Livestock- Chickens

A wise friend of mine once told me “There never was a chicken that didn’t die in debt”. She was referring to how chickens were a losing economic proposition if you ever stopped to add up all the constant inputs of feed, housing, medication, replacement animals and most importantly time. Backyard chickens raised in this manner can simply never compete with the economics of industrial chicken meat and egg production. Not even close. People might try to tell you that it wasn’t always like this, but the truth is a little more complicated than that.

Intensive laying breeds of chickens have been around since the time of the ancient Egyptians, likely longer since they originally came from far away in the jungles of South East Asia, originating as a hybrid between two or three closely related wild species. These breeds have slender bodies, nervous temperaments, high mobility and generally poor mothering skills (so they don’t stop laying to sit on a clutch). In ancient times these birds were multiplied intensively in giant walk in incubating structures, kept to the ideal temperature without thermometers by specialised workers who would move hot coals in and out as needed. These are the breeds like the white leghorn, which contributed to the modern battery laying hen lines like the scraggly orange Isa Browns. This modern version is an even more perfected egg laying machine that matures quickly, produces prolifically for less than a year then burns out their ovaries, making them a terrible choice for tender hearted home producers who won’t turn them into chicken mince after they quickly stop laying. Older breeds tend to take much longer to mature but then keep going for at least a few years.

I tried raising a flock of one of these older egg laying breeds, a rare old type called Minorcas that are a beautiful glossy black. The flock was housed in a “mobile” house in a cow paddock, too heavy to move but built to be unbolted and moved in sections. I never did get around to moving it even once, partly because the birds prefer to roost in a familiar spot, making shifting home a dangerous activity if they got lost at night. Such structures are a difficult balancing act between strength and weight, so they can be moved but maintain structural integrity in the process. They also need to be heavy enough to not blow away during storms, and well insulated enough to not turn into an oven during summer. Some form of predator protection is also needed, with a series of electric lines running around the pen doing a good job for me, but requiring constant fixing and nightly activation. Despite having unlimited free ranging opportunities the flock still required large amounts of concentrated feed to lay well. We found peak egg production overlapped with peak goat milk production, and the time spent milking and tending chickens meant there was little time left over to do anything else. The flock and their house were sold off.

Chickens raised this way don’t actually produce anything. What is really happening is that they are taking the concentrated feed bought at the store (which is itself just the embodiment of concentrated fossil fuels, plus a bit of eroded topsoil), burning off all the carbohydrate energy and converting about one third of the protein into eggs. That cheap 20 kg bag of grain could keep a starving family alive for a week, or produce a couple dozen eggs for your amusement. As such laying hens do not make any sense in this industrially supported context (and yes even expensive organic grain is grown and transported by diesel powered machines). Originally laying hen flocks were an add-on to a grain growing and storing operation, which were common in most villages in pre-industrial farming. Peasants would not feed grain to the chickens unless there was a surplus. In good years the granaries would not be empty by the time the next harvest was coming in, so chickens were a way of converting the old, low quality grain into something more useful when there was plenty of grain to meet human needs, plus food scraps when available. Other omnivorous livestock like pigs operate much the same way, for example being added to a dairy to use surplus milk and by-products from butter and cheese making and convert it into a storable form, a literal piggy bank. These are not producing elements of an agricultural system, rather their job is transformation of large amounts of low quality food into small amounts of high quality food.

After a pleasant holiday from tending to chickens I started wondering if there was another approach to take. There are also less intensive multi-purpose strains of chickens that grow more slowly and only lay eggs seasonally, potentially reducing the demand for concentrated feed to tolerable levels. Chickens can also be useful for converting whey protein into eggs and meat, with the overlap of peak laying and milking in spring working in my favour this way. I also wanted to try using chickens to help control biting stable flies that had established in the goat pens, with their larvae visible in the manure at times. I wanted a bird that could also potentially free range closer to the house without causing too much damage to gardens, so one that was less mobile and curious in its free ranging, though there is a trade-off here since this goes along with greater need for me to provide food. In this case there is a free lunch for the chicken to find on its own, but that chicken lunch might end up being my dinner that gets eaten if they break into the vegetable gardens.

