Friday, January 30, 2015

10 years with chickens

Backyard Poultry magazine editor Ryan Slabaugh asked me to write some thoughts on the occasion of the magazine's tenth anniversary.  It was a good occasion to reflect on how Americans have changed their relationship with chickens over the past decade. Here's what I wrote:

When I wrote my first book, How to Raise Chickens, in 2007, I was excited about chickens. But as I told people about it, they didn’t react with the same enthusiasm. “Chickens?’ they would say. “Is it a cookbook?”

The idea of keeping a small flock in the backyard was unusual, even quirky. Now, every person I talk to is either raising their own or knows someone who is. It’s been a revolution in livestock. The chicken, little considered except on our plates, rose up and arrived in public consciousness as the mascot of the Local Food Movement.

The concept of food miles entered the conversation, and carbon footprint. Both are ways of weighing the environmental impact of food. Fresh eggs from a backyard flock is as local as you can get!

Editor Elaine Belanger’s initial expectations for a magazine about backyard poultry flocks were modest.  I was excited, with my first book about chickens set to be published. Backyard Poultry’s first issues sold so quickly that it was clear she was on to a good idea. How to Raise Chickens sold well. In 2009, How to Raise Poultry, going beyond chickens to ducks, geese, turkeys, guineafowl and other fowl, was in readers’ eager hands. Chickens were suddenly hot.

Chickens in family life have come a long way since I got involved in the 1980s. My daughter persuaded me to buy some chicks at the feed store. Growing up in the suburbs didn’t prepare me for raising poultry. They started life in a plastic laundry basket in our living room, and we were launched. Soon friends were confiding, “I’ve always wanted to have chickens.”

At that time, there simply weren’t any books about backyard flocks, or much about heritage breeds. The American Poultry Association was active in 4-H, county fairs and other exhibition venues, but my background didn’t cross their path. As the chickens grew, I saw the need for a book. Eventually, I wrote it.

Backyard Poultry magazine was a welcome partner. I would have welcomed it back when I started! It has filled that role for many eager beginners since.

Those first chicks my daughter and I got introduced me to the idea of chickens as domestic birds, but they also introduced us to the world of heritage chicken breeds, poultry shows and poultry meat and egg production.

The Local Food Movement was picking up speed. Consumers were peeking behind the curtain of secrecy drawn by corporate agriculture on how crops and animals are raised. What we saw wasn’t pretty. High levels of chemicals on crops and fed to food animals, disgusting living conditions for the animals and exploitation of laborers. Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma in was published in 2006, picking up on the growing interest in how food is raised and how it gets to our tables. Although the conditions of livestock were awful, not everyone was willing to become a vegetarian. Backyard and small flock raising offered a middle path. Humane treatment, clean conditions, and voila! Better tasting food.

The increase in small flock poultry raising for production has inspired the APA to revive its Flock Inspection Program. The APA performed this service back in the 1950s, but the program lost ground as corporate industrial flocks dominated the market. In the past ten years, small poultry producers have found there are always more buyers than their small flocks can satisfy. Standard breed producers want to sell to consumers who appreciate their products. The APA is revamping its program for APA-certified judges to inspect flocks and award them APA Certification. Soon consumers will be able to buy Standard Barred Rock, Rhode Island Red or any other Standard breed a producer cares to raise.

Many remarkable people have come into my life during the Decade of Chickens. One is Frank Reese, an advocate for heritage poultry from his Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch in Kansas. He’s seen his sales of chickens and turkeys go from a few thousand to tens of thousands in the past ten years. He mentors other farmers to raise poultry to his high standards.

Frank Reese and some of his turkeys
He’s raising awareness of how modern commercial broilers have been bred to grow fast, beyond their physical capacity to support themselves and be healthy.

Temple Grandin, an authority on cattle behavior, turned her attention to industrial poultry in her Animals Make Us Human, published in 2009. “Chicken welfare is so poor that I can’t talk only about the core emotions in this chapter. I have to talk about chickens’ physical welfare as well.”

