Good Reasons Not to Raise Chickens
“Most philosophers must have been raised on chicken farms. One hopes for so much from a chicken and is so dreadfully disillusioned...."
Seriously though, if you’re interested in just providing you and your family with cheap, fresh eggs and attempting to live closer to the source of your food: Kudos. And I always applaud those who try something new. I just think you ought to know what you’re getting into. All the other articles about raising chickens you’ll read will tell you how easy, nay even bucolically glamorous, it is to keep chickens, how you will be sojourning with the ‘Peaceable Kingdom’, at one with the harmony and wisdom of nature. So, in the interest of full disclosure I’m going to play the Devil’s Advocate for awhile and paint a more realistic picture of what raising chickens is all about.
As far as my own qualifications regarding raising Gallus domesticus?
I began raising chickens for meat and eggs for my family in 1975, starting with 12 hens. I eventually used to keep a flock of 70 to sell organic eggs at farmers’ markets. Until last year I aimed to have 60 birds, mostly all roosters, in the freezer by the end of each November for our own use as well. I am now retired and down to 4 hens, and they will be the last I’ll raise, God willing. I will kill and eat them with relish when their time comes, knowing I will never have to do this again in this incarnation. That said, here goes:
The Bad Points
1. While some species of bird are amazingly intelligent, chickens are incredibly stupid; they are an appalling mixture of imbecility and willfulness in achieving their ends. Both qualities make cooperation with you out of the question. They will not go into their coop when you want them to; you’ll either have to chase them in, or wait till they think its dark enough for them to retire. And there is nothing as exasperating as chasing chickens. You’ve heard of the expression “as impossible to do as herding cats”? Try herding chickens.
You've heard of "Chicken-brained"? There's a reason for that expression.
Provide them with a spacious pen, no matter how large, and they will still search out any way to escape their confinement, even knowing the dire consequences you will bestow upon them. To get down from their roost they will launch themselves like missiles, flapping uselessly, apparently not even aiming for the doorway, but instead crashing headlong into the windows and door frame, panicking the others already on the ground and trying to recover their wits after their own debacles.
Don’t let growing chicks congregate in a corner at night, which they insist on doing. They will suffocate and trample the ones up against the walls and then settle down for the night on the corpses. Hang a light for heat near the center of the nursery and they’ll all crowd under that, but no one will die.
And as for laying eggs?
Provide them with a dozen nest boxes to lay in, and 6 of them will try and cram into one box at the same time, while all the others line up outside that one box desperately caterwauling for their turn like kids with the runs lined up outside a Porta-John. Meanwhile all the other perfectly good boxes go unused. Or if you let them free range, they’ll lay their eggs in hidden places here and there and everywhere. And after a dozen eggs are squirreled away, they’ll forget where they laid them and start another clutch elsewhere to be abandoned just as breezily.
Let’s be absolutely clear about this: You have gotten chickens because you are either intending to eat them or their unborn offspring. Be sure you and your family can handle that idea. Many people can’t; they love to eat eggs and meat, but don’t really want to know how it got on their plates. The dark meat is strong tasting and not to most people’s taste, but it makes up more than half the meat; unless you raise the chicken/Cornish game hen crosses, and then you’ll have a lot of white meat, but little flavor and no eggs. After you slaughter, you’ve got offal to deal with, which draws flies (maggots) and vermin.
Chickens are not pets.
Chickens will not love you, nor do they love each other; the capacity does not exist in them. If you were to die in their coop or yard they’d peck your eyes out within the hour. Do not think you can befriend a chicken, and for God’s sake don’t let your kids pick them up and hug them; unless you enjoy cleaning reeking excrement off their clothes. Yes, some mother hens are protective of their own chicks, but it is not love, and almost all hens have had that maternal instinct bred out of them. They’d just as soon eat a chick as look at it. Yes, you can train chickens to come and take food from your fingers easily. You can do that with a flatworm too. Try to train them not to shit on your shoes and see how successful you are. If it is in the chicken’s interest or whim; it will do it. If it isn’t; forget it. Like all livestock they require some one to attend to their needs on a daily basis. Did you catch that? Daily basis. There are no kennels to board your chickens in if you want to take off on vacation, or a weekend, or for the day.
Once you begin getting eggs, you’ll get one a day from each hen for the most part.
That sounds like a good thing, doesn’t it? It can be too much of a good thing. Before you order your chicks you’d better tally up how many eggs your family will eat. If you get 12 hens you’re getting a dozen eggs a week. That’s a lot of eggs. That takes up a lot of space in the refrigerator. That’s a lot of eggs to clean daily. If you think you can sell the surplus, that’s what everyone else getting chicks is thinking too. There’s just not that much of a call out there for fresh eggs when the stores carry lots of cheap eggs.