I settled on the heavy Brahma breed, a very old South East Asian multi-purpose strain. These large, quiet birds sometimes grow to massive proportions, though the Australian genetics tend to be normal sized. They were reputed to lay steadily throughout the year and tolerate hot weather well. One major drawback of chickens (or any plant or animal that has been raised intensively for many thousands of years) is that they have accumulated a long list of serious pests and diseases. By contrast geese and Muscovy ducks are virtually bullet proof. This factor is significant enough that I might replace chickens with Muscovy ducks entirely in time. Most problems can be avoided by never bringing live birds onto your property. Instead I went to the effort to source fertile eggs and start them in an incubator. I also made sure I sourced two unrelated strains, so that I can cross the genetics and delay worrying about inbreeding. One batch produced mostly females and the other males, so that was one less thing to coordinate.

The birds have mostly lived up to their reputation, being very quiet and handling summers well. The males don’t crow much and it is a deep sound, so tends not to travel far or invade people’s slumber. They aren’t especially friendly birds, though one rooster has developed a very affectionate attitude toward me, which helps since he is often picked up and dropped into the goat pen when I am clearing manure. He does a great job of picking up fly larvae, though is too lazy to dig them out himself, and if I leave him there alone he can fly out and wander. I have started letting the roosters free range for a few hours before they get their grain ration and they are behaving well so far despite being just outside a vegetable garden. The females took about 10 months to start laying fairly small eggs, which are produced very intermittently. Hopefully this spring they will lay enough eggs to bother hatching out a batch to build up their numbers. The females also showed a few genetic flaws, with fused and crooked toes and twisted tails turning up in a couple. As the numbers grow these traits must be culled out. Most chicken genetics in Australia is very limited since it is almost impossible to import new strains due to the host of serious diseases (some of which are not present in Australia) coupled to the massive economic importance of the industrial chicken industry. Much of the old pre-industrial genetics is only kept alive in small flocks of hobbyists, making it difficult to maintain genetic quality over time. Even worse many of these collectors select their animals for traits that win show ribbons, distorting the genetic base over time. Many of the breed descriptions from the 19th and early 20th century are mostly meaningless these days. The humble Australorp is a great example, transforming from a world record holding productive strain to bloated, greedy, glossy, useless monstrosities in the show ring today (though there are some people keeping the old production strains going if you look for them).

One excellent and detailed source I highly recommend is “The Small-Scale Poultry Flock” by Harvey Ussery. The book is so crammed with practical details (though more oriented for temperate climates) that it is impossible to review in detail. He does however touch upon the issues of impending resource depletion and what that might mean for animal husbandry in the future. His simple conclusion is that if he had to only have one breed then Old English Game would be his pick, as a strain unparalleled in its ability to free range its own feed and take care of its own needs. If you can learn to see livestock as agents of transformation, rather than producers, and select the right kinds to match your existing resource base then it is possible to raise animals that are a net positive, both economically and ecologically.

Hatchling Brahma chicks fresh out of the incubator and pest and disease free
Young Brahma hens in their run. Grated arrowroot pulp from starch processing was not highly rated by them.
A rooster hard at work reducing our stable fly population
Our friendly lead Brahma rooster Lollygag, enjoying some time outside

8 thoughts on “Livestock- Chickens

  1. “People might try to tell you that it wasn’t always like this, but the truth is a little more complicated than that.”

    I was flush with excitement to read this sentence. I always enjoy your livestock articles and when you break down issues and blindspots in our current production systems. both commercially and locally. To get both in one is a treat.

    I’m curious as to how geese and ducks compare to chickens? Specifically when it comes to their ability to free-range and live without supplemental feed, along with any other aspects you consider important enough to mention.

    I personally was only planning on having ducks in the food forest area of my future property, and am now worried that this will not be possible if I only plan to free-range them. I’m okay with only using them for their meat and not getting many or any eggs, if necessary.

    Bonus question: You mentioned in a previous article article about how some of your vegetables are going to vinegar production. I’m curious what you’re using the vinegar for? I assume it’s beyond just a dressing.


  2. Nice to see you write about chickens. I agree with what you say. And thank you for the book recommendation.

    If you are interested I try explain a bit about the chickens here of SEA since that’s where they come from.

