Next Gen House at Edible Allegheny’s Online Dish

Edible Allegheny is a local magazine that, as their tagline says, “celebrates local food, farms and cuisine – season by season.” I actually started reading the magazine several years ago, when a free copy was included in a delivery of produce I got through a program at my old job. That was around the time I was becoming a food person anyway, and the recipes and stories were inspiring and educational. I can honestly say that Edible Allegheny is responsible for Mark and I finding a ton of great restaurants and food events in the area. They are a great resource for all things local food – truly covering everything from the farm to the table.

I’m really excited to be one of the featured blogs in the Online Dish column this issue, along with two other great local sites: food blog Life and Kitchen and agricultural blog Write to Farm.

The fine avian ladies of Next Gen House even made the column header, hanging out in our compost area, as you can see from this screen shot. (And check out that pumpkin pie on the cover of the magazine to the left. If that doesn’t scream fall, I don’t know what does.)

Head over to this month’s column to read about this blog and its roots, as well as the other great local links – the website is a wealth of information and the Online Dish archives can lead you to some great local blogs as well!

I wasn’t paid or perked to promote Edible Allegheny – they are just a great magazine.

On breaking down a chicken

Excuse my fantastically off-center phone photo

On Sunday night, Mark taught me how to “break down” a whole chicken. As part of my commitment to try and eat only meat that comes from a verifiable farm, we are going to be dealing with many more whole chickens in our cooking. When it dawned on me that I had never successfully broken down a chicken before, I knew I needed Mark to teach me so I could share the burden. (By successfully I mean without hacking it to uneven pieces and leaving most of the meat on the carcass.)

So Mark taught me, and I broke it down on my own. I felt a sense of accomplishment knowing that we had breasts, wings, thighs and legs to eat, as well as a carcass to roast for stock. Mark grilled up some of the pieces to put in a baked risotto I made for dinner and that was that.

But I keep finding myself coming back to the process of doing it and of getting my hands on the chicken, feeling where the joints came together and popping them out of place. Running the knife along the rib cage to separate the breasts from the backbone. Plucking a few loose feathers out of the skin.

When you only buy pre-cut and trimmed chicken parts from the grocery store, it’s really easy to forget that they came from a chicken. They just look like pieces of meat. But when you break down a whole chicken, you end up getting very close to the body of the animal and it’s impossible to forget that it was once a living creature. Somehow you’re more grateful for the sacrifice that’s going to feed your family for that meal. 

Raising backyard chickens

I took advantage of a relatively mild day recently to go out and take some photos of the chickens while they were out “free ranging” in our yard. I had to use my zoom lens and sit far enough away from them that they wouldn’t freak out. (Though watching them run is hilarious, and they are fast little buggers.) This weekend while they were out, a cardinal landed in our yard with a few other smaller birds and some sparrows. The second the cardinal landed and the chickens noticed, they sprinted toward it and the cardinal got out of dodge, as it saw its doom approach. 

People often ask us what it’s like to raise chickens in our backyard, since we live in an urban area and don’t have much land. Once they get over the shock that our borough does allow chickens, they have lots of questions. Because Mark is the chickens’ primary caregiver, I thought it might be more informative if I “interviewed” him about why we have backyard chickens and what it entails.

What made you decide to raise chickens?
The facile answer is that I’m cheap. Since I love eggs for breakfast, and I refuse to buy the grocery store confinement eggs, I was paying about $5/dozen for eggs from a farmer. I figured that, if I got some chickens of my own, eventually, like any investment, I’d get ahead of the game acquiring my own eggs. In addition to that, I think my Libertarian independent nature likes the idea of being in charge of my own food sources and not being beholden to anyone. It was really nice to think to myself that, when my old farmer was having issues with keeping up with egg supply, I was not worried because I still had my own eggs from my own chickens.

What kind of space and shelter do chickens need?
I guess that depends on who you ask. While chickens are technically a tropical animal, they are amazingly adaptable and the varieties I own (Black Australorp and Ameraucana) are hardy in both hot and cold weather.
As for space, I’m not Tyson, so my answer sure as heck isn’t “just cram them into a cage ‘til no more fit”. From all I’ve heard and read, they really don’t need a ton of space. A couple of square feet per chicken at minimum. Technically, you could keep chickens in a parakeet cage in an apartment, although I wouldn’t recommend it unless you were fastidious about cleaning. The footprint for the henhouse/run I keep my 4 chickens in is around 4 feet by 6 feet. During the winter, they stay in there and are fine. I try to give them veggies and things to peck at so they don’t get bored. I also like to let them out when the weather is nice so they can spread their wings and move around a little more. Chickens do love to tear up gardens beds and such to dust bathe so, while I don’t worry about it now, I will have to fence in the beds when things get warmer and I plant outside.
As for shelter requirements, technically they only need a henhouse. A fenced in run, while a nice protection against predators, isn’t necessary. Within the henhouse they will need nesting boxes to lay eggs (usually one box per few chickens) and then somewhere higher up to roost at night. I also recommend a door on the henhouse that can be closed up at night as a protection against nocturnal predators as well as a windbreak. I also installed vents in mine to give them some air flow, which is very important when it gets hot in summer.

