The chicken and the egg. We may never know which came first, but we do know how to raise them and prepare them for dinner.
Wendy Thomas was writing a column for the Nashua Telegraph about being frugal when she was contacted by a reader who offered her eight chickens to help with composting kitchen scraps.
“I said, ‘Sure, why not?’” Thomas recalls. “I had six kids; how different could it be having eight chickens?” Three years later, Thomas now keeps 34 chickens in a 12-foot by 12-foot coop and hen house behind her Merrimack home. The gated dog pen in the yard serves as a play area for chickens. It is bare of all grass and is lined with buckets for nesting. The chickens, boasting such monikers as Simon and Garfunkel, Tom and Jerry, Currier and Ives, Jodi Picoult, Judy Blume and Janet Evanovich, line up around 5 p.m. every night to be let back into the coop. Thomas keeps a blog about her life with chickens (simplethrift.wordpress.com) and now even teaches a Chicken 101 class in Merrimack and Concord.
“I didn’t expect to be the chicken lady,” she said.
Some raise chickens to have organic eggs and to better help their families understand where their food is coming from, others for the meat; some for both. For some, the bonus of owning a flock is having a fertilized lawn; some benefit from the companionship and the entertainment and humor their feathered friends add to their lives.
Reports show New Hampshire chicken sales of 25,000 were recorded at state chicken swaps (more on those later) in 2008; 100,000 were sold in 2011. Read on to see what everyone is squawking about.
Charlie the Chicken
Unlike Charlie, most chickens don’t hang around inside the family home. They have their own house in the backyard.
Thomas and her family took in Charlie, a Black Copper Maran, in January when she was only a day old. She had a genetic abnormality that left her with webbed and clawed feet. Her breeder said she was going to be destroyed so that her genes would not be passed through the flock.
Thomas, who has a medical background, and her son took it upon themselves to perform surgery on Charlie so she would have a chance of survival. With webbed feet, Charlie would not have been able to roost or scratch. She would have been one stressed out chicken.
Thomas swabbed Charlie’s feet with an antibiotic ointment and numbing agent when the chick was only a few days old, and cut the webbing with a pair of manicure scissors. Charlie’s toes look a little wonky and her nails stick out to the side a bit, but other than that “you can’t tell anything was wrong,” Thomas said, pointing to the bird’s feet.
The family had never intended to breed chickens as domestic pets, but since it takes chickens two months to fully feather to the point where they can withstand winter weather, Charlie was kept indoors. She now follows the family around the house, pecks on the bathroom door when it’s occupied, watches TV and cuddles with Pippin, the family Maltese.
“He was looking for a pal,” Thomas said of Pippin. “They just found each other.”
All cooped up
The New Hampshire Farm Bureau always sees a lot of unique entries — such as chickens in Santa hats — when it hosts its chicken coop competition at the state’s Farm & Forest Expo each February.
“It’s just amazing to see what’s out there,” said Maureen Duffy, communications director and young farmer coordinator at the Farm Bureau.
When adjudicating coops, the judges take note of functionality, accessibility to both gather the eggs and clean the coop, and whether there is an egress to allow chickens to roam outside the structure. One of the criteria at the coop competition is to use recycled materials to keep coop-building costs down.
A basic chicken coop, according to Duffy, should allow for 1½ square feet per bird, one nest per four hens and a perch for them to sleep on at night. The coop should also provide chickens with protection from the elements and predators and be set up in a way that ensures they are always able to access feed and water. The ventilation of the coop must keep its interior dry and draft-free, and the chickens should be exposed to a light source so they can continue their egg production through the winter.
Homemade coops can run from $250 to $1,200, said Steve Normanton, owner of Normanton Farm in Litchfield. Chicken owners who opt not to build their own coops will buy them at local feed stores or hire contractors. Cynthia M. Heisler, Program Assistant II at the New Hampshire Department of Agriculture, Food and Markets Division of Animal Industry, keeps her 19 chickens in a 10-foot by 12-foot stall in the barn at her Dunbarton home.
“Chickens don’t need a lot,” Heisler said. “They just need room to lay and spread their wings.”
Chicken coops are allowed in two city zones in Nashua and must sit at least 6 feet from the back property line of the home and 20 feet from the front. One livestock-friendly zone in the Gate City requires residents to have a minimum lot size of 30,000 square feet, the other, 40,000. Coops the size of a shed need to be granted a permit from the planning board.