Temple Grandin and friends
Growing awareness led to laws banning the worst of crowded industrial chicken cages. California led the way with a proposition approved by voters in 2008, followed by a law from the legislature. Industrial poultry welfare – California also banned foie gras because it requires force-feeding ducks and geese -- will continue to rouse controversy, but small flock raising has changed the conversation in the last decade.

Backyard chickens have become popular enough for hatcheries to develop hybrids targeted to the backyarder, but heritage breeds remain the best choice for small flocks. Heritage breeds have demonstrated their ability to adapt to local conditions and reproduce naturally. They are vigorous and long-lived. The most humane living conditions won’t help birds that have lost their innate natural behaviors.

“This is why it’s important to preserve the old breeds of animals and poultry,” Dr. Grandin writes. “Keeping the classic breeds alive is the only way to preserve genetic diversity and to save animals that have valuable genetic traits breeders may want to breed back into commercial lines in the future….Fortunately, many of the older breeds of poultry and livestock are being raised by local farmers and sold in farmers’ markets or to gourmet restaurants. If a serious disease ever kills commercial broilers or layers, the entire world will be thanking the small producers and hobbyists who have kept the old breeds of chickens from becoming extinct.”

We’re all beginners in some sense. I learn something about poultry every day. Heritage breeds connect your backyard flock with the past and the future. Dominiques are the first American breed and Dorkings date back to the Roman conquest of Britain.

Jim Ward's lovely Dominique rooster
The next step in that history has catapulted chickens into family life in the past decade.  Issues that weren’t even on the radar ten years ago are now in people’s backyards, on their tongues and debated in houses of government. Backyard Poultry magazine has been part of our expanding involvement with chickens and other poultry. The changes have been so amazing that they have given me hope that other changes will open opportunities in the next ten years.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Backyard news

Little Pixie so enjoyed her dirt bath yesterday. I couldn't resist taking a
Pixie rolled happily in the soft dirt.
picture of her.

Ms. Ancona's comb has fully recovered from her winter molting droop. She's now laying again and feeling fine.

As she was growing up and her comb started developing, my husband was concerned that we had another rooster.  He is convinced now that she is a hen.
Left to right, Blue Laced Red Wyandotte, Ms. Ancona with her lush, red comb.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Pixie's first egg

Pixie, a Peruvian basket chicken, laid her first egg yesterday! It's a beauty, perfectly shaped, with a strong shell. It's small, but not as tiny as she is.
Marans egg and Pixie's first egg
This Marans pullet is a couple months younger than Pixie.
She is entirely black, with a purple sheen in the sunlight. She has muffs that give her face a fancy look. Her comb is a small rose comb. She has a strong personality and is often first to step up if a threat presents itself.

Pixie enjoys scratching in the oak leaf litter.
She struggled to join the flock, hatched in an incubator with her three brothers. They had to move to a farm in Vermont and she was devastated at losing their companionship. Her small size confused the other girls and her anxiety about her brothers interfered with a smooth transition into the flock.

Eventually, everyone got over all obstacles and she is now fully accepted. She enjoys roaming the yard and scratching for bugs. She loves it so much, that when I tempt the other girls back into the pen with an ear of fresh corn, she'd just as soon stay out, scratching.

Her unusual appearance and difficult life path have endeared her to me. Although I spent time holding her every day when she was a chick, she became suspicious of me after the mysterious disappearance of her brothers. She keeps her distance.

She is quite proud of her eggs. She laid a second one today, as perfect as the first. I haven't eaten one yet.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

APA National

The American Poultry Association Ohio National Poultry Show in November brought out some amazing birds and their dedicated breeders. Jeannette Beranger, program manager for The Livestock Conservancy made this video of some of them.More photos are posted here.

