A Growing Wise Kids Column
Motivation for Having Your Own Backyard Flock
I have long desired to become a homesteader and raise my own food. I want to work the land and enjoy the fruit of my own labor instead of mooching off everyone else’s hard work as I have done for so long. But while I revel in my new Little House on the Prairie lifestyle, I still want all the suburban luxury. . . at least for the time being. So I did it, I took the first step. We now own five frisky, funny, feathery chickens that live in our semi-rural backyard. I tell myself I did it for the kids, but really I had more selfish motivations.
Chickens are hilarious and make excellent pets. It took some time, but now we can hold our girls, and they come trotting over every time they see us. Of course, they think we have table scraps for them to devour, but I like to think it is because they adore us. So for all you out there who have an itch to do something homestead-ish and who have a little land to spare, let me tell you about raising these fine feathered creatures. They help your gardening efforts, make the most of every scrap of food that goes through your kitchen and bring you and your children hours of enjoyment.
Most important, you should never be eggless again and may even have enough to give to your family and friends—or better yet, barter for something you need.
Reason #1 To Raise Backyard Chickens: Stellar Nutrition
Without a doubt, fresh, pastured eggs are superior in taste and nutrition to conventionally raised commercially available varieties. Eggs have been a highly valued foods since the beginning of time—eggs from chickens, ducks, geese, turtles and fish. Egg yolks are the richest source of two superstar carotenoids—lutein and zeaxanthin. 1. Not only are bright yellow yolks loaded with these fat-soluble antioxidant nutrients, they are more bioavailable than those found in vegetables, corn and most supplements.2,3 While these nutrients have a reputation of combating macular degeneration4,5 and cataracts6 and supporting overall healthy vision, they have a long list of other benefits, including protecting the skin from sun damage7 and even reducing one’s risk of colon8 and breast cancer.9
Besides providing all eight essential proteinbuilding amino acids, a large whole, fresh egg offers about six to seven grams of protein and five grams of fat (with about 1.5 grams of it saturated), which comes in handy to help in the absorption of all the egg’s fat-soluble vitamins. One egg also serves up around 200 milligrams of brain-loving cholesterol and contains the valuable vitamins A, K, E, D, B-complex and minerals iron, phosphorus, potassium and calcium.10 Choline, another egg-nutrient, is a fatty substance found in every living cell and is a major component of our brain. Additionally, choline helps break up cholesterol deposits by preventing fat and cholesterol from sticking to the arteries.10,14 So the bottom line is, don’t be chicken about eating eggs, especially the cholesterol-rich yolks!
Compared to the generic supermarket variety, eggs from pastured poultry are a vivid yellow-orange—proof of a richer store of healthenhancing carotenes (more specifically xanthophylls, a natural yellow-orange pigment in green plants and yellow corn).11,12 The more carotenes, the darker, deeper orange color the yolk—and the higher the levels of fat-soluble vitamins as well. Expect to find the richest orange colors in the spring, when grass is fresh and bugs are plentiful. Color also fades as the egg ages. Bear in mind, variations will be seen in these differences due to the breed and age of chickens, their diet (grass, insects, and feed) and the season.
When left to their own scavenger instincts, being the omnivores they are, chickens eat bugs, worms (and even snakes if given the opportunity), grasses and nutritious herbs such as plantain leaves and wilted nettle—both of which boost egg production and yolk hue. While these feathered friends will eat the grain and pellets left in the feed trough, it certainly isn’t their ideal food. Remember, chickens are omnivores, not vegetarians as many people assume, meaning they are designed to consume foods from both animal and plant sources. Subjecting chickens to a strictly vegetarian diet prevents them from achieving their ideal health by denying them the nutrients found through scavenging around the farm, barnyard and pasture.
Compared to eggs from conventionallyraised, caged hens, eggs produced by free-roaming and pasture-pecking chickens have more omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin E and vitamin A,12 along with notably higher amounts of folic acid and vitamin B12.13 Direct sunlight also acts as a nutrient and naturally boosts egg production.14 So get your girls out of doors as much as possible!
