How to Raise Poultry

How to Raise Poultry (How to Raise...)One of the great tragedies of modern factory farming is the loss of biodiversity in our livestock. Robust, diverse genetics have been sacrificed in the name of cheap and abundant, but low quality food. To use a poultry metaphor, we’re putting all our eggs in one genetic basket, with the consequence being that our whole agricultural system feels like a ticking time bomb. We’ve seen how these short sighted practices have decimated commercial beekeeping in recent years and I fear we may see a similar disaster with our poultry soon. Author Christine Heinrichs, through her books, blog, and work for the Society for Preservation of Poultry Antiquities is countering these trends which is why I was delighted to get a copy of her latest book How to Raise Poultry.

How to Raise Poultry covers our familiar feathered friends, chickens, ducks and turkeys but also details the history and husbandry of everything from swans to emus. While I may never keep ostriches, it certainly was entertaining to read about them (don’t mess with an angry one and get yourself a very tall fence!).

Throughout the book Heinrichs stresses the importance of preserving our agricultural heritage through keeping rare breeds and out of favor fowl. Paradoxically I can assure that there will be more geese by eating one. As Frank Bob Reese, a farmer Heinrichs quotes in the book puts it, “The best way to save the old-time poultry is to return them to our dining tables.”

The lavishly illustrated How to Raise Poultry will get you thinking about where your food comes from and what we’ve lost by our over-reliance on just a few varieties of poultry such as the Cornish Cross meat chicken. Hopefully it will inspire hobbyists and farmers alike to bring back the amazing diversity and beauty of thousands of years of living with domesticated birds.

Keeping Chickens by Ashley English

Homemade Living: Keeping Chickens with Ashley English: All You Need to Know to Care for a Happy, Healthy Flock It’s about time someone got around to writing this book. The people have been demanding a concise, clearly illustrated guide to raising chickens for eggs in urban and suburban situations and Ashley English has delivered the goods with Keeping Chickens All You Need to Know to Care for a Happy, Healthy Flock. You may remember Ashley from our first, and so far only, Homegrown Evolution podcast. Keeping Chickens covers breeds, how to get chickens, how to build a coop, hatching eggs, feeding and more. There’s also a few really nice recipes for what to do with all those eggs including an omelet recipe I’ve been using since I got the review copy. You can see that recipe and a few sample pages on Ashley’s website Small Measure. Good straightforward advice here, all delivered with really nice photos. If you’re thinking of starting a backyard flock I’d pick up this handy book. Now go out and build that coop!

Bantam Returns

Homegrown Neighbor here:

I’ve been busy in the garden and letting the neighbors focus on their book, so I haven’t been blogging in a while. But today something very special happened that I have to share with you, dear readers.
My bantam chicken, Debbie, the lighter colored chicken in the photo, disappeared last week. She simply didn’t come in at chicken bed time. This is very unusual. The chickens usually all line up and go into the coop at night in a very orderly fashion. But last week, little Debbie didn’t come home to the coop. I assumed a hawk ate her or that she jumped the fence and was eaten by one of the many dogs in the neighborhood.

It was sad, but I was at least relieved that I didn’t have to deal with any bloody remains- one of my worst fears with the chickens. Every night this week when I put the chickens in I rather morosely counted six, instead of the previous seven. But I moved on, assuming Debbie was gone for good, being digested in some hawk’s belly.

Then, just in time for an Easter surprise, Debbie came back to me. I went over to my parent’s house for Easter dinner. I returned home to find a note on my door. I was hoping it wasn’t an angry note from a neighbor complaining about my chickens or messy yard. I was elated to see that the note was from a neighbor saying he had a tiny chicken sitting at home watching TV with him and he wondered if she belonged to me. I immediately called him and he brought the bantie back home. Apparently he was weeding in the yard this afternoon and she popped out of the bushes. I’m guessing she made a nest in a wild corner of their yard and was brooding until he disturbed her.

So I am happy to say that the chicken is back home. And of course my neighbor who found her got some eggs for so kindly bringing her back. A happy Easter gift for both of us.

Chicken Coop Architecture


I have a guest post over on re-nest.com on how to build a chicken coop:

“Architect meet your client: the chicken. You’re about to become a coop buildin’ Frank Gehry. Keeping chickens is mostly about figuring out their housing arrangement. The rest is easy—chickens are a lot less trouble than a dog. Now I wish I could offer a one-size-fits-all chicken coop plan, but living situations and climates vary. Instead, I’ll offer what the gifted architect Christopher Alexander calls a “pattern language,” a set of general guidelines you can use to get started building your coop.”

Read the rest here.

And a special thanks to David Kahn of Edendale Farm for the architect metaphor. Mrs. Homegrown was not happy that I used Gehry as an example (suggesting that he would build a flashy, twisty chicken coop out of titanium that would leak and get raided by raccoons). I just mentioned him because he’s the only architect most people can name. Come to think of it, most of the architects you can name are all kinda silly. A Rem Koolhaas coop would probably look great in the CAD program but also get raided by raccoons. But I digress.

