Five reasons why you should (not) keep chickens

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There are as many reasons not to keep chickens as there are reasons for keeping them. I’ve kept chickens for about three years now, so I thought I’d write up this list of pros and cons of raising these quirky animals. If you have chickens I bet you can relate to this post, and if you’re thinking about getting started with them, I hope this provides a lighthearted and somewhat balanced expectation-checker!

1. You can make a profit with chickens. (But then again you might not break even with chickens.)

It’s best if you go into chicken-keeping with the mindset of starting a slightly pricey hobby. Yes, it is possible to make a profit with chickens, or at least perhaps break even by not having to buy eggs anymore. There are startup costs such as building a coop, getting feeders and waterers, and setting up a brooder (if you’ll be raising chicks). You can make or retrofit a chicken coop on practically any budget, but it’s an investment you may not make back. (Our own chickens have probably not made back the money we spent building their coops!) All that being said, as you become a better chicken keeper, you will start to see opportunities to “monetize” your flock.

2. You will have a source of fresh chicken meat. (But you will have to learn how to slaughter and butcher.)

Some people only keep a few hens for egg purposes, and never plan to slaughter. However, if you will be actually raising chickens, remember that about 50% of chicks (in a “straight run”, meaning not selected for sex) will grow up to be roosters. This means that you will have a great source of fresh chicken meat, but it also means that you will have to learn how to slaughter and butcher those roosters (and the occasional old hen, if you have a “no-freeloaders” policy for your coop). My husband willingly (thankfully!) slaughters our table-chickens, and I am usually in charge of butchering. However I usually watch the slaughter as well because I think it is respectful to the animal, and that if I want to eat it, I should be able to see it go from animal to meat.

3. You will learn things you never thought you needed to know. (With chickens, anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.)

If you plan on getting started with keeping chickens, it helps to study up beforehand and learn the basics of chickens’ biology, behavior, and needs, husbandry skills, and where to get veterinary or expert advice in your area. I bought my first chicken on a whim from a woman who showed up at my courtyard door. I never thought I would keep chickens, but the lady needed cash and I wanted to help her out. I knew next to nothing about chickens but knew that they are flock animals who do not thrive by themselves, so I bought another chicken in town. That one died. I bought another one and that one died too. (They probably had Newcastle but again I knew nothing about chickens back then.) Fast forward three years, a great reference book, and endless Google searches later. In that time I’ve seen infectious diseases, parasites, vitamin deficiencies, predators, thieves, you name it. I’ve come a long way from that first chicken I bought from my back door. I’ve profitably kept laying hens and “village”-type dual-purpose chickens. But I’m still learning and it’s always in the back of my head that just when I think I’ve seen it all, my chickens will pull a fast one on me and humble me all over again!

4. Chickens provide endless free entertainment. (Chickens might become both your work and your play.)

Shortly after we got about 60 laying hens, my husband built a bench right outside their run, replacing the rather-uncomfortable cinder block I had been sitting on to watch them in the afternoons. Chickens are great fun to watch, especially if they have the space to free-range and if you teach them to come for a treat when you call. If you’re new to chickens, just watching them interact with each other and their environment will teach you so much. You will learn their body language and be able to tell who might be sick, who’s at the top of the pecking order, who will lay an egg in the next few hours. If you want to keep chickens successfully, you must watch them for some amount of time every day to see how they’re doing. This informal observation is crucial and, with time, can tell you a lot about how your flock is doing. These days I watch my chickens the most at the end of the day when they’re coming in to the coop from the surrounding fields. Chickens really do get you outside and in the present as you watch them scratch around and mind their business.

5. Once you have a few chickens, you will want to keep adding more. (Your coop will never be big enough!)

I started with one chicken, and currently have probably about 50 or 60 in my coop. Chickens can become an addictive hobby. They come in endless breeds, colors, shades of eggs laid. You could easily become a “chicken collector” and fill your coop to bursting. In the horse world, they say that you shouldn’t build a stable with extra stalls because you will feel a compulsion to fill them with horses. I really think the same is true with chickens.

All that being said, I can’t really imagine life without chickens now. As much as they can occasionally frustrate, and although sometimes we just break even with feed costs, they add spunk, eggs, and fertilizer to our homestead and I wouldn’t want it any other way!

(Before I finish: here are Amazon links to three chicken- and poultry-keeping books I recommend:)

Storey’s Guide to Raising Poultry by Glenn Drowns (great reference book if you’re considering ever keeping other kinds of poultry than just chickens)

Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens by Gail Damerow

The Chicken Chick’s Guide to Backyard Chickens by Kathy Shea Mormino

What are the biggest pros and cons of chicken-keeping where you are? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

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Looking for goats in all the wrong places

Leave it to the goats to decide to go missing the same week we made a plan to start fencing in their pasture.

