Chickens

Chickens are a natural, organic form of pest control. They eat mosquitoes, black flies and other insects so life is more pleasant on the farm and in the country without the need for insecticides.

In addition to their insect patrol work the chickens also scratch the soil smooth, eat some plants and break apart manure patties out in the fields. All of this helps to contribute to better pasture quality and makes it so that we don’t have to use machinery on our swiftly sloping hillsides.

We keep heritage layer hens and they lay up a storm during most of the year without any feed beyond what they scavenge. Most of their diet is the pasture, insects, frogs, snakes, mice and such. In the winter they eat some hay to replace greens as well as getting butchering scraps from our weekly pigs to market which provides them with protein and fat.

The eggs are an excellent source of protein for our weaner piglets. We concentrate the eggs towards the younger pigs where we get the most nutritional leverage per egg. Did you know that cooking an egg doubles the available protein and resolves the biotin antagonist issue?jn.n1716

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50 Responses to Chickens

  1. Brian says:

    bummer I was hoping the chicken section would be as good as your pig blog. In time I suppose.

    Peace
    Brian

    • Check out these posts about chickens for lots of articles on how we run our poultry. For us the chicken’s primary job is organic pest control. As a bonus they provide eggs which are a great source of protein for piglets, dogs and people. In the end there is the stew pot – our chickens are not the meaty roasting chickens but rather the heritage laying breeds that forage so well for themselves.

  2. Alison says:

    Gosh I didn’t know that about cooking the eggs!! I’d always assumed that raw was best (since that’s what the body-builders seem to do – yuk) but could never quite bring myself to eat/drink what I felt was slime!

  3. Jayne says:

    What specific names are your heritage breeds chickens? I have Americanas. Marans, and a few sexlinked (Comet and Cherryegger) chickens and I am not getting many eggs even though they are completely free ranged plus get grain everyday. I have around 30 hens and 3 roosters and get 5 eggs a day. Any suggestions?

  4. Tammy Henry says:

    Do you use a natural wormer for your chickens? I would like to keep using the eggs during treatment. Is that possible?

    • We don’t worm our chickens. I don’t know if perhaps in a warm climate it might be necessary. Primarily we use managed rotational grazing, winter, good health and garlic with our livestock for de-worming. Rarely is anything stronger necessary. Part of that is because we live in a climate that breaks the parasite cycle so nicely every winter. For more about how we approach worming see this post about Worms au Natural.

  5. Starla says:

    Mr. Jefferies,
    I am absolutely inspired by your blog and all the wonderful idea that you have across the board. I havent been able to find much about your intensive grazing management. If you have and I missed it I do apologize. I am lookingto find out what goes first in a leader-follower igm plan. I am thinking of putting nubian goats with miniature jersey then follow with buff orpinton chickens and ending with a mix breed of yorkshire and tamworth pigs. What do you use? The farm is in Tennessee so the climate is a bit different, but ideas would be absolutely helpful.
    Thanks,
    Starla

    • We graze our sheep and pigs together using managed intensive rotational grazing except during lambing season. The chickens, ducks and geese naturally follow. We don’t do a forced segregation follow. See these posts.

      • ryan meyers says:

        Walter,
        what exactly do you mean by ‘a forced segregation follow’? do you have an eggmobile without poultry netting or no eggmobile at all?

        Also wondering about the dogs protecting the birds. I know you can do it, but my worries are that I have 2 LGD’s guarding the sheep one pasture ahead of the birds, and if I bring in another LGD for the birds, the new dog will just want to go play with the other two rather than protect birds? Is the answer to just have the 2 LGD’s protect both birds and sheep collectively by having a passable (for the dogs to crawl under) cross fence?

        While I’m asking questions, if you don’t provide any supplemental feed for your chickens, how many chickens per acre are you comfortable with?

        Have you tried not supplementing your hogs with store bought mtl?

        You are amazing, thanks for all the info you provide. !

        • Forced segregation following is when you keep groups fenced apart. e.g., the cattle graze paddock A and then you move them on to paddock B. Then you put the sheep in paddock A. When you move the cattle to paddock C you put the sheep in B and move the pigs into A. Later you move the cattle to D, sheep to C, pigs to B and put the poultry in A. That is forced segregation following. That is way too much work. It is also not how the grazing herds naturally function.

          What we do is we manage the grazing of the larger livestock. In our case that is sheep and larger pigs, grower through breeder. I don’t even worry about the piglets as they follow the herd. They’ll creep to some other places which is good. The ducks, chickens and geese naturally follow the larger grazing animals without my needing to manage them. This is much easier and more like natural grazing patterns.

          Our working dogs guard and herd all the animals. I don’t have one specifically for doing just one job. They’re more powerful and flexible, have longer working lives, if they are cross trained. As they get older they do more gentle tasks such as watching piglets and poultry.