Reason #2: Money and Time Savings
Properly raised pastured chicken eggs are hard to come by. While going the extra mile (sometimes literally) is well worth the effort for procuring this nourishing food, now that I know the ease of pulling them out of the nesting boxes in my own backyard, I can’t imagine going back to my old ways. Not only do I save money on gas and the premium prices per dozen from my farmer, but if I trade my eggs for other goods, I am actually making money for my family! Also, if you get friendly with the organic produce manager at your local health food store, you may be able to score some veggies that are too old for the dinner table, but perfect chicken grub.
Chickens are also an asset to your garden. Chicken manure is high in nitrogen, which is great for soil. The henhouse’s bedding makes terrific mulch (be sure to explore the deep litter method for your henhouse). The nitrogen-rich bedding should be allowed to break down and compost for at least a year before it is added to the garden. When allowed to peck and forage in the garden (once seedlings are established as well as after your produce is harvested), the girls will clean up pests, naturally fertilize the soil and mix everything up with their scratching.
With chickens, nothing goes to waste. Chickens need a goodly amount of calcium. One way to provide this is to feed their shells right back to them. Different chicken farmers have their own ways of accomplishing this—some just toss the shells right back to them after the egg is removed, while others dry them in the sun or oven and grind them up so that they don’t look like egg shells. One thing to consider: if chickens get comfortable eating eggs they may start to eat what they lay, which would not be good for you and your family’s supply.
There is even talk about the use of egg shell powder as a calcium source for humans too. While I haven’t gone there yet, I will toss a shell or two into my water kefir brew for the added nutrition. (See the article “Who Needs Soda Pop with These Bodacious Beverages” from the Spring 2008 Wise Traditions issue on lacto-fermented beverages for more details.)
Another waste-saving benefit of chickens is their appetite for your kitchen scraps. What better way to use your carrot shavings, cabbage cores, meat and fish leftovers and over-mature veggies from your garden (i.e. cantaloupes, cucumbers and zucchini ) than to put them back into your meals via the eggs produced by your pastured chickens? Some of the most gorgeous orange yolks come from “zucchini-fed” chickens. Beware: feeding onions and garlic may make your eggs taste a little “funny!”
Reason #3: It’s Fun and Fairly Easy
I say “fairly” easy because everything is relative. For me, the convenience of having eggs at home far outweighs the time driving to the four corners of my home state to find the best eggs from chickens raised with the highest standards. Or, heaven forbid, to be without eggs because of a high demand or low production from the local dairy farm.
There is some work involved. After the initial set up of the fenced-in area, coop and all your feeding and watering supplies, daily maintenance is required. Chickens need fresh water, fresh air, grit (which is stored in their gizzards to help grind up food) and plenty of food—chicken feed and scraps from your kitchen. Count on giving your girls attention at least twice a day. The girls need to be let out in the morning and then put in for the night so they don’t get eaten by predators. Don’t forget, dusk is when predators are most active. A little alarm clock rings each evening to remind me when to bring in my girls since it is a busy part of the day in my house.
Watching our chickens maneuver and contort their feathered figures in funny ways when dusting themselves has become a favorite pastime. Besides being fun to watch, name, and chase around, chickens make amusing noises. Our pack leader has this crazy “bakawwww” she makes every time we approach, as though she is introducing our presence. Overall, the girls are pretty quiet, which is good news for those of you who have close neighbors. Roosters make most of the noise, but they do not have to reside in your flock unless you want fertilized eggs and be able to raise your own little “peeps.”