Our goats have previously spent the night away, during days when we would leave during the afternoon and they would get forgetful and wander too far off to return before dark. (In our community this time of year, everyone’s livestock is let to roam free on the fallow farms before plowing and planting start again.) In the mornings after they did that, Omari would go hunt them down and find them at a neighbor’s or in the hills nearby. But this time, they couldn’t be found anywhere. We called our various neighbors and fellow goatkeepers to keep an eye out, but not a single person had seen them.

The goats went missing on a Tuesday. Goats are sold to slaughter at the market on Wednesday.

Wednesday morning, I got up early and headed to the market. I was so early that there were only three measly goats standing in the auction section. I eyed them and knew they weren’t ours, then headed back to the motorcycle spare parts shop where I charge my phone and laptop. There I waited anxiously for morning to turn to noontime and the auction lot to fill. I told our motorcycle taxi friend that our goats had gone missing and that I was keeping an eye out for them at the market. He himself was convinced that they had been stolen. I took his words with a grain of salt, but as time wore on I heard more and more stories of how many goat thieves there were these days and I started to think they might indeed have been stolen.

As noon approached I went back to the auction lot, where there were now hundreds of goats and sheep among the many-splendored young Masai men in every color and shade of plaid “shuka”, which is what the fabrics the Masai wear are called. I found our neighbor Jafet, who is a goat dealer and had helped me buy my goats there. He said he would keep an eye out as well, although as a man who sees thousands of goats a week, I admit that I doubted his ability to recognize ours.

The sun beat down as I made my rounds through all the goats and sheep. Noon came and I decided to admit defeat and go home. Omari had scoured the territory looking for them but had not yet given up the search. We went up to the hills in the late afternoon, but the sun was sinking and still no sign.

The goats have been gone for two nights, I thought. They’ve never done this before.

Thursday morning, Omari continued the search as I walked back to town to withdraw some cash as we had run low. On my way, Jafet flagged me down and told me that if our goats had been stolen, they were probably taken to a city district nearby where most goats for the whole city of Arusha are slaughtered. I listened with growing concern and called Omari. I told him we should probably follow Jafet’s advice because he’s an expert and knows how these things go. So Jafet and I made it to the bus stand and got on a bus and then another to head to the slaughter district.

Halfway through our trip on the second bus, Omari called me. “Nimewapata!” “I’ve found them!” He told me. “They lost their bell though. It must have fallen off somewhere.”

Who could care about a bell at a time like this! I looked over at Jafet and he was mildly amused. I hung up in relief and we both agreed that we hadn’t known how it would turn out, so better that we were on our way to the slaughterhouse when we got the good news. We got off the bus.

“In case you ever need to know, though, the slaughterhouse and the places where they store up goats are back there,” Jafet said, gesturing to a lime-green two-story building across the street. He showed me around some more, then bought some type of grilled goat organ meat at the meat strip, and I paid for two Pepsis. He’s a man of few words, but we chatted about goats before we got on another bus and parted ways.

“Where did you find them?!” I asked Omari when I got home.

“I called my friend from back home, he’s a mganga,” he said. “Mganga” is a general term for a doctor who uses holistic/ natural medicines and who often has other spiritual or supernatural abilities.

“I told him our goats were missing and that I thought they had been stolen. ‘They haven’t been stolen!’ He told me. ‘They want to be stolen, but they haven’t been. They just wandered off and got lost. Where are you right now?’ I told him I was out on the hills looking for them. ‘Do you know where the southwest is?’ He asked me. I wasn’t sure of the direction from where I was. ‘Go home, then look to the southwest. Your goats are coming home from the southwest. You will meet them.’ So I went home, and looked to the southwest, and there they were, on their way back home!”

Later that day I was still incredulous as I tossed some corn bran to the goats, who looked a little haggard from their two-day expedition. This country, man. There’s no explaining what happens in this country sometimes.

And I never, ever want these goats to get lost again. That fence can’t go up fast enough.

Cooking liver: offal isn’t awful at all

The people who knew me in America, when I was at times pescatarian, vegetarian, and flirting-with-vegan, would be low-key horrified, or perhaps morbidly fascinated, if they saw me now.

On market days I stroll through herds of goats and sheep and their Masai herdsmen, squeezing goat flanks and stroking sheep backs to see how much meat they have on them. I barter jokingly with the men and tell them I’ll come back and buy one another day. They always seem to think I need several goats, ASAP, and tell me so.

I eventually pry myself away from the livestock yard and head to the butcher row. Sheep are tethered together at the neck by sisal rope, waiting for their imminent slaughter. Raw meat hangs from the wire mesh in the windows of the butchers. The smell of grilled meat fills the air. Most of the butchers wear white coats, which by the afternoon are pretty dirty-looking.

