Chicken picking season is here once again and if you haven’t curled up with your favorite (and hopefully colorful) hatchery catalog, you better hurry before it’s too late. Backyard and farmyard chicken projects are on the rise—so significantly that many hatcheries are already sold out of some of the more popular or, more rare breeds. If you wonder why people are getting back to keeping a few birds, you only need to pay attention to the news. Backyard chickens help everyday people manage food safety firsthand, and can contribute everything from cheap food and cheap entertainment to cheap garden fertilizer and cheap bug control, as well as your family’s bottom line.
There was a time when folks just about everywhere kept a small flock of chickens for an egg supply more than anything else. Sure the occasional rooster or older hen might wind up in the stew pot at some point, but the main purpose of these small flocks was to supply eggs for the family, and in some cases to barter for other goods such as butter, blueberry pies, or what have you. Many a depression-era homemaker made ends meet with “egg money” in the form of cash and trades, and there’s no reason why we all can’t turn to chickens for help in these trying times.
The best part about having hens is that a laying flock is worth so much more than the eggs it produces. Consider that taking your average family of four to the movies in town will set you back more than $50 by the time all the junk food is procured and the pickup truck fuel is factored in. I submit that the $50 would be much better spent on a few heritage breed chicks and some supplies to keep them safe and happy. Here’s why: The chicks will offer endless hours of familysized spectating as they mature and even more entertainment with their delightful antics once you put them in their outdoor coop. Karen and I keep a couple of chairs parked more or less permanently at the edge of our large chicken yard and use them as a means to relax and laugh together. So your flock can provide nourishment for your family and some real entertainment … but there’s more. Did you ever wish you could speed up the mulch-making process or convert that year-old hay into something that the garden will truly benefit from? All you need to do is place the material in the chicken run and let the hens scratch, mix and fortify it for you. How about all those grasshoppers, ticks and other seasonal pests? With a little creative flock management, your hens will help keep the garden bugs in check and add a little fertilizer to boot.
Karen and I often turn a group of hens into the garden late in the fall. They are gleeful gleaners and convert our hay mulch into fertilized soil, while consuming remaining greenery and insects. I could go on in this vein, but I’d like to introduce you to some of my favorite heritage breeds (using the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy’s definition www.ALBCUSA org).
The most recent addition to my “most-favorite” list is the Dorking. My first experience with this English breed came about 20 years ago in the form of a couple of roosters in a “free” box of 25 “fancy” rooster chicks that Murray McMurry Hatchery included as a premium for making a large order. The Dorkings were beautiful and delightful. Fast forward to 2010 when we hatched a number of fertile Dorking eggs that I received in trade for some fertile Buff Catalana eggs— we like the breed so much that we plan to increase Dorking numbers to increase white egg production. At Prairie Turnip Farm, Dorkings are docile and self sufficient— and they look like real barnyard fowl, which makes me smile.
New Hampshire Red & Plymouth Barred Rocks
When it comes to brown egg layers, I am very partial to the New Hampshire (Red) and the Plymouth Barred Rock breeds. In our care, we find roosters to be fairly non-aggressive toward humans and other roosters, but good flock guardians. The hens are incredibly cold tolerant and continued to lay for me all winter when I was farming in South Dakota, though I did keep a 40-watt lightbulb on in the henhouse during the coldest, darkest months. Sourcing show-quality Plymouth Barred Rocks and New Hampshires and indeed those that are truly representative of the original breeds (APA standard) is best vetted by breed associations or the ALBC, but if you only want to try these chickens in your backyard flock, there’s no harm in raising those available from large hatcheries.
Of course, I couldn’t possibly keep an egg flock without some Ameraucanas in the mix. In our care, these birds tend to lay eggs with blue to green shells. The Ameraucana is kind of a mongrel breed that lays many different shades of green and sometimes blue and rarely brown eggs. I keep Ameraucanas and enjoy their intelligence, colorful eggs, excellent foraging ability and overall self sufficiency. You will note that my favorites are all medium to large-framed birds. If you are interested in more efficient egg production, you might consider some of the leghorns and other light breeds primarily selected for egg production. You can find all kinds of chicken picking resources online and at the bookstore. If you are an iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad user, check out the Mother Earth News Chickn’ Pickin’ app with photos and descriptions of all the breeds, which you can obtain by
following this link: www.MotherEarthNews.com.
Hank Will operates Prairie Turnip Farm in rural Osage County, Kan., with his wife–HG editor, Karen Keb. Hank is an American Livestock Breeds Association board member, the editor of GRIT Magazine and an avid heirloom gardener. Email him at hwill@GRIT.com.
Published in the Winter 2011 issue of the Heirloom Gardener.