Chickens (and all other livestock) are also allowed in two city zones in Manchester, and owners must have a minimum of one acre of land for one animal, and an additional quarter-acre for each additional animal. Concord allows its residents to keep five chickens at single-family homes for both egg production and meat (no roosters).
Dot Perkins of the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension said the coop and hen house should be built in an area that allows the owner easy access during the winter.
“You have to be able to take care of them in February, even if there is three feet of snow on the ground,” she said, adding that the coop and hen house should be spacious enough for the chickens to be comfortable during those winter months when they won’t be allowed out.
“Caring for birds, or any livestock, in the wintertime is a consideration that most people don’t think about,” Perkins said.
No matter how nice the accommodations, chickens don’t spend much time in their coops unless there is snow on the ground.
Who’s eating my chicken?
It’s hard to believe that man’s best friend is the biggest predator of chickens, but Perkins said often times the neighbor’s dog will wander into your yard and kill your flock in no time.
“They don’t want to eat them … they chase them and kill them by accident … at least a fox will kill them and take them away because they’re hungry,” she said. Large domestic and feral cats are also known to kill chickens, as are foxes, opossums, skunks, coyotes, hawks, owls, weasels, bobcats and fisher cats.
“I tell people in my classes that everything eats chicken so make sure they close the door at night in the hen house,” Perkins said. “As soon it gets dark, the chickens can just sit there and you can walk in and just pick them off the roost — so can a predator. They can go in and kill two to three chickens and it will just sit there, even if the one beside it is being killed.”
Perkins has been able to keep the peace between her two pups and her flock.
“They protect them,” she said of her canine companions. “When they hear squawking they go outside and see what’s going on. They chase predators. You can teach them to do that.”
Hen Health 101
Most people don’t take their chickens to the veterinarian, because chickens are very inexpensive and, frankly, most veterinarians don’t really know how to treat chickens, Perkins said.
“It’s a funny thing. People don’t think of chickens as birds … everything that applies to a pet parakeet could apply to a chicken,” she said. “The difference between the two is you eat your chicken and you eat their eggs. You could eat your parakeet. You could eat your parakeet’s eggs.” Chickens should be grain-fed until they are 21 weeks old, at which time their calcium should be increased.
“It takes a lot of calcium to produce an egg,” Perkins noted. Heisler feeds her flock Blue Seal layer pellets, and cracked corn for dessert. Chickens need clean drinking water to maintain their health and should not be fed moldy grain.
Chickens can pick up parasites, or even get food poisoning, when they are fed kitchen scraps. Earthworms and grasshoppers can also transmit diseases or parasites to the birds.
“Worms can digest the garbage from your fridge; chickens cannot,” Perkins said. “If you can’t eat it, chickens can’t eat it either.”
Free-range or free-pasture chickens should be wormed annually in the fall, when they begin to molt, so the medication will be out of their system by the spring. Chickens that are kept inside don’t need to be wormed because they are less likely to pick up parasites, Perkins said.
Thomas tells her Chicken 101 students to keep a first-aid kit handy to tend to the medical needs of the birds. The kits should include antibiotic ointment for wounds, a lance or razor for boils, gauze and a numbing agent.
When using medicine to treat a chicken for an illness, it is important to know how long the medicine will stay in the bird’s system so it is not passed through the meat or eggs. The wait time is called “withholding,” Perkins said.
“We don’t necessarily know the withholding on medication for chickens because if the industry didn’t need them, they would just [kill] them and get them out of the flock. They didn’t need a vet,” she said. “There is no such thing as a chicken doctor. They would just come in, test them and kill them.”
The closest the state has to a chicken doctor is George Messenger, a veterinarian at the Fisherville Animal Hospital and Bird Clinic in Concord, Heisler said. Tractor Supply stores are stocked with books on chicken health and usually sell wormers or powdered antibiotics.
Chicken owners also have the option of bringing their recently deceased birds to a diagnostic laboratory at the University of New Hampshire for testing that may help them make improvements among their flock in the future. “Maybe it will help with husbandry,” Heisler said. “Maybe people will find out they need to worm them or feed them something different.”
In the market for a chicken
Greg Collins received a phone call from his wife four years ago asking if she could have a couple of chickens. He said of course she could. “Can you build me a coop?” she asked. “Sure, I can do that for you. When do you need it?” Collins asked. “Tomorrow,” she said. “I have four chickens in the truck.”