Happy New Year! This is a good moment to reflect on the past year and look forward to new goals in 2015. I'll be writing a new book, a new version of the Field Guide to Chickens. I look forward to learning more about the many heritage standard breeds and those that are not recognized by the Standard but nevertheless play a role in family life.

I'm enjoying the two Marans pullets my Wyandotte hatched this past year. Thus far, their eggs are ranging from 4 to 7 on this chart, but one early egg was purple. One started out laying double yolk eggs,  but that has settled down. The adventure of chickens!

I'm asking around locally to locate people who need chickens, so that I can let my broody hens set and hatch chicks this year. My coop is full, so I can't keep any more, but I'm finding future homes for them.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Heritage Breeds podcasts

Jeannette Beranger, program manager for The Livestock Conservancy is making short podcasts about heritage breeds in general and chickens in particular. They're free and provide insights into why heritage breeds are important and how to improve your flock. 
This Fayoumi hen thrives in Egypt's hot, dry climate.

Conserving those heritage breeds is important, because those locally adapted breeds hold the genes that resist disease, tolerate extreme conditions such as drought, heat and cold. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations is working to help local people maintain their herds and flocks of heritage breeds. Keeping heritage breeds makes you part of that history. 

Local breeds are the cornerstone of food production in rural countries. An egg a day is a significant addition to a poor child's diet.
Michelle Conrad's Russian Orloff is comfortable in the cold.

The Heritage Breeds podcast is brought to you by The Livestock Conservancy. In this podcast series you’ll meet the animals, breeders, and people working to save them from extinction. Visit to discover how you can get involved.

Introduction to Heritage Breeds
Protecting nearly 200 breeds of livestock and poultry from extinction.
What are Heritage Breeds
Discover more about Heritage Breeds and which ones are considered to be the traditional livestock breeds that were raised by our forefathers. These are the breeds of a bygone era, before industrial agriculture became a mainstream practice. These...
Getting Started with Heritage Breeds
Choosing a breed to work with is often the most rewarding and fun part of getting involved with heritage breeds. Linking your own interests, abilities, and facilities with the needs and status of the breed is exciting. Making sure the...
Pickin' Chickens - Part 1 &Part 2
Gather the knowledge you need for Pickin’ Your Chickens. Heritage Breed Poultry expert Jeannette Beranger will introduce you to breeds from around the world. Discover more about the English, Continental, American, Asiatic, and Oriental...

Wednesday, December 10, 2014


 Jeannette Beranger, research and technical programs manager for The Livestock Conservancy, has acquired Crevecoeurs! These show their pure bloodlines in their red rather than white ear lobes. The white ear lobes are evidence of Polish crosses.

How's this for a stylish pullet?
These young cockerels are growing out beautifully.
Jeannette says he's having a Bad Hair Day, but I wouldn't mention it to him.
These youngsters are active and enjoying their perch.
I reported on her project in August. This lovely group bodes well for 2015, and saving this historic breed.

Note the unusual V-shaped horn comb. Crevecoeurs share this shape comb with Houdans, Polish, La Fleche and Sultans.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Toulouse Goose

My article about Toulouse Geese is in the December2014/January 2015 issue of Backyard Poultry.

Ah, the romance of the French! The Toulouse Goose, with its whiff of French cooking and its impressive size, is the very symbol of poultry history and cuisine. “For many people goose and Toulouse are synonymous,” says Dave Holderread in his classic The Book of Geese.

Jeannette Beranger of The Livestock
Conservancy's Toulouse Goose
That massive size makes keeping them a bigger commitment than a whole flock of bantams. They need pasture and water. They live 20 years or longer. Fewer breeders are keeping these masters of the poultry world. The rewards are in knowing these wonderful birds and being part of conservation of a classic breed.

“For someone with the space, they are a breed to go with,” said Jeannette Beranger, research and technical programs manager for The Livestock Conservancy. “If you can accept the challenge, you can have an impact on conservation.”

