Grit Blogs > A Long Time Coming

Stories From Backyard Poultry Class

A photo of Shannon SaiaThis year we’re really stepping up the gardening effort; tilling up more yard, thinking things through a little more. We have some definite goals when it comes to preservation, particularly of tomato products. Producing some amount of one’s own food is never insignificant. But I think that you really cross the line from gardener to backyard homesteader when you start adding livestock.

We started talking about chickens last fall. Since then I’ve done some research. I’ve joined a Yahoo forum. I’ve traveled to a nearby county to meet a nice lady and her chickens. And this past weekend I took a class in keeping backyard poultry.

I will say that I don’t feel exactly the same way about this whole enterprise as I did this past fall. When we first talked about getting chickens we were thinking only about eggs, and I certainly didn’t think that I could ever actually eat chickens that lived here. But after learning a little more, and knowing that because of zoning restrictions I can only keep 2 adult birds on the property, it’s really important to me that the two chickens we have are going to lay.

Plus, my research indicates that a chicken’s natural life span could be up to 15 years. Fifteen years is a serious commitment. It’s big. It’s like getting two more dogs.

Um ... NO.

I’ll be honest with you, I don’t want to make a 15-year commitment to an individual chicken – not when they’re only going to lay eggs for me for four or five years, tops. So these days I’ve been giving some serious consideration to the stewpot.

The stewpot came up a few times in Backyard Poultry Class. It could just be my somewhat privileged suburban upbringing – in which pets were not only coddled but allowed to live out their natural lifespan into some degree of infirmity with no thought to their “usefulness” or lack thereof – but I initially had trouble wrapping my head around the whole stewpot thing. And given that the man who led the class is a self-proclaimed chicken lover, it was somewhat surprising that he could speak so casually about it.

“What do you do with an incorrigibly dominant rooster who is attacking your family?”


“What do you do with a bird that won’t lay?”


Quite frankly, I think that the best thing I got out of that class was the information that you can take your birds to farmers in the local Amish community and they will slaughter them for you – returning them to you plucked and bagged a few hours later – for a mere $3. That’s a good thing to know.

Other things I learned there were kind of off-the-wall. Like that you can earn a little money raising chickens and selling them live to people of certain nationalities that practice Voodoo.

OK. That’s a little weird. Quite frankly, it’s really disconcerting.

I first began to realize in the garden when I was squashing potato beetles and cross-striped cabbage moth larvae that a more self-sufficient lifestyle – becoming more connected with one’s food – requires a certain pragmatism about nature, and a real willingness to accept the end of life as inevitable. Another story we heard in class was about a kid who had never seen a whole chicken, who had never made the connection between chicken the animal and those crunchy golden nuggets from fast food restaurants (tenuous though that particular connection may be).

I don’t want to be that family. Though I’ll admit I’ve been hesitant to put those pieces together for my own daughter that the animals she sees on the farm where we go to pick up our meat will eventually be, well, our meat. I got a little uncomfortable watching the movie Babe, and reluctant to explain to her what was going on when Babe learns that the rest of his family has been eaten, that pigs have no purpose on the farm except to be eaten. But we did tell her. And like most things she took it all in stride. And the kid has seen enough chickens and seen enough raw, whole chickens and eaten enough chickens to where it’s very likely she already has these pieces of the picture intact. It’s just not something that we talk about. Perhaps because it doesn’t bother her. I guess that remains to be seen.

Anyway, here are the top ten things that I learned at Backyard Poultry class that I did not know.

  1. That chickens eat mice.
  2. That chickens are cannibals.
  3. That in the winter you don’t need to heat a coop. You keep a chicken warm from the inside out, by feeding it something that will keep its body warm. Our instructor told us to feed them corn in the winter.
  4. That if you find an intact, dead, limp chicken, a weasel killed it by biting it and draining its blood. (Lovely.)
  5. That black snakes are chicken predators. This could be a problem. We’ve been seeing black snakes here in the yard the past few years.
  6. That it’s really hard to boil a really fresh egg. They just never seem to get all the way hard-boiled. I’ve actually noticed this about the eggs I get from a local farm. I just thought it was me.
  7. That chickens only need a few square feet of coop space per bird.
  8. That you only need one nest per four birds, though they each need their own place to roost.
  9. That Joel Salatin collects old books about poultry. (Okay, that to me is just interesting gossip.)
  10. That I already knew more about chickens than I thought I did.

I will say that raising chicks is a little more than I want to get into right now, and fortunately I won’t have to do that. I have made a deal with a local lady to tack onto her upcoming chick order this spring. When the chicks arrive I am going to let her keep and brood them for me along with hers – visiting them from time to time – until they’re about 18 weeks old, point of lay. I will then pick them up, pay her what it cost to feed them, and bring them back here to their new coop. I am excited about this arrangement, because:

1. It’s a good time frame. It gives me until about June or so to get the coop ready, and since we’re under construction around here, and trying to focus on one thing at a time, summer chickens will work out about right.

2. I don’t want to bite off more than I can chew the first time out, and I was a little concerned about having to raise the chicks. But they will be raised around lots of people, and socialized with people and other chickens, and I’ll get to visit them while they’re growing up, get to know them, etc.

They’re going to be Golden Comets, from Mt. Healthy Hatchery, a “quiet bird” that lays brown eggs.

Sounds good to me.

More to come on this subject as we continue to debate where to coop, how to coop, managing some aspect of free-ranging while making sure the dogs leave them the heck alone, etc.