The Animal Kingdom – chickens and eggs

For awhile, my dad was getting his eggs from a family up the road who were raising chickens. We took home a dozen once or twice. If you’ve never eaten a farm fresh egg, then you can’t begin to imagine the difference in taste/texture from a store-bought egg. I don’t really know how to describe it…the farm eggs just have more to them. The yokes are heartier, the whites actually taste like something.

Since then, I’ve entertained the idea of having some chickens of my own. Milwaukee recently passed an ordinance allowing urban farmers to raise up to four hens (no roosters) at a time, provided you apply for a permit and get permission from your neighbors. We certainly have the backyard for it!

Yet, I hesitate. Not because of the potential concerns that I’ll list below, but because, honestly, I am not a fan of the rampant irresponsibility I’m seeing amongst people like us – white, overly-ambitious punks who spend more time fantasizing about building a cute chicken coop than doing their research about the realities of raising chickens.

“I’ll be sustainable! I’ll have fresh, organic eggs! I’ll provide the chickens with a better lifestyle! I’ll have cruelty-free dairy! And if I’m REALLY lucky, I’ll someday have sweet little chicks!”

Here’s the deal, kids: the average chicken lays eggs for 2.5-3 years. After that, they don’t lay regularly. However…the average chicken’s lifespan can go up to 9 years, provided a predator doesn’t get them or they don’t acquire some disease. So, something has to be done with that chicken for the remaining six years of it’s life. You either keep it as a pet and provide it with free housing and food in exchange for really, well, nothing (except maybe help tilling the garden/eating insects), try to pawn it off to some poor soul on Craigslist by running an ad for “Six 3-year-old chickens, no longer laying regularly, free to a good home, NOT FOR KILLING PLEASE!”, or…or…you toughen up like a real farmer would do and look up some good chicken stew recipes.

Oh, and by the way, those sweet little chicks that might come along someday? Chances are, some of them will be males. Which aren’t allowed in the city. Rarely, some rural hobby farmer will be looking for a rooster to keep the flock in order, but most flocks only can handle one rooster, so this is kind of unusual. You will be responsible for your male chicks. Even organic, free-range chicken farmers have this dilemma. If you can’t give them away, chances are you will have to end their lives before they get too old.

The bottom line is: don’t get chickens if you aren’t willing to kill them. Seriously. You are not doing anyone – yourself, your neighbors, the food industry, even the chickens – a favor if you plow full-speed ahead into dropping a ton of money on a cute coop and a mini-flock without having a very mature understanding of the responsibilities associated with raising them. I’d recommend this article for more information on the subject.

Which brings me to the point of my whole rant: I hesitate to get chickens because I want to be able to say, for sure, that I could kill them myself when the time came. I don’t want to pawn it off on Jason. I want to commit to attending a class and learning how to do it. I want to commit to finding a slaughter facility (because we can’t slaughter them ourselves in Milwaukee) and taking the time out of my schedule to drive there, kill my chickens, and butcher them myself. I want to commit to using the meat – old egg layers are not at all like the broiler chickens you find in the store and therefore need special culinary care.

As of right now, I am about 75% committed to these realities. I’m getting there. I’d like to visit a few friends who are raising urban chickens and see how it plays out. I also think a good next step would be to attend said butchering class and get my hands dirty to see if I can actually handle it or if I’m setting myself up for a miserable cry-fest that may or may not also involve vomiting or dizziness from all of the blood.

Alright, now that I’ve stood up on my soapbox for too long, let me proceed with the facts:

Benefits:
Well, duh, eggs.

But also, chickens make great little mini-tillers in the garden. They pull weeds, eat insects, and turn up the soil. Their manure, once composted, is really good fertilizer.

I can also see chickens as being a really cool, fun experience for kids in the neighborhood. Obviously, I would be up front about it from day one – that someday I will kill these chickens and eat them – but during their time in our yard, I think it would be awesome to share the eggs and the entertainment.

Concerns:
Everything mentioned above. But also, I worry a lot about predators in our neighborhood. I worry about the responsibility of them. I worry about the diseases they can contract. I really worry about the stink, and the potential that it has to irk my neighbors. I would really like to be able to let them roam semi-free range, but I’m not totally a fan of the idea of them pooping all over and digging where they shouldn’t.

Cost/Set-up:
I definitely have to look more into the cost. I see layers going anywhere from $10-$15 on Craigslist, and so four of them would cost us around $40-$60. There’s also the equipment, including a coop. Again, I think we could potentially build an awesome coop that would serve it’s purpose well, but even building your own stuff costs some money.

Feed is another cost. As with the rabbits, I’d like to supplement their diets with most scraps and produce and avoid buying pellets as much as possible. I know that it might be inevitable, but the more I can reduce pellets, the better, so I’ve read.

Breeds:
Rhode Island Reds, , and Ameraucanas top my list. I allow myself the luxury of saying that I would really get a kick out of having a basketful of pretty, pastel eggs. That’s about as sentimental as I get about it. If I start thinking of any of them as being “handsome” or “pretty”, it impacts my ability to see them as future stew meat.

Despite my general pessimistic tone about the subject, raising chickens is something that I do sincerely want to try at some point in my life. I don’t know if they would be a permanent fixture in my yard, but I do think it would be worthwhile to have at least one flock and go through the whole process with them.

To leave you with something humorous, check out this cartoon strip.

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