Chickens on your agenda?

Dr. Vivian Blevins - And then

Chickens. Why in the world would I want to write about chickens?

With Easter well behind us, there won’t be Facebook posts about the inhumane treatment of chicks by dying them pink, lavender or green and selling them as pets for children. I had such chicks as a child. They survived and this required my father to build housing for them where they matured and began to produce eggs.

Ever had a freshly-laid egg? Only those of us who have understand the taste difference in those and eggs that have been on shelves in the store or in refrigerators for a month or more. This fresh taste has created an interest in having a number of hens in the backyards of urban homes, so city officials are busy debating regulations about how many are too many or if they should be allowed at all. If a rooster joins the flock, will there be calls to the owners or 911 calls when neighbors suddenly realize what “getting up with the chickens” means when roosters announce the dawn.

In 2013 in Evarts, there was a dispute taken to the city council, and a neighbor was able to force his neighbor to relocate her rooster. She transported it to Cumberland to her mother’s home at a rather isolated spot on the river where crowing roosters are of no concern to those who hear them. In fact, I believe there’s something reassuring about roosters announcing a new day even as the frogs on the Cumberland River signal that it’s time to go to bed.

That transplanted rooster had a short life as one of the flesh-eating animals, who had returned to the river bank with the population decline in Harlan County, enjoyed a tasty meal shortly after the rooster arrived to his new digs. And the predator didn’t need to drive to KFC and pay to enjoy the rooster, as it preferred the entree raw.

Bring chickens into the conversation, and there are debates about which is healthier, a brown egg or a white egg, eggs produced by caged, factory-farm hens or by those hens allowed to roam free where they scout for worms and insects. A consultant whom I interviewed, who chooses to remain anonymous so as to not get involved in these debates, speaks of preferences, but she also speak about nutrition: the importance of a diet for chickens that includes some corn but is heavy on protein. She uses a supplement which includes soy bean meal, vitamins and minerals.

She indicates that the cost of buying a chick and bringing it up to egg-laying status at about six months is $8 to $9. At six months the eggs are smaller, but by the time the bird is about seven months, more or less, egg size is normal and hens are laying six to seven eggs a week.

My expert charges two dollars a dozen for her eggs, and when I consider things such as the “molting season” at about one year when hens don’t lay eggs at all, I’d be ready to tear my hair out or grab a hatchet. Following this time out when the hens are going through a period of regeneration, their egg production is not as plentiful, maybe three a week. Then they quit laying altogether at between two and four years and are suitable only to be butchered.

Additionally, there’s the issue of using antibiotics to which my expert says, “Absolutely not. When we eat meat from animals that have been given antibiotics, harmful bacteria in our bodies becomes more resistant to antibiotics and higher dosages are required.”

After speaking with the expert and doing a little research on the internet, I realized that raising chickens is more complicated than I ever dreamed, and I could never keep up with which hen laid which egg and whether she was producing per expectations. I know that some owners actually name their hens after sisters, aunts, grandmothers, and great grandmothers. When those owners say, “Balte or Vivian is not performing up to expectation, so we had to get rid of her,” realize that person is talking about hens and not me or my grandmother.

One of my three teaching fields as an undergraduate at the University of Toledo was biology, so I found myself one summer enrolled in an embryology course. We examined human embryos, but our lab work involved fertilized eggs as we removed them from the incubator periodically to ascertain developmental stages. The hatching period is 20 plus days, and by the time we were opening those eggs on day 17, I found them rather disgusting. I think it was two years before I could eat eggs again.

I’ll conclude my little column by telling a chick story. My father, who knew nothing about barnyard animals, determined that he could raise chicken to supplement family meals.

So he bought a number of the little yellow, fluffy creatures from Fields Feed and Grain. I doubt that he thought ahead, probably made the decision after a Saturday morning of swigging on a Four Roses bottle (a Kentucky bourbon for those innocents among my readers). He brought the chicks home in a flimsy container. I can still see my mother, flustered but unsure about a return policy at the store with an excuse that the purchaser was inebriated- drunk we would have said back then.

It was a chilly spring when this all occurred and though my mother left a lot to be desired in terms of housekeeping skills, she had no intention of letting those little chicks bed down for the night inside the house. She located a large wooden box — maybe 4 feet by 3 feet. My dad rigged up some kind of light with an extension cord and put the big box under the house, certain that the chicks would be warm and toasty through the night.

We kids had watched this negotiation between our parents with interest and ran out early on Sunday morning to check on the baby chicks. It was mayhem: dead chicks by the dozen with a few stragglers huddled in the corner and little yellow chick feathers adhered to the light. We were distraught. They were only chicks, but small animals that had been alive and filled with such promise were now dead.

Lessons learned? Eggs are a great source of nutrition. Fresh eggs are especially tasty. Those who know nothing about raising chickens need to leave their purchase, care, and feeding to those who do — and preferably they should be sober when they initiate the process.

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Dr. Vivian Blevins

And then

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