Reason #4: It’s Good for the Kids
Opening your home and heart to animals—be they dogs, cats or egg-laying chickens—creates opportunities for invaluable life lessons. Not only do they learn about daily responsibilities needed to keep these critters kicking, but children will also build a healthy respect and compassion for nature’s creatures and the natural cycle of life. They make us stop and realize that loving others unconditionally is easy and more fun when done with energy! As so eloquently said by Blair, my dear friend, editor and a mother of two, “I would never raise children without raising some kind of animal alongside them. They teach things I could never teach.”
Where to Start With Your Backyard Flock
A vast number of resources out there can ready you step by step to bring home your feathered friends. You will have plenty of choices for the coop, which includes the chicken run and henhouse, waterers and feeders. You may need to insulate and heat your coop if you live in a really cold area. I live in the snowy mountains of Colorado and a heat lamp works well for us.
The size of the coop will depend on how many girls will suit your family size. The number of eggs you will get from your flock depends on the time of year, the breed of hen, their age and type of feed. Chickens bred to be good egg-layers average five to six eggs a week, but will start to slow down after the second year of life.
Next is the feed. The amount of supplemental feed your girls need will depend on what they find through scavenging and are given in the way of kitchen scraps. Some sort of feed becomes particularly useful during the winter months. The commercial processed pellets at the feed stores are far from nourishing and have many undesirable additives and ingredients. Soy is a frequent addition, even in rations provided by organic farmers, but actually should be avoided. What’s wrong with soy, you ask? To summarize, soy contains phytoestrogens or plant hormones (i.e., isoflavones) that have been found to disrupt endocrine function, negatively affect immunity, contribute to thyroid problems and cause hormonal changes in children (see more details and research references at www.westonaprice.org and in The Whole Soy Story by Kaayla Daniel, PhD, CCN). Research clearly demonstrates that soy isoflavones are transferred into the yolk of chickens fed a diet containing a high concentration of soy isoflavones.15 This simply means you’ll add eggs from soy-fed chickens to your list of phytoestrogenic foods to avoid.
Soy is a new addition in chicken feed, as it was certainly not necessary for raising chickens back in the olden days. The crux of the issue is protein. Protein is necessary for healthy birds. As the size of a flock increases, so does the percentage of protein needed. So on the small family farm that has five to 25 chickens, protein needs should be met through foraging, scraps and the small amount of feed provided. But raising more chickens than the number that can naturally sustain themselves on a particular plot of land calls for higher protein percentages through feed rations.
Katherine Czapp remembers how her chickens were raised on her family’s farm. “We used to have about 18 chickens when I was growing up (including a few roosters) and they only got corn, spelts and oats that we grew and ground for them, oyster shell, and then all sorts of meat-type goodies they found (like insect larva in cow pats, and even the occasional calf placenta!) and pans of warm milk we set out for them and the 18 cats twice a day at milking time. Every day my grandfather would take his sickle and gather plants he knew they loved, (I found out later that nettles are up to 40 percent protein) and then they got all kinds of mixed scraps from two family kitchens and two very large vegetable gardens. They foraged all over the place. Eighteen chickens could meet their protein needs on the scale and variety of our farm. If we had had hundreds of chickens or more (as many farmers do today) they couldn’t get what they needed at our scale.”
My resourceful friend and part-time homesteader, Vicki Hunnicut, passed on a few invaluable chicken-raising nuggets to me when she helped me start my backyard flock. She developed a wonderful soy-free chicken feed recipe she has graciously allowed me to share with you (see page 71). She also augments the girls’ feed with organic alfalfa to scratch through during the winter so they are getting greens year round.
Another tip she suggests is offering the girls raw or cultured milk daily (they love it) and adding a dash of apple cider vinegar to their water (just about one tablespoon per gallon). The vinegar helps keep their pH in balance and improves nutrient absorption. It also deters algae growth in their water.
Truly, everything else you can easily learn from researching on the internet or books. Here are the resources that have been most useful to me:
The last web resource includes a forum to ask questions of those more experienced and pasturePoultry (at) yahoogroups.com is a chat group on Yahoo.com where you can ask questions and read posts.
