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What Chickens Need – The Ethics of Chicken-Keeping (Part I)

by Victoria Gazeley

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JANUARY 2012 UPDATE:  We’ve just hit our ‘8 month’ anniversary of getting our first chickens, and I have to add that we lost one of our girls to a coyote while they were free-ranging one day last fall.  She was a free spirit and used to wander WAY away from the rest of the flock – and one day she just wandered too far.  Then a coyote (probably the same one) tried to nab our new rooster when he was in quarantine in the portable run.  So we’ve had to be more cautious about our free range activities – essentially, they only range now when we’re outside to watch over them.  So, yes, they’re spending more time cooped up – which makes me sort of sad…  Some have suggested we get a livestock dog, but that might make for some awfully expensive eggs!)

Until we got our chickens, I have to say that I really didn’t ‘get it’.

Sure, I stopped buying factory farmed eggs back in the early 1990s, switched to raw dairy a few years ago, and have basically embraced a much more holistic lifestyle.  But when it came time to add chickens (our first ‘livestock’) to our little modern homestead, I just assumed what they told you to do in the books would work.

The verdict?  We’ve been at this for almost 5 months – just a blink in farmer years, but even in that short amount of time, we’ve learned that while the standard operating procedure of a coop and run, and even a chicken tractor, does work, there are better options, especially from the chickens’ perspective. 

Why Should We Care?

Let me start by saying that this article by Paul Wheaton pretty much rocked my newbie farmer world.  If you’re planning on getting chickens, or know anyone who is, this should be required reading.  It’s controversial, and it has rubbed some traditional chicken-raisers the wrong way, but the man has a point (and a way with words – it’s a good read). 

Basically, without anthropomorphizing too much, it turns out that there is such a thing as a ‘happy’ chicken.

Like many other animals we keep for our own use, chickens still carry a good chunk of their forest-dwelling instincts.   Uncle Larry may make snide remarks about how stupid chickens are, but let’s be honest:  Uncle Larry would look pretty dumb trying to survive in the jungle with his TV remote.  Chickens are only as capable as the environs we stick them in (same goes for Uncle Larry).  When allowed to roam around in dense undergrowth, these birds are actually pretty wily – ours have escaped a couple of coyote ambushes I believe because they’ve been outside with wildlife and, well, just ‘know’.  They don’t just stand there and fall over from fright…

So what does this have to do with ‘happy chickens’?  Turns out, everything. 

Chickens that have all of their basic needs taken care of, have lots of room to run and explore, and are attended to in a conscious way overall have less disease, fewer behaviour challenges, and, at least in my opinion, provide us with healthier food.  Sick, stressed, bedraggled animals can’t help but give up sick, stressed and bedraggled food.  It makes sense to me.  Then there’s the whole energetic component, but that’s fodder for another article.

What Chickens Need to be ‘Happy’

Whether you’re raising chickens for eggs, meat or both, there are a few things they need to be truly in their element and to provide us with the healthiest food possible. 

Good Eats

Garbage in, garbage out – and I don’t mean kitchen scraps (which, of course, can be high on chickens’ list of gourmet items).  Basically, to be ultimately healthy, I believe they need a varied diet beyond their laying mash or protein-packed feed.  Chickens are omnivores (as this video so graphically demonstrates), not vegetarians. When you see the term ‘Grain Fed’ on your box of eggs, it just tells you that overall, the commercial egg industry really can not provide you with the healthiest product.  How could they?  Organic eggs would be $15 a dozen if they were actually able to give the birds anything close to an outdoor life.  Bottom line?  Given the choice, a chicken will take a housefly over a bowl of grain any day – though they love the grain too…  The point is that, like us, they need a little bit of everything for optimum health: bugs, grain, vegetables, fruit, greens, even meat scraps and ground egg shells.  And the more they can get on their own within the safety of your yard or property (assuming you or your neighbours aren’t spraying your properties or using any toxic substances anywhere), the less commercial feed (preferably certified organic) they will consume.  It’s really win-win all around.

Clean Water

Chickens can mess up a water supply pretty quickly with all the flinging of bedding, dust and poop.  I’ve seen coops where it looks like the water hasn’t been changed in days – all full of scunge and stinky.  Yuck.  Would you drink water like that?  Of course not – and neither should your chickens.  I’m still working on our watering system, but essentially, it gets changed out every morning, and tended to again in the evening.  There are systems that make this daily ritual unnecessary, but it’s critical to make sure your birds have access to fresh water, always. 

Access to Pasture

Here’s where things get controversial.  If you read Paul Wheaton’s article, he talks about visiting coop after coop full of chickens standing spur deep in their own waste, and that somehow their keepers thought this was OK.  After all, they’re ‘only chickens’.  Would you want to stand around in your own crap all day?  I’m thinking the answer is probably ‘no’ – and neither should they. 

So what else is possible?

