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.