Eggs must be one of nature’s greatest miracles: a life, self-contained, and tasty to boot! And there is such a difference between a mass-produced battery product and a farm-fresh egg from a pastured hen that paying the (meaningful) premium is worth doing. But more and more people are finding it convenient and fun to go straight to the source—literally. Recently I attended a lecture in Cork entitled How To Keep A Few Hens. I was amazed at the turnout.
Turns out, all you need is grass, patience, and leftover food scraps. In fact, you can feed hens pretty much anything (except chicken, try to keep that out of the scrap bucket…). They need grit to keep their gizzards working properly, so even oyster shells can be thrown in. Chickens only eat about 100-150 grams of feed a day, and four hens that lay eggs consistently should keep a family well stocked (they won’t necessarily all lay every day, but you might not eat eggs every day). Hens won’t lay eggs unless they’re feeling content, so make sure the henhouse stays clean and has sufficient dark, safe corner boxes where they’ll feel comfortable. They’re miserable in the rain, so provide shelter.
There are tons of old-fashioned tricks promising to put off-color chickens (runny nose or runny droppings are symptoms) to rights: feeding them half a clove of garlic, Epsom salts, or cod liver oil, for example. Apparently, putting cider vinegar in their water helps with the molting process (when they shed their feathers in the fall). The evidence that these tricks work is more experiential than scientific, but none of these remedies will do any harm, so why not?
Keeping hens makes a lot of sense—they can even benefit a garden, if they eat pests and weeds before the planted seeds set (the trick is to keep them from eating the seeds!) And hens act as a linchpin of a holistic system in which wasted food is redirected as chicken feed, comes out as manure, contributes to great compost, leads to good soil that will grow vegetables that humans can eat, whose scraps can then be fed back to the chickens!
What makes more sense than that?
Story by Nathalie Jordi. This article originally appeared in Plenty in February 2008.