Posts Tagged ‘city chickens’

Urban Livestock I: Hens

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Many people love the idea of urban farm animals and wonder what’s practical on a city lot. So I’ll spend a few posts ( not necessarily consecutively) talking about laying hens, meat chickens, and goats. There are other urban/ suburban possibilities, including bees, rabbits, small pig breeds, and even mini-cows. I may explore these in the future, but for now I’ll stick to what I know.

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Laying hens are easy and delightful but need to be thought out. If you start with chicks, it will be 5-7 months until your first egg. Started pullets are available in many areas but of course are more expensive. Check Craigslist if you want to find pullets. I suggest two hens per egg-eating household member. That should provide enough eggs for eating, baking, and giving away occasionally. Many people who get hens fail to realize that they don’t necessarily lay every day except during the spring glut and don’t lay at all when they are broody or molting, or in midwinter unless you supply supplemental light.

Housing doesn’t need to be elaborate but does need to be safe. Raccoons are a concern in most urban areas. In my area we also have urban coyotes who can get over 6 foot fences, and they wiped me out of laying hens before I had the chicken run roofed over with sturdy welded wire. A safe coop at night is not enough, since I regularly see coyotes during the daytime. So no free-ranging for my ladies. I cut grass and leaves to bring to them instead.

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Feed the hens to produce the best eggs possible. I like a laying pellet with flaxseed that produces high omega-3s in the egg, and I also provide daily heaps of greens for three seasons of the year, usually including fresh alfalfa. Extra calcium is a must, and in addition to oyster shell I save the shells of all eggs used in the kitchen. They can be briefly dried in the microwave and kept in a paper bag to be ground when they accumulate and mixed into leftovers of various kinds to be fed back to the ladies. If you have some spare time in the winter you can sprout seeds and grains for the hens, but I seldom bother. I did invest in a big bag of organic food-grade kelp meal a few years ago, and I dry some kale every year to make “kale meal,” both good winter supplements for hens.

Hens lay well for one or two years, moderately for another two, and very little after that. This means that after the first two or three years you have to have a plan to bring in some new ones each year and move out the oldest ones. Old hens are not good for most cooking methods but make the best broth or stew imaginable, full of flavor and collagen. To manage your flock well, you need to be able to tell fairly reliably how old your hens are. I start a few new hens of a different breed and color each year, so for instance the Rhode Island Reds in my flock are all four years old, the gold Pioneer hens are three years old, etc.  This way I know that at the end of the upcoming season the Reds need to go in the broth pot and some new color of hens needs to be started. You will need to learn to butcher or be prepared to sell the old hens very cheaply to someone else who wants real chicken soup

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Consider whether you want a rooster. They are beautiful, protective of the hens, and also very loud indeed. In some areas they are actually illegal. In my area it’s legal to have one, but legality doesn’t mean much if your neighbors are unhappy. I keep enough hens to supply my immediate neighbors with eggs, and that helps a lot. A few neighbors now have hens of their own, so be aware that you may start a mini-epidemic. Roosters can be aggressive, but most of mine have been fairly easy to handle. If they do get aggressive with you, a broom is a good humane instrument for shooing them away with no damage done.

If you do have a rooster your eggs will be fertile, and if a hen goes broody, she can be allowed to hatch out the eggs. A separate small coop should be provided for the hen to sit the eggs and rear her brood. Have a plan for what to do with them, and bear in mind that the young roosters should be butchered or otherwise disposed of the minute they start to crow. But it is a real delight to watch a mother hen care for her little family.

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Sometimes I get questions about the “best” breed of hen. I have had Rhode Island Reds, Australorps, leghorns, Pioneers, buff Orphingtons, and several of the layer hybrids like black sexlinks and red sexlinks, and they have all layed well.  For purely aesthetic reasons I prefer brown eggs and usually choose layers that produce them. Heritage breeds like Welsomers and Barnvelders go broody too easily to be great laying hens, but they excel at hatching eggs and caring for chicks, and I keep two elderly heritage hens just for the purpose of raising several chicks each year. I usually have an Americauna or two around to add soft sea-green and blue eggs to the egg basket. If I were more organized than I am, I would keep a rotation of Australorps, Rhode Island Reds, black sexlinks, and red sexlinks, since these are the best layers that I have found among the brown-egg breeds. My roosters are either Pioneers or Red Rangers, both large meat birds whose chicks, even when crossed with the laying hens, will be large and meaty. Personally I look at the Murray McMurray hatchery catalog each year to see which breeds are designated “best” for laying, and I never bother with chickens bred for appearance rather than production or with flighty little bantams.  But if a flock of strangely alien-looking Frizzles pleases you and you don’t like eggs that much anyway, well, this is your flock and should gladden your heart in addition to its other benefits.