It was that moment that scratched up a new career for Collins. He began reading online articles about chicken swaps (they’re very popular in southern states) and finally approached the manager of the Tractor Supply store in Milford about hosting a swap there. He now runs chicken swaps at 10 Tractor Supply stores, and a handful of others around the state, from April through October.
Collins likens a chicken swap to a farmers market for poultry and livestock. Chickens — “Oh my God, there are hundreds of breeds of chickens,” Collins said — may be the featured ware at the swaps, but vendors also sell rabbits, goats, sheep, eggs and some produce — “anything farm-related or New Hampshire-made that is connected to the backyard farmer,” he said. Vendors are more than happy to answer customer questions related to the raising of chickens.
“Everyone becomes a big family, everybody knows everybody,” Collins said of the swaps. “We have a great following.”
While it does happen on occasion, the actual swapping of chickens is a thing of the past. Four-week-old chicks are usually sold at the markets for around $6 at swaps, depending on the breed, and laying hens for up to $15. While some chicken swap shoppers seek out hens to be used as meat, most are in it for the eggs, Collins said.
“People mostly want kids to know where their food is coming from … more and more people want to learn about it and have their own [chickens],” he said.
So many chickens have been sold in the Granite State that the United States Department of Agriculture has provided the state department of agriculture with a grant for Avian Influenza surveillance, which the state department of agriculture, markets and food applies to testing backyard flocks; the state’s three veterinary technicians will also test the birds for salmonella during the same visit.
“Our mission here is to protect our food supply, our livestock,” Heisler said. “Part of that is surveillance testing.” Only chickens purchased outside New Hampshire are required to be tested, and proof of said testing must be provided to the division of animal industry at the department of agriculture, markets and food, for a permit to be granted. All chickens must be tested to be sold at swaps.
King of the roost
When you’re ordering chickens, or buying them from swaps when they are still little balls of fluffy yellow feathers, there is always a chance that your laying hen may in fact be a rooster.
“It’s hard to sex a chicken,” Heisler said. “You have to be extremely knowledgeable.”
Heisler has one rooster among her 19 chickens and loves hearing him bellow “cockadoodledoo.”
“Roosters don’t make for good neighbors,” Thomas said.
In fact, chicken owners mainly only keep roosters around if they want to hatch chicks from their eggs.
“Eggs will happen anyway,” Thomas noted. “People mistake eggs to be a baby [chicken], but it’s something they produce almost on a daily basis.” Others, like Normanton, keep roosters on hand to protect their flocks from aviary predators, such as hawks.
Perkins said that, in addition to having a noisy nature, roosters can cause trouble in the hen house; one of Thomas’ chickens still bears scars from where her feathers were torn out when she was mounted by a rooster. Roosters can also develop a nasty demeanor as they age, Perkins said.
Many chicken owners harvest their roosters (and most do it humanely), and a female chicken will rise to the occasion of leading the flock. (Zelda is the alpha in Thomas’ coop.)
Some people bring their roosters to chicken swaps and, if they’re colorful or unique, might find someone to purchase them — a breeder looking to develop new chicken breeds or colors.
“Most end up on the kitchen table … and on Craigslist people are giving away roosters by the fall, for free usually, because they’re nasty or because they can’t kill it,” Perkins said. Perkins slaughtered her first rooster when she was only 16 — “I had to resolve myself to the fact that I had to do it,” she says — and now has one among her flock of 11 chickens.
“I like the sound of a rooster, but I don’t live next door to somebody that close,” Perkins said. “He’s a nice rooster, not nasty.”
Free-pasture vs. free-range
A chicken needs only one square meter of space, indoors or out, to be considered free-range.
“People think free-range chickens are on the back side of Aunt Susie’s farm pecking away,” said Ed Aloise, owner of Republic Café in Manchester. “That’s not free range.”
Free pasture allows for the birds to roam and feed on their own, which Aloise said results in a more natural-tasting meat. “A lot of ‘free range’ chickens are corn-fed,” he added. Free-pasture chickens also fertilize the ground to allow other crops to better grow, he said.
“If you’re going to get a natural chicken, you really need to read the package — it says a lot … read the package aggressively to make sure you’re getting what you think you’re getting,” Aloise said.
