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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