In my family the chicken came first. When my oldest son was 7 years old our good friend and neighbor realized how much he loved her chickens and she gave him a start of chickens for his birthday. Little did I know that 20 years later I would still be raising chickens. Over the years the chickens have been pets, meat, insect eaters, garbage disposals, broody hens, and egg layers. Today my hens function in much the same manor and their wonderful eggs have ruined any chance that I could ever eat another store bought egg and like it.
We raised white leghorns, brown leghorns. barred plymouth rocks, white rocks, buff orpingtons, black sex-links, red stars (red sex-links), australorps, americanas, Rhode Island Reds, New Hampshires, and cornish cross plus a few mutts. We enjoy both bantams (smaller versions) and standards (full size) and for nearly all the years, they have been free range chickens. Free Range Chickens are not caged and eat what they find in nature. (Mine eat grass/greens, insects, flowers, vegetables from the garden, left over feed from the goat feeders, and kitchen scraps.) They roam freely about my farm eating in the yard, occasionally the flower beds to my disappointment, the goat pens, the pastures, and always roost in the barn at night. We have endured our share of chicken massacres as fox, raccoon, possums, skunks, and weasels have banqueted on our flock. Thankfully my husband and sons have become great protectors and take care of unwanted preditors when the need arises. I know this sounds harsh but I value my chickens and its horrible to find them dead in the yard, or worse yet, only a pile of feathers. Its our job to protect them as best we can.
How could these simple creatures capture the attention of so many people? I am sure there are as many answers as there are people who raise them, but I keep chickens because they are functional, easy to handle, and provide a food resource. There is something special about going to the barn to collect the eggs I use to feed my family. I believe my chickens produce superior eggs to store bought in size, quality, taste, and color of egg yolk. Furthermore, chickens eat insects in the yard, and clean up all sorts of kitchen scraps that don’t make it to the composter. They can be quite friendly too and a source of amusement for those that take the time to observe them. The chickens provided a learning opportunity for my children as they watched a broody hen sit on a clutch of eggs for 21 days and hatch chicks, or realized life lessons about responsibility by incubating eggs, overseeing the hatch, and raising them to adulthood.
My youngest son is now learning about poultry by raising quail. He shows them at the 4H fair and is so proud when his name is called to collect the trophy. We started with bobwhite quail, but quickly realized that the flighty nature of these birds was not in accordance with our son’s needs. He has Down Syndrome. A judge at the 4H fair suggested pharoh quail (coturnix) and they have been a big improvement because they are quite docile and don’t mind being handled. If the cage door is left open, not to worry because they are easily rounded up and returned to the cage. They mature quickly and lay a beautiful mottled egg.
The male’s call is unusul and interesting. They mature between 4-6 weeks of age and begin laying nearly daily. Coturnix can lay 200-240 eggs a year.
Eggs come in a wide variety of sizes and colors. I generally raise brown egg layers because I get bored with white eggs. Americanas lay blue to olive colored eggs and my kids won every egg class they entered with all six eggs selected from the same americana hen because of the uniformity in size and color and quality of egg shell.
Eggs need to be collected daily or more often when the temperature is very warm. They should be washed and refrigerated at 40 degrees to ensure proper storage. Cracked eggs should be discarded because of possible contamination and resulting spoilage. When properly handled expect farm fresh eggs to have 3-4 weeks of shelf life.
Chickens require a safe place to roost, fresh water, and an adequate feed supply. Commercial rations ensure balanced nutrition but free range chickens seem to find what they need. Chickens should be offered oyster shell to promote strong egg shells and grit to provide something to grind the food in the gizzard. As with humans, I find my chickens remain very healthy when offered a wide variety and balanced range of food types. My son frequently fed his chickens raisins to promote colorful and glossy feathers when showing them. It also ensured that they liked to be handled.
Not everyone can let their chickens roam about freely and a chicken coop is recommended to safeguard the flock and keep them where they belong. Many cities allow hens to be kept within city limits but before purchasing please check with local ordinances to make sure chickens are allowed. Because of the popularity of raising chickens, ready made coops are available to meet the needs of small flock owners. A small barn/shed customized with laying nests and an enclosed pasture run would be the ideal home for your flock. Check with local extension agents for specific information about coops, required space per chicken, nutrition, health, and care of the flock.
I was reading a national magazine included in our Sunday paper this morning and on the last page was an article espousing the joys of raising chickens.
It’s nice to see the rest of the world is finally starting to see things my way…… Raising chickens and quail are one of Life’s Simple Pleasures that I don’t want to be without!
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