Chickens have an essential part in gardening, especially Witches' gardening. Chicken tractors can mow, fertilize, and weed for you, leaving you with free time to do magick and worship. They will help you to create healthy soil, which in turn makes healthier plants, which in turn enhances your health and magickal concoctions.
Not sure if you want to integrate chickens into your life? Chickens are much different than you may have imagined!
A quick note: This section was inspired when one of our new chickens had her first egg! (Monday July 14, 1997) It was a beautiful sea-foam green color. It's ok, this is natural for her, she is an Araucana breed. As of 2013 we have a new flock of eighteen chickens, a dozen guinea fowl and the numbers are growing.
Here is a basic outline that will just cover the basic benefits of teaching your chickens how to drive a tractor:
No, not really... a chicken tractor is a chicken that does the work of a tractor, and more. Technically, a chicken in a low cage without a bottom is the 'tractor' part. I only cage mine part of the year when the veggies are just sprouting or if I need them to mow a particular path that they've been neglecting. There is no noise (no roosters! actually called cocks, but because the word has other meanings, the word rooster is used even though it once meant any chicken, especially one that is roosting on a perch or nest), odor, disease, 4am rooster calls to wake you and the neighbors. (Who probably don't need to think you are any stranger since they caught you talking to your garden and running around in little clockwise circles at night while wearing what looked like a sheet, or nothing at all.)
When I first wrote this article in 1997, there was very little information about this alternative way of raising chickens, but there are more resources available all the time. As of 2013, I've encountered hundreds of others doing this micro-homesteading. Raising chickens, expecially hatching your own from fertile eggs, is a wonderful project for Pagans and other kids. Learn about life & death and cycles of birth. . . see the egg and chicken resources at the end of this article.
Here's how you do it.
1. Find out if it is legal for you to have a chicken in your location. Many cities have passed laws against raising livestock within city limits. These laws have been changing since the fad of pot-belly pigs which are technically livestock in some places. Check with neighbors, call your city and county clerks (they always know everything) and check with the county extension agent. (If you can have them, find out from the extension agent if there are any diseases common in your area that most of the local ranchers immunize their chickens from so that you can do so as well.) We moved into a small town in 1999 and the law is that you are allowed one chicken per household, so long as it is caged, so a small chicken tractor will be ok. Sometimes you can appeal to your city council to pass similar allowances if chickens are forbidden in your urban location. I've since moved to the country to develop a Pagan sanctuary and organic homestead, so it is nice not to worry about city ordinances anymore!
2. Figure out how many chickens you want. Consider three things when you determine this; how much space you have, how many eggs you want, how much time you want to spend dealing with upkeep.
Books on modern poultry raising state that you need a single cubic foot cage for each chicken (1 ft. by 1ft. by 1 ft.) Not so! The chickens they refer to are commercial varieties that are so inbred (to make giant chicken breasts), malnourished, confined and high strung that they often cannot walk! What you want is old fashioned, heirloom yard birds. If your garden supplies most of your summer vegetables, and you plan to eat or sell the eggs, you will want one chicken for each member of the family. (Your ladies will provide about 4-6 eggs each, on an average weekly basis if they are happy.
Plan on a floor space in your tractors of about 9 square feet per chicken; a 3 foot by 3 foot area. One chicken per person will provide more than enough eggs for the average family, take up little space, and the upkeep of a handfull of chickens will consume about 5-10 minutes of your time each day.
3. Chose the breed that you would like to live with. Those big white chickens with red hats are usually the leghorns. When bred for commercial production, they can be high strung and sometimes overly inbred. (Read "dumb as toast".) Through the years, we've experimented with several breeds, and find that the old heirloom varieties are the hardiest and work the best for tractors. Some of these breeds are near to extinction and if you help to continue their bloodlines, it would save a valuable gene pool. (Older breeds have been sought out for their genetic attributes more than once to counter hybrid problems that have developed through mismanagement of commercial breeds.)
There are basically three varieties of chickens: meat birds (which have little use in a tractor) egg producers (nice, but some are not too good at tractoring because the years of captive-cage raising has bred out their foraging instincts) and dual purpose (usually the older breeds, hardy, smart, and beautiful, lay eggs great and are ok for meat "swak! what?!! cluck cluck!!"....we don't eat ours...). These are sometimes referred to by grandma and grandpa as "yard birds".
Here's a rundown of the types we like. All of these are dual purpose chickens:
Note that I can only report on the birds I've raised, and even if you get the same breed, there is no way to tell if yours will behave the same. Check out several resources to get a range of ideas.
Silver Laced Wyandottes: Pretty black and white, the roosters have green-blue-purple tail feathers. Great foragers, easy to tame but not as needy or clingy as some of our Rhode Island Reds. Good independence. Hardy, taking heat and cold well.
Delaware: Nice white feathers with some black specs around the neck (roosters have black tail feathers with some shimmering colors of green and blue). Very good foragers, sweet hens, aggressive cocks, a big bird in our garden.