Kitchen Staples: fresh pasta


Now that my chickens are laying and I have all these lovely fresh eggs around, I’m trotting out all my recipes that use up eggs. One of my very favorites is fresh pasta, and I can’t think of any kitchen skill more worth acquiring than pasta-making.
I used to make and roll pasta entirely by hand, and so I made it about twice a year. If you want to do it all by hand, you can get directions from any of several excellent cookbooks, and I particularly recommend The Splendid Table or Essentials of classic Italian cooking. My own current method is (surprise!) a lot more rough and ready, and relies on my Kitchenaid mixer. If you have one, get the pasta roller attachment (expensive but it works really well) and you’re all set. I use the Pro 600 mixer. I don’t know if the lighter ones will do the job. This is still a time-consuming undertaking, best suited to those relaxed weekend days that I think of as Domestic Goddess days, but it’s worth investing some time for a really delicious result.
The quality of the eggs is important. If you don’t have your own hens, make an effort to get real free-range eggs (not the supermarket kind.) Start with the bowl in place on the mixer and the regular mixing blade. I usually start with three cups of flour, which makes 4 main-course servings or at least 6 first-course servings. Have about six eggs handy. Put the flour in the bowl, crack one egg into the mixing bowl, and start running the mixer at the lowest speed. After the first egg is incorporated, about half a minute, crack in the next one. Keep adding eggs until you have yellow shreds of moist-looking dough and some dry “crumbs” in the bowl, as shown here. Usually I use five eggs, but a lot depends on the flour, the size of the eggs, and the weather. If the dough won’t come together smoothly when you switch to the dough hook, add another egg and try again.

Now switch to the dough hook. Run the mixer at the lowest possible speed until the dough comes together into a ball on the hook, and keep kneading for at least five minutes. This is where I don’t know if the light models will work. Even my pro model strains pretty hard. It’s a stiff dough, much harder to handle than bread dough.

When the dough is smooth and thoroughly kneaded, dust the ball lightly with flour, wrap it in plastic wrap, and put it in the refrigerator for at least an hour and up to eight hours. When ready to roll it out, attach the pasta roller attachment. Cut the ball of dough into pieces about the size of a lemon, and dust each lightly with flour. SEt the rollers as wide as they will go, start the mixer at lowest speed, and start feeding the balls of dough through. I like to do all the balls through the widest setting, then all through the next setting down, etc. Now this is where a trick comes in handy. You are going to need a lot of hanging room for the sheets of dough. Wooden racks are sold for this purpose, but I got a metal laundry-drying rack instead and took the nylon mesh “shelf” off the top. It’s easy to clean due to the smooth surface, HOlds a lot more than most wooden racks, and folds away neatly when not in use. The sheets of pasta look absurdly charming hanging from their rack.

When they are all as thin as you want them, let them hang until somewhat leathery. This may be 15 minutes or may be an hour, depending on humidity, breeze, etc. When they are leathery but can still be folded without cracking, you are ready to cut the sheets into noodles. The pasta roller has an attachment that will do it for you, but I greatly prefer to do this step by hand. I like the unevenness that results, and I can cut anything from thin linguine to very wide papardelle, depending on the meal that I have planned. Work on a lightly floured surface, roll the sheets around your hand to form cylinders, and cut across to make noodles, as wide or thin as you like. Unfold them and lay out on clean dishtowels spread on the counter for the purpose.

Cook soon for best quality, use plenty of salted water, and start testing for doneness as soon as the water returns to a boil. Sauce them simply to let their quality shine. In the near future I’ll post on my favorite mushroom sauce for fresh pasta, but for your first effort you might want to dress them with butter, cracked pepper, some chopped parsley, and the best Parmesan you can find. There is no simpler, or better, flavor.

Chickens are still legal residents of Albuquerque


I don’t usually use this blog for anything remotely political, but I received some worried inquiries about our city’s HEART animal ordinance, and whether it bans or limits chickens in the city, so I feel compelled to set the record straight. Don’t worry, backyard farmers, your chickens and mine are safe. The HEART statute controls and limits the possession and care of companion birds, but it carefully defines “companion birds” within the ordinance, and chickens are specifically excluded, as are ducks, geese, and a lot of other birds. The relevant section reads as follows:

COMPANION BIRD. A bird commonly kept as a pet by humans and confined on the property of the Owner, including, but not limited to, parakeets, canaries, lovebirds, finches, parrots, macaws, cockatoos, cockatiels, toucans and lories, but excluding:

(1) all of the family Anatidae (waterfowl);

(2) all of the family Tetraonidae (grouse and ptarmigans);

(3) all of the family Phasianidae (quail, partridges and pheasants);

(4) all of the family Meleagridae (wild turkeys) except for the domestic strains of turkeys;

(5) all of the family Perdicidae (francolins);

(6) all of the family Gruidae (cranes);

(7) all of the family Rallidae (rails, coots and gallinules);

(8) all of the family Charadriidae (plovers, turnstones and surfbirds);

(9) all of the family Scolopacidae (shorebirds, snipe, sandpipers and curlews);

(10) all of the family Recurvirostridae (avocets and stilts);

(11) all of the family Phalaropodidae (phalaropes);

(12) all of the family Columbidae (wild pigeons and doves) except for the domestic strains of pigeons; and

(13) ducks, geese, chickens and other poultry.

Therefore, existing laws about chickens permitting us to keep up to fifteen chickens (only 1 rooster among them) prevail. Thank goodness, because there’s nothing like those fresh warm eggs.