How to become the chicken coop Frank Gehry

Haven’t laid my hands on a copy yet, but it looks like author and publisher Llyod Kahn has another winner, in this case a painstaking reproduction of a turn of the century catalog The Gardeners’ and Poultry Keepers’ Guide & Illustrated Catalogue of Goods Manufactured & Supplied by W. Cooper Ltd. Kahn says, on his blog,

“It’s hard cover, linen-looking finish, foil stamped, printed on off-white paper — a book lovers’ book — the kind that us bibliophiles love to touch and thumb through (and feel secure in the knowledge that no stinkin’ ebook will replace the “hard” copy). Also, it’s useful: it gives homesteaders, gardeners, builders, and architects still-practical designs.”

I’ll note one detail I like in the chicken coop in the catalog above, the “dry run.” I included a small dry run space in my coop and the chickens really like it–a place for them to hide out when it rains.

Available at Shelter Online.

Urban Chicken Classes

Homegrown Neighbor here:

If you are in L.A. come check out my Intro to Urban Chickens class this Saturday at The Learning Garden in Venice. More info at our Chicken Enthusiasts site. The class is just $10 and if you have never been to The Learning Garden it is a real treat. It is one of my favorite gardens in our fair metropolis. The class is at 10:30 am and will be followed by a general meeting of local chicken enthusiasts.
If you aren’t local but want to learn about chickens there are of course many resources out there. And if you already have chickens maybe you can share your knowledge in your community. I know that I certainly wish I new more when I got started. But its live and learn.
Sadly, not all the chickens lived. But the hens helped me to meet my fellow urban homesteading neighbors…… and the rest is history.
The chickens helped us to create community in our neighborhood so now we are helping others to use poultry to promote neighborly public relations and local food.
In the photo above Peckerella and banties Lita and Debbie eat an over ripe persimmon. Okay, Peckerella got most of it, but the banties stood up for themselves and stole a few bites.

Coffee Chaff Chickens

A hen checks out her fluffy new digs: coffee chaff bedding
Image shamelessly stolen from Lyanda Haupt’s Tangled Nest blog

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Deep litter in the chicken coop is good for chicken health, general aesthetics and good neighbor relations. Chickens need to scratch, so giving them lots of stuff to scratch is kind. It also absorbs odor and protects stray eggs from breakage. Even better, their constant scratching combines their waste with the bedding material, creating useful compost over time.

We use straw in our coop and run (the outside parts) and wood shavings (animal bedding) inside the hen house. We use horse bedding inside the house instead of straw because we clean the inside of the house regularly–their overnight poo is quite concentrated– and it’s very easy to scoop up the poo when it’s mixed with fluffy wood shavings. It also smells better longer. Straw in the house is just sort of substandard.

However…the big however….them’s dead trees we’re shoveling into our hen house, and as we all know, trees don’t grow on trees.

But what’s a good alternative to shavings?

Yesterday, Lyanda Haupt, author of Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness, a beautifully written book about crows and the path of an urban naturalist, posted about an intriguing chicken bedding possibility: coffee chaff, a byproduct of coffee roasting. You should go read about it.

Maybe we all can’t access the chaff bounty of our local coffee roaster, but we should think more about upcycling and creative alternatives to business as usual. Depending on our region and location, we all probably have access to different sources of dried plant material fit for chickens. We just have to think outside the box.

One word of caution: whatever you experiment with shouldn’t be dusty. Hens are susceptible to respiratory infections, so sawdust and the like are not a good idea. When you purchase animal bedding look for the higher quality “dust free” variety.

Raccoon Proof Chicken Coop

Homegrown Neighbor here again:

Things aren’t always idyllic in the world of urban farming. Actually, they rarely are. There is literally a lot of blood, sweat and tears put into what we do.