Speaking of ordering chicks; unless you want meat you’d better order just pullets, not a “straight run”, which is usually 50/50 hens and cocks. Even then, the sorting of chicks is not fail-safe and you may wind up with a few roosters anyway.
The ‘Pecking Order’ is real, incredibly brutal, and cannot be avoided.
If you think schoolyard bullying is unmerciful, wait till you get a good look at the ‘Pecking Order”. Nothing more clearly shows the appalling nature of chicken society, and it is hard to not see it as a metaphor for human society as well. Chickens do not cooperate with each other. It is alien to their nature: They compete against each other for everything. It’s “every chicken for itself and the Devil take the hindermost”. Like humans, not all chickens are born equal. There will be ones that are bigger and bolder than the rest; these become the dominant members of the flock, and they use and reinforce their status ruthlessly and at every opportunity.
And there will be others that are born smaller and weaker, or crippled in some way.
These are Nature’s victims. From birth, all day long the flock is a constant brawl as each seeks to establish how tough it is. All who are weaker than the most dominant are harassed by that one. The next most dominant harasses all the ones below it, the next most all those below it, etc., etc., until you get to the one who is the weakest. That poor creature’s life is a living hell. No matter where it goes, sharp beaks are sunk into it, its feathers are pulled out, its wounds attacked and enlarged, it cannot get a mouthful of feed without being chased away, which only makes it grow more slowly, increasing its vulnerability.
Nature does not equal "Mercy".
Depending on the innate spirit of the unfortunate bird at the bottom, it may say “Life is a mistake. Let me die.”, and give up the ghost quickly. Or if it is feisty; it will fight on, trying desperately to get at some food, becoming more and more mentally deranged and irreparably damaged in the process. They live a short, brutish, nasty existence. Hobbes would feel vindicated. Even if you remove the traumatized victim, isolate it and try to heal it with solitude and care, it will not respond. It has been imprinted with a view of the world that cannot be altered: Its fate is sealed. They never reach maturity.
Chickens defecate all the time and on everything.
Forgive the bluntness, but this point is not delicate. Then again, neither is raising chickens. They foul on everything. Every few moments a dropping is extruded, wherever they are; eating, sleeping, walking, laying an egg, anywhere. You will be cleaning it off their eggs daily, as their excretory and reproductive systems share a common exit. If you don’t garden you’re going to have to find some other way to get rid of the stuff because it’s going to keep coming. They will defecate in their water supply from day one on. You can try and prevent it by using covered waterers, but if they can get their beaks into it to get water they can also somehow get their excrement in there too: Count on it. If you let them “free range” around your house, you are going to be stepping in it or sitting on it.
Chickens are wasteful as hell of feed, and picky. But when it is a dainty they like, such as meat scraps from the kitchen, they will unerringly home in on it. We always kept a “Chicken Pot”, a stainless steel handless pot with a cover, on the counter in the kitchen for scraps of vegetables, peelings, and meat scraps, etc for the chickens. Each morning it was given to them. If there were any scraps of fat or meat mixed in there, they knew it when the scraps were in mid-air, and were ready to fight to the death over them before they even hit the ground.
They are not cost-conscious.
If you provide your hens with a mash in the traditional trough, they will sort through it and eat only the bits they like. Usually it is the roasted ground soy that is left behind and they’ll refuse to eat it unless you starve them into it. They vigorously thrash the feed with their beaks in a back and forth sideways sweep, looking for their morsels, spraying the feed onto the floor where it will be ignored as unfit for their consumption. They also delight in climbing on top of their feed and using their trusty feet to kick the feed out while examining it for treasures.
Enforcing Manners on Their Eating.
At the end of each season while changing out the coop litter, I shoveled out 50 pounds of wasted feed thrown out of the feeder, (and at the current prices, that “ain’t chicken feed”), until I designed one to lessen their access. It is a simple feeder based off a traditional Chinese one. (Photo) It’s a V-shaped trough with vertical slats every 2 inches apart. That gives them access, but prevents them from engaging in their proclivity for waste.
The best strategy overall to prevent that expensive waste is to learn how much they eat all up in a day and only give them that much, and no more.
Chickens will eat whatever they can find or catch if they free range.
That includes animal carcasses in varying states of decay and the maggots, various insects, other birds’ eggs, meadow frogs, etc. I had a flock once that was particularly adept at eating field mice. They scoured the matted grasses in the meadow for them. Once they flushed one, it was chased to ground with hard pecks to the back of the head. When it stopped moving, it was swallowed whole in a couple of gulps. Often a chicken would wander about for hours with the short tail of the vole dangling from the corner of its mouth.
And if you collapsed dead in their reach they will eat your eyes out. These are animals, like any other animal; for them food is food.