          In the winter we feed our poultry primarily meat – something we have – since the deep snows make other foods inaccessible. In the warm months they eat insects (their primary job), grubs, worms, break apart manure patties and eat plants (grass, clover, etc). I don’t have a number for you on birds per acre since we don’t operate that way. We have had as many as 400 layers in a flock fanning out about 500 to 700 feet from their central roosting spot. Some also sleep in trees. If you used a 500′ diameter circle it would come to 20 acres for 400 birds or about 20 birds per acre. Hmm… that does not sound right as I do not think they were ranging across that much space. So much for back of the napkin scratchings. The area they cover is not perfectly circular. Based on what I know of our field sizes I would say that they were ranging over more like seven to ten acres so about 40 birds per acre. That’s about 1,000 sq-ft per bird over the warm months and is sustainable with them co-grazing with other animals. Take that with a grain of salt or two. It will vary with your climate, soil, etc, etc.

          I don’t know what “store bought mtl” is. We do not buy grain or commercial hog feed so the answer to your question is probably yes.

          We have raised three sets, no, wait, it was four sets of pigs just on pasture. They grow more slowly taking around eight months to get to finisher size and are very lean. Virtually no back fat. If I had nothing else I would do this.

          By adding dairy to their diet they get the lysine, an amino-acid, that is low in pasture and their growth rate increases so they get to market weight in about six month which is the same as with grain fed diets. The dairy also gives a delightful sweet flavor to the meat and fat. We have a free source of dairy from a butter and cheese maker just across the mountain from us. If I did not have that I would start my own dairy just to get the milk to feed the pigs.

          We also now grow a lot of pumpkins, beets, turnips, sunflowers and such during the summer in the pig’s winter paddocks. This uses the wonderful nutrients the pigs have provided and turns that into food for the pigs in the late fall and winter.

          Sometimes we also get other things as described in the diet section of the pigs page. A bit of dated bread makes a wonderful training treat since the pigs rarely get it. This helps with weekly loading of pigs for market. Look around your area for what resources are readily available. There is much that otherwise goes to waste which makes great livestock food. By feeding it to animals you can keep it out of the landfill and keep it from going down the chaos slope.

          • Andrew says:

            Didn’t realize the chickens would go that far from the roost!

          • Jami says:

            Hi Walter,

            Regarding your ‘natural following’ approach – Do your sheep then get the milk, butter, etc. along with the pigs?

            And concerning the chickens – I found that I couldn’t keep the chickens away from the house, driveway, porch, etc. without netting, and even then there were always a couple of escape artists. They would see us feeding and get the idea that where the people are there is probably food.

            Are your chickens so far away from the people areas that they don’t ever come to see if you are a source of easy pickens?
            I’d love to free-range mine again, but I can’t stand chickens outside my door(s). I only have a few acres so it’s hard to not be in the animals line of sight. Do you have any suggestions ?

            Thanks for posting this blog – it is a wonderful resource :-D of practical information.

          • Yes, the sheep will drink whey and such but not much. It is not to their taste as adults I suspect.

            The chickens bases of operations are at a distance around our house so that we’re at the extend of their range. Most importantly the dogs keep piglets, chickens, etc off the driveway and away from our house and inner gardens. The dogs are a bit OCD about everything needs to be in its proper place. This is a very useful trait. A feature.

            With just a few acres what you might do is: 1) clip the flight feathers of one wing on each chicken; 2) set up a maze of fencing and walls that creates the necessary distance that the chickens aren’t as likely to penetrate to your personal space. They tend to stay within 750′ and perhaps even 500′ of their roosts most of the time. The far extent for a few adventurous ones is about 1,000′ but they are unusual. Some even have territories as small as 200′. This can vary a bit with the individual chicken.

  6. Mike S says:

    Do you lose a lot of chickens to predators? We just recently lost 10 birds, including our 3 Buff Orpington hens and the B. O. rooster, and one Australorp hen. What do you do to keep the birds safe?

  7. Dan Jackson says:

    i read on another site you were working on quiet roosters…any luck?…Also some of your dogs look like wolf hybrids, are they?

    Love your web site.
    Thanks
    Dan

    • We know that they have a pinch of German Shepherd and a pinch of Black Labrador. The rest is other. They’re excellent herding and livestock guardians. The original sire, Coy, showed up at our door and insisted he was going to work here. I said no. He said yes. After a while I accepted his offer.

      On the quiet roosters, that’s a long term project, I keep selecting. I eat loud roosters which leaves the quiet ones to breed. I don’t mind some crowing but they don’t need to be obnoxious.

      • Laura Neacsu says:

        I myself am on this “project” too. I found that if i only have 1 or 2, even 3, roosters they only crow early morning to give the wake-up signal and before bed time to advise the ladies is time to come close by. The moment I had 4-6 roosters at maturity level, the crowing was pretty much non-stop, trying to top each other.

        (I recently discovered your blog and I cannot have enough of it – you are doing a really great job! with the blog and with your animals :))

  8. Melissa says:

    What do (did) you feed your newly hatched chicks until they are old enough to start to forage?

