The State of the Chicken

Concern for the chicken is growing, the practice of personal flock-keeping is gaining adherents, and the new EPI Act would, if passed, make things much better for our feathered friends.

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The age-old debate over which comes first seems close to being resolved in favor of the chicken. After years of hens being treated as little more than egg-dispensers, concern is growing for the well-being of the layers themselves. Meanwhile, the practice of personal flock-keeping is on the rise. Across the country, and in many parts of the world, chicken-first approaches are supplanting the simple quest to create the cheapest eggs possible.

In the industrial egg factories where most of America's eggs are laid, the newly introduced Egg Products Inspection Act would, if passed, make life easier. The bill grew from a compromise between United Egg Producers and the Humane Society of the United States. It would mandate replacing the nation's 280 million chicken-sized battery cages as they're called with group cages equipped with amenities like dust baths and perches, while banning some of the cruelest practices associated with egg farming.

While bonds may be loosening for the jailed birds on life's lowest perches, the ranks of the privileged few are growing. Chicken society's one-percenters, the personal flocks of subsistence and hobby chicken farmers, have reached a size that actually resembles a percentage point. And now, finally, the scattered tribes of backyard flocksters have a bible to call their own: The Small-Scale Poultry Flock by Harvey Ussery, with a forward by his colleague, the outspoken chicken farmer Joel Salatin.

Whether you feed your girls purchased mix, homegrown grain, collected acorns, or crème brulée, the eggs will surpass any store-bought version.

The exact, or even approximate, number of flocksters (Ussery's term) in America is not known. "I've looked for some government census type info for years, but apparently backyard poultry enthusiasts fly under their radar," Backyard Poultry editor Elaine Belanger told me. For what it's worth, she offered, the magazine's circulation has quadrupled to 80,000 in the last four years. A representative from Murray McMurray Hatchery, the go-to chick supplier for many hobbyists and small farmers, told me via email they ship 1.7 million baby chicks per year. "Seventy to 80 percent of those would be egg-laying," said the rep, who didn't know his company's market share.

The Small-Scale Poultry Flock is oriented toward an ideal integration of flock and homestead, to whatever degree context allows -- be it a two-hen Brooklyn roost or Ussery's spread in the boondocks of Virginia.

The essence of chicken farming is working with what you've got, and Ussery makes the point gracefully, dropping practical knowledge on every page. Whether you feed your girls purchased mix, homegrown grain, collected acorns, or crème brulée, the eggs will surpass any store-bought version. And Ussery has a lot to teach about accessible ways to improve your birds' nutrition. I may not need to know how to grow amaranth or other chicken feeds, but Ussery's information on soaking and sprouting grains, especially in winter to provide extra sustenance when foraging is slow, got my wheels turning.

Ussery's discussion of proper scalding technique helped explain why my last plucking attempt was a disaster. And I didn't know that those plucked feathers, being a great source of protein, can be tossed back in the coop as feed (I've been using the feathers as a garden fertilizer, which also works, since protein equals nitrogen). And if you're one of those flocksters who toasts and grinds your cracked eggshells before feeding them back to the chickens (to replenish their calcium), Ussery says you're wasting time. "Just crush coarsely by hand and toss them out."

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Ari LeVaux writes Flash in the Pan, a syndicated weekly food column that has appeared in more than 50 newspapers in 21 states. Learn more at flashinthepan.net.

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