Today, I hunt down goat liver. I buy half of a raw liver, weighing probably about a pound, for 4,000 Tanzanian shillings – about $2. I head over to another section to pick up soup bones for my friend’s dog who’s staying at our place, then head home.

Being a previous vegetarian who was then transplanted to Tanzania was one of those experiences that may be best described by the phrase “out of the frying pan and into the fire.” Seeing cows and goats being slaughtered in the mornings on my way to the village cafe was something I quickly got used to. I would watch cows being butchered from start to finish. I gained a new appreciation for this type of slaughter: the entire animal was used. Hardly any part was thrown away.

The hides go to a man who buys them up for tanning. The head and feet go to mamas who specialize in cooking various soups with them. A Masai butcher would collect the blood which can be drunk, whereas a Muslim one would let it flow into the ground, which is part of halal slaughter. Stomach and intestines are cleaned, then grilled or cooked. The liver and heart are sold along with the muscle meat at the butcher’s. Everything else is thrown to the village dogs, who make short work of it. What’s left – the horns, maybe? I once told a Tanzanian man that some cultures in parts of the world clean and polish animal horns, then use them as drinking vessels. He was more or less horrified. Guess you have to draw the line somewhere.

I realized that if I truly appreciate this kind of slaughter, and if we will probably butcher our own goat one day, I need to be okay with cooking and eating some of these non-muscle-meat parts that come along with a slaughtered animal. I figured liver was a good place to start.

Many people balk at eating liver because it is the organ that removes toxins from the body. If toxins are a concern, in general it’s best to choose liver from smaller and/ or younger animals; for example, better to eat a young rooster’s liver than an old pig’s. Also, if possible, try to make sure the animal was raised organically; at the very least, not in a toxic environment. Interestingly enough, some studies show that animal livers do not always have a higher concentration of toxins and heavy metals than muscle meat does; the levels can be variable.

Liver is an excellent source of protein, iron, vitamin A, and vitamins B12 and B2; in fact, its vitamin A levels could potentially be harmful if you eat too much. Liver is suitable as an occasional dish, maybe once or twice a month for the average person. See this article for more information and advice.

Upon researching how to cook liver, here are the top tips I learned:

If parasites are a concern, cook liver all the way through – it should not still be pink inside.

If the liver comes from an adult animal or if toughness is a concern, soak in milk for up to four hours before cooking.

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(Above: what we’re working with. You might be thinking that this liver is unusually large; in fact, my cutting board is unusually small!)

It’s recommended to peel off the thin outer membrane before slicing. Slice liver thinly so that it cooks quickly and evenly. Cut out any white tubes you may come across when cutting up the liver.

When cooking or frying liver, don’t move it around too much as it will either break or get tougher the more it’s moved during the process.

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(Above: sliced and ready to be cooked.)

I cooked liver and onions, which was really easy. Saute onions until soft or slightly caramelized (however you prefer). Remove the onions from the pan, add more oil into the pan if needed, and turn up the heat. Fry the thin slices of liver, about a minute on each side. Remove from the oil and combine the liver with the onions again. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

How easy was that? What are your favorite liver recipes?

Divide and conquer: what I did about the chicken coop

I have seven hens and had read somewhere that two nest boxes would be more than enough. It wasn’t.

Let’s just say I don’t think the author of that advice ever dealt with your typical Tanzanian village hen. These chickens only lay eggs once in a blue moon, but when they do, it’s like they move in to the box. They spend so much time rearranging wood shavings and feathers in there, then lay an egg, go away, and come back and look at it again. And forget about when they go broody. These hens would rather set outside in monsoon weather than miss a precious opportunity to hatch out their spawn.

Despite (or perhaps because of) their neurotic tendencies, these village chickens make great mother hens. I hadn’t let any hens set this year (okay, one snuck by me… I told you they were crafty, right?!) because of our move and crazy schedule of events, but I finally got some cross-breed eggs for two of my hens to hatch out. However a hen needs to set somewhere where she will not have other motherhood-crazed chickens clambering all over her. So I figured the time had come to improve upon our one-room coop that clearly was just not cutting it.

During the past couple of weeks, I had been slowly figuring out how to best make a mama-and-baby sub-section of the main coop. I was able to use all scrap wood that remained from our house construction, with total expenses being the cost of 3 meters of chicken wire, two plastic five-gallon buckets, a piece of sheet metal, and nails, hinges, and a latch. It may not be the prettiest thing, but it gets the job done:

chickens 2

The top lifts up for easy feeding and cleaning:

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The nest buckets are removable and easy-to-clean:

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We finished it yesterday, thanks to Omari who saw I was a bit out of my league when it came to cutting sheet metal. Those edges can get razor-sharp!

Once we hammered in the last nail for the roof hinges, we had a good laugh about the tiny chicken door, and felt pretty accomplished with ourselves.

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Where do you let your broody hens set and raise their chicks?