Normanton has been raising free-pasture chickens for three years; he raises 3,000 birds annually and designates two-fifths of an acre for each 300 birds. The chickens are contained in their areas by an electric fence and have a hen house to protect them from the elements. Normanton moves the house daily as the flock eats the grass around the acreage, and so the nutrients in their feces can be more evenly distributed across the property.
Raising free-pasture chickens on certified organic feed runs Normanton $6 per bird. The mix is made with corn, soy, wheat, oats and a variety of mineral supplements; the birds also continue to digest the grass and insects found in their environment. He uses the organic feed so the chickens can keep up enough energy to grow to full size, which he said could take up to two years otherwise.
The chicken or the egg?
Perkins has had chickens for all but 10 of her 54 years, both for meat and eggs. Her family raised White Rock chickens — medium-sized “dual purpose” birds that can produce a good carcass in 15 weeks or start producing eggs at 21 weeks.
“That was the standard,” she said.
Differences began to emerge between how chickens were raised for eggs and how they were raised for meat. Cross-breeding in the industry resulted in a White Rock/Cornish Rooster hybrid, a bird that could grow to 5½ pounds in only seven weeks.
“You can imagine that cuts the cost of raising the bird in half,” Perkins said.
Those Cornish crosses are now the birds found lining refrigerated cases at supermarkets; Cornish Game Hens are Cornish crosses that were slaughtered at four weeks. Hybrid hens are not kept long enough to lay eggs, because they outgrow their legs at 10 weeks — “They can’t stand up anymore,” Perkins said. “They grow too rapidly.”
Dual-purpose birds — White Rocks and heritage birds — can still be harvested at 15 weeks, but the finished carcass will be much leggier than that of a Cornish cross.
“You can see the difference,” Perkins said.
Like a chicken with its head cut off
There are no slaughter houses in New Hampshire (Fornier Free Range Foods is slated to open in Litchfield later this year) but some “backyard butchers” will harvest chickens for a small fee. Perkins butchered her first chicken — a rooster, actually — when she was 16. She now teaches chicken butchering workshops and general chicken education classes for the UNH Cooperative Extension, where she works as an agricultural resources program coordinator.
“Somebody’s got to teach people. Someone taught me,” Perkins said. “What if you can’t afford [having them butchered] for $5 a piece? You’ve got to learn yourself.”
Home chicken owners are allowed to slaughter and sell (at their home or at farm stands) up to 1,000 chickens annually, without needing their facility inspected by the USDA. The state of New Hampshire does not have a meat inspection program of its own.
“You still can’t just sell it to restaurants,” Heisler noted. “That requires more regulations.”
All backyard slaughtering processes must follow proper public health and food safety procedures, she added.
The head of the chicken must be chopped off to start the butchering process; then the bird needs to be scalded with 150-degree water to make for easy feather removal. The carcass must then be eviscerated and cooled as quickly as possible before being cooked or refrigerated.
How much of the chicken is used during cooking typically relates to the nationality of who is preparing it, Perkins said. Chicken gizzards, livers, intestines and feet are often used in a variety of international dishes, she said.
“Americans eat the least amount of things from an animal,” she said. “We’re the pickiest of all of the nationalities.”
You crack me up
Thomas opened an egg carton to reveal not the cookie-cutter brown or white eggs we see at the grocery store but instead eggs of all sizes, their shells boasting hues of brown, blue, pink and yellow.
“When they lay an egg, they sort of sing an egg song,” Thomas said of her flock chickens, who frequent the wood-shaving-filled nesting area in their backyard coop. She brings the blue-green eggs to local schools when classes are reading the Dr. Seuss classic Green Eggs and Ham.
Thomas said her chickens can lay a total of up to two dozen eggs a day in the summer (the Thomases often share them with friends and neighbors), but as the hens need 16 hours of sunlight to lay eggs, winter egg production can be down to only nine from the 34 chickens.
Some chicken owners use artificial sunlight in their coops during the winter, but not the Thomases.
“If they’re meant to slow down during the winter, that’s fine with me,” Thomas said. “I slow down during the winter.”
Chickens, like women, are born with as many eggs as they are ever going to lay, Perkins said.
“Ours drop every 28 days, theirs every 25 hours,” she said, adding that chickens can be born with anywhere from 2,000 to 4,000 eggs and live an average of six years.
The eggs are laid covered in an oil that works as a natural preservation agent; it is not until the oil is washed off that the eggs need to be refrigerated, Thomas said. Eggs should sit two to three days before they are hard-boiled because they can be more difficult to peel, she added.
