Lay a Little Egg for Me
Reading Time: 4 minutes
By Sherri Talbot – Each spring, there is a flurry of activity in the barnyard as chicks orders are placed, coops cleaned, and plans laid for the new batch of chicks. This can be a lesson in anxiety for new chick owners as breeds are researched, and targeted ads begin to hit you with a flurry of coop, feed, nutrition, and care suggestions.
Was it always this complicated?
In 1889 the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) began a series of pamphlets — sent to any household in the U.S. upon request — called the Farmer’s Bulletin. These little booklets covered a variety of topics, from sorting apples to mixing pesticides by hand. And, of course, there were directions on raising the household chicken.
During the World Wars, raising chickens was not looked at as just a hobby but an act of patriotism. Being able to feed your family from your backyard meant less pressure on a system already strained by food shortages and rationing. Therefore, the 1920s and ‘30s saw a release of pamphlets with titles like Brood Coops and Appliances (1921), Feeding Hens for Egg Production (1924), Diseases of Poultry (1925), Poultry Houses and Fixtures (1928), and Livestock for Small Farms (1936).
As is the case today, choosing a breed was the first step toward raising chickens. However, rather than docile natures, crazy haircuts, or interesting egg colors, the primary concerns were productivity and cost. While many today consider broody hens a nuisance, their economic advantage over an incubator’s price made them popular. Hatching eggs and a broody hen were considered the most economical means of producing a flock from scratch. Also, broody hens would mean future generations of chickens, which was considered a valuable investment.
Day-old chicks were considered a luxury because one had to spend the money and time on brooding equipment and care, while a broody hen would do these things for free. Since the science of “sexing” chicks was just in its infancy, about 50% of purchased chicks would be male — good only for eating. Aside from this, the loss from disease, predators, and other issues was considered an expected side effect of raising chickens. The USDA warned that one should expect to hatch or buy at least three dozen chicks to keep a small family in eggs.
Brooding chicks without using a broody hen also meant the use of dangerous equipment, such as the “brooder stove,” which was just a miniature wood stove. This needed to be consistently fed and temperature maintained to keep chicks at a steady temperature. In addition to the danger of fire or inconsistent temperatures, improper ventilation could result in the loss of an entire batch of chicks that could not be easily replaced.
When choosing breeds, options were far more limited, though specialized breeds for eggs or meat were available. Leghorns and Anconas were suggested in Livestock for Small Farms as egg layers, not only because of their production but also their ability to forage for food, making them more economical. Meat birds such as Brahmas and Jersey Giants are mentioned but dismissed as inferior to a “general breed” bird (now called dual-purpose) like the Rhode Island Red or Orpington. These general breed birds were favored for producing large numbers of eggs while still producing roosters big enough for dressing out.
Similar to the modern days, disease was a concern when raising chicks. Of all the USDA pamphlets found on raising chickens, these were by far the most extensive and in-depth. As most backyard chicken farmers were forced to be self-sufficient, much of the emphasis was on preventing disease rather than curing it, and culling chickens was heavily used if there was an outbreak in a coop. In fact, an incinerator for dead birds was an important part of farm life. Sick birds would never be buried where other animals might dig them up or put in compost where they might likewise attract predators.
As an interesting side note, a common concern in poultry was gout. Because of the emphasis on economics and avoiding waste, chickens were primarily fed on food scraps and forage. Grain was a supplement on many farms, rather than a staple, and meat was considered essential for good egg production. Sometimes a diet high in meat or fat scraps would result in the birds developing gout. If it developed in the feet, a reduction in meat and more greens was the only suggested cure. If it developed in the organs, the bird was culled.
Like so many parts of chicken raising during this period, housing was based on affordability. Unlike today’s chickens, who have the luxury of insulated coops, heaters, and custom-built designs that can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars, the chickens of yesteryear were relegated to whatever could be built on a budget. Today, buying on a budget can mean a flimsy coop purchased from a “big box” store that fails in its first winter. Instead, chickens were given sturdy structures that could be made from repurposed sheds, shelters cobbled together out of wood scraps, or even a small, specially constructed, movable house with a dirt floor and simple design. Patterns were included in the USDA’s pamphlets, and the assumption was made in each case that the soon-to-be chicken owners had some rudimentary carpentry skill at their disposal.
Like many other household tasks in the ‘20s and ‘30s — such as sewing, knitting, or woodworking — raising chickens was a necessary chore, not a hobby. Chicken raising wasn’t something that was simply given up if it turned out to not be fun or given away if the rooster turned out to be a little too frisky. However, hobby raising does have one major benefit over our ancestor’s chicken raising. Modern-day chicken raising allows for greater freedom of emotional attachment. Children can have chickens as pets and name them. Chickens can be shown off as things of beauty rather than a future dinner.
Rather than the necessity of feeding our families, chickens have become a part of our families.
Originally published in the June/July 2021 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.