By Josh Boyd
We are living in unique times at the current moment. Society, in general, has gravitated toward the notion of continual modernization. Many have moved on from their small farm upbringings, opting instead for a more urbanized approach to life. The notion that food will always await us upon our next trip to the grocery store has created a disconnect of sorts, between the self-sufficient lifestyle that was a necessity to most a half-century ago.
However, we now see a portion of society returning to different facets of rural life, opting to raise and grow their own food in a bid to be less reliant upon store-bought goods. In doing so, any prospect of a self-sustaining food source that requires only a minimal expenditure in time and money is worth exploring.
This is precisely why the backyard chicken flocks of old are making a notable comeback. Raising chickens is not overly difficult, nor does it have to be any more expensive than one allows it to be. Not to mention, the benefits of such an endeavor for the self-sufficient household are numerous.
Why Raise Chickens?
The majority of individuals who raise chickens in a rural or semi-rural setting do so for the same reasons that the bulk of farming families did so in years past. No more than fifty years ago, you would have been hard-pressed to find a property of five acres or more in farm country that did not have a chicken coop and 10-15 chickens.
This was in a time before many of the large-scale, production chicken houses that dot the landscape today, and most barnyard flock keepers were not raising their chickens for sale. Individuals during that period understood the value that chickens played as a dual-purpose, renewable resource.
Chickens offer two commodities to those attempting to live a more self-sufficient lifestyle. The first is that of egg production. The number of eggs that a given hen lays will vary by breed and several environmental factors. However, some of the best laying breeds can be counted upon to produce more than 250 eggs per year, with some approaching the 300-egg mark yearly.
The other of these two commodities is that of meat production. We are all well aware of the valued role chicken plays within our diets on a day to day basis. If an individual stopped to consider how much chicken they consume in a given week, most would find this amount to be quite substantial.
Just as some breeds naturally produce more eggs than others, certain breeds of chickens likewise yield more meat than their counterparts. By choosing a particular breed that is dual purpose, and notable for both attributes, you can supply your family with ample quantities of both commodities.
Some breeds that are known for their dual-purpose characteristics include Rhode Island Reds, Wyandottes, Plymouth Rocks, Australorps, and Orpingtons. Dual-purpose hens can be utilized for their laying ability until egg production begins to drop noticeably during year three and beyond. When a hen begins to produce less food, in the way of eggs, than they consume, they can be butchered for table fare.
Keeping an Endless Flock
Another wonderful attribute that presents value to the backyard flock owner is a flock’s ability to readily replenish, as older members are earmarked for consumption. As long as a rooster is present, the bulk of eggs produced will be fertilized. However, if a substantial number of hens are kept, more than one rooster might be necessary.
Some chicken breeds are more broody than others, meaning that they will be more likely to sit on a clutch of eggs during any given incubation period. If the particular breed that you are raising does tend to be broody, then a significant portion of your job will be done for you.
If your hens do not appear to be sitting on their eggs, you can intervene, and hatch out fertilized eggs with the use of a store-bought incubator. Incubators can be purchased for a wide variety of prices, depending upon their number of features and depth of control settings.
Before incubating an egg, it can be checked for viability using a specialized flashlight-like device, in a process known as candling. This process checks for signs of fertilization. Once the viability of an egg has been established, it can be placed inside an incubator, where the embryo inside can continue to develop.
In any event, after an initial purchase of chickens is made, your flock can continue to sustain itself. This creates a multi-faceted food source that requires few if any additional purchases. Some flock owners prefer to switch roosters out periodically, but this comes at a minimal expense, as roosters of most breeds can commonly be purchased for no more than a few dollars each.
Keeping Disease at Bay
One of the biggest concerns for anyone who raises chickens is keeping disease at bay. While adaptable, chickens are not always the most hearty of animals. A bout of illness can sweep through a flock in rapid succession, leading to substantial dead lost.
The biggest key to keeping your chickens healthy is minimizing the chance of disease introduction to your flock. The best approach to this is to prevent the mixing of chickens from outside sources. While it can be tempting to buy out another individual’s flock for a novel price if they decide to move on from their endeavor, the chance of spreading disease to your otherwise healthy flock can be great.
It is considered best practice to purchase chickens only from hatcheries that regularly test their flocks for illness. Even so, isolating newly purchased chickens away from the rest of your flock, in order to give any underlying illness time to show itself, is highly recommended.
When seeking to minimize the potential of disease, it is also valuable to provide plenty of room within any coop or run that is to be used, for the number of chickens which you own. Chickens that are confined in close quarters for extended periods of time typically present a higher rate of disease than those who range more extensively.
Most sources specify 2-3 square feet per chicken to be adequate within a coop, while providing a minimum of 8-10 square feet per chicken in a yard or run. These distances not only minimize disease spread and parasite transmission but also prevent pecking and other flock behavioral issues as well.
The Gift That Keeps on Giving
The raising of chickens can play a valuable role in the preservation of a self-sufficient lifestyle. Whether homesteading or just attempting to minimize your weekly grocery bill, keeping and maintaining a well-managed backyard flock can be rewarding on multiple fronts. By structuring your flock in an efficient manner, and keeping disease at bay, you will soon find yourself with a bountiful supply of fresh meat and eggs to show for your efforts.