By P. Allen Smith
Chickens have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Even before I caught a stray brown Leghorn and brought her home to be my pet, we raised chickens at the family place. When I lived in town, I kept a few Bantams. Today I raise about 650 birds and seven breeds of heritage chickens on my farm.
Backyard chickens were an integral part of my childhood, but while I was busy chasing chickens, I didn’t realize how useful these creatures could be. They are an excellent source of healthy food, but they also provide countless benefits to your home, garden and family. (Related: Chicken and Poultry Farm Facts)
Good for Your Health
This untraditional pet is family friendly in more ways than one. They have all of the personality and unique qualities of traditional house pets at a comparatively low cost, but they also give back on a daily basis. Hens lay approximately one egg every 24 to 26 hours, meaning that with just a few birds you can have fresh scrambled eggs every morning. These eggs don’t just taste better than store-bought eggs – they are better. They contain less cholesterol than store-bought eggs and more vitamin A, vitamin E, beta-carotene and omega-3 fatty acids. With the recent increase in food prices, scares over food-borne illness, and a growing concern over health issues, backyard chickens can produce food that you can confidently say is healthy and untainted.
The Ultimate Recyclers
Chickens are also the ultimate recyclers. They can, and will, eat anything! I provide the hens with lay pellets (15 to 18 percent protein, completely balanced) to keep them producing a steady supply of eggs. I often supplement the birds’ diet with table scraps and leftovers, which reduces waste in my kitchen. They love cherry tomatoes from the garden. I like to toss a few of them into the chicken pen and watch as my birds play tomato soccer! If you’ve ever seen a chicken roaming free, though, you know that they’re prone to peck and scratch for whatever they can find. That’s particularly useful in the garden, as they’ll eat up many harmful insects and pesky snails and slugs as well as nibble away at your weeds. In return, I can use their droppings as fertilizer and their bedding as mulch in my garden – it’s a free organic fertilizer that is high in nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.
A Family-Friendly Pet
These outdoor birds are also great family pets. Almost all breeds of chicken are kid friendly, but I particularly like gentle birds such as Silkies, Cochins, Houdans or Orpingtons if your children will be their main handlers. Because they live primarily outdoors, you don’t have to house-train them, and the only attention they demand is the once daily feeding, watering and collecting of eggs. There are different rules for labeling meat and eggs when they are being sold, but I find it’s easiest to raise my own chickens and eggs as organic, free-range and cage-free when I simply give them the food and space that seems fair. To do that, I provide them with a run, or wire-enclosed outdoor space, that will allow them safe access to the outdoors. An added bonus here is that they will forage and dust themselves to stay clean and free of mites, a problem you want to avoid. And forage they will. While scratching, they pick up enough calcium-rich gritty sand to help in the digestion of their food and the production of healthy eggs.
Backyard chickens are a growing trend, and it’s easy to see why. Take a chance on this non-traditional pet, and you’ll be sure to reap the benefits for years to come.
And with all the fresh eggs you’ll be collecting, this frittata recipe from the author is sure to be popular in your kitchen.
About the Author
P. Allen Smith is an award-winning designer, gardener and lifestyle expert. He is the host of two public television programs, a syndicated 30-minute show and his own radio program and is also the author of the best-selling Garden Home series of books. Learn more at www.pallensmith.com.