There are a few ways of doing it, and of course each comes with a list of pros and cons.  Each of these could be an article in itself, so I’ll just briefly touch on the highlights as I understand them:

  • Chicken Tractor – A small, somewhat secure pen (depending on what sort of predators you have in your neck of the woods) that is portable enough to move around the yard, allowing your chickens access to greens, bugs and a bit of variety, one small space at a time.  Made popular by the permaculture movement, it’s often used in areas where the landowner wants to prepare the soil for planting something the following season, as the chickens not only do the weeding and de-bugging, but fertilize the plot as well.  Once all the greens are gone, the tractor is moved to a new plot.  We have one of these, but it’s a bit difficult for me to move on my own so it only gets used if it’s a decent day and the birds need to be secured while I’m away from the house for a short period and I want them to have more variety than sitting in their coop run.
  • Poultry Pen – Essentially, a larger version of the tractor, often with secure housing built in.  As with the chicken tractor, it’s meant to be moved regularly to allow for access to greens and the spreading of fertilizer.
  • Chicken Paddock – This looks very much like a moveable yard surrounding a portable coop.  You set up a secure house for the birds, and around it you place a portable fence that you move every once in awhile.  The benefit is that you don’t have to move it as often as a tractor or poultry pen, as the ‘yard’ is bigger, and the birds have more room to roam and do what birds do.  What I still haven’t quite figured out about this method is how the birds are protected from predators (it’s said you can leave them for days, but I’m not sure I could do that here with our plethora of weasels, raccoons and coyotes).  An electric fence would do the trick, but it would also fry the birds – if it wouldn’t fry the birds, it wouldn’t be strong enough to keep out most predators.  I need to do more research on this one.
  • Free Range – This is what most people think of when they think of backyard chickens – birds running free around the yard, scratching and clucking, with room to fly if they feel the need.  The benefits are many: more varied nutrition for your birds, more physical activity, more potentially detrimental bugs eaten, and of course, the joy of seeing chickens being chickens (they are pretty darned entertaining).  There are some cons, of course, namely that they’ll dig up any unfenced garden beds and they’ll poop on pretty much everything – and I mean everything.   Then of course there’s the predator factor – when they’re out and about, they’re easier targets, which is why I would never have them ranging when I’m away from the cabin.  We’ve been lucky so far, and I believe that the more time they spend ranging, the more their instincts to be wary of predators stay intact and grow.  That’s my theory, anyway… I’ll keep you posted as to how that works out!

The Wrap-up

Any animal we take under our care deserves to be treated as well as we are able.  And if you can provide them with environments and activities that attempt to replicate what they would have experienced in the wild, to satisfy some of their intact instinctual behaviours, all the better.  You’ll have healthier, happier animals which can only mean healthier food for you.  Sure it takes more effort, but if you’re not willing to put in the time, space and energy, you have to ask yourself what it is you’re really trying to accomplish.  Yes, you can keep a couple of hens in a tiny cage in the backyard, but to raise truly healthy animals, and therefore healthy food, they really do need a lot more than that – even though sometimes it doesn’t seem all that practical.  Once you’ve seen a chicken happily doing what it is that chickens do, it gets harder and harder to consider keeping them in a miniscule pen with nowhere to stretch their wings and act ‘normal’.  I know this won’t be a popular opinion with some, and many who have had cooped chickens for years will think I’m a naive newbie.  I’m OK with that… 

In Part II, we’ll be discussing the other things chickens need to be ‘happy’.

What do you think?  We’d love to hear your thoughts on today’s article.  Do you agree, or do you think chickens are just dumb birds, dang it, and enough with all this mumbo jumbo – just give me my eggs!  Let us know in the comments

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Revised on January 28, 2012

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Susan McKenzie October 10, 2011 at 8:08 am

First off…. I love how your website background keeps changing… and I recognize from previous photos that this is really your homestead… how gorgeous!!! I never really thought about the proper chicken diet, as I haven’t yet raised chickens… but I have purchased eggs from neighbor ranches who do raise chickens… and all I can say is that when chickens are ‘happy” like this farmer neighbor’s chickens are, is their eggs are so yummy… you can’t even call a store egg an egg anymore, when compared to a REAL family farm-raised chicken…. where the chickens are treated as pets and allowed to roam freely, eating a variety of natural foods. Just looking at a happy chicken’s eggs you can tell the difference immediately…. until I began purchasing from this neighbor/farmer, I never knew eggs yolks could be so golden! And delicious :) What a beautiful farm you and Jonah have, Victoria! Thanks for sharing!!!


Victoria Gazeley October 10, 2011 at 8:28 am

Thanks so much, Susan – and yes, those eggs ARE yummy!  Our chickens are just starting to lay, but of course now the days are getting shorter, so we won’t get many for awhile.  Thanks so much for visiting!  :)


Elvie Look October 10, 2011 at 8:02 pm

Here Here Victoria! I grew up beside a chicken factory of over 12,000 chickens in small cages. It was disgustingly cruel and they likely have more now. Love your message and it sounds so interesting, makes me want to get some chickens!


Anonymous October 10, 2011 at 9:24 pm

Wow…who knew it took so much to get those amazing fresh eggs! Makes me appreciate them all the more! Thanks Victoria!:)


Victoria Gazeley October 11, 2011 at 6:32 pm

Thanks so much, Rachelle!