    Here in the Philippines, the birthplace of chickens there are still “wild chickens”. There is wild jungle fowl in the forests and the locals here some times try to catch it at night for meat. They claim the wild jungle fowl has the best tasting meat, they also say the eggs and meat of the native chickens (one of the oldest breeds of chickens closely related to junglefowl) here have the best taste. Personal experience has shown this to be true. Besides that the junglefowl also looks very pretty.
    There are also people here who maintain pure jungle fowl breeds and pure native chicken breeds.

    Commercial grown chickens for eggs and meat are usually of the European variety and can not handle the tropical heat. They live in large houses with climate control (air conditioning). The eggs and meat of these chickens is very cheap despite the common agreement that eggs and meat of native chickens are tastier and more wanted.
    The native chickens and even the jungle fowls are slowly becoming extinct because the industrial preference.
    The upside is that small farmers can sell native chicken eggs and meat for triple the price of the industrial variant, because the demand is high, but the supply is low. However because the Philippines is a poor country most people opt for the cheaper industrial eggs.

    In the area where I live which is right next to the forest the farmers usually keep 2 flocks of chickens. 1 flock is completely free range with roosters and chicks. They breed freely without intervention and walk around anywhere. They sleep in the trees and nest between wild grasses and weeds. This flock is only for meat consumption and whenever a chicken is needed for meat it is catched. This flock is sometimes also eaten by wild animals like snakes, hawks, eagles, and the Asian Leopard Cat (A wild jungle cat the same size as a house cat, but faster, more agile, and more aggressive). However the native chickens still have their survival instinct and live semi-wild so they can quickly fly into a tree or run away to escape a predator.

    The other flock they keep consists of only hens in small bamboo boxes which is fed rice, corn or commercial feed. This flock is only for egg laying. The hens for this flock are usually taken from the free-range flock.

    I myself have also have a flock a of Philippine native chickens. They seem to handle the tropical heat just fine as well as the torrential rains. They are very agile, smart, and more disease resistant. They definitely need less care and effort than the European variants.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That is a really amazing comment- thanks for sharing. I wondered after I posted the article whether anyone was working on maintaining the older semi-wild chicken genetics and you answered my question. I wish we could get lines like that here to work with. So often people regard things like your wild chickens as common, old fashioned and undesirable but then you turn around one day and they are all gone and no amount of money can bring them back. I have tried guinea fowl but found they are very stupid and difficult to breed (most lines are non-broody and tend to run off and leave their tiny babies to dying trying to keep up). I might try turkeys one day but Aussie genetics is even more limited than chickens. Interestingly experiments have shown that almost all the ground fowl (chickens, turkeys, pheasants, peacocks etc) are cross fertile to some degree, though it requires artificial insemination normally to get started. I wonder if a mad chicken scientist will follow this possibility through one day to develop a totally new type of poultry.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ll second the Harvey Ussery endorsement. His topic that I’ve thought the most about is that of low cost feeding. For me, that means figuring out how to wean off fossil fuel subsidized grains. Harvey’s environs is just a bit warmer than here in Wisconsin, so he is able to grow soldier flies, that convert plant matter to protein for the chooks to eat. I am too far north for them. My plan is to build up a large worm farm, and convert plant matter to worms.

    Don’t know if you have soldier flies in Australia, but that might be one way to supplement the food supply.

    Not sure I’ll ever get to his level for breeding and genetic improvement. We get enough hens go broody to keep the flock going, but I have no idea what is happening to the genetics.

    I’m happy with our Australorps, who free range just fine, and seem to be just a bit more “street wise” than some of the other breeds we’ve tried.

    BTW- excellent blog, just wish you lived in a temperature climate so I could apply more of what you have learned.


  4. We have soldier flies here, but they are a fair bit of work of maintain and produce feed for. Most people I know doing them on any scale rely on truck loads of imported food scraps from restaurants etc. I suspect for me even if I was growing suitable soft vegetation for them its growth would stall when we had a drought, interrupting production for months at a time. I would rather just feed the vegetation to my goats and get milk instead of eggs.

    Production lines of Australorps are still some of the better dual purpose chicken genetics out there. I might get some to cross into the brahma to give them a little more vigor, though my chicken numbers will probably never be high enough to do proper breeding since you need a lot of birds every generation to do meaningful selection.

