakes and there was really no conclusive evidence. As far as nutrition goes, your eggs are virtually identical to mass peoduced. The yolks will be dark we due to consumption of bugs and grass. It is a fun hobby but hardly economical. We are lucky not to have had any predation as I’d yet but Jameson the hundred pound wonder mutt is on the job.

  4. “They let you do that in South Shore?”

    That, I’m sure, was why they had to go when the roosters started crowing. They were allowed to run around the yard. I don’t remember if there was a fenced area. People were pretty cool about things like that then.

  5. “my aunt would give me eggs for breakfast and since she never bought them in the store”

    We got our eggs from the family farm in a 12 dozen crate every few weeks. We would ship the crate to Dwight downstate, by Railway Express, and the farmer would fill it over a week or two, then ship it back. We kept it in a cool cellar in the basement. Eggs that have never been refrigerated are alive and will keep for weeks. If they get warm, they will hatch !

    Many years later, I sailed to Hawaii in my sailboat and my wife prepared the food. We planned for three weeks with another week of freeze dried food for emergencies. She bought a case of fresh eggs from an egg farm in Orange County and I taped it to the rudder shaft in the stern of the boat. We had fresh eggs all the way to Hawaii, which was 12 days. She also prepared each day’s meals with the main course frozen and packed in a freezer. The other items were packed in plastic bins, like those used in warehouses for picking orders of small items.

    We had great food all the way whereas most racing boats just do all freeze dried food so nobody has to cook.

  6. “Eggs that have never been refrigerated are alive and will keep for weeks. If they get warm, they will hatch”

    I have a friend who today is a successful CPA but emigrated from Hong Kong in the late 1960s. One of his first jobs – after graduating from JC was an egg broker.

    Quite a business that is with razor thin margins but made up by millions.

    He’d ship them in containers back to Hong Kong and you are right they would keep for weeks.

  7. Ah – know about The Good Life, Dearie. We’re not all that foolishly ambitious, knowing that subsistence farming is a great deal of very hard work, and I only have a usable yard about the size of the usual British garden allotment. But still – one can get enough out of it to take the rough edges off.
    The Three Chicken Stooges seem to be settling in, on their first full day – still a bit unhappy about being handled, but we hope as they discover that the Hoomans are the source of extra-good goodies, they will come around. We have some work to do, every day in the yard, so the hope is that they will get accustomed to us.

  8. “We are going to have a huge egg shortage by fall because of bird flu which is killing millions of chickens.”

    Not to mention the “enlightened” voters of CA who passed an initiative that all chickens have to have a minimum amt of living area – and flat screen TV.

    OK, I don’t know about the TV

    Chicken farmers around the country are required to certifiy they re meeting the requirements

    More paperwork – higher cost

  9. “Just avoid Roosters, they’ll drive you nuts.”

    When I was about five, we were visiting the farm when I went out to look at the chickens. There was a chicken yard and a chicken house that were pretty good size. This was the farm owned by my grandparents and run by a sharecropper farmer named Alvin. His father had run it before him and had saved enough money to buy his own nearby farm. Alvin was the one who filled out egg crate every few weeks and shipped it back to Chicago.

    My grandmother had been born on that farm and her parents had homesteaded it during the Civil War. It was only 160 acres but that was enough for one farmer in the days before mechanical equipment. When I remember it, there was no running water and the family used an outhouse behind the house. The kitchen had a hand pump for water and this had probably not changed in nearly 100 years.

    I was wandering around with a little wind up machine gun that made noise and shot sparks. I had had no experience with roosters until then and this was my initiation. He chased me and ignored my machine gun completely. That was 72 years ago and the memory is as clear as any in my life.

    Yes, avoid roosters.

  10. We’ve had chickens for a couple of years now,as long as you feed them enough,provide some crushed oyster shell to keep the shells of the eggs thick and strong-they will provide you with plenty of eggs.
    We have 3 golden comets,2 australorps,and one barred rock,along with an australorp rooster,the result of buying chicks from an unsexed run from the hatchery. The barred rock came from a friend who didn’t listen,and tried using garden fence,rather than chicken wire or hardware cloth-and had a mink get in and kill 11 out of the 12 hens he had. The other chickens took quite a while to accept her-and she is still the lowest on the pecking order.
    The eggs taste much better than grocery store eggs,the yolks sit up higher on the whites in the skillet,are much deeper yellow, and brighter in color. Cakes and pancakes,french toast,etc are “fluffier”.
    Added bonus is the manure for the compost pile that gets added to the gardens-it’s high in nitrogen,which is great for most crops.

  11. Starving – have you tried blind tests? We did and didn’t notice much of a difference between our farm eggs and mass produced. Could be a breed feature, I guess.

