Free range chickens are not necessarily free


In the past several years we’ve seen a resurgence of rural people raising small flocks of chickens. There are several reasons for this. Eggs are the most obvious, but chickens clean up grubs and other creeping and flying critters so they won’t attack your lawn, pets or even you.
Some folks are concerned about the amount of antibiotics, hormones and other chemicals fed to poultry and livestock. Unless you raise the birds yourself there is no guarantee you won’t ingest some of these. Simply labeling eggs or chicken meat as free range does not mean they haven’t been fed or injected with unwanted chemicals.
Free range is also a very broad term. Birds can be labeled as free range simply by being allowed a short time outside each day. They don’t even have to have access to grass or bugs to eat. If you raise your own this isn’t an issue.
All is still not rosy. Animals require care and sometimes even with our best efforts some may still perish. Predators, both wild and domestic are a big problem. Foxes, weasels, dogs and feral cats can be tough even on adult birds. Possums, raccoons, snakes and skunks can clean up eggs and young chicks in a hurry. These are just the most common ground predators. Even your own pets can be a problem if you don’t train them well.
Flying raiders like hawks and crows can be major headaches. Sometimes stretching string or wire in a coarse woven fashion from nearby tree branches to the coop can discourage air attacks. These tactics are nice to know since shooting protected birds can get you into trouble.
Training your flock to come inside to a safe place at night is the best way to avoid losing birds. This can be tedious if your chickens range over a large area or are decent flyers and begin roosting in trees. Some breeds, especially hardier ones tend to be wilder. Also, roosters don’t simply crow in the morning. They crow all day.
Another problem you might encounter is difficulty in finding eggs. Hens must be trained where to lay or they will lead you on a daily egg hunt. Eggs also might require cleaning. Another problem is they might find your flower and vegetable gardens excellent table fare. Your steps and walks might also make great bathroom facilities for them too. If their choice is your neighbor’s steps, porch or vehicles then that’s another problem altogether.
Assuming I haven’t turned you off entirely, there are many advantages to having your own flock of chickens. They help clean up leftover food waste. Eggs have higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, less cholesterol and saturated fat and more vitamins A and E. You can also be certain they haven’t been given any chemicals you might not want in your body.
Perhaps the greatest benefit is the intrinsic satisfaction one gets from self-sufficiency. In these economic times that might be something that could benefit our pocketbooks and our spirit.

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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About tedmanzer

I grew up in Old Town Maine and got a B.S. at the University of Maine in Plant Sciences/ minor in Botany. From there I moved to West Virginia and earned a M.S. in Agronomy at WVU. I also met my wife there. She grew up in rural WV as the daughter of tenant farmers who raised cattle and hogs. Their lifestyle at times was one of subsistence and I learned a lot from them. I've always been a foraging buff, but combining my formal botanical knowledge with their practical 'Foxfire-type' background opened up my eyes a little more. I now teach agriculture to high school students at Northeastern High School in Elizabeth City, NC. My wife teaches with me and we make a great team. I also write a weekly nature/foraging column for the local paper (dailyadvance.com) and frequently publish articles in several other newspapers in northeastern North Carolina. I also have written several Christian nature/adventure novels that I plan to publish eventually. One is a five book family saga I call the 'Forgotten Virtues' series. In the first book, Never Alone, a young boy comes of age after his father dies in a plane crash, and he has to make it alone. Never Alone is now available in paperback, Kindle and Nook. The second book, Strange Courage, takes Carl from his High School graduation to his recovery from a nasty divorce. The third book, Second Chances, takes Carl from his ex-wife's death and the custody of his son to his heroic death at age 59. The fourth book, Promises Kept, depicts how his grandchildren react and adjust to his death. In the final book, Grandfather's Way, his youngest and most timid granddaughter emerges from the shadow of her overachieving family and accomplishes more in four months than most do in a lifetime. I use many foraging references with a lot of the plants I profile in these articles in those books.
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