Don’t confuse the standard Dewlap Toulouse with commercial Toulouse. Commercial or production Toulouse are developed from a market cross of Dewlap Toulouse with another breed. They grow fast and are in good supply. It’s the classic Dewlap that is waning in numbers.

The Gray Toulouse was one of the original breeds included in the first APA Standard of Excellence in 1874. A buff variety was developed and recognized more than a century later in 1977.  The Standard dictates 26 pounds for a mature gander and 20 pounds for a mature goose, but males often top 30 pounds. That makes for a hefty table bird but won’t work in a breeding flock. Breeding birds have to stay in slim shape to be successful in mating to produce next year’s flock.

Frank Reese Toulouse in Kansas
“Males need to slim down and burn off the keel,” said International Waterfowl Breeders Association president James Konecny. “The keel can get in the way when breeding.”

Keeping them on pasture helps them stay slim. Geese are herbivores, almost to the point of being picky eaters. That quality made them useful on the farm as weeders. Because they would eat only the grassy weeds, they were used to “grass” the cotton, tobacco, wheat and oat fields. 

“There’s no better food for geese than grass,” said breeder Frank Reese of Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch in Lindsborg, Kansas. He’s raising 200 for the Christmas holiday market this year.

Reese adds fish meal and oil to their diet as winter approaches. He feeds them alfalfa hay and native prairie grass hay in the winter.

Train them to feed in their shelter, so that they will come back at night and be protected from predators. Toulouse, as large as they are, can’t waddle away to escape from predators.

Feathers on the left and center. Down on the right.
Water is important for geese, but a pond isn’t necessary. They can be happy bathing in a kiddie pool or a cattle trough. A natural or man-made pond can be an asset, though. Natural wetlands grasses and water lilies are some of their favorite foods. Make sure the pond is large enough to accommodate the number of geese using it.

Cold weather doesn’t faze geese. Their down is the warmest material known. There’s a market for it, for use in comforters and jackets. Geese can survive through a blizzard, hunkering down and letting snow cover them. Mr. Reese provides windbreaks to protect his geese from weather but otherwise lets them wander.

All that down can make hot weather more of a problem. That’s where shade and cool water can give them relief.

Konecny is rebuilding his flock after farming his 50 breeders out to colleagues for a move last year. He’s got six pairs and 11 young geese back. He finds them good layers with good fertility, hatching goslings that grow fast. Diet needs to be thoughtful, limiting protein when the wings are developing to avoid slipped wing and angel wing. He occasionally tapes a wing that’s developing poorly, to brace it to grow straight. He’s got the experience to know how and when to do that.

Toulouse geese aren’t a project for the novice. Start with a smaller breed, such as one of the medium or light geese, such as Romans or Pomeranians. They’re also on The Livestock Conservancy’s Critical List.

“Toulouse Geese are a project for somebody who is in it for the love of it,” said Mrs. Beranger

Beyond roast goose

Lucio Damiani, in his Foreword to The Goose: History, Folklore and Ancient Recipes, calls it “a walking larder… an animal that embodies the flavor of the past in every sense.” His book includes recipes that go beyond roast goose to goose ragout, goose sausage and goose salami.
“I pull his book out for the holiday season every year,” said Mrs. Beranger.

Save the goose fat! It’s one of the best parts, and can be used in cooking and baking. Mrs. Beranger pierces the skin and roasts hers on a rotisserie, collecting the fat as it cooks. Goose naturally bastes itself. She uses the fat to make confit, preserving meat in fat. “It’s liquid gold,” she said.

Mr. Reese harks back to his mother’s recipe, stuffing the goose with turnips and sauerkraut and roasting it in apple juice. His mother used the goose intestines to make German sweet sausage. To feed the large extended family of as many as 40 people, she would sometimes split open a goose and lay it over a turkey, to baste the turkey breast as both roasted.

“We use everything but the honk,” she used to say.