I’m still recovering from a scare we had a few days ago. After two years of trying, the other night at 2:30 a.m. a raccoon managed to break into my chicken coop. My housemate and I were up there in our pajamas shrieking while the hens flapped and clucked wildly. The raccoon was racing about in the coop and as I ran up I could see feathers flying everywhere. I opened the coop and shouted at the raccoon to get out. Somehow, we got up there in time, because there was no visible carnage. One chicken lost a lot of feathers trying to escape, so it did look like quite a horrific mess. While my housemate held a flashlight, I picked up the frightened hens two by two and put them inside the house in my bathroom. But I couldn’t find Joan, one of my silkie bantams. It was dark and she was nowhere to be found.
I spent the rest of the wee hours drinking beer and reading, since the adrenaline rush and worry over the missing Joan wouldn’t let me get back to sleep.
Joan the silkie woke me up with a frantic clucking at sunrise. She had spent the night outside alone and was upset that the rest of her flock wasn’t there when she woke up. Bleary eyed, I put all the chickens back together outside and they had a joyous reunion. I was filled with joy as well. I feel very lucky that I had no casualties in this event. I know many others who haven’t been as fortunate with raccoons. I did loose two chicks to raccoons last year, but that’s another story.
Since Mr. Homegrown regularly rises at dawn anyway, I called the neighbors as soon as I made a cup of coffee. Have I mentioned how much I love my neighbors? Mr. Homegrown came over and helped me try to figure out how the ‘coon had gotten in. He suspected the roof. I had to go to work for a while so we regrouped again in the afternoon to do some shopping and alter the coop to make it more raccoon proof.
The coop now has a new roof, several new layers of hardware cloth where there had previously only been chicken wire, and lots of new nails. The previous roof was corrugated plastic with chicken wire beneath. Now there is chicken wire, plywood and corrugated plastic on top.
When we first built the coop, we used a staple gun and heavy duty staples. Mr. Homegrown explained to me that this metal is rather flimsy and can rust and fall apart. So we picked up some u shaped nails that I spent the afternoon hammering in. According to Mr. Homegrown, u nails (galvanized poultry staples) are the way to go. So now you know.
The hens have been sleeping safely and soundly for a few days now and thankfully so have I.

A Warning About Straw

Claude Monet used straw (or is that hay?) for art. We use straw to catch chicken droppings!

Straw is a very inexpensive and useful material for composting, mulching and animal bedding (we use it for all of these purposes). If you use it for mulch you’ll probably get some seeds that will germinate, but I’ve never found it to be a big problem in a small vegetable garden. I get my straw from the feed store, but you can often get it for free from yuppies on Craigslist who have bought it to give their parties the Hee Haw ambiance we enjoy 24/7 at the Homgrown Evolution compound. If you buy it from the feed store remember to ask for straw, not hay. Hay is green and a lot more expensive. You feed hay to your horses.

But one warning from my friend, permaculturalist David Kahn. It’s tempting to pick up bales that stores have used after Halloween, but make sure they weren’t treated with fire retardant. Fire retardant has some nasty chemicals in it you don’t want in your garden. When in doubt, just go to the feed store–straw it ain’t expensive!

Addendum 10/27/09: Reader Polyparadigm raised another potential issue with using straw in your garden or compost pile: halogenated pesticide/herbacide residues. Clopyralid is an example–while banned for use in lawns in many places it’s still allowed on hay and grain crops . All the more reason to grow your own mulch and carbon materials if you can–don’t throw out those fall leaves! Here’s what Polyparadigm says:

“I’m glad I read through to the end! I was thinking this would be a warning about clopyralid and its close cousins. Which bears some mention: Halogenated pesticides aren’t broken down by any but a few soil organisms.

Clopyralid and aminopyralid mimic the hormones in broad-leaf plants, causing them to grow un-evenly and die from wrong-facing, crinkled leaves and other symptoms. Grasses are un-affected, so fields of grain and lawns have been sprayed with this sort of chemical, as a cheap way of keeping broad-leaf competitors at bay for a few years.

These chemicals have a half-life of 11 months in hot compost, and are often applied at such high rates that certain plants won’t grow in garden soil dressed with finished compost from a mix of sources, if one of those sources is a treated lawn or field.

A quick bioassay will test for this in straw: peas sprouting from soil mixed with that straw will look deformed if the field that grew the straw was treated. Browns of a similar texture from a source you know to be clean should probably be used for a control group.”

Chicken Coop Deconstructed

Homegrown Neighbor here. I volunteer at a local high school with an agricultural program. Remember that we are in the middle of Los Angeles and agriculture is largely a thing of the past here.

This school is one of the last public high schools in the area to have space devoted to an orchard, garden and farm. Right now it is home to a goat, a Vietnamese pot bellied pig, dozens of rabbits and two hens. As can be expected, the program hasn’t gotten the respect and resources it deserves in the last few years. Things look a little scraggly, the orchard is filled with weeds and most of the barns haven’t been touched in thirty years, now housing only spiders.

This program is special of course because it allows city kids to have access to green space, get outside and get close to a pot bellied pig- all rare experiences around here.

My current project is rehabbing the old chicken coop. I brought in my friend Justin, curator of the local arts space Echo Curio and a fellow master gardener to help. He has the building and construction skills that I lack.

This week the students took off all of the old plywood, chain link and chicken wire.

The students loved destroying the old structure. They got to use crowbars and hammers after a little safety lesson. Dust and spiderwebs flew everywhere. They practically had to be dragged back to the classroom at the end of the period because they were having so much fun they didn’t want to stop. The old chicken coop is now stripped down to the studs. As soon as we can get the supplies, we will start rebuilding. The students will get some real hands on construction lessons and get to build it themselves. Once the paint drys the school will be ready for a big flock of chickens. I think the coop could handle about 20.

Next we’ll rehab the big barn and get mini goats and dwarf sheep. This is going to be a jewel of an urban farm and a great educational space!