Sunday, April 22, 2012

Published in the Sun March 18, 2012

When Dean Hamilton, chaplain of the Wesleyan Homes, was 8 years old, he decided he was big enough to butcher a chicken by himself.  His grandmother, keeper of the chickens, gave the go-ahead.  Dean caught the unfortunate hen easily enough, but in his excitement he neglected to tie the legs to a tree branch, a crucial mistake.  After a deadly whack, the unrestrained and now headless bird flew over the grandmother’s clothesline, splattering the clean white bedsheets with blood.  Terrified by the carnage, Dean fled the scene and hid in the woods for several hours.  His grandfather had to finish the job, but in the end, everybody had a nice chicken dinner.  With practice, Dean got more proficient at butchering.  He and his grandmother working together could take a chicken from scratching in the yard to steaming on the table in under an hour.  Dean’s farming chores as a child gave him an understanding of the work involved in food production, and a respect for the creatures involved.

Frank Lloyd Wright once said “it is just as desirable to build a chicken house as to build a cathedral.”  After moving to a hilltop outside of Walburg a few years ago, Dean followed Mr. Wright’s advice and built a chicken coop for ten hens.  The chickens provide Dean and his wife, Cullie Mac, with farm-fresh eggs, manure compost for their prolific vegetable garden, and hours of bucolic entertainment.

In addition to bugs and greens from the yard, Dean’s hens eat a high protein laying mash which helps them achieve their full egg-laying potential.  A hen in her prime can lay 2 eggs every three days.  Dean calculates that it takes 4 pounds of laying mash for a dozen eggs.  At 60 cents a pound for organic mash, his eggs are costing $2.40 a dozen, just for the feed.  It would cost about half as much for non-organic feed, but Dean is particular about what goes into his eggs.  What goes in affects what comes out.  Scientists at Pennsylvania State University have been studying the nutritional characteristics of eggs raised under various conditions.  Eggs from truly pasture-raised chickens contain three times more omega-3 fatty acids, twice as much vitamin E, and 40% more vitamin A than eggs from factory farm hens.  In 2007 Mother Earth News tested free range eggs from 14 flocks around the country and confirmed the PSU findings.  They also found that pastured eggs contained 7 times more beta carotene and one third less cholesterol.

Dean hasn’t had any chicken disease problems so far.  He attributes the hens’ good health to a spacious yard with lots of room to run and peck, and a clean coop.   When he buys new chicks, he gives them a special starter food medicated to prevent the parasite coccidiosis, the most common cause of death in young chicks.  When his hens reach chicken menopause and stop laying eggs, Dean just lets them hang around anyway.  He no longer has any interest in butchering chickens with names like Buttercup and Pretty Girl.  Besides, having a few old biddies around decreases the odds that his good layers will be divebombed by the red-tailed hawks that keep an eye on his property.  In an effort to keep the hawks away, Dean has several lifelike horned owl statues in the chicken yard.  Hawks apparently do not like owls.

Skunks also prey on chickens.  Skunks don’t eat the whole chicken; they just bite the heads off.  The first time Dean had a skunk problem he caught one in a humane trap.  However once the skunk was in the trap, Dean realized he had no clear plan for how to get him out.  Resorting to a non-humane solution, and standing well out of spray range, he took aim with a 22 rifle.  The first 3 shots bounced off the wire of the cage, but the fourth shot hit the mark.  Very carefully, Dean slid the smelly body into a contractor’s bag and set it out for the unsuspecting trash collectors.  Last year alone Dean dispatched ten skunks.

Dean collects about 10 beautiful blue and brown eggs a day, more than enough for himself, plus a plate of scrambled eggs every week for his pampered dogs, and still has enough eggs left over for special friends and neighbors.  I am happy to be one of his friends.

Readers who are interested in learning more about backyard chickens can attend the Austin Funky Chicken Coop Tour on April 7, 2012 from 10 AM to 4 PM.

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