  12. Two things.
    buffs (orpingtons) get broody
    I spent a lot of time the past 2 yrs. Removing 2 buffs and keeping them in the light to stop the broodiness– only to have them restart it in a wk or so. If you dont want them to hatch eggs get nonbroody breeds. Banties also breed like rats, i finally got rid of the rogues that escape the pen constantly.
    2. If you have a backyard flock, invest in rooster. Hens will sit there quietly while a weasel, coon, possum, hawk eats their faces off while a rooster’s job is to scream bloody murder. Yeah crowing is annoying but everyone i know who doesn’t use one loses a few. or all of them.

  13. With all the problems with chickens going on in four states and allegedly spreading, my wife and I incubate our own eggs, to produce new chicks. We have been raising chickens for 25 years and use to buy chicks to replace old layers. No more. Nothing new from outside comes on this farm. We hope this will reduce any chance our flock becoming infected from some other farm’s stock.

  14. We tried a small urban backyard flock of 4 in a similar “kit” coop last year. Of the 4 chickens, 3 turned out to be roosters and the 1 hen was mysteriously killed (I suspect the feral cats in the area got her while we and the dogs weren’t paying attention). Attempt #1 = failure. The roosters went to a rooster retirement home kept by some friends who live in a more rural area.

    This year we’re back at it. This time we’ve got 6 of what we were assured are sexed hens. We are going to attach a 10’x6’x6′ dog kennel with roof to the newly reinforced kit-coop as a large run. Hopefully this year we have hens and our dogs do their job protecting them if we let them forage the yard.

  15. DM99 – we bought the three pullets guaranteed to be laying pullets, although one of them has slightly more developed tail-feathers than the other two. If it turns out to be a rooster, we will go back to the dealer and make note.
    Some local people we have talked to say that they absolutely have to have a rooster or two to defend the flock from predators. But we only have the one semi-feral cat and we keep an eye on him. And the girls aren’t at this point allowed out into the back-yard unless we are there. The run is pretty large, so they should be OK in it.
    The one predator that we are most concerned with are hawks. There are a number of red-tailed hawks roosting in the neighborhood trees. They are our most urgent concern.

  16. Hi Neighbor

    In 2005 my new wife and her 14 year old daughter were living about a mile south of the North Star mall, in a neighborhood that was built in the 50’s by rich San Antonio merchants. I built a large cage and me and new daughter went to buy baby chicks. It wasn’t long before the chicks had the run of the backyard, respect from the dog, and all kinds of love from new wife and daughter.
    About a year later we bought a house on two acres in Lytle. And really went into the chicken business. After having problems with neighbors dogs, I finally had to put up a 40’X 40′ chicken yard and we messed with chickens for about four years. We also went thru geese (never again) and had not only laying hens but meat chickens. We were getting all our chicks from up the country, can’t recall the name of the hatchery, but in four years hens were done with eggs and the meat producers went wacko when the hot weather hit. I suspected GMO chickens and it wasn’t fun.

    Now the chicken yard is part of the garden and we are looking for a “day-old” calf to raise. I raised one 20 years ago, this wife is looking forward to helping out this time around. Calves are born in feed lots to beef cows, and the calves are not wanted. Prices are right, you just have to wait for the calf to drop.

  17. Okay folks, basic stuff here, and yes, I’m a city girl who had relatives who farmed/ranched. Warm eggs will not hatch unless they have been fertilized, (by contact with a rooster and mom), they will also taste noticeably different from regular eggs. That may explain why some eggs will taste different when you by them from small producers. Large egg produceers sort them out before they get into egg production. There really isn’t much difference in taste between breeds.

  18. while a rooster’s job is to scream bloody murder

    Get a game rooster and it will fight back, and sometimes win, especially if you never trim it’s spurs…….

  19. This is wonderful! What a fun and efficient thing to do! We might give chickens a try eventually, you make it look so easy, and the eggs would be so great (we eat a ton of eggs in our family). We already do the garden, I make homemade yogurt and meals, but this would be so fun. Love it!

  20. Mike’s recollection of being terrorized as a kid 70+ years ago should be taken well in heed, by anyone thinking of keeping fowl . Aside from being a supremely irritating, loud and excessively ostentatious pimp of an animal, roosters (and geese) are often bullies with small children, and anyone they can intimidate. Most folks in our area kept Rhode Island Reds and Whites, or Plymouth Rocks. All can reach a good size if allowed to. One neighbor had her dooryard fenced and let the flock work her prize Hollyhock beds for the bugs. With them was a big rooster that could not be trusted and her husband had to come and escort him back to the pen whenever children visited. He was afraid of the old man, but not women or children.

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