I spent the day and night at my friend's home in the country where the nights are pitch black and so silent it hurts my ears when I first turn out the lights. I forget how attuned to city noise I am. I love being amongst so much green and nature– it's rejuvenating. The air is always the first thing I notice, taking in every breath like it's my last. It's fresh and clear and has one hundred minuscule smells of nature within one inhale. The simple things really are the best, aren't they? We frolicked in the grass and mud, picked flowers, drank mugs of coffee, went to the farm store where we followed a baby goat around, and played with Ashley's twenty-nine animals (twenty chickens, three ducks, three cats, one pig, one dog, and one guinea pig). It was the best day I had in a long time. Here's a video I made of her and the chickens along with a Q & A on raising backyard chickens below.
Backyard Chicken Farm Q & A with Ashley Sharpe:
How long ago did you start raising chickens?
A: Six years ago. As soon as I had the space I went out and bought chickens.
So it was something you were planning on doing?
A: Oh, it was something I was planning on doing since I was little.
Was there something that inspired you to want chickens?
A: Because getting your own eggs is the best and it’s just a fun experience. Hatching, breeding, mixing the breeds, having a chick open up and watch it change colour because they’re all born one way and then change into another colour. The desire to have something that’s mine and being connected to food is a big part of it. As a kid I always felt like there was something missing when I would go to a farm or petting zoo and thought, I really want to know the back end of this. Like, what would it be like if I had to get up and raise these chickens every day? I knew I was missing something and really wanted to know what that was like. I even asked my parents when I was young if we could get chickens but they said we didn’t have the space.
Is there a specific amount of space you need to raise chickens?
A: Every chicken needs at least one cubic foot of space (in Ontario), but the happiest chickens are free run.
Who taught you how to raise chickens?
A: Ummm the internet hahaha. I’d love to say that my grandmother passed down this heritage information but maybe I’ll get to be that grandmother. Actually we have some friends with a farm and they told us a little bit. There’s two different ways to raise chickens; you can raise them like us– letting them die out their days, happy on the farm. Our friends raise theirs more like a big farm way- it’s very nice, it’s very ethical and very sustainable. But they kill there chickens after a year because they stop producing as many eggs. A chicken will lay an average of 255 eggs a year and after that it decreases. So people cull the chickens and make dog food or soup broth etc from the dead chickens. Everyone’s allowed to have 99 chickens if you have an acre of property. You can own 99 or you can own 300, but you can’t own anything in between and sell eggs or they come shut you down if you’re trying to sell roadside or to businesses. And if you are selling legally then at that point you have to send your eggs in to get washed and graded at a factory and you don’t get back your own eggs, you get back everyone else’s eggs because they’re all in the factory together. So you get back what you gave; if you gave 400 eggs, you get back 400 eggs. But they’re not necessarily your own. That’s the best part about small flock farming is you get your own eggs and you could give or sell them to your friends or family.
So the blue eggs from araucana birds, I never see those in stores being sold. Why not?
A: Because no one raises that breed. You can’t just buy those birds at a farm supply store, those are a heritage breed so you can buy them on kijiji through other small farms.
Hens + Roosters
A: If you’re hatching your own eggs, it can become a problem because you’ll get half roosters and half hens and most people only want hens. It’s okay for us because we eat the roosters. But most people don’t want them because they’re costly to bring up, it takes seven months and the meat is gamey. We give all roosters to our neighbours and they will make a really nice Romanian rooster soup and have us over for dinner. It’s a nice light broth with the meat separate.
What is an ideal rooster to hen ratio to have?
A: One rooster to ten hens.
You have three roosters to twenty chickens– Chuck, Spector and Silky Stew. That's not too many roosters?
A: Well Silky Stew is small and doesn’t really do much or mate as well like the others so he kind of doesn’t count, but I don’t tell him that.
Chuck is the main rooster, he's an araucana and so handsome. He’s the head of the roost, he will call all the chickens in at the end of the night, he accounts for all the chickens and will get aggressive if anyone touches his chickens. And he pecked Spector’s eye out. Spector was a gentle rooster and gentle roosters are hard to come by so I really wanted to keep him. But it was a big deal for Chuck to let him in so he pecked his eye out because there’s a pecking order, that’s a real term for a reason. So now Spector doesn’t crow anymore. And the females are as aggressive as the males in pecking order. So when you introduce a new hen, you can’t just bring it in. They will all kill it. You have to buy a minimum of three and introduce them all together. You put them in a cage inside the coop, then at night, (this is the trick), once everyone’s asleep, you open up the cage and put them in-between the other chickens and they already have the scent of the coop on them and then when they wake up the other chickens look around like, “Have you always been here? Oh I guess so”. But if you don’t do that, they kill them and eat their intestines. It’s not a nice death, it’s the worst death ever. They all gang up on one and kill it and eat it. We only had that one chicken death and then we learned.