As far as feed goes, the non-organic commercial feed companies all use GMO corn and soybeans which Chickens do not find palatable. In 2012 I did an experiment: I tried feeding my flock simply non-organic cracked corn. I always used to give them only organic cracked corn. And the birds loved even the non-organic corn back in the 80’s. But by 2012, it was no longer the same.) The chickens would not eat the corn at all after one or two days, despite being obviously hungry as hell. I then switched back over to organic corn. It took a few days for the birds to realize this corn would not hurt them, but once they did, they devoured it as usual.
The non-organic ‘Mash’ (what a combination of ground feed ingredients is referred to) relies on other ingredients that create an insatiable hunger in the birds; it makes them frantic to find something to eat, anything to eat, so they’ll even eat that feed with the GMO grains.
Despite the admittedly higher cost, I have always fed my flocks organic feed. With the advent of GMO corn and soybeans, if I couldn’t get organic feed, I would not have raised any chickens. I figure if chickens won’t eat the GMO feed; it must be really bad. And I intend to eat those eggs and eventually those birds. I have since heard of others having noticed the same thing about their chickens not wanting to eat GMO corn.
Around here, in the Lake George, NY area, there’s only one supplier of organic feeds and that’s Green Mountain Feeds out of Bethel, VT. (www.greenmountainfeeds.com). They’ve been doing it awhile now, and they’re good. I can highly recommend them. I just wish more retailers carried their product.
Dogs find chicken droppings to be the aesthetic equal of long dead, slimy animal remains to roll in. And it is just as hard to get out of their coats. The drop board (a platform usually set up under the roost to catch the overnight deposits) will need to be cleaned at least once a week, but it will still draw flies regardless. And it reeks until it’s dried up.
The ‘backwash’ of their mouths into their water renders their water supply foul and smelly in a day, requiring not only daily changing, but regular cleaning.
Not only people love to eat chickens.
Everything loves chickens and will move heaven and earth to get at them. Despite their appalling personal habits, chickens are indeed tasty to eat and their list of admirers consists of a who’s who of predators: Foxes, coyotes, raccoons, cats, mink, weasels, hawks, skunk, and opossums, just to start the list. Some of them instantly know a good thing when they smell it; others stumble upon your flock by accident. Regardless of how they get the word, once they do the siege begins: You are the defender of your investment of time and money from then on.
And don’t forget, once a predator feeds your chicken to its offspring and later teaches them where they’re found, you now have the start of a generational tradition among them. Don’t kid yourself, wildlife teaches their young. Most of what they know is learned, not instinct. If you “free range” your birds you may have even several years without any losses, depending on rural it is where you live, but eventually your secret will get out. More often than not the losses will begin immediately.
And chickens past the age of three months have about lost the ability to achieve airborne status. Mostly they flap to speed up their running, which gives them a frantic appearance, which seems to trigger the kill instinct in any dog nearby. Even using a coop and fenced in yard is no guarantee, but it does raise your chances somewhat over the long haul: As long as you remember to shut them in nightly.
Chickens are panicky.
They like to be scared, maybe because their life is dull and a little over-the-top theatrics makes their lives more exciting, I don’t know. But they deliberately over-react, day after day, to the same stimuli. Go into their coop to put feed in the feeder and the birds in the nest boxes will flip out with screeching panic, scrambling pell-mell for the exit, whacking their pin-heads on the door jamb in their terror of the one who feeds them: Day after day. Throw weeds over the fence for them to eat and you’d think a T-Rex had sprang out of the brush by on their terrified response: Day after day.
They are only cute for 7 days. Seven days. It takes about 6 months to start getting eggs, then every year from then on for about 2 months they stop laying to molt. And after the first season, each year the amount of eggs becomes less and less. Old hens often become egg eaters and devourers of chicks. They will live only 4 years, usually 3.
The Good Points
They only live 4 years, usually 3.
The eggs are cheaper than all but the lower cost eggs in stores, as well as far fresher and tastier, and much less likely to be contaminated with E-Coli or Salmonella.
You eventually get to eat the chickens, and the white meat is far better flavored than what you can buy at the stores. The soup stock you make from the bones is excellent.
They will eat up all your food scraps except for certain items that they will turn up their nose at. And if they get too much of the same scraps they will refuse to eat it and wait anxiously for something novel again.
Their manure makes a good compost ingredient, if you make compost and garden.
I’ll give the last word to Mr. Anderson’s advice regarding believing the other books and articles about raising chickens for profit:
“…It is a hopeful literature and declares that much may be done by simple ambitious people who own a few hens. Do not be led astray by it. It was not written for you. Go hunt for gold on the frozen hills of Alaska, put your faith in the honesty of a politician, believe if you will that the world is daily growing better and that good will triumph over evil, but do not read and believe the literature that is written concerning the hen. It was not written for you.”