OK, I was a pretty small kid, but this chicken is seriously huge. She was my buddy for sure.

Confession. I have always loved chickens. When I was just a toddler, my parents moved to a farm in the Missouri Ozarks, and my father promptly bought chickens, geese and ducks. I remember picking the day old chicks up at the post office in a big flat box with holes in the sides (yes, I have memories that go all the way back to BEFORE I was two – crazy but true). 

Once the hens were old enough to lay eggs, it was my job to help collect them every day. I also had a big white pet chicken (my father named it Grandma – he and my maternal grandmother did NOT get along so he thought this was hysterical) who would sit in my lap on the swing and eat corn out of my hand.

We left Missouri when I was four, and I spent the next 30+ years waiting to move to a place where I could have chickens again. In the spring of 2002 I got my wish and brought a couple of Rhode Island Red’s home from the local feed store. With the exception of last year (due to the move from Colorado to Washington) I’ve had chickens ever since.  (A good book to get you started is Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens.)

Seriously cute little fluff balls. That’s “spot”, less than 24 hours old, in the lower left corner. Spot was the only incubated egg to hatch.

Why raise your own chickens? Hens raised where they can eat seeds, grass and bugs have far more nutritious eggs including: 1/3 less cholesterol, 1/4 less saturated fat, 2/3 more vitamin A, 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids, 3 times more vitamin E, 7 times more beta carotene and 4-6 times more vitamin D. Nutritionally and in taste, you can’t beat a home-grown egg.

Chickens are also serious pest control. While I would not let them into a growing garden (it’s amazing the damage those big scratching feet can do), having them patrol around it helps keep down grasshoppers and other insects that might do serious damage. I never had grasshopper damage in my Colorado garden, and a friend of mine without chickens had grasshoppers eat some plants right down to the ground. It’s also serious revenge to pick off slugs or cabbage worms in your garden and feed them to your chickens.

Will they pay for themselves? Well, it depends on how you define “pay”. I used to sell my eggs to coworkers at the bargain price of $2 a dozen (they were not organic – I could not get organic feed – and I didn’t want them to go to waste). I probably just broke even on feed. But seeing my “girls” run towards me when I got home from work, hoping I was going to throw them some “scratch”, never ceased to make me smile and catapult me out of my worries from the day. Listening to young roosters greet the morning, similar to a 13-year-old boy with his voice cracking, has made my husband and I laugh out loud while lying in bed more than once. Watching a rooster dance around a juicy bug, letting his girls know that he has a treat for them…priceless entertainment (and a seemingly great lesson in selflessness…until you realize he IS demanding his fee in other ways).

Checking out the new arrivals. Surprisingly, I have never had problems with my cats getting into my chicks. They seem to know that they are “mine” and therefore off-limits. Malcolm was an untried newcomer, but so far, so good. Note that this box is way too small for long-term use. This is just for the first couple of days.

After a few years of raising chickens, and talking to a first grade teacher who hatched eggs in her classroom every spring, I decided to try hatching my own chicks with an incubator. I bought my incubator a couple of years ago from Stromberg’s. Important considerations, if you are thinking of trying this, are 1) a fan to move the air around – which gives much better hatching rates and 2) an automatic egg turner – because hand turning eggs three times a day for 21 days is just too much work.

I don’t normally name my chickens (because I DO eat some of them – mostly the roosters) but this little guy hatched against the odds. He/She has a spot on its head, hence the name. Not sure if He/She will make it yet, but my fingers are crossed.

I’ve successfully used the incubator twice. This year, after getting some fertile eggs from neighbors, I tried again. Unfortunately, the thermometer that came with the unit had some issues. After a couple of years of use, the glass bulb was sliding loose on its backing card and the thermometer was no longer calibrated. I did my best to reset it (and glue it down) using some kitchen thermometers for comparison, but evidently I had it set too low. Out of 18 eggs, I only had one hatch, and that one was 2 1/2 days late.

So off to the feed store I went yesterday to purchase 4 Buff Orpingtons, 2 Black Stars, 2 Red Stars (all brown egg layers) and 2 Araucanas (the ones that lay the colored “easter” eggs). I’ll probably get a few more as the feed store gets in other varieties (I like a motley crew). It is wonderful to have chickens around again. Now, we just have to build a coop sometime in the next 6 weeks, before the chickens are ready to live outside!

Miles Away Farm Blog © 2011, where we’re miles away from having our adult plumage, but we are maturing, one day at a time.

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