My daughter, Sarah, and her husband, David, and their two children live across the hollow from me and my wife, Elaine. They have a totally different vision of how to raise chickens than Elaine and I do. And Sarah’s concept of keeping chickens versus ours basically covers many of the decisions people have when making plans to start chicken-keeping.
Let’s look at how those plans differ so that you can determine for yourself which chicken-keeping approach to take.
Heritage vs. Industrial
When Elaine and I first began raising chickens, we went the standard “buy them at the feed-supply store” route. But after four years of industrial birds and doing a great deal of research, we decided to rear heritage Rhode Island Reds. Our industrial RIRs never once tried to brood eggs, and the roosters, without exception, were aggressive toward us.
When we learned that many of the traditional chicken breeds were in danger of disappearing and that industrial hens had the broody trait bred out of them, our path was clear.
So we ordered heritage RIR chicks in 2014 and have ever since depended on our hens and roosters to do what comes naturally and instinctively to them: add new members to our flock. We also have added other heritage RIR chicks from breeders and friends that raise them to create genetic diversity within our two runs.
Every spring, we look forward to when one or two of our hens go broody, and 21 days later, we never grow tired of hearing the first peeps emitting from the nesting box. Of course, our excitement peaks when we glimpse several fuzzy heads emerging from beneath the mother hen.
Sarah’s approach is entirely different, and she is just as pleased with her game plan as we are with ours. In early spring every year, she orders six to eight pullets of some hybrid breed, usually RIRs or White Leghorns. Within a short time, the birds, especially the Leghorns, are producing huge numbers of eggs.
Sarah expects to gather a half dozen or more every day until the birds begin to molt come autumn and egg laying drastically slows.
Then, David butchers the entire flock, and the couple freezes the meat for the winter to come. And throughout the winter, Sarah, David and their boys enjoy a variety of egg and chicken entrees. Sarah is quite pleased with the situation, and David is glad to be relieved of the tasks of cleaning the coop, traveling to the feed-supply store to purchase feed and straw, etc.
Pen vs. Free-Ranging
Elaine and I aren’t fans of the free-ranging chicken phenomenon when it comes to making our chicken-keeping plans. We live on 38 rural, wooded acres in southwest Virginia. By my count, 16 different wild predators commonly prowl and fly in our area: four species of hawks, three species of owls, bears, coyotes, bobcats, red and gray foxes, skunks, opossums, weasels and minks.
Add in rogue dogs and stray cats, and the danger is apparent.
On the 1-mile-long rural road we live on, a half dozen of our neighbors raise chickens. At some point, every one of them has suffered the loss of birds. That mortality ranges from two or three on average being lost annually to an entire flock being wiped out.
The thought of one or more of our birds having their throats ripped apart deeply disturbs us.
However, we recognize the value of letting our chickens prowl our yard for bugs and vegetation. Reds are natural foragers, and when I approach them and say, “Let’s go out,” they enthusiastically line up at the door and truly relish their time browsing. But Elaine and I always supervise this activity and keep a lookout for predators.
Our usual approach is to release our birds when we conduct the weekly cleaning of their runs. During the fall and winter, we also let our chooks forage inside our fenced garden, in the process eliminating many weeds and overwintering insects. The rest of the year, the chickens’ bailiwick is our backyard.
At other times, Elaine will also let our chickens forage when I am cutting wood or doing some other outside task. But, again, she supervises the fowl full time. I am proud to state that we have never lost a bird to a predator!
Sarah, however, is an enthusiastic advocate of free-ranging. She’s a schoolteacher, so summers mean quite a bit of home time. She frequently lets her birds out of their run, especially during the cool of the evening. Sarah is also aware of the health benefits to her chickens due to them being able to feast on protein-rich bugs and plants such as clover, dandelions and broadleaf plantain, just to name a few.
And the additional health benefits go to her family when they eat the eggs and meat from those chooks.
She is also cognizant of the dangers local predators present and has accepted the high likelihood of losing one or two birds every year. Indeed, during the summer especially, I expect to receive a phone call from her asking me to come quick as her husband is at work and a (insert hawk, fox, coyote or other predator) is after the chickens!