What do they eat?
Chickens are omnivores so I have to chuckle every time I see Perdue bragging about feeding their chickens an all vegetarian diet. Chickens LOVE meat. While I feed them mostly a balanced organic feed, they go nuts over meat scraps. They have even been known to get cannibalistic on an injured member of the flock. I’ve never had this happen but I’ve heard stories. Chickens are really about as close as you get to modern dinosaurs (some studies have shown an evolutionary link between them and T Rex!) and, if you watch them eat meat, you can sure believe it.
Really, chickens are great pre-processors of just about all kinds of kitchen scraps (with the exception of a few things that are poisonous to them like avocados) and generate a prolific amount of waste that is very nitrogen rich and thus can be composted into great fertilizer.

What do you do with their waste?
As I mentioned, chickens produce a lot of waste. A…LOT…OF…WASTE. They pretty much exist to eat, lay eggs, and poop like crazy. Thankfully, their waste is highly prized for its nitrogen content so, once composted, it’s like gold for gardeners (so being called chicken shit really shouldn’t necessarily be an insult!).
I built a couple of giant compost bins from old pallets and am using them to compost down the waste and bedding materials (newspaper, wood shavings, and straw) from when I clean out the coop. It is important to note that you absolutely have to compost the chicken poop though because it is too “hot” (nitrogen rich) right away to immediately apply to gardens. It could burn your plants. 

How much does it cost?
Most of the cost of chicken ownership is front loaded in getting the infrastructure set up for them, such as building and/or acquiring a coop. I used all new materials for mine but even so, including the cost of tools (this was my first carpentry project so I needed several power tools) I think I came in at under $300. Having gotten better at carpentry and more comfortable making my own plans and using reclaimed materials, I could have made a coop for probably a fraction of that. If I had to do it today, I’d go to Construction Junction and buy building supplies. Once you have the infrastructure costs out of the way, you really only maybe need to buy feed (it all depends on how much you let them free range and how much you feed them in scraps) and things like bedding material (which is cheap) and cleaning supplies. The feed I get them costs $25 for a 50 lb bag (and that’s on the expensive end because it is organic) and lasts about 50 days (chickens eat about a quarter pound of feed per chicken, per day). The bedding material of wood shavings is only a few bucks for a bag that lasts several coop cleanings. The bale of straw I bought last year for the nesting boxes still isn’t used up and we’re going on 11 months here.
My chickens probably lay at least 1.5 dozen eggs a week so I figure that, in about a year, they will have paid for themselves.

What have you enjoyed about raising chickens?
There’s a lot to like about raising chickens. I love the fresh eggs. It’s the whole reason I got them. I know where the eggs came from, I know how they ate, and, as such, am not afraid of using them in even raw egg applications like eggnog and Hollandaise sauce. I also love being close to and in charge of my food. It’s the same reason I hunt, fish, and garden. I like being responsible for what I eat. I enjoy educating others about chickens as well. It’s a hoot to see people the first time they come over and go see the chickens in the run. Most people have never been so close to a farm animal before. Finally, a nice side effect of it is bartering. I didn’t get chickens for this purpose but, since they lay eggs quicker than I can eat them, I get extras that I give to the neighbors to chicken sit when we’re out of town and trade to friends as well (such as a buddy who hunts elk and such and has given me some delicious steaks in return for some eggs).

What has been the hardest part?
Chickens are pretty easy animals to raise and care for. There isn’t a lot to hate. There’s a couple small downsides to it but the good outweighs the bad. Chickens can be loud sometimes. Even without a rooster present, a lot of times one of the hens will kind of take on that role and can make a heck of a racket sometimes. Cleaning the coop, which, in summer, I do every couple of weeks, is a dirty job. Finally, if you are someone who likes to sleep in, chickens might not be for you. Once the sun is up, they want out of the henhouse and dawn comes earlier than you might think.
As long as you don’t mind spending an hour or so every couple weeks cleaning out the coop (and there are bedding methods such as “deep litter” that let you stretch out the period between cleanings much longer) and don’t mind rising with the sun, chickens are a great way to take control of the food you eat and truly feel a connection to it.