Weight Lifting: Loading the barn with chicken food
Our chickens are something that I am asked about often. All 40 to 50 of them (they don't stand still long enough to count so I'm not quite sure exactly how many we have). A few years ago I thought it would be fun to get a few “pet” chickens. I had chickens growing up as part of our “mini farm” -- which was made up of a few dairy cows, a couple of pigs, a handful of rabbits, a random goat or three, and the chickens.
My main farming job was to take care of the chickens. I remember going to the barn every day after school and feeding them, giving them water, and -- my favorite part -- collecting the eggs. As a kid I didn't mind taking care of the animals and, actually, thoroughly enjoyed helping to raise baby pigs. An entire clean little litter of warm pink piglets is about as cute as it gets! My siblings and I used to sit in their pen with them, under their warming lights, and have contests to see who could put the most baby pigs to sleep the fastest, by holding them in our laps, scratching their ears, and stroking them to sleep (no joke!). I made it my business to win as often as possible, of course. Could this have been the very beginning of the “baby whispering” abilities I seem to have developed over time? Hmm. We would have to ask a psychologist about that, I think. Anyway, those contests always ended the same way. My mom would call up to our barn (on the plug-in intercom) asking where we were, because it was dinner time!!! “Hurry up,” she'd say. Fun memories!
So -- in an effort to replicate that “home grown” farming feel for my own kids, we got chickens. Like my parents, who fed us “organically” before there was a term for it, I wanted to not only teach my kids responsibility through caring for animals, but I also loved the idea of having our very own farm fresh -- and organic -- eggs. An additional push in that direction was the fact that store-bought brown organic eggs cost about four or five dollars a dozen, even four years ago! At a consumption rate of about two dozen eggs per day in this house, something had to change! And why not? We have the space, the barn, and the ability! I did the math and realized that I could feed my chickens organic foods and still keep our egg costs far below store prices!
So, I began researching. You may have seen the little chicken house (that aired on our TLC show) that we built together. It was a great place to start with a small number of chickens. In my opinion, that setup is completely manageable in a small yard in pretty much any location. I have a friend who lives “in town” with very close neighbors who has a similar setup. She's had chickens longer than we have!!!
Soon, as winter came, we moved our chickens to our barn and fenced in an area, taking horse stalls and turning them into chicken coops. That winter, I began to learn more and more about chickens ... maybe more than I ever wanted to learn, and certainly more than I remember dealing with as a kid. For example, when temperatures dropped, I learned about frozen water dispensers. What do I do now? When is it too cold for chickens to be outside? Why do chickens peck their own eggs, destroying them? How do I deal with a “mean” rooster? And on and on and on. Each time I had a question, I'd ask at my local farm supply store, owned by a wonderful Mennonite family. They were accustomed to seeing their regular customers -- farmers who stopped by for their usual supplies. And then there was me. I knew they could spot me a mile away as I came in, blonde hair in a ponytail, wearing sunglasses and (gasp!) even makeup at times! I'd be wearing my flip flops and, well, probably not overly convincing “barn clothing.” (I didn't own any back then, but I do now. Complete with old dirty barn boots and all!) They would eye me up as if I were a “pretend” farmer, as I asked endless questions on how to solve this problem or that. They were very kind and patient and extremely knowledgeable. So, I kept going back. My boys love going along because they have really neat stuff, like little red wagons and little wheelbarrows. Both of which we just had to buy for our growing little farm.
Along the way (which you may have also seen on our show), we added more and more chickens. They were just so fun! And just like kids, when you're feeding 25, what's 25 more, right? At first the kids fought over who would take care of them; typical of kids with new “pets.” Very early on, Mady declared herself the “owner and caretaker” to all baby “chicks.” When they went from fluff to feathers, she'd hand them off to the boys, who readily and happily took on the role as the chicken farmers. They still care for the chickens to this day and take their job seriously and do a wonderful job caring for our flock, with my guidance and assistance, of course.
As the kids grow, this chicken farming has really, a little on purpose and a little by accident, added more than just eggs to our home environment. We have all learned more lessons on team work, hard work, sharing (we give eggs away to friends and family because we have more than we can eat!), and caring for other living things beyond each other. But more than that, raising chickens has brought almost as many new dinner topics as the eggs themselves!
We still have some of our original hens -- or “old ladies,” as they've been dubbed for differentiating purposes -- and have discussed the alternative to keeping them once they are old and why we don't agree with the common “euthanizing” philosophy. Many “'real” farmers only keep hens for a year or so during their prime laying time of life. Our farmer neighbor has mentioned the (eh hem, chicken with its head cut off -- wait, did I just write that??) method to me in an effort to cut costs by avoiding feeding hens that are no longer “earning their keep.” So, the kids and I discussed it one night at dinner. How did we feel about that? We all decided quickly that we didn't feel right about collecting their eggs and then sending them off to be ... well, you know ... to become soup, for example.
So instead, we decided to re-use the original chicken coop and are going to move the “old ladies” into their own little retirement community. We'll do this for as long as the four of them that are left will live. Additionally, we have a handicapped chicken whose name is “Ingin” (think of “injured”). She has a rather peculiar neck and tends to lay her head on her back versus holding it upright. To sum it up, she has special needs. Instead of calling her “weird, different, or strange” and singling her out as “odd,” my kids noticed her differences, named her (it’s otherwise hard to tell them apart because they really do look alike), and take extra special care of her. They hand feed her and take her to the water dispensers to make sure she is well nourished and hydrated. Mind you, she can do these things for herself and is otherwise “normal” aside from the way she holds her head, but they have a special place in their hearts for her and give her extra special care. She has also come up often as a topic at the dinner table and I've praised them for their empathy and special attention they give her. She is Collin’s absolute favorite chicken and he constantly dotes on her! It's so precious!
Becoming chicken farmers has clearly had a positive effect on our family. I'd recommend it to anyone with the space to do it, and remember you don't need much space in order to become chicken farmers yourselves. It's opened up our world to many new possibilities ... and has perhaps opened a can of worms for me?!
My kids have recently requested a cow (for milk, of course!) and a horse or two ... Oh heavens, just call me Farmer Jane. Now where'd I leave my pitchfork?
What are your thoughts on having a "family farm"?
Image via Kate Gosselin