Victoria Gazeley October 11, 2011 at 6:33 pm

So happy you’re finding the posts useful, Charlotte. It’s definitely something wonderful to dream about and plan – and live! As for the photos, I believe most of them are in the various Facebook albums – I need to upload some updated pics…


Jennifer Bennett October 11, 2011 at 10:09 pm

Love it Victoria!  I agree-happy animals are better for all of us in the long run!  I just love what you are doing! 


Victoria Gazeley October 13, 2011 at 2:16 pm

Thanks so much, Jennifer. Definitely never a dull moment! 😉


Amy Morton October 13, 2011 at 7:47 am

You are so right! I agree 100%! My Buff Orpingtons roam free in the back yard and only in the coop/run at night or when I run errands. They are 8 months old and have been laying since 6 months and are laying machines. I get one egg per hen almost every day. They are amazing animals and I will never eat a store bought egg again! Not only great tasting, healthy eggs but they can eat a lot of bugs! The eggs are also awesome for baking they provide increased lift in all baked goods. Light fluffy and very yummy!  Love your articles!


Victoria Gazeley October 13, 2011 at 2:14 pm

I so agree… :) Thanks so much for stopping by.


Aaronimusler October 13, 2011 at 1:01 pm

i would want to add that at least at our house,Weve had a back yard flock since 2006, our chicken also require a little human attention, from singing, to chicken noises to actually hugs and affection from my 3 back yard tenders, ages 4,6 and 8…the gurls as they are affectionately known require what we do, decent forage, something to do, someone to do it with and a well timed hug, we all belong to each other…


Victoria Gazeley October 13, 2011 at 2:14 pm

I was going to tackle that on in Part 2, but you’ve given me a great reminder. Thanks so much… That’s so, so true – my son spends a tonne of time with them, and I spend as much as I can… they’re definitely warming up to me… 😉


Stacey Weldon John Polk January 11, 2012 at 10:12 am

We have flipped our old lifestyle upside down over the past year! We began homeschooling. This gave me the time to “REALLY” cook more & that has opened my eyes to what we are feeding our kiddos! My daughter is ADHD and processed foods, food additives & coloring all work against her!
 So, now we are rebels with a cause! I plan to start a garden this year. I have also mentioned because we are cooking a breakfast & baking something EVERY DAY we go though a lot of eggs around this place that we should get some chickens! Wish I had a picture of my hubby’s face when I said that! Then something dang near miraculous happened. HUBBY ASK HOW WE RAISE CHICKENS! I am an eager learner here & hope to soak up all your information. I am thrilled you share your passion with us! This was the way of life many years ago & now everyone looks at you like you have a 3rd eye when you talk about living like this! 


Victoria Gazeley January 14, 2012 at 7:20 pm

I’m so thrilled to meet you here!! :) As for people looking at you like you have a third eye, you won’t find that here… we’re kindred spirits! Look forward to hearing more about your journey.


Elizabeth April 2, 2012 at 9:08 am

Thanks for your thoughts victoria. I too just read Paul wheatons article and it gave me a great deal of perspective…I’m wondering how to implement some of his principles in a tiny back yard that is currently all garden (no grass). I have three new chicks, nine weeks old, that I’ve just moved into a coop. I’m trying to think how I could design mini paddocks and a container grown greens system for them. I have learned a lot from a new book on gardening with chickens from timber press in terms of creating garden spaces that can withstand chicken foraging and will be using some of those ideas too. I wonder if you have any thoughts on this for the urban keeper or have seen any useful responses to wheatons article that deal with implementing his systems in a small backyard.


Victoria Gazeley April 2, 2012 at 10:53 am

Ah, the million dollar question! I still haven’t figure out how to do it here with all the predators we have… :( I am, however, going to do more research so I can figure it out. I’m intrigued by the book you referenced, as I’m in the process of doing just that – trying to design my plantings so the chicken won’t massacre everything if we do decide to continue letting them free range while we’re out in the yard. I’m still trying to wrap my head around it, but if I figure something out, I’ll be sure to let everyone know! :)


Rebecca October 14, 2012 at 4:26 am

Have you tried sprouting for them? And after your garden is “done” for the season, you could turn them loose in there and let them scratch and fertilize for you.


Victoria Gazeley October 26, 2012 at 10:04 am

I haven’t, but have thought about it. Great idea… :)


Rebecca October 14, 2012 at 4:23 am

One way of keeping chickens is missed by most articles is pastured birds. We have our 31 birds on about a 1/4 of an acre. Fully fenced (predator protection) with a fixed coop. Plenty of grass, sunlight, exercise, bugs, greens, and mice! We think the best of both worlds. They don’t poop on our porch but they have enough space so they are not standing in their own – yuck. Works great for us and our chickens.
Great article! I love the links. Always learn so much from you. I really appreciate the work that you put into your site and FB.


Victoria Gazeley October 26, 2012 at 10:05 am

Thanks Rebecca – this is my ideal, but we’re not quite there yet. Trying to balance predator protection with ease of management with our hilly terrain… haven’t quite found the solution yet! :)


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