    • During the warm monthsnewly hatched chicks[1, 2, 3] follow their mothers around eating worms, bugs and the like. During the winter months when we have gotten batches of chicks from the hatchery we start them chick feed and then they graduate to meat which is why I carefully specified that the hens don’t get commercial hen feed / grain. Pastured pork is much of what our big chickens eat during the winter months. I think that I could probably start chicks in the winter on ground pork but I have not tried it yet. Something that’s on my to-do list.

  9. Stacie says:

    Hi Walter,
    Been reading your blog for about a year now and was so inspired we raised a couple of pigs for the first time last summer (we had not eaten pork for several years before that). Thank you for all the great ideas, they turned out fantastic :) We also raised 25 meat chickens in a tractor on grass. The trouble is, whenever I try to give pork scraps to my layers, I can’t keep my 9 month old dog from stealing them. Do your dogs do the same?

  10. Melissa says:

    Help! I have a new layer that almost seems to have epilepsy or something. I find her laying on her side, legs stiff & outstretched. Brought her inside & next day she laid an egg then was fine. Figured she was egg bound & now ok ( never had an egg bound hen before) so I put her back with the others. 2 days later found her in same condition! She’s inside again, walking around ( in large chick brooder box), eating & happy – hasn’t passed an egg though. Any ideas? Has she just figured out she likes being inside? She’s a great actress? Could the rooster be injuring her?
    Thanks!!!

  11. Sorry, Walter — okay, pig offal for the chickens (ditto) but where do they lay?
    Beth Dougherty

    • The chickens have an area where they can get to away from the pigs that has nest boxes. They also lay eggs during the warm weather in nests they build under bushes and other places. Easter egg hunting… Sometimes they succeed in hiding the eggs and sometimes we find them and let them be so they hatch to produce more chickens.

  12. Carla says:

    We had a pig get to a fallen sheep (bloat we are pretty sure)
    one of the pigs, my American Guinea Hog sow, is now vomiting. Is this a case of too rich food? The sheep was my breeding ram, and he was fairly fat. The other pigs are fine, but they are various mixed breeds.
    I am guessing that you may have had a pig get to a fallen sheep at one time?
    hoping I suppose. I haven’the had any issues with indigestion or other health issues in the last 5 years I have had them, and they have gotten to the odd chicken and one fallen lamb.

  13. Renee says:

    Do you have problems with airbound predators and if so what do you do to minimise losses of chickens- are the dogs effective somehow with this? We are in Australia and are sceptical of trying to keep hens in open pasture because of chicken hawks, is this a problem where you are?

  14. Lizz Smith says:

    Hi Walter, I’m looking at changing my chickens off store bought feed. I have seen you mention feeding the chickens meat or meat scraps, such as pork. What exactly is it they get … fat? Cooked meat? Raw meat? Also, I saw somewhere chickens get milk or whey … can I just give them a bowl of whey or milk … like a kitten???

    • When I get done butchering there is trim, glans, skin, unsold organs & bones that go to dogs, chickens and the compost pile in that order. It is raw. I grind for the chickens. Dogs come with built in choppers and grinders that will even handle the toughest bones.

      The chickens will eat some whey, milk, cheese, butter, etc. They are able to drink out of the troughs but have an escape setup incase one falls in, or is pushed.

  15. Ian Carlo Siga says:

    Are chickens more easy to care than pigs? I think I want to go first with the chickens before going to pigs

  16. D. Daniel says:

    Hi Walter,

    With so many chickens to keep track of, how do you know when a hen has stopped laying eggs and is ready for the pot? Also, what % of the eggs laid each day do you harvest and how many do you allow the hens to sit on for reproduction and maintaining the flock?

    Thx!

    Daniel

    Daniel

  17. Christopher says:

    Over a full year, how large percentage of the food do you estimate that your chickens can scavenge for themselves?

    Often I’ve heard that about 30% is what chicken can manage for themselves over a full year, where they peak at perhaps 90% during summer. It sounds like you are far higher than 30%. Maybe this is because you are using heritage breeds and have access to pastures containing plenty of manure patties? (Manure patty = lots of insects).

    • In the warm months 100% of their diet. During the winter they would die in our climate except we give them compost. Winter here is up on 4′ of packed snow which pretty much eliminates food. No insects. Mice but not enough.

      • Christopher says:

        Ok, so four winter months without food and eight months of self sufficient chickens? That makes the chicken 67% self sufficient.

        • During the four months of no pasture and no insects they are eating compost (lettuce, veggies, fruit) and meat (waste from our weekly butchery) so fortunately the feed doesn’t cost us anything. In fact, the chickens are turning low value wastes into high value eggs that we eat and we feed to young pigs. Then spring rolls around with a boat load of insects again. Most of the insects probably come from the surrounding woods and marshes just down mountain of us.

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