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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Backyard Chickens Part One Introduction

The Girls
We love chooks! To see them sailing, like small, curved ships, around the farm or garden is so relaxing and pleasurable. Our girls (and their roosters) spend their days grazing on green grass and dust bathing in the Orchard and Nuttery. They give so much: delicious, nutritious eggs, high nitrogen fertilizer, a meal if you can arrange for them to be humanely ‘processed’ (a nice euphemism for killed and dressed). They also give companionship and a great deal of fun and pleasure.
There has been a resurgence of interest in being a “backyarder”, the name given to people who keep a few chooks to supply eggs, as opposed to the “fancier” who usually specialises in a particular breed or two and focuses on the breeding of specified characteristics. We are very happy to be a backyarder as, underneath this conservative, middle aged exterior there may lay a touch of the animal liberationist.
If people are interested in acquiring some girls, and perhaps their male counterpart, there really needs to be some serious planning and preparation before the girls arrive. Like everything, they need a comfortable, safe house and yard; they need good quality food, companionship and room to move and express their personalities. And personalities they do have!
For gardeners, it may be better to keep garden and girls separated. What gardeners call mulch or compost, chooks call food. And they are very efficient foragers. So they can be great little helpers under fruit trees for example, as they will scratch and graze on bugs and pests, as well as any fallen fruit. They leave their droppings around the area which helps feed the worms and other living organisms in the soil. This chook manure is quite high in nitrogen and is excellent for some high foliage plants but can burn others; left to break down or incorporated into the compost, it is terrific stuff.
What they eat, can lead to what you eat, most quickly as eggs. We run our small farm organically/biodynamically. Therefore, no chemicals are used on any plant or animal; the girls can safely eat anything they are given access to, as we can. The eggs are as Nature intended. Most commercial eggs, in particular those labelled as ‘cage’, but also the “free range” or “barn laid” rarely see a blade of grass. The very nature of being a large scale, commercial producer necessitates the need for volume. Too many chooks on any amount of land leads to dirt, at best (battery hens don’t even have access to this!).
Hens need green grass (and what lives in and under the grass), as do most farm animals. It is what they were intended to eat. It supplies them with good amounts of Omega 3 fatty acids (albeit in a different form to those found in fish, but still very beneficial to our brains and cardiovascular systems in particular) as well as carotenoids in the form of beta carotene (a precursor to Vitamin A). This helps to give the eggs that golden colour and the long list of vitamins and minerals. Commercial feeds often contain an additive to colour the yolk. Hens who graze all day have higher amounts of Vitamin D, a vitamin now believed to be very important in helping to avoid osteoporosis by assisting the body to absorb calcium and deposit minerals on the bones. We get Vitamin D from sunlight on the skin, but the body’s ability to utilise and convert the sunlight decreases as we age, hence the need to include this vitamin in our diet.
Of an evening, we supplement this grazing diet with some whole grains. They love them, and the various grains we give them (corn, wheat, unhulled sunflower seeds mainly) supply some Omega 6s, of which chooks and us need less than what has become fairly prominent in the human and animal diet. Too much of these Omega 6s are now being blamed for inflammation in the body which is being increasingly linked with diseases such as arthritis, rheumatism, digestive problems, skin reactions, stress and also heart disease. The list goes on.
So what the chooks eat is really important to their health, longevity and happiness, as it is to ours. By allowing the girls to lead a healthy and contented life, they contribute to our own health, happiness and longevity.

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