Two important books on backyard chickens are Keep Chickens! Tending Small Flocks in Cities, Suburbs, and Other Small Spaces by Barbara Kilarski and Story’s Guide to Raising Chickens by Gail Damerow.
The staff at local farm supply stores and mail order hatcheries (such as McMurray Hatchery are typically very knowledgeable about breeds best suited for particular areas of the country.
How to Cook Your Eggs—or Not
The idea of eating raw or soft-cooked eggs is of concern to some because of the risk of salmonella; however, the risk is virtually non-existent, especially with the right eggs. Data suggest as few as three eggs per thousand—referring to the commercial variety—are infected with salmonella.16 So not only is the risk exceedingly low, but this figure is for those fed GMO corn, soy and other unmentionables and without the natural foraging under the sun they were meant to thrive on. Dr. Mercola, DO, explains, “Salmonella infections are usually present only in traditionally raised commercial hens. If you are purchasing your eggs from healthy chickens, this infection risk reduces dramatically. Remember, only sick chickens lay salmonella-contaminated eggs.”17
Donna Gates, author of The Body Ecology Diet, explains that avoiding the dangers of salmonella and other pathogens boils down to the inner ecosystem of the egg-laying chicken and the egg consumer—meaning you. An inner intestinal ecosystem brimming with beneficial microflora combats any harmful pathogens. Same goes for chickens foraging on pasture and feasting on worms, bugs and microflora found in the soil.
On the subject of raw eggs, Sally Fallon writes “. . . it is fine to consume plenty of raw egg yolks, a custom found in many traditional diets, but consumption of raw egg whites on a regular basis can lead to digestive problems. The problem is. . . that raw egg whites contain enzyme inhibitors that can interfere with protein digestion. Whole eggs should be cooked—and it is fine to cook them any way you like them, even scrambled. Beating or whipping eggs does not damage the proteins or cause the cholesterol to oxidize.”18 Oxidation only occurs when eggs are forced out of tiny holes with high pressure during commercial processing.19
Donna Gates recommends cooking eggs “softly” to prevent making the protein difficult to digest. She also favors eating eggs without much of the white (two yolks to one whole egg), since many people are sensitive to the protein portion of the egg compared to the yolk. As far as complementing your eggs, Gates recommends adding alkaline veggies (especially cultured) as well as sea salt to eggs to help balance out their acidic nature (as with all animal foods).20 But if your kids want bacon with their eggs (no-nitrate, of course) that is fine too.
Eggs Coming Out of My Ears!
Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would have an egg surplus. Before our feathered friends found their way into our lives, I was always counting my stash from my farmer to make sure I would not run out and was thoroughly disappointed when I was forced to do with the lesser quality eggs from the store. But now eggs are front and center in my weekly meal plan and my egg-dish repertoire has grown substantially. Here is a quick list of dishes that use a good number of eggs. Some are pretty simple, but it is good to have these ideas on hand for when you have eggs coming out your ears!
- Hardboiled with sea salt or seasoned salt (great snack or send off in a sack lunch or use later in a salad)
- Deviled eggs
- Béarnaise sauce—delicious on meat or fish!
- Hollandaise sauce to pour over eggs Benedict but also over steamed or sautéed veggies (especially broccoli and asparagus), and use what is left over as a mayo substitute
- Egg salad with chopped red pepper, celery and a sprinkle of crispy nuts
- Scrambles, omelets and frittatas galore with various flavors—spinach, feta cheese with olives for a Greek flair; diced tomatoes, onions and peppers for a Spanish taste; and onions, pepper, ham and cheese for more of a Western appeal. Really any leftover vegetable or meat will work.
- Fried egg and cheese sandwiches (toasted bread smeared with mayo with a fried egg and perhaps some bacon in the middle)
- Egg drop soup made with a base of homemade chicken broth (Talk about a healing food!)