Individuals vs. Nameless Creatures
As soon as our chickens reach about 6 months of age, Elaine and I position leg bands on them and give each individual a name. Elaine provides appellations for the hens, and she usually selects some movie, television show or other cultural phenomenon as the source for her inspiration.
For example, we’ve had hens named Thelma, Louise, Lucy and Ethyl. Others have been christened after the females on popular television shows such as Mad Men and Downton Abbey.
We both found the circumstance amusing when the hen Daisy, named after the servant cook on the latter show, was the alpha hen of her flock. And it was ironic that the hen called Joan was the dominant hen in her setting, just like the same-named character on Mad Men.
But there is another pleasurable reason we give first names to our birds. We’ve found that chickens are very much individuals, and they possess certain traits that distinguish them. For instance, Charlotte, who is named after a Sex and the City character, goes broody every year late in the spring and is a ferocious protector of her chicks.
But when she isn’t brooding eggs or nurturing chicks, she is a pure pacifist, never quarreling with the other hens or trying to move up in the pecking order. She simply doesn’t have an interest in henhouse drama that is so much a part of raising chickens.
On the other hand, Joan was like having another rooster inside the run. From the time she was an 8-month-old pullet, she was the alpha female inside her run. No other hen dared mess with her unless they wanted a sound wing thrashing. And when the hens were foraging outside the run, Joan was constantly scanning the sky and nearby woods as she watched for predators.
Elaine and I also have a practical reason for naming our birds and placing leg bands on them. We can determine which ones are the best egg-layers, note the health history of various birds and make sound decisions on which birds to cull come fall. Obviously, a quality layer with no history of health issues and a perennial broody such as Charlotte is deserving of living another year.
Whereas a 4-year-old quarrelsome hen that isn’t a good layer is a solid bet for the slow cooker.
Conversely, Sarah thinks our naming birds is silly and definitely not for her. Her hens only live a year or so anyway before they are harvested. Our daughter’s approach is simple and works well for her family, whereas Elaine and I believe our philosophy is best for us.
The Role of Roosters
Similarly, Elaine and I have a different concept of what a rooster should bring to a flock as compared to Sarah. To us, a run without a rooster lacks charm and a leader.
A wonderful part of country living is hearing a rooster sound off before daylight, thus officially confirming that a new day will soon begin and that he is just the male to usher in this amazing event.
The leadership skills of a good rooster within a run are very much underrated. We’ve had coops that have possessed a male sage and ones that haven’t, and the difference is obvious. When a rooster is present, hen squabbles are fewer and the ones that do occur end quickly because of his presence.
The sounds of a roo vocalizing the food cluck, also known as tidbitting, is a joy as well, as he dispenses treats such as a tasty bug to his harem. Watching all the hens inside a run scud to the rooster’s side is a fascinating experience. And hearing a rooster give the alarm note if he espies an avian or a terrestrial predator is reason enough to keep a male in residence.
Of course, the obvious fact that there can be no chicks without a virile male servicing his hens is crucial when building a homegrown flock. Every spring, we make sure that our most randy rooster resides within the run that possesses the hens that have gone broody in the past. Elaine and I don’t want to risk that a hen is sitting on unfertilized eggs. And when it comes to a creature being watchful of his domain, a rooster ranks a respectable second to that of the family dog at sounding off when an unwanted stranger appears or even begins to venture down a driveway.
While we desire a roo for all these things and more, Sarah only wants a rooster for protection of her hens while they’re free-ranging—which is reason enough to possess one. As someone who has lost quite a few hens to predators, Sarah has witnessed the difference an ever-vigilant male can make.
A great rooster’s constant watchfulness will mean that at the first sound or sight of a predator, he’ll screech an alarm note that will send every hen within hearing distance toward thick cover.
Our system of chicken raising works well for Elaine and me, and Sarah and David have a plan that meets their family’s needs as well. Go with whichever of these two plans best suits your chicken-keeping needs or perhaps borrow aspects from both approaches.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2023 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.