Japanese Bantams: I love these tiny birds! Like other bantam breeds, they are smaller and take only half the space of full size birds. Mine are black and white, cocks are beautiful with regal plumes of black tail feathers reflecting peacock-like colors. Hen is sweet, friendly, clean, perfectly lady-like in her behavior and a great sitter if you want to hatch out eggs. The eggs are much smaller but when poached they fit on a toasted sourdough baguette slice perfectly. They are excellent eggs! You may want to have more hens, say about two per adult and one per child because the eggs are small.
What I like best about these birds is that they seem to be designed for gardening (and historically that is why they were kept) because they eat a lot of bugs but due to their size they cannot damage crops and flowers the way full size chickens do. One rooster is more than enough if you want to breed them, but if you aren't hatching out any eggs and only want hens, a group of bantams will make ideal garden companions.
Buff Orpington- sweet, huge, buttery sunshine yellow from hat to toe! Not really smart and like to eat alot of commercial chicken feed instead of finding bugs and weeds, but lay tons of eggs, 6-7 a week each. Likes to ride on my shoulder while I plant herbs (her name is Buffy like, can you totally believe that?), very friendly, many people swear by them.
Black Australorpe- huge, smart, black as night even her feet! Rainbow opalescense that shimmers on her feathers and makes her appear midnight blue or deep forest green in different angles. Nice egg producer, almost as good as the Buff Orpington. Beauty that brings tears to your eyes....yup, sounds strange for a chicken, but they'll rival any peacock! Each chicken vairies in luminescence.
Plymouth Barred Rock- yup the very ones from Plymouth Rock, black and white spotted (barred, like very short stripes) huge, Very good at egg laying, they eat lots of seeds and are pretty good with the bugs. Smart, but tends to hang out with the Buff Orpington who is about the same size and is a bad influence. (Our barred rock is named Popcorn because she liked to steal it and eat it while we watched movies when she was just a fluffy yellow chick....by the way, popcorn is not a recommended food replacement...that is, popcorn the grain, not the chicken named Popcorn, though she wouldn't much like being feed either.)
Araucana- Come in a variety of colors and sizes, medium sized are good, they often have 'whiskers'! or puffy cheeks, some more than others. Awesome olive-green to robin's-egg blue eggs depending on their specific genetics and feeding. Yummie eggs, but the ladies themselves are a bit wild, sort of like quail in a way. Higher strung than previous ones listed, but not insane like the Leghorns and other hybrids. Prefer bugs, weeds, and seeds to commercial feed. Run fast and aren't as good as pets because they don't like to cuddle. However, they are more instictual so they often evade raccoons and other predators better. They also like to roost for the night in higher places, like trees!
Rhode Island Reds- Think of the children's story "The Little Red Hen" if you know it. These are huge busy bodies, always looking for bugs and weeds, excellent eggs, hardy, pretty smart, alot like the Plymouth Barred Rocks, very one track minded when it comes to foraging.
Sex Links- These are hybrids between Rhode Island Reds and Plymouth Barred Rocks. They are the only hybrid we consider for tractors because they are so smart, hardy, good egg layers, sweet and friendly, and come in a variety of colors. Usually look like a medium sized version of a Rhode Island Red, or are multi-colored with black irridescent bodies like a Black Australorpe and golden highlights on the head and neck. (the later is my favorite, her name is Phoenix because she wandered away from the tractor into the woods. We thought she was wild critter food, but showed up the next morning and ran into my arms.)
There are many resources online now for chicken tractors, and you can contact me if you have any questions. I've found online resources for ordering only hens with a three chick minimum but it is usually easiest to go to the nearest farm store in the spring. If they don't have them, ask them who does (they will be purchasing food from the feed store, so someone there will know.)
A good book to learn more:
Chicken Tractor: The Gardener's Guide to Happy Hens and Healthy Soil by Andy Lee
Foreword by Howard W. 'Bud' Kerr, Jr. ISBN 0-9624648-2-1
Good Earth Publications
Shelburne, Vermont 05482
Phone & Fax 802-425-3201 USA
A letter from vixana in the UK, August 4, 2000 about obtaining chickens:
Hi, just read your piece on chickens. I am a Wicca chicken keeper, although i do live in the uk. I get most of my chickens from a battery farm, which produces eggs commercially. They tend to get rid of their hens after a few months. I don't know if this is viable in usa, but it may be worth trying to encourage your readers to consider buying ex-battery hens. It gives them a new lease on life and they can produce eggs for a good few years.
Great idea vixana, thank you!
A popular supplier of chickens, eggs to hatch your own, and books to learn more:
Murray McMurray Hatchery
191 Closz Drive
Webster City, Iowa 50595-0458
Toll Free Ordering: 1-800-456-3280
Customer Service 515-832-3280
FAX number 515-832-2213