I don’t mean ‘if I only had 25 chickens my life would be complete’.
No. I mean ‘all I ever wanted was 25 chickens, NOT 700.’
At the pinnacle of my chicken mania, my flock was about 450 laying hens and 250 baby chicks. We dispatched about 200 of the oldest birds that fall, so thankfully, I only had about 700 chickens for most of one summer.
I fondly remember 20 plus years ago our original tiny household flock of 6-8 Barred Rocks. The birds fit perfectly and easily into our lives, our yard and the small camper originally designed to sit in the bed of a truck.
And then, in 1996 or so, I went to an AERO annual meeting. Andy Lee, the keynote speaker, introduced me to the idea of chicken tractors. Chicken tractors are small mobile coops. The birds become mini tractors, eating weeds and bugs, tilling and fertilizing the field in their mobile pens.
I came home from AERO’s annual meeting ready to get SERIOUS about chickens. I had that gleam in my eye that my partner has come to recognize as me somehow roping him into work of epic proportions.
And our life of chicken work did, indeed, become epic. We built 7 or 8 chicken tractors each to house between 25-50 birds. Then the raccoon ripped the heads off a bunch of chickens, so we restapled smaller mesh wire to each and every side of each and every tractor. And then the skunk burrowed under and killed some more birds, so we added an 18 inch wire skirt, flayed on the ground at the base of each and every side of each and every tractor. Then the windstorm blew one of the tractors across the field, bouncing as it went, miracously not killing or hurting even one bird, but causing grave concern as we witnessed the whole episode.
Then we built a big, beautiful barn. One set of feeders and waterers, one set of roosts and nesting boxes, all in one centralized location. The chickens were gathered from their tractors and re-housed all in one centralized location. We fenced two large yards on the sides of the barn. And once again, the chicken delusion exploded.
Somehow I rationalized there was not much difference between watering and feeding ‘just a few hundred more chickens’, especially now that the girls were all centrally located. It would just take a few extra minutes to fill an additional waterer or two, just a few extra minutes to dump another bucket or two of feed…
BUT, on the other end, it does not take just a few extra minutes to clean, store and market a kazillion extra eggs… And even a few extra minutes here and there adds up on a busy first generation farm. More nesting boxes to fluff and clean. More roosts to scoop poop from under. More. More. More. And that’s how I ended up with so many chickens.
I hovered around 450 birds for most of a decade, and slowly, from the peak of my chicken mania, the numbers started to recede. Replacement orders of baby chicks became erratic and our quantity discounts from the hatchery got smaller and smaller. Slowly, the flock got older, was replaced less frequently. Some of the birds died from attrition, the regular cast of predators and an occasional fall slaughter.
And now, for the first time in over 20 years, I will spend my winter chicken-less. I will EAT plenty of chicken this winter, but a chicken-less winter as in no trudging out to the birds several times a day to feed, water, let out, check eggs, and then close in each evening. A chicken-less winter as in I won’t eat too many eggs. A chicken-less winter as in food scraps will go to the worm bin and compost instead of to the girls. A chicken-less winter as in no more excusing ourselves early from social engagements “to go close in the chickens.”
It was a difficult decision, but somehow fitting, for me to spend the weekend of AERO’s 39th annual meeting at home, on the farm. It was the first annual meeting I’ve missed in well over a decade.
I stayed home, processing and getting into the freezer our diminished flock of about 40 hens and two roosters. White Tail, the meanest rooster we ever had, now lives only in legend. For too many years, he terrorized children and adults who were victimized either by his actual rancor, witnessing it, or hearing the stories of it.
As we processed the birds, all weekend, I thought about the amazing community of AERO members, the delicious food, the laughs I was missing. I thought about the new crop of babies and Food Corps volunteers. I thought about the speakers, the workshops, the new passion and ideas I was missing.
I thought of this and more as I spent the weekend not at AERO’s 39th meeting, but at home, on the farm, processing and freezing the last birds of my diminished flock. Those last birds, standing between me and my first chicken-less winter in over 20 years…
In Whitefish, I’m Pam Gerwe for the Alternative Energy Resources Organization. AERO has been linking people with sustainable agriculture and energy solutions since 1974. Visit us online at aeromt.org
This commentary originally aired on December 5, 2013 on Montana Public Radio.