Two years ago, I sold my CPA firm and, after two decades, left Summit County seeking some arable land and solitude. I discovered my little piece of paradise in this beautiful valley. It called to me—and to my chickens.
I had searched for mountains, trails, water, temperate climate and proximity to the National Forest. This three-acre haven was in my budget because it had been neglected.
During my first year of settling in, I borrowed library books, read online articles and watched YouTube videos about raising chickens.
After learning about the lay of the land and our native predators. I opted to locate the chickens in an old corral close to my cabin for safety. To deter the bears, cougars, raccoons and foxes and to keep the flock warm through the winter, I purchased a six- by eight-foot shed off of Craigslist. Then using chicken wire reinforced with mesh hardware cloth, I enclosed the corral, making a nice semi-protected chicken playground.
What breed of chicken you select depends on what you are looking for (eggs, meat, homestead helpers, entertainment or a combination of those) and your location (urban, suburban or rural). Deciding to raise Icelandic chickens was easy; I had read an article in Mother Earth News about this incredible landrace and knew they were for me.
Hailing from 9th-century Nordic lands, Icies are hearty, self-sufficient, good layers, excellent foragers, and suited to free-ranging. They carry distinctly beautiful markings. Besides, I have a proclivity for Vikings!
My chicks arrived in June. The 25 tiny, fuzzy, day-old hatchlings were over-nighted from Wisconsin in a little cardboard box punctured with breathing holes. The post office called me at 7:30 a.m. to alert me to their arrival.
At home, I plucked each peeping creature out of the mailing box, dipped its beak in water as many books had directed, and placed it in its new temporary home—a bigger cardboard box filled with pine shavings, a waterer and a feeder stuffed with organic non-GMO feed. I warmed the chicks with a heat lamp borrowed from a friend, keeping them inside until the outside temperatures climbed.
I then relocated the rapidly growing chicks to the shed. Early on, they displayed innate abilities to forage, fly and survive. In a free-range situation, males protect the flock by alerting them to danger as well as fighting off predators.
As the chicks grew, I was able to distinguish male from female. I was eagerly awaiting an annual fall class at Sustainable Settings to teach me how to cull some of the roosters. Living outside of town limits, I am allowed to keep roosters, but too many males can cause problems.
Once the males became sexually active, I could wait no longer. The male-to-female ratio was way too high, and the hens were being harassed. With the class still weeks away, I advertised free Icelandic roosters on Craigslist. The nice men who responded and picked up several roosters most likely planned to fatten them up and eat them.
Once the excess males were gone, things settled down a bit. The class taught me how to kill and butcher chickens. These newfound skills not only brought me in closer connection to my food, but the evisceration process also made me feel more of a connection to my own innards.
A month later, once the males gained a little weight, I enlisted my new abilities, culling three more roosters and bringing my flock down to one rooster plus one backup. Two nights later, I cooked a chicken dinner for some friends and used the leftovers to make the best broth I have ever tasted. The meat from my chickens tasted more savory and rich than any I had eaten before.
I went into winter with 13 pullets (hens younger than one year) and two cockerels (roosters younger than one year).
A couple of the hens began laying eggs early in the winter. My happy chickens produce eggs with ivory-shaded shells and bright yellow yolks. The arrival of the first one amazed me. A year later, I still see each one as a gift. Eggs, said to be the perfect food, are in my daily diet and I give away the excess to neighbors and friends.
This past spring, I lost two hens: one most likely to a neighbor’s dog and one perhaps to a hawk. Red-tailed hawks (aka chicken hawks) and eagles soar above my property. The chickens stay alert and take cover, but casualties come with the territory.
Three new additions born a few weeks ago will add to my flock, now at fourteen. Hens Freya and Flo have been brooding on eggs for the past couple weeks, so more chicks are in the near future. I do not incubate the eggs, but let nature take its course—with a little assistance from me when needed.
Some people artificially light their coops to increase egg production, but I do not. I attempt to keep the chickens’ lives as natural as possible. They peck at pesticide-free grass, weeds, bugs and veggies on my property, and I supplement this diet with organic grain that I purchase locally and mix myself.
During the many hours I have spent clearing and restoring my once-neglected land, I have often felt as if I have a team of feathered gardeners working beside me. Chickens restore the earth in many ways. Their feces provide excellent compost. They eat insects, till the soil and hasten the curing of my compost pile.
The chickens follow me into the woods, finding shade, safety and food in the dense underbrush and trees. In return for their assistance, I provide them with fresh water, feed, housing and guardianship.
The Viking chickens are an integral part of my homestead.
As a recovering CPA, I could not help but calculate a break-even analysis on my chickens. This spring, I purchased an automatic chicken door; it runs on batteries and opens and closes by detecting the amount of light. That door put me in the hole for another year, but it saves me from the daily obligation of being home at dawn and dusk to open the door and then close it against predators.
While the chickens are costing more than they are saving me, they are worth every penny.
Tending and raising them is unbelievably rewarding. I have a deep appreciation for the food they provide, and I’m grateful for their help in healing the land.
After two years of going back to the land with my Icelandics, Joel Salatin’s words from Folks, This Ain’t Normal: A Farmer’s Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World resonate: “Our stewardship mandate [should be] to create Edens wherever we go. That’s why humans are here. Our responsibility is to extend forgiveness into the landscape.”