- French toast
- Breakfast tacos or huevos rancheros (tostada corn tortilla shell layered with refried beans, chopped lettuce, a fried egg and melted cheese with salsa and sour cream to top)
- Ice cream
- Egg nog (remember, use just the yolk)
- Egg casseroles, quiches and stratas
- Pudding—tapioca, bread, rice, etc.
- Macaroons—a great way to use up all those whites!
I bet you never knew raising your own chickens could have so many benefits or be so much fun! Whether you have kids still running around the house or not, these creatures will bring a smile to your face as well as bestow the gift of a wonderfully nourishing, affordable food for your table. I highly recommend taking the plunge with a few backyard feathered friends!
Homestead Layer Hen Feed
This recipe is compliments of Vicki Hunnicut, homesteader in Central Colorado.
- 7 parts organic wheat (soft white or hard red)
- 2 parts whole or cracked organic corn
- 2 parts organic kamut
- 1 1/2 parts organic sesame seeds
- 1 part organic hulled barley
- 1 part organic millet
- 1 part organic oat groats
- 1 part organic quinoa
- 1 part organic sunflower seeds
- ½ part flax seeds (soaked and dried)
- ½ part kelp granules
- ¼ part finely ground egg shells
- Fraction of non-iodized salt
- Oyster shell and/or chick (granite) grit
- Finely crushed egg shell
- Raw goat milk and/or whey
Freezing Eggs for the Winter
Freezing eggs when your chickens are laying the most will keep up your supply during the winter when the girls slow down their production. Hens molt during this time and their resources are reserved for producing more feathers rather than eggs. Less light during the winter months also influences production, which is why some chicken-raisers use artificial light during to keep up production. However, if left to their own devices, egg production will reduce.
Eggs don’t freeze well in their shell, as the expansion inside causes them to crack. But eggs outside the shell are easily frozen for later use and will stay fresh in the freezer for up to nine months. To freeze the whole egg, break about five eggs (approximately 1 cup) into a bowl and pierce the yolks and stir slowly to mix. Beating too fast may create foam and add air bubbles which will dry out the eggs in the freezer. Also, adding a touch of salt or sugar to the mix will help keep egg yolks closer to their natural consistency. For every two eggs add about 1/8 teaspoon of salt and 1 teaspoon of sugar, depending on what you plan to use them for after they are thawed. Either freeze a group of eggs in a glass container with no more than ½ inch head space (be sure to make a note on the outside of how many there are and if there is salt or sugar) or you can pour the stirred eggs into ice cube trays and once frozen store in bags in the freezer.
Egg yolks and whites can be frozen separately. Pierce about six or seven yolks and stir in either ¼ teaspoon salt or 1 teaspoon sugar and freeze. For the whites, just pour them into your container and seal (again leaving no more than ½ inch head space). Leave the frozen whites out at room temperature for half an hour and they will whip up just like fresh.22
Two Egg-rrific Recipes
Egg Drop Soup
Sauté 3 to 5 chopped green onions and a 1/2 teaspoon or so of freshly grated ginger in some butter or ghee on medium heat in a soup pot. Pour in a quart of homemade chicken broth and turn the temperature to medium high to bring it to a boil. Beat two eggs and pour them into the boiling broth. Salt and pepper to taste and serve. Make this recipe your own by adding other ingredients in the sauté stage, such as garlic, greens, mushrooms, etc. You may also beat in powdered Parmesan cheese with the eggs.
Cottage Cheese Egg Casserole
1 cup cottage cheese
Seasonings of your choice
1 cup shredded cheese of your choice
Veggies of your choice, chopped or sliced
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
This versatile recipe never fails in my house. Beat the eggs and add the cottage cheese. Season with any herbs and spices that match your cheese, meat and vegetables of choice. Spread half of the mixture in an 8 by 8 glass baking dish. Top with your chosen fillings, then pour on the rest of the egg mixture. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 to 50 minutes.
