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Health Hack #32 - The Allure of Raising Chickens at Home

Knowing what this week’s article would be focused on already, I was out this morning walking my dog when a neighbor flagged me while he was driving by. He notified me that from his home office view each of the last few mornings, he’d noted a healthy-sized fox inspecting his rear property line. Uncoincidentally, our backyards back up to one another's, and we have a flock of chickens that reside at our rear property line.

To riff off of last week’s starting point (link here) which began with a question I was being asked frequently (“What’s that thing on your arm?”), my neighbor provided the perfect intro for this week’s article. After shifting gears away from the fox subject, he asked: “So why do you have chickens? Is it for the eggs?”

Why I Raise Chickens

It's a misnomer that many homeowners decide to raise chickens for the eggs. Between the front loaded cost of purchasing or building a coop, the toil and time spent keeping their area clean, and the cost of keeping them fed, odds are that with less than 10 chickens, it would be more economical to simply buy eggs and have no chickens. Egg quality is certainly improved (or can be, depending on your applied diet approach) if that’s your thing, and traceability concerns for your eggs’ origins vanish as well. But unless you have a large quantity of hens and a huge plot of earth on which they can freely graze (and eat off the land, without having to supplement much with purchased feed), you’re easily paying more than $5 per dozen for quite a long time. We must remember that our time has value, so even if we spend as little as one hour per week tending to the flock, then there’s an opportunity cost that we’ve lost which could have been equivalent to working one hour at our jobs, and earning money for doing so.

For me personally, the notion of farming has always been very alluring. According to my parents, as a child I never wanted to come inside. Though to some the idea of housing birds in one’s backyard may sound gross and annoying, it always struck me as enticing. It was the meeting of a few worlds - I do love food, and I especially love eggs. I also love nature and am always eager to find excuses to be outside. I’ve also spent plenty of time daydreaming about having a farm someday. This was largely the impetus for pulling the trigger three years ago. But there were a few key revelations that would follow which I’m only able to write about now, in retrospect. It’s these notions that I hope current chicken owners can resonate with, and that I hope my neighbor’s of the world are able to appreciate and understand, quite possibly for the first time.

The Circle of (Food) Life

The Circle of (Food) Life. This is a term that comes to mind when I process the interconnectedness at play between the chickens we raise, the food my household consumes, and the eggs that our flock produces.

A city in Belgium enacted a chicken initiative not too long ago, where the government offered its residents 3 chickens per household. 2,000 families opted in, and 6,000 chickens were distributed throughout the city. The following month, the local landfill saw a 100,000 pound reduction in food-related waste. One hundred thousand pounds in one month!

The environmental impact of raising chickens wasn’t intuitive to me three years ago. But it became apparent over time, and it’s never been more pronounced than over these past few months, where my wife and I have been cooking more than ever before, during quarantine.

Whether it’s broccoli we’re cutting, carrots we’re shaving, watermelon we’re scooping, or strawberries we’re slicing, there’s almost always “waste” accumulated while we cook with or even snack on real foods. There have been no entities more grateful for our chicken venture than our garbage disposal and trash can. Few foods are off limits for chickens, particularly real foods. All of our fibrous veggie stalks (think broccoli and cauliflower), our leaves and stems (think brussels sprouts and kale stems), and our fruit scraps (think watermelon shells and strawberry stems) get hurled into the coop, and the ensuing frenzy has 10 elated hens gobbling everything up within seconds. Forgot about that lettuce in the bottom refrigerator drawer, and it’s already started to turn south before you get around to using it? Chicken biology has an entirely different framework when it comes to what’s spoiled and what isn’t, and slightly wilted greens are just as delectable and nutritious as fresh ones for our hens.

