The Small-Scale Poultry Flock: An All-Natural Approach to Raising Chickens and Other Fowl for Home and Market Growers–With information on building soil fertility, replacing purchased feed, and working with poultry in the garden by Harvey Ussery, is the most comprehensive book I’ve ever read on chickens. You might guess that from the title! I’ve had chickens twice and we are planning to get them again next year, so I’ve been reading up on chickens. This book, by long-time flockster (that’s a word he invented) and homesteader Ussery, is full of all kinds of ideas and information for other flocksters and wannabes. You could read it  and know plenty to get started with chickens or to take your chicken raising to new levels. At over 400 pages, with countless color illustrations, the book is a treasure.

The Small Scale Poultry Flock is divided into seven sections. In Part One, Getting Started, the first chapter is called “Why Bother?” and it proceeds to give a full answer, from the amount of joy they can bring you, to the contribution your own chickens and eggs bring to your ability to eat better, to the horrors of commercial chicken raising and the related food safety issues, including the  massive amounts of antibiotics and arsenic that commercial chicken raisers feed. He adds in Peak Oil and financial meltdown as further good reasons for raising your own chickens.

The next chapters in this part are titled

  • The Integrated Small-Scale Flock
  • Your Basic Bird
  • Planning the Flock
  • Starting the Flock

He integrates his chickens into the full range of activities of the Virginia homestead where he and his wife Ellen have lived for many years. As I read about his putting his flock into a greenhouse for the winter and how he used cover crops in doing that, I was thinking, well, that’s fine for real homesteaders but we don’t quite fit in that category. We just have half an acre and a busy life inside on our computers.

Then suddenly a light bulb went on. We live in high desert in Colorado, and I had already been envying the lush greenery everywhere in the numerous color photos in the book. Made me homesick for my growing up (sans chickens) in Maryland. I’d been wondering how our chickens would have a good life in our yard without totally denuding it of everything but the sturdy yucca plants. Hmm… cover crops….. hmmmmm…. a greenhouse… I was only to page 17 and he already had my imagination working! A good sign in a book.

The basic bird chapter explains all sorts of things about anatomy, behavior, molting, and the like. This would make great bedtime reading, as it is interesting but shouldn’t keep you awake the way gripping novels could.

Chapter 4, Planning the Flock, starts out with what Ussery says is one of the most common questions he gets from people thinking of starting a small flock. Is it necessary to have a rooster? His answer: the hens will lay just as many eggs without a rooster, just as women ovulate without men in their lives. (I did enjoy his dry humor throughout the book.) In many places you can’t have roosters because you have too many human neighbors who wouldn’t accept the noise. But if you can have roosters, he outlines some of the benefits.

He talks about flock size, giving a useful rule of thumb that you will get two eggs a day for every three laying hens you have. Spring and summer are the best times of year for eggs, and it slows down a lot in the winter. He touches here on the question of whether you plan to raise chickens for meat and buy batches of meat birds for your freezer or whether you will just be doing the necessary culling now and then from a flock you keep mainly for eggs. (Later he covers three ways to butcher your chickens and provides detailed photos on how to process the birds for meat.)

Next there’s a  useful discussion of the many different kinds of chickens you might want to get. Size (standard or bantam), eggshell color, temperament, whether for eggs or meat or both, and winter production of eggs are some of the topics here. My husband and I know we want some Ameraucanas (sometimes mistakenly called Auraucanas) for their colored eggshells and good temperaments, as we have had them before. But this section made me realize how many other interesting breeds there are out there. He comments that if you buy from an online hatchery, many of them will allow you to put together your order for some of this and some of that, even down to just one chick of a breed! Enticing.

This chapter also has a list of useful traditional breeds for small-scale flocks, divided somewhat arbitrarily he says, into layer breeds, meat breeds, dual purpose breeds, and game and other broody breeds. Another chart lists breeds worth conserving. Following these charts are his  comments on the breeds they have raised. I found this particularly interesting. Reading The Small Scale Poultry Flock  is like having an extended series of conversations with your favorite uncle who happens to know darn near everything about chickens!

Chapter 5 on starting the flock discusses the pros and cons of buying locally or from an online hatchery. Here I learned something that will change how I purchase baby chicks online. (Because they need no food or water for the first day or two or even three, they can be sent through the mail.) You can choose all females, all males, or “straight run,” which is roughly half and half. I had assumed that we would get all females but then — gulp — I read this on page 49:

Since the majority of hatchery orders are for pullet chicks only, it becomes impossible for hatcheries to sell the unwanted cockerel chicks–however many “cockerel specials” they offer. It is simply a fact of life in the business, therefore, that excess cockerels are killed, by the hundreds of thousands, by [3 different methods I won't go into here but at least 2 of them sound cruel--Zana]. The reader may well choose otherwise, but my choice–since learning that my pullets-only orders necessitate the treatment of living creatures like so much disposable garbage–has been to make straight run orders exclusively.

On the same page, he cautions you that if you do order straight run, most of the males will have to be culled, that is butchered, before they mature. You will not find it easy to give them away or to find someone else to butcher them for you. Death is part of life.

Part Two: Basic Care covers housing, managing the chickens’ manure, watering, pasture and the joys of electric fencing, and mobile shelters. One of the most interesting points to me in this section was the information that you need a lot of ventilation in the house, and that insulation and heat are either not needed or very minimally. It’s important to give your chickens access to the outdoors, for their well being.

Chapter 7, Manure Management in the Poultry House: The Joys of Deep Litter, was an eye-opener. I didn’t realize how effectively you can use the manure in combination with leaves or wood shavings, provided your chickens have enough space, ideally 5 square feet per bird in their house but denser can work too.

Part Three: Working Partners describes how chickens can help you improve the soil you have and help in your garden.

Part Four: Feeding the Small-Scale Flock includes Ussery’s reflection on feeding, using purchased feeds, making your own feeds, and feeding a flock from home resources.

Part Five: Other Management Issues describes the behavior of cocks, introducing younger chickens into the flock, mixing species, protecting the flock from predators such as dogs, foxes, and even weasels. There are also chapters on chicken health, managing the flock in winter, and other domestic fowl.

Part Six: Breeding the Small-Scale Flock is a how-to section with an overview, as you would expect from Ussery. It includes a chapter on working with broody hens.

Part Seven: Poultry for the Table covers butchering poultry, cooking eggs and chicken, and selling your poultry or eggs to small local markets.

The book ends with an epilogue called The Big Picture, and a bunch of useful appendices.

Highly recommended! This is a new book from the  sustainability publisher Chelsea Green, and that link takes you to the page on their site about the book. (Thanks to them for sending me a review copy of the book. As a former librarian, I do love to write about books.) And here is the link to Harvey Ussery’s website.