Breeds– are there better breeds in regards to temperament or laying eggs?
A: Yes. Road Island Reds are the standard chicken at the farm stores. They produce the most eggs but they won’t sit on a egg long enough to hatch. They are not a smart chicken and don’t have good instincts. They’re aggressive birds and will peck you. Speckled hens can also be aggressive. Mixed Cockerel are also good layers. Araucanas lay a nice egg with a good hard shell. The eggs are pretty and blue and they’re a hardy bird so good for Canada. I recommend them for any backyard chicken farms. They’re nice birds as well. Silkies and Frizzles are the worst for laying, maybe only 6 to 20 eggs a year. But they will sit on eggs. They're not good in the winter, they don’t like it and are unhappy about the cold.
Brown and white eggs– is there a difference?
A: Brown chickens lay brown eggs and white chickens lay white. And if you scrub a brown egg it will turn white. Neither one is healthier than the other.
What is your favourite part about raising chickens?
A: I like being a mad scientist with chickens. Finding new breeds, becoming obsessed with that breed, finally getting one, taking it home and breeding them with the roosters to see what happens.
What are the main components you need to start raising chickens?
- You must be home every morning and night to let them out of the coop, feed them and then put them back in at the end of the day.
- Invest in a good coop to keep off predators.
- You must be able to kill a chicken because there will come a time when you must kill one to put it out of it’s suffering. That’s the worst part. Some of my worst memories are of killing chickens.
Has killing chickens become any easier? Like if you have to do it?
A: No. No. Every morning I pray I won’t have to. If I know there was a hen that was sick or something, I worry about it in the morning and hope she’s better. But something interesting about chickens is that they know when they’re going to die if it’s from old age. They’ll go and sit in the snow and let themselves get hypothermia. I’ve tried to save them before not knowing what they were doing and they become very aggressive and refuse to eat or drink because now you’re just prolonging their life so the best thing is to just let them go sit in the snow. Because then they’ll just die that night and I guess it’s kind of a nice death for them. It just makes them sleepy and then they die.
What are some of the chickens' names that you've had?
A: Only some of them get names, just depends who stands out. Chuck (main rooster), Furfy (araucana), Silky Stew (small rooster with weak crow), Percy, Spector (speckled rooster), Grey Owl, Blue, Margarite, Agnes.
Agnes was our really old chicken. We bought her and they told us she was brand new but she was about seven years old, I could tell because she had grey feathers under her eyes and never laid eggs but I loved her so we kept her. She ate a lot of food and perked right up when we got her because she had been kept in a cage for so long. But yeah, she ate A LOT and probably cost me $200 in organic feed and never gave me one single egg. Hahaha. But I loved her and she died in the sun. It was very beautiful.
What do you feed your chickens?
A: Homestead Organics Chicken Feed. We also feed them food scraps. You can feed them any organic matter except hot peppers.
What about meat birds vs eggs birds?
A: Meat birds is all about timing because you have to get them slaughtered at a specific time or slaughter yourself, which I don't like doing. It’s a commitment for those seven weeks so we haven't been doing it lately. If you want to buy meat birds they are called White Rock Mixed Sex Link.
How many eggs do you get every week?
A: We keep a light on in the coop which makes them keep laying to make they're bodies think it’s summer all year round, but usually it slows down in cold weather. Right now we are getting a ton. They’re really happy when it’s warm out and when there are a lot of worms so currently we get between four and six dozen a week. But sometimes they go through a malt and don’t lay anything for up to 30 days.
Your yolks are significantly more orange than yolks from regular grocery store eggs. Why is that?
A: From bugs and worms and what they eat. There are more minerals and nutrients from eating worms, dirt and vegetables. Store bought eggs will just eat a grain feed. I think it’s mostly the worms and bugs though because in the winter the yolks become paler.
How often do you get double yolks and why do they happen?
A: I personally think it’s a twin but I don't actually know, I’ve always been curious. I get them in the full moon. We just had a full moon and I got my first double yolk of the year. It took me a long time to understand but once I started charting it, I noticed I only get them at the full moon. They're part of some sort of rhythm, that's for sure. I wonder if more twins are born at the full moon.