If you are ever in doubt about the risks and responsibilities undertaken on a regular basis by farmers, you will be convinced quickly by giving hobby farming a try. Every day we farmed we learned, and our admiration for real farmers grew. Chickens were among our best teachers.
Lesson 1. Chickens are really cute when they’re babies.
We would buy a flat of baby chicks from a local hatchery each spring to raise for meat. They came in flats of 25 or 50 day-old baby chicks, the ones you associate with Easter cards. One year I stopped by our son’s nursery school to show them to the kids on my way home from the hatchery. They picked them up and carried them around their classroom. One or two of the chicks had an unexpected opportunity to slide down the classroom slide. No harm done!
Lesson 2. Bigger is not necessarily better.
Baby chicks turn into unattractive adolescent chicks very quickly, sprouting uncute white pin feathers. The first year we raised chickens we were very impressed with how well they grew. We waited the requisite number of weeks recommended in our books, then added a few more weeks to let them get even bigger. This turned out to be misguided for two reasons: (1) they were so big they were way past tender (into the stewing domain), plus our small family didn’t need 25 5-8 pound chickens and (2) killing, defeathering, and eviscerating 25 chickens at the same time- especially when you’ve never done it before and have a baby and a 3-year old needing your attention – is a very bad idea. We ended up selling half our chickens “on the claw” – cheap – to our more experienced neighbours. The following years we changed tactics and dispatched them two at a time as soon as they got to be big enough.
OMG, the flavour! It’s like the difference between freshly picked corn-on-the-cob and canned corn.
Lesson 4. The expression “Running around like a chicken with its head cut off” conveys a powerful image once you’ve witnessed it.
During “harvesting season” our boys used to say, “Dad, let’s go chop down a chicken”; they never got tired of watching the poor headless chicken (briefly) running in crazy circles after the chop.
Lesson 5. It’s better to be at the top of the pecking order.
Chickens are really mean to each other. The smallest ones get pecked badly by the others.
Lesson 6. Fresh eggs are very different from store-bought eggs.
After a few years we started over-wintering a few of our hens for their eggs. OMG again. The difference in taste – and appearance – between fresh eggs and store-bought eggs is staggering. The yolks are large and a deep golden yellow; often we got eggs with double yolks. And the whites of our fresh eggs weren’t runny like our store-bought eggs. No comparison.
Lesson 7. Terminal crosses are called terminal for a reason.
One year we decided to keep one of our roosters in the hopes that he would fertilize the eggs and we could have our own baby chicks. This turned out to be a very interesting experiment. The rooster did indeed fertilize eggs and we did indeed get our own baby chicks. They were black and white chicks from all white parents, and they were severely mentally deficient, even for chickens. They didn’t have the instinct needed to take a drink and then pull their head back out of the water bowl. I’ll leave it to the reader to figure out the result of this inaction on their part. Clearly, these meat crosses were bred to be eaten, not to breed!
Lesson 8. Year-old roosters make for very tough meat!
Granted, you get a lot of meat from such a large bird, but it’s the stew pot or nothing.
Lesson 9. Chickens and dogs are not a good combination, hence free range should not be completely free.
One day I let the chickens out for some fun in the sun, eating grass and bugs in front of their barn enclosure. I went into the house to use the phone and from the window saw a dog, one of those country dogs that occasionally appears from nowhere, going after the chickens. By the time I got out to them, maybe three minutes in total, one dog had managed to dispatch 10 young chickens. The remaining chickens had more restrictions placed on their freedom after that.
Lesson 10. Chickens and rats are not a good combination.
One day I went into the chick enclosure in the barn to feed them, as usual. To my astonishment, out of 50 1-2 week old chicks, at least ten were missing. I immediately decided some teenage boys had taken them. Lord knows why I would think that – where the boys would have come from, or where they would have taken them, but what else could have happened to them? Our neighbour suggested a rat, but how could a rat take all those chicks. Impossible. Besides, what rats?! The next day I went back to feed the remaining chicks and another 10 were missing! And … a big rat was squeezing under a barn board on the other side of the enclosure as I came in. My toes retracted in my sandals! OMG. Our neighbour said that when they came for our baby pigs, he was moving!!
Ten of the lessons learned from our chickens; lots of risks, lots of responsibilities, and so many rewards. Obviously, the delicious and nutritious food is high on the list of rewards. But there is also something eminently satisfying and even peaceful about a few chickens clucking softly in their enclosure. We have been non-farmers for a few decades now and, although I remember a great many things with fondness, I don’t miss a lot. But if our backyard weren’t in a flood plain – and hence underwater for a significant period of time every year – we’d have been one of the first to submit our application to keep urban chickens. In a heartbeat.
Other lessons from farming: