One of the simplest ways to supply some of your own groceries is keeping hens. Chickens are one of the most widespread and commonly kept domesticated animals. Hens can produce fresh eggs daily that are superior to store bought eggs in many ways. Fresh yard eggs have a better taste and higher nutritional value than most mass produced eggs. Chickens which are confined in huge prodution facilities frequently live out their entire lives in cages where they can barely move. It is common for hens in production facilities to be enclosed in cages 24 inches wide by 20 inches deep and 16 inches tall, with 8 or more hens in each cage. Their movement is severely restricted and the birds are unable to spread their wings or move about the cage without climbing over the other birds. The birds are also fed a highly controlled diet which lacks nutrients that free range chickens get from bugs and vegetation.
Raising your own hens is really easy and many people find the birds to be quite entertaining. It is believed that chickens .....
.....were domesticated from wild junglefowl and despite their tiny brains they display a wide array of instictive behaviors. Chickens use their large feet to scratch through soil and brush to find insects, seeds and other vegetation. They take regular "dirt baths" by lying on their side in a sandy or bare spot on the ground and use their wings to toss dirt on top of their feathers. The first time I saw one of our chickens taking a dirt bath, I thought It was dead. It was lying still in the dirt with one wing lifted slightly. I walked over to pick it up and the bird jumped up and ran away clucking. Chickens prefer to live together in flocks and naturally establish a "pecking order". The dominant chickens in the pecking order have first choice of food and roosting spots. Hens share nests and incubation duties with other hens in the flock. Hens prefer to lay in nests that already have eggs and tend to use the same nesting spots. I always enjoy watching our hens here at the yardstead.
Hens can be kept just about anywhere outdoors where they have a little bit of space to roam. Check your local zoning rules before you bring home chickens, some places have restrictions. Most of the time restrictions on chickens are due to noise complaints about crowing roosters. Hens, however, do not crow and can be quietly kept in places where roosters would generate complaints. Hens do have a few simple requirements to keep them happy and healthy. They need a little bit of open ground space to scratch and take dirt baths and get a little exercise. They need a nesting area and access to clean water and food. Hens are omnivorous and can be fed commercial feed or houshold food scraps. Here at the yardstead all of our food scraps go into the chicken pen, and we supplement their diets with commercial feed. They really love the food scraps and rush to meet me at the fence when they see a container in my hand.
The eggs we get from our free range chickens are much better than store bought eggs. We have a variety of breeds which lay eggs of several different colors and various sizes. We get pink eggs and blue eggs from our Auracanas, brown eggs from our Rhode Island Reds and white eggs from our leghorns. We have about a dozen active laying hens which produce more eggs than we can eat. We share with our family and neighbors and the blue and pink eggs are the most popular with the neighborhood kids. When compared with store bought eggs, our yard eggs have thicker shells, brighter collored yolks and are better tasting. We really enjoy our chickens and eggs and the Yardstead would not be the same without them.