The beauty here lies in what the hens then do with those nutrients. In addition to making them healthier and more vibrant, they’re able to transfer those qualities to their eggs. If you’ve ever eaten a true farm fresh egg, you’ll notice a distinct difference in the color of the yolk. Fresher eggs from hens consuming a more natural diet will assume a more neon orange color, as opposed to a pale yellow yolk that will often be found with more conventional egg varieties. Carotenoids (a potent antioxidant) are responsible for this pigment change, and they’re only found in select fruits and vegetables. There are no artificial color additives permitted in chicken feeds, so a brighter yolk is directly correlated to a brighter diet. Carotenoid rich foods such as carrots, kale, and sweet potatoes help strengthen our immune function and play more niche roles such as improved eye health. When these carotenoids are transferred to the yolks, we’re able to acquire these micronutrients in more abundance, often via feeding our flock what would otherwise be discarded remnants of raw foods.

On the flip side of the same coin, chickens loooooove leftovers. If a cooked meal is unfinished and the odds of polishing off the remaining scraps later in the week are slim, then there’s little need to throw anything away. Our trash is their treasure. Not only that, they then pay us back with some treasure of our own, in the form of beautifully built, highly nutritious eggs. The Circle of (Food) Life.

Your Birds Have Names???

Some do, some don’t. Truth is, they ultimately take on roles as pets, should they hang around long enough. A pecking order is a very real thing, and there is a clear queen of our flock, who calls all of the shots, and has first dibs on any food scraps we toss their way. Some are super skittish around humans, while others are willingly pet and eager to eat from one’s hand.

When you see the work that they do, and the seemingly magical way they’re tied to the rhythms of the earth, there’s a level of respect and appreciation for them which transcends the idea that they’re these two-legged egg factories. From sunup to sundown, they scratch and claw the earth, seeking out insects, seeds, weeds, and anything else that they can consume. Every so often they’ll lounge a bit, taking a breather from their workday. “Roosting” as it’s called, which they prefer doing from an elevated position when outside their coop. Suddenly I’ve stopped taking thunderstorms for granted. When a large broken limb falls somewhere in the yard it can easily provide an awesome new perch for the flock to roost on. To all non-chicken owners - have you ever looked at a broken branch with awe and excitement? I didn’t used to either.

I use the term sunup to sundown quite literally. As someone who for many years poo-pooed the notion that length and timing of sleep truly mattered (here is a litany of reasons explaining why I changed my mind: Sleep pt. 1, Sleep pt. 2), I took note of their circadian rhythm as soon as I first got them. It was fascinating to observe a species without access to all of these modern electronics and other circadian rhythm disruptors. Left to their own devices, they abide by a very simple principle. They rise as the sun rises, and they settle down as the sun sets. There is no denying that they’re the furthest thing from intelligent, but they managed to illuminate for me one of the most important lessons in wellness that I’ve ever gleaned. Maybe there is a biological rhythm at play which prods me towards compliance, I just need to do a better job of succumbing to it.

A Few Final Tidbits for Those Considering Starting a Flock

1. You do not need a rooster to start up an egg producing flock. Provided you purchase hens known as egg layers, a rooster is not needed. This is welcome news for any who live in close proximity to their neighbors, as roosters can be quite loud. Roosters will allow for insemination of eggs should you wish to grow new chicks, however laying hens will produce eggs regardless of a rooster’s presence. The eggs just simply aren’t inseminated.

2. Not all municipalities allow for backyard chickens. You’ll need to check with your local municipality, and you’ll likely need to file a permit even if they are permitted.

3. It’s not as rosy as I’ve made it out to sound. Cleaning a coop is foul, and predators are very real. In the early going we continued to learn and improve barricades against foxes and raccoons, whilst doing our best to preserve the free ranging capabilities of the flock. And once we seemingly safeguarded against land predators with a fair amount of success, along came the hawks. There are instances not meant for the faint of heart.

As always, send us an email should you wish to engage in a lengthier dialogue regarding this article or any prior ones. And the next time you happen upon a large, broken limb, hopefully you see it in a different light than before.