“If the kids are hungry and there’s not a lot of food in the house, they’ll go out to the hen house and get a snack,” she said.
All this talk about chickens is making me hungry
Free-pasture birds arrive at Republic Café in Manchester in a pickup truck right after they’ve been slaughtered.
Aloise said he uses only free-pasture chicken from local farms at his restaurant for a few reasons — because he thinks they taste better and believes that is how chickens are supposed to be raised. And while they are more expensive, it removes them from the corn economy completely, he said.
The breast meat found on free-pasture birds is small because “they’re not sitting in one spot being corn-fed and getting fatter and fatter,” Aloise said. Legs are the meatiest part of free-pasture chickens, as they get a lot of exercise.
“The meat is a little gamier, so we prepare it a little differently,” Aloise said. “We confit the legs and with the breast meat; we do use brine aggressively, but it does come out really nice.”
“Our birds don’t taste like anyone else’s birds,” he added. “Free-pasture birds — anyone can taste the difference.”
When the legs are confit, the rest of the bird is roasted and picked through twice by Aloise and his kitchen staff. The chicken found in the all of the restaurant’s dishes comes from all parts of the chicken carcass.
“You’re eating an entire bird, even in our paninis,” Aloise said. The chicken’s organs are frozen and kept for paté, which is occasionally served with crostinis as a special, and the bones are used in stocks.
Aloise also sources organic eggs from pasture-raised chickens from seven New Hampshire farms.
“They’re different colors, they’re big and beautiful,” he said. “[The yolks] are almost orangey, the way they’re supposed to be when the birds are out there just grubbing away.”
The egg yolks boast such a bright color that Aloise said many Republic customers think the restaurant adds dye to its omelets.
Chicken bones are also used in stocks at 36 deLux in Manchester.
“A lot of times my chicken guy would save all the feet for me and we would use that for stock,” said 36 deLux owner, Matt Provencher. “There is a lot of gelatin in chicken feet.”
Provencher said he hopes to be able to locally source free-range or free-pasture chickens for his restaurant next summer.
“They taste better,” he said, adding that, like Aloise, he uses as much of each bird as he can. While some of the organs are used for paté and tourine, the livers are made into a mousse and served with crostinis and often times an onion compote.
“We made [chicken liver mousse] in the first kitchen I ran … when the cooks left, the first thing they did was ask for the recipe,”
Provencher said, adding that he has also been able to make use of cock combs, another good source of gelatin, by serving them braised. “I like chicken hearts but we don’t serve them,” he said.
The secret to cooking a good chicken is first making sure the bird is clean, and then not overcooking it, Provencher said: “It doesn’t have to be cooked to death all the way through,” he said. “People have a hard time with that. It can still be juicy.” Provencher suggests using a fork during the roasting process to poke where the chicken leg bends; he says when the juice starts running clear, the bird is done. “It doesn’t have to be cooked for four hours until it’s sawdust,” he said.
Aloise called fried chicken a very classic American dish. A lot of space and an open window (to allow the inevitable smoke to escape) are needed to start the process, he said.
The chicken must then be doused in buttermilk and breadcrumbs or cornflakes before it is submerged into a skillet filled with 375-degree lard or canola or peanut oil.
As with most fried foods, the flavor of the chicken is often lost by the time you get to the end result.
“‘It tastes like chicken’ seems to be a very ubiquitous term,” Aloise said. “Chicken now doesn’t taste like anything. It gets its taste from what you do to it.”
Aloise suggests using more affordable birds when looking to make the crisp and crunchy dish but to avoid chickens that are pure in color because it is a sign of heavy processing, and likely that birds have been injected with water and fed straight corn.
Aloise softened the sticker shock often associated with purchasing a good, free-pasture or free-range chicken. “If it’s $4.29 a pound, that bird should feed four people,” he said adding that consumers should also consider the costs of the legumes, vegetables and grains served with the chicken that make a meal complete and offset the price of the bird.
“People should think beyond mashed potatoes,” he added. “You are what you eat, and no one wants to be a mashed potato.”
More than birds
Thomas said she has seen many similarities between her chickens and her family — the pecking behavior, how they put each other in their place and “even though they bicker with each other they come home every night and roost together,” she said.
“Chickens are not at all the standard brown Old MacDonald’s farm chickens,” Thomas said. “They’ve got great personality and they’re a great addition to the household and life.”
“I had no idea they’d be so much fun.”