    I am still leaning toward muscovy ducks and geese being the better post-oil poultry since they are pest and disease proof and can forage almost all their own feed if you have the room for them. Chickens were a fairly rare animal in the past, usually just a few wandering the barn yards for pest control and I suspect we will go back to that in time. By contrast geese were very common in places that suited them, but the noise/aggression/wandering issues and space requirements have made them much less common.


  5. It seems your leaning towards what is working best, which i applaud, but chickens may be a self fulfilling prophecy. The one issue with no live animals is your leaving nature. Parents teach skills like foraging. Like any animal i would buy live from a farm where they live similar lives practicing the skills i want.

    I think people brush off chickens as easy and then put in that much effort and wonder why it goes poorly. You wouldnt try buying newborn goats/cows/pigs and raising them into breeding stock first try.

    Also i wouldnt go with brahmas personally. Seems like they have been bred as show stock in recent times. Dorkings (dual purpose heritage british), australorp (dual purp aussie), sommerlad (aussie bred meat bird), rhode island reds (layer) and isa browns (layer) are personally on my list to trial. But as above breed alone wont mean much if they arent taught to forage.

    I also plan to cross them with jungle fowl as mentioned above, this can be a good way of introducing positive wild traits onto european offspring.


    1. I’m still not 100 % convinced the brahmas are the best breed for me (at least the lines I have), as much as I am not convinced chickens are right for me. Birds definitely run on instincts so I am not concerned at all about birds raised in isolation from fertile eggs lacking foraging ability. If I give up on the brahmas for a while then I might go back to a production line of australorp if I can find fertile eggs, though they can be a fairly nasty breed in terms of internal flock politics with the hens being pretty brutal with each other in my experience. Isa browns are definitely not a great choice for back yard producers, being perfectly bred for battery laying farms with very short turn around times for each bird. Like a lot of what is offered to backyard producers they are simply industrial surplus, along with grafted fruit trees suited for intensive orchards and vegetable seed suited for greenhouses. I wish you luck with crossing your chicken lines back to jungle fowl though.

      With the goats the process you mention is actually a common practice. There is a nasty viral disease (CAE) that is spread from mother to offspring via the milk. It was probably always in goats but rare in the past, with sickly goats being culled before it could spread much. In modern times it became possible to bottle feed kids with pooled milk from a whole milking herd, meaning the virus could spread from one sick mother to all the kids. The only way to get virus free stock back is to catch the kids at birth and raise them on heat treated milk. This does have a negative impact on the first generation which dont get a dose of antibodies in the first milk, but past that point the health returns to the flock. And mother goats can also teach bad foraging habits to their kids, such as how to get through fences. My herd is amazing in being almost perfectly contained with single electric lines, but it would only take one naughty goat to teach all the others to misbehave.


      1. To me all animals (ourselves included) have similar levels of instincts. I feel its just humans superiority complex which has led us to consider ourselves separate and beyond primitive instincts. There are numerous examples throughout nature of mothers and or skilled individuals teaching others how to access/utilize niche food sources. From orcas to monkeys, crows and even humble livestock. I am not too worried about pecking orders, there are some birds which do seem more to take it too far, which is where it helps to be dual purpose i suppose =). Although I will grant you it does seem that commercialized breeds seem to have many instincts selectively bred out of them.

        Plenty of TV shows have done the crossing back to game fowl, its just reinvigorating the genetics which have been drowned for quantity over quality for both eggs and meat. Unfortunately I cannot taste the TV so I am dying to try myself.

        I wasn’t actually referring to CAE but intestinal parasites mostly. If goats eat from the same pasture too often their worms etc build up in the pasture and the animals. Can be remedied by intensive cell grazing, co-grazing with cows or sheep (who feed differently to goats and can increase carrying capacity) or by providing alternative food sources. We ran goats on the farm I grew up on, and a goats knack for escape seems only to really get tested when there is something on the other side they dont have (weaning/breeding being the times where you need to fight that haha). Otherwise we found they were usually after the more diverse feed and that a tree/bush tempted them across.

        thanks for replying, I like your approach to your farm.


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