Our First Season of Chickens
Isn’t it ironic that I was raised on an 80 acre farm in the heart of Amish and Mennonite country and yet, I never owned a chicken nor lived on the same property as chickens? My mother is deathly afraid of birds and that fear was passed on to both my sister and I. I don’t even remember a “why” but I have always thoroughly hated and been equally terrified of all feathered things. The chicken barn at the county fair? Wouldn’t get within 20 feet of it. I wanted NOTHING to do with birds. Nothing.
Meanwhile, my dear husband loves all animals, fowl included. He has been talking about having chickens since before we even married. I was not super enthused at the idea yet over the years, he broke me down. When we moved to the farm, we made a deal that he could get chickens so long as I never had to actively care for them or handle them. Within a week of moving in, we had 8 baby Rhode Island Red hens in a brooder in the basement and a brand new chicken coop built within the first month. My hubby is not one to wait around! True to our deal, he took care of them and I made my peace with it as I looked forward to fresh eggs.
Once those hens were big enough to move from the brooder to the coop, he started talking about meat chickens. I wasn’t excited at first… more chickens is never something I thought I could be excited about. I tried to be open minded and heard my husband out. We discussed it at length- we knew we had the space because we could turn a small outdoor garden shed into an additional coop, we loved the idea of raising our own meat so we knew it was sustainably and humanly raised and the process fit into the farm-to-table, homestead lifestyle we were slowly falling in love with. Eventually, I agreed and he ordered some Cornish cross chicks.
Now when I agreed to meat chickens, I was thinking 5-10 so we could get our feet wet without being overwhelmed. My husband ordered 40. Yes you read that right. 40 chickens… on top of the 8 I already owned. He had good reason- Cornish cross chicks are notoriously delicate and die easily. Out of 40, it was unlikely they would all make it to maturity and into our freezer. So that’s how I went from no chickens in my life for 26 years to 48 in my backyard. For someone as chicken averse as I am, this was an exercise in mind over matter as I acclimated to that new reality. I will say, as time went on, I really did get used to having them around and I am much more comfortable with the feathered beasts now.
Why so many chickens?
Ah yes. That is an interesting question. My answer has shifted as our season with chickens has gone on. My answer when they first came home? Because my husband wanted them. Today, my answer is much more nuanced and layered. Starting with the laying hens, we want fresh eggs. In fact, our hens just started laying eggs in the last few days (December 2020) and being able to eat food produced 100% on our little farm is pretty dang cool. Further, laying hens seemed like a really simple place to start into “homesteading”. They are pretty straightforward to care for, the reward is pretty high (all the eggs!), they don’t take up a lot of space and for people who do not hate birds like me, they can actually be decent companion animals. Lastly, food you produce just plain tastes better in my opinion. Our hens are free range during the day, they have a pretty good life and they are laying really yummy eggs. Knowing exactly where the eggs I am eating came from and knowing the animals have a good life makes me feel so much better about my food.
Moving on to the meat chickens, it took a little while to wrap my head around this. Raising an animal to eat was not something I had experience with. I have always been a meat eater and I do prefer to buy my meat local from small scale farmers but I had always been able to keep some distance between the animal and the food. Raising the animal right on my own farm and knowing it was destined for my table was new and I was not sure about it. Now I know this is a sensitive topic. Many people do not believe in eating meat and I respect that life choice entirely. I choose to consume meat but I do make a conscious effort to make sure I am only consuming meat that was raised humanly, sustainably and reasonably- raising it ourselves was the simplest way to ensure that. That is my personal choice and I hope you can respect that as I respect your choice to avoid eating meat. Even still, I was not sure exactly how I would feel about raising animals to eat.
My lifelong aversion to birds eased this however- unlike cows, which I am obsessed with, I knew I would never become attached to the chickens. Our chickens do not have names, we do not handle them outside of their daily necessary care and it is very easy for me to keep my emotional distance from them. Don’t get me wrong, they are exceptionally well cared for with top of the line feed, enrichment toys and activities, lots of space to grow and move around and ample fresh air and water. They live their lives well and with a purpose. We treat them with kindness and gratitude knowing that they will be providing us a great service in feeding our family. We really love the fact that we know exactly what is going into our food, we know exactly how our food was raised and that it was humane from day one and we can feel really good about the process.
We did outsource the slaughter to a really wonderful local butcher shop who does things reasonably and humanely. Butchering our own chickens was just not a step we were mentally or emotionally prepared to take at this point in our lives. The butcher shop processed the chickens down to a full bird and we then spent a day breaking down the birds into breasts, tenderloins, wings, etc. as well as leaving many whole for yummy rotisserie style roast chickens. We have started to eat some of our farm raised chickens and they are so tender and food and I also feel very thankful for the fact that I know these animals lived a good life and I know exactly what I am eating because I raised it myself.
Would I do it again?
Yes. We are already planning for meat chickens round two as well as enjoying the eggs from our laying hens. A few nights ago I surprised my husband by asking if we could get more laying hen chicks next year that would have pretty colored eggs…. ya know, for the gram? Also because cooking breakfast is more fun with pastel eggs. Obviously. Next year, we will probably do at least the same 40 meat chickens or maybe a little bit more to be able to pass some meat along to our families. One of my favorite things about growing our on food is being able to pass the blessing of homegrown food along to the people we love.
So there you have it. The story of our first season with chickens but it is sure to not be our last. Am I ever going to love chickens and want to hold them? No. Have a made my peace with their much deserved place on our homestead? Yes. Now time to go have some HOMEGROWN scrambled eggs.