Peter Hagar, Cornell Cooperative Extension Educator
— The past few years have seen a surge in interest in eating locally grown foods and farm products. While visiting the local farmer’s markets and the roadside stands that are spread across the county is a great start, nothing is more local than growing or raising your own food.
Besides the satisfaction of doing it yourself, you will also gain an understanding of how difficult it is for farmers to consistently provide us with a high-quality, nutritious food supply. Having a backyard garden is sometimes just the first step in our quest to become agricultural DIYers. If you are looking for something a little extra, you might consider one of the most common and widespread domesticated animals in the world, the chicken.
The chicken has been domesticated and raised for eggs, meat and feathers for thousands of years. Originally from the tropical regions of Asia, the chicken has spread all over the world and has been bred into a multitude of different breeds. Chickens in modern agricultural operations bear little resemblance to the original. Modern breeding programs have created breeds that grow incredibly fast for meat production or lay consistently large eggs. While these modern day chickens are extremely efficient, they do lack the beauty, personality and multipurpose qualities of the older heritage breeds of the past.
What many small-scale chicken growers are looking for is a connection to the past, perhaps a memory of chickens from their childhood. I remember my grandfather, a dairy farmer, always had a flock of chickens roaming the farm. From tiny Bantams to large birds like the Jersey Giant, there is a chicken for just about anyone.
My interest in chickens began when I joined 4-H as a youth. Raising and showing chickens at the county fair was a good way to start learning the life lessons of responsibility and hard work. More recently, my wife enjoys having chickens and she renewed my interest in these intriguing birds.
Since we live out in the country, we are able to let them free range during the day and lock them in their coop only at night for protection. While not everyone wants chickens walking about their lawn and driveway, it is quite amusing to see them come running when called to eat. There’s also nothing more satisfying than checking the nest box and finding the still warm eggs. In my opinion, fresh eggs from your own chickens just look and taste better than what you can get at the grocery store.
Chickens can serve a dual purpose. If you end up with too many roosters or just want to raise a dedicated meat bird, raising chickens for meat is fast and efficient. Since chickens are naturally omnivorous, in addition to grain, they will eat worms, bugs, food scraps and just about anything. Modern meat breeds like the Cornish Cross grow to size in seven to eight weeks but are often thought not to be as flavorful as the heritage breeds.
Standard breeds can be raised for broilers as well. The White and Barred Rock, Delaware, New Hampshire, Wyandottes and others such as the Freedom Ranger take a little longer to grow to full size, but are thought to taste better and be more suited to a free range or pasture situation.
If you are considering raising chickens this spring, Cornell Cooperative Extension will be holding a Chickens for Beginners workshop on Tuesday, Feb. 26, at 7 p.m. at the local office. How to select a chicken breed, housing, feeding, health care and basic chicken husbandry for both egg and meat birds will be some of the topics covered.
For more information or to register, contact the Clinton County Extension office at 561-7450 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.