Uses For Chickens
Chickens can provide many different things for your family, and knowing why you want them can help you make other decisions on breeds and flock sizes. The great thing about chickens is that you don't necessarily have to have chickens for one single purpose. You can have a backyard flock for the eggs and also for garden fertilizer, for example.
The most common reason why people keep their own chickens is for the eggs. Hens will produce eggs naturally without any help, or without a rooster present and they can be "harvested" without any slaughtering.
A high-producing hen can lay one egg almost every day, though in reality most chickens will produce 3 to 5 eggs each week. During winter months, they will lay much less frequently and may quit altogether due to the shorter days. It's not actually the cold that puts them off, but the lack of daylight. If your chicken coop has supplemental lighting to keep the days longer, you will have more luck with eggs in the winter. Some people prefer to give their hens a break, and simply let nature work on its own.
Hens will keep laying eggs for several years, but not forever. Even though you are not slaughtering any birds, you will eventually need to replenish your flock. Without a rooster, your own eggs will never hatch out to chicks, so you will either need to buy fertilized eggs or new chicks after 3 or 4 years to keep your egg supply going.
You will have to collect your eggs daily, and even twice a day during hot weather to prevent any eggs from spoiling in the heat. Once you have them, you'll need to decide if they need cleaning. You can always just wash all your eggs but freshly laid chicken eggs have a natural coating on them to keep them fresh longer. Once you give them even a light washing, that will be gone.
The difference is actually quite significant. A washed egg will keep in the fridge for about a month, but an unwashed egg will still be good after 4 months. Any eggs that have droppings or dirt must be washed, but any that are generally clean on the outside can be left as-is. Storing eggs in old egg cartons is a good idea, except that farm fresh eggs are commonly much larger than store eggs so they may not fit very well.
The eggs from your flock will be distinctively different in some ways from those bought at the store. As soon as you collect them, you may notice that the shells are rough or even bumpy. That's normal. Commercial eggs are actually buffed down to make them smoother, which also thins the shells considerably. So your fresh eggs will have very hard shells by comparison, which can take some time to get used to when you go to crack them.
Inside, the yolks are usually much firmer than store-bought eggs and will be a much darker yellow (though that will vary, depending on the food your chicken is getting).
Though meat is the next obvious purpose for keeping chickens, it's not usually the reason for most backyard farmers. When slaughtering birds, you need a constant supply of new chicks to replace the birds that are killed. Its certainly possible with a small flock but it will take a bit more effort and planning.
And of course, the slaughtering process is not really for everyone. Though with some good diagrams, you can learn how to do it from books but if you can find someone to demonstrate the process it will go a lot better for you. Each chicken must first be killed, usually by cutting the throat or removing the head entirely with a very sharp knife. The birds are hung upside-down to let the blood drain, and then they are either skinned or plucked.
Skinning the birds means you can skip the plucking chore, though not everyone wants skinless chicken for cooking. The feathers will come out much easier if you dunk the bird into scalding hot water for a minute or two first. If you plan on doing a lot of plucking, you can actually buy an automated chicken plucker that looks a lot like a big bucket with rubber "fingers" inside. The whole machine shakes rapidly, and the rubber rubs out the feathers.
Any breed of chicken will produce eggs but the smaller ones can be a poor choice if raising meat is your goal. Bantam chickens aren't usually kept for meat, for example. Orpingtons or Plymouth Rocks are two big chickens that excel for meat use.
Since either male or female birds can be used for meat, you won't have to be concerned quite as much about whether you are getting hens or roosters when buying chicks.
Are you keeping a garden in your yard as well as chickens? Whether you are growing flowers, fruit or vegetables, you can benefit from your chicken manure. It's a wonderful addition to any compost bin, so feel free to shovel all the straw or wood chips from the chicken house right into the compost. And unlike horse or cow manure, chicken manure doesn't need to be "aged". Fresh manure won't burn your plants, so you can even dump the used chicken bedding straight into your garden.
Even chickens that are kept in a small pen can really make a big difference in your yard's insect population. Free-range chickens are even better. Don't buy into the mistaken idea that chickens just eat grain or corn. They love bugs of all kinds, and will devour all the grasshoppers, caterpillars and beetles that would otherwise be chomping on your garden plants. Chickens aren't as great at the very small insects that bother you, like mosquitoes. You'll still need to get some bug spray for them.
Admittedly, they don't always distinguish between pests and the insects that you want in a garden (like ladybugs, for example). Overall, they provide a fabulous service and the more bugs they eat, the less grain you have to provide for them.
You don't even have to get anything from your chickens in order for them to be a worthwhile project. A few friendly chickens are great fun and many keep them simply as outdoor pets. Unfortunately, you can't just turn off the egg laying, so if you have any hens, you will still need to collect eggs every day to keep your chicken coop clean. Though if you really don't want the hassle, then just keep a few roosters.
Some breeds are more suited for a pet lifestyle, like Orpingtons, Silkies or Cochins. They are friendly birds that enjoy the company of people.
In Your Garden
If you are growing a vegetable garden, you can also use your chickens to help get your garden area ready for planting each spring. Either move your portable pen over the area, or set up a temporary fence to keep them in one place. Then they will naturally peck and scratch, getting rid of weed seeds and any dormant grubs in the soil. All that activity will also get the top of the soil nice and loose for you.
This is really a bit of an offshoot from having chickens as pets, but it is another function your chickens can have in your household. Just like with cats or dogs, there are shows for chickens as well. They are judged by their breed in terms of color, size and other qualities.
Living in a big city may put you at a disadvantage for this hobby, but try contacting any local poultry associations (most states have at least one) and ask about hobby chicken shows. It may seem a little frivolous compared to producing food for your family, but amassing a collection of ribbons for your chickens is something to be proud of. Some of the more "showy" breeds are more common for this (like silkies) but depending on your region, you may be able to show any breed.
Feathers just a tiny possible use for your chickens, and people seldom keep them just for this. But some of the larger tail feathers can be quite attractive and suitable for various craft uses once they are cleaned up. The smaller downy feathers also work well in different kinds of hand-tied fishing flies.
Trying to use the down for larger purposes like stuffing for pillows or clothing is almost futile for a small-scale chicken keeper. Between the amount of down you'd need and the difficulty in collecting and cleaning it, it's just not a realistic use for your chickens.
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