Try these variations:
- add cumin and oregano to the egg mixture, layer with chunky salsa and shredded Monterey Jack cheese;
- add thyme and marjoram to the egg mixture and layer it with sautéed mushrooms, onions and asparagus and add Gruyère cheese;
- add garlic (fresh or powdered) in the egg mixture, layer with sautéed onion, shredded zucchini and chopped Italian sausage along with Jack cheese;
- add basil to the egg mixture and layer with frozen green beans and canned or fresh tomato chunks along with a mix of cheddar and feta cheese.
- Sommerburg O, Keunen JE, Bird AC, van Kuijk FJ. Fruits and vegetables that are sources for lutein and zeaxanthin: the macular pigment in human eyes. Br J Ophthalmol. 1998 Aug;82(8):907-10.
- Handelman GJ, Nightingale ZD, Lichtenstein AH, Schaefer EJ, Blumberg JB. Lutein and zeaxanthin concentrations in plasma after dietary supplementation with egg yolk. Am J Clin Nutr. 1999 Aug;70(2):247-51.
- Chung HY, Rasmussen HM, Johnson EJ. Lutein bioavailability is higher from lutein-enriched eggs than from supplements and spinach in men. J Nutr. 2004 Aug; 134(8):1887-93.
- Antioxidant status and neovascular age-related macular degeneration. Eye Disease Case-Control Study Group. Arch Ophthalmol. 1993 Jan;111(1):104-9.
- Mozaffarieh M, Sacu S, Wedrich A. The role of the carotenoids, lutein and zeaxanthin, in protecting against age-related macular degeneration: A review based on controversial evidence. Nutr J. 2003 Dec 11;2(1):20.
- Brown L, Rimm EB, Seddon JM, et al. A prospective study of carotenoid intake and risk of cataract extraction in US men. Am J Clin Nutr. 1999 Oct;70(4):517- 24.
- Millen AE, Tucker MA, Hartge P, et al. Diet and melanoma in a case-control study. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2004 Jun;13(6):1042-51.
- Slattery M. L. et al. Carotenoids and colon cancer. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 71, No. 2, 575-582, February 2000.
- Zhang S, Hunter DJ, Forman MR, et al. Dietary carotenoids and vitamins A, C, and E and risk of breast cancer. J Natl Cancer Inst. 1999 Mar 17;91(6):547-56. 10. Roehl, Evelyn. Whole Food Facts. The Complete Reference Guide. Healing Arts Press. 1996.
- Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens. Gail Damerow. Schoolhouse Rd. Pownal, Vermont. 1995. p 141.
- Bornstein, S. and I. Bartov (1966). “Studies on egg yolk pigmentation. I. A comparison between visual scoring of yolk color and colorimetric assay of yolk carotenoids.” Poult Sci 45(2): 287-96.
- Tolan et al, “Studies on the Composition of Food, The chemical composition of eggs produced under battery, deep litter and free-range conditions.” Br. J. Nutrition, (1974) 31:185).
- Hattersley, Joseph G. Eggs are Great Food! Townsend Letter for Doctors & Patients. 1996.
- Saitoh S, Sato T, Harada H, Takita T. Transfer of soy isoflavone into the egg yolk of chickens. Biosci Biotechnol Biochem. 2001 Oct;65(10):2220-5.
- Hope BK, Baker R, Edel ED, Hogue AT, Schlosser WD, Whiting R, McDowell RM, Morales RA. An overview of the Salmonella enteritidis risk assessment for shell eggs and egg products. Risk Anal. 2002 Apr;22(2):203-18.
- Raw Eggs for Your Health—Major Update. http://www.mercola.com/2002/nov/13/eggs.htm.
- The No-Grain Diet Book Review.
- Weston A. Price Foundation, FAQ-Miscellaneous Food
- Bailey, Janet. Keeping Food Fresh. How to Choose and Store Everything You Eat. Harper and Row, Publishers, New York. 1989.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2008.