The Small-Scale Poultry Flock
by Harvey Ussery
Chelsea Green Publishing, 2011
The foreword to The Small-Scale Poultry Flock is written by Joel Salatin, which is always a good way to start a book. If you read and study this book, you will learn almost everything there is to know about chickens except why they cross the road (unless I missed that). However, as Harvey Ussery wisely points out, you may think you know about chickens, but you will not know chickens until you spend some time with real, live chickens.
Most how-to or all-about books can be rather dry and tedious. While there are sections that get deep into the nuts and bolts of how and why things are done the way they are on the Ussery homestead, this book is spiced up with interesting stories. In one memorable example, a friend was watching TV on a windy night when he heard a persistent tapping at his front door. He opened the door to find not a raven, but one of his own hens who led him back to the chicken house where the wind had blown shut the coop door, trapping the birds outside. Apparently the flock had analyzed the situation, determined they were going to need help, and sent a messenger to obtain that help.
Ussery corrects common misunderstandings for those who don’t know any better. Some chickens really do lay naturally white eggs and they have the same nutritional content as eggs of any other color. Technically the male of the species is called a cock, not a rooster, and the good ones will “dance for the ladies.” Both males and females can be surprisingly ferocious fighters. The noises chickens make are not completely random. They make specific sounds for contentment, calling their chicks, warning the flock of an approaching predator, or warning an unwanted invader to get away or risk being shredded by sharp beaks and claws.
Many people probably know chickens have an elaborate social structure commonly referred to as a pecking order. You can’t have very many cocks or there will be endless war, kind of like with humans. Occasionally a cock will insist on picking a fight with his keeper. In cases of excessive incorrigibility, the only answer in this situation is for the keeper to take advantage of his or her higher position on the food chain.
Chickens and other birds will do a lot of farm work for you if you let them. You can have chicken tillers and composters, goose weeders, and duck bug-and-slug zappers. They help with fertilization when their numbers are kept to a reasonable limit. However, as concentrated commercial operations have shown, you will run into trouble if you try to find out how many chickens can dance on the head of a pin.
Several chapters discuss what to feed a chicken, and there is also some brief coverage of feed for other birds. Chickens are omnivores and some can be more self-sufficient than others. As with humans, it is best to stick to feeds with ingredients you can pronounce. Appendices in the back give additional feeding details along with instructions for building various structures you and your chickens might want. Appendix G has an interesting comparison between nutritional content of eggs from factory farms versus eggs from someone like Harvey Ussery or Joel Salatin.
Mr. Ussery doesn’t go into any long rants but covers a little of everything from the morality of eating chicken, to the economics of why one would want to spend more money on good local food instead of “cheaper” commercial grocery food; from how to stretch increasingly worthless dollars to how chickens help build compost. I didn’t notice any mention of whether dollar bills would make a good addition to compost but that’s okay. The thumb is UP.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Fall 2011.