by Harvey Ussery
When I joined my husband’s family, I knew I was getting into a totally new experience: these are people who have dinner-table conversations about compost, Johnson grass, and sheep bloat. His parents bought this land as their retirement home, but have turned it into a working small-scale farm that provides all of their eggs and most of their meat.
Our dream is to expand it into a productive homestead on which we raise almost all our own food, plus enough to sell so that it pays for itself ~ all using ecological, natural, sustainable methods (a la Countryside and Acres USA).
I’ve gardened on a small scale and we even had five chickens once when I was growing up (after a few months of delicious eggs, they all succumbed to a bobcat attack). Before I moved here, that was the extent of my farming knowledge. Suffice it to say, I have a learning curve to conquer. Shortly before Charles and I got married, his dad dubbed me the new farm “understudy.” And once we got married and moved into the Little House, my farming education began in earnest.
The Small-Scale Poultry Flock by Harvey Ussery is one of my first accomplished assignments. Ussery is an expert on the subject of poultry-raising, and his book is recommended by the famousest of ecological farmers, Joel Salatin.
This highly-detailed book deals with every aspect of raising chickens for eggs or meat. Starting with the philosophy behind poultry-raising (why bother in the first place?), Ussery meanders from beginning to end: basic care, building housing, nests, and mobile shelters, putting the birds to work in a garden, making homemade chicken feed (including cultivating worms for their express enjoyment), managing flock dynamics, breeding, butchering, cooking, and selling the meat and eggs.
This book is informative and a fun read. Ussery gives detailed, practical advice, but is also a good writer who often made me laugh. Here’s a short sample from the chapter Your Basic Bird, about chickens’ communication methods: “Spend time with your birds and pay close attention, and you will learn to recognize the chicken talk used for specific situations and needs … Hens foraging contentedly together engage in a quiet conversational clucking. And some hens use a sharp, distinctive cry to signal to the world their extraordinary accomplishment of having just laid an egg” (p. 27-28).
This book is designed for “flocksters” of all types, from the beginner with a dozen chickens all the way up to someone who wants to run a multi-thousand-dollar-a-year meat and egg selling operation. It focuses on raising poultry in a natural way that provides for them to live like chickens (and ducks, geese, turkeys, and other birds) want to live ~ because a happy, healthy chicken gives happy, healthy (read: delicious, nutrient-packed) eggs and meat.
I took me several months to read through this book (on-and-off, because who can read 356 pages about poultry straight through? Not me) … but I now feel that I have at least an elementary grasp of what we’re trying to do and how this poultry-raising thing works. Even the butchering part ~ which I have witnessed in person once so far, but will soon be called upon to participate in. This book has definitely prepared me for what to expect, and helped get me in the mindset of being intimately involved with the production of the food I eat.
Meanwhile, I’m getting lots of observation and hands-on practice with feeding, stall litter, egg collecting and washing, and even “broody” behaviors of nesting hens.
We are out of freezer chickens from last year, and it will soon be time to gird up my loins and help with the all-important butchering. More on that to come!