By SHEREEN ALI. Published in the T&T Guardian, September 23, 2015 during a temporary egg shortage. All photos courtesy Roger Roberts.
“When you crack that egg and look at the rich deep yellow of the yolk, it's so fresh and firm compared to the pale yolks of shop-bought eggs. And the taste of your own fresh eggs is rich and delicious; it's very noticeably better than store-bought,” says Roger Roberts.
Roberts should know. In addition to being a singer with rapso band 3Canal and a marathon runner who trains early every morning, Roger Roberts is also, believe it or not, a backyard chicken-keeper.
A temporary shortage of eggs in T&T (due to a dip in local production) is one very good reason to join the ranks of chicken-keepers.
But there are others. Growing your own eggs is healthier, once you treat your hens well. Home-grown eggs are fresher than eggs in stores, and free of unwanted chemicals. It's relatively easy to raise a few chickens. And it can be cheaper than store-bought eggs, which can cost close to $20 a dozen for large eggs. Raising fowl can be fun, too – some folks can go a bit crazy crafting creative coop designs, and treat their fowl as pets – with tasty egg benefits.
Roger Roberts' pet hens laid these eggs - which saves him money at the grocery.
Nutritionally, home-grown eggs are a winner. Compared to conventional battery-raised eggs (where the hens are kept in artificial factory conditions, with limited space, natural sunlight and diet), free-range home-grown eggs have 1/3 less cholesterol, ¼ less saturated fat, 2/3 more vitamin A, three times more vitamin E, seven times more beta carotine, and 21 times more omega-3 fatty acid. This is according to tests done in 2007 by the homesteading magazine Mother Earth News, based on hens in the US kept largely outdoors in healthy home farms or back yards, with lots of grass and other greens to graze on. The more greens, the more golden (and healthier) will be the egg yolks.
“Everybody should keep 10-12 chickens in their back yard – if they have the space,” commented a friendly chicken expert from T&T's own Poultry Surveillance Unit: “They're easy to mind, cheap, and there's really no smell once you keep a clean scene, and don't let things get wet. Chickens are easier to keep than dogs.”
Food sources – and pets
Just three to four chickens is enough to supply a small family with eggs. And as some breeds are better layers than others, it's good to research your chickens' species first.
Hens lay one egg every 23-32 hours – that's about 300 a year - and they will start laying at 19-21 weeks of age, according to Suzie Baldwin, UK chicken expert and author of the very helpful 2012 book Chickens for the Backyard Homesteader. Baldwin runs Hollywater Hens, a farm in Hampshire which raises organic chickens, geese, quail, turkey and ducks.
3Canal singer Roger Roberts keeps three chickens in his small yard in Woodbrook. He didn’t plan it that way: they were given to him as a joke, he said in an interview with the T&T Guardian recently.
Roberts explained that three years ago, when his friend Dale threatened to give him a puppy to replace the pet dog he'd previously lost, Roberts was adamant that no other dog could ever replace his past canine friend, and had joked: “Yuh better give me two chickens, because the cock would wake me up in the morning to go to run, and after I come back from running, I can have the hen's eggs for breakfast.”
“Then one day he brought two chickens in a box! Little baby chicks – Rhode Island Reds. And I was a little upset, because I had no idea what to do with these things—it was a complete surprise!”
But Roberts accepted the gift graciously, and thus began a meandering journey into chickendom, basic carpentry, delicious eggs and a strange addiction to the website www.backyardchickens.com.
In short order, Roberts bought lumber from his local hardware store and built a secure, airy coop. He admitted: “I had never done anything like that before.... I built the coop by myself, with my own two hands, and was very, very proud!”
Soon, the chicken-keeping hobby spun out in different directions. The chickens encouraged his skills in backyard homesteading. He began to delight in their antics; and for the past three years, he hasn't had to buy a single egg. The chickens blended well with his own love of plants, and his interest in a healthier, sustainable lifestyle: “My mother loved flowers, and my father was a farmer who'd plant crops. So I have a green thumb myself and I'm always in the soil, digging up, and I thought: the chickens could be part of this.”
He named his red hens Chicken and Chips. A third hen, black-feathered with gamefowl roots, later joined the crew: Roberts named her Cokes. After a couple days of violent scuffles, the new pecking order was soon established. Said Roberts:
“I am so fond of them. I would take pictures and my friends would laugh at me, saying, how am I getting on so crazy over two stupid fowl? ...Chips was very affable and curious, she would always fly up on the table and look at the computer screen as I was working...but Chicken never took me on, she would go about her own business. They have very distinct personalities.”
In the garden
Roberts recycles his chicken waste (he uses plenty of sawdust to absorb the poop) into his own backyard compost heap. Composted chicken droppings are rich in nitrogen, phosphates and potash, and are indeed a great garden fertilizer. (Don’t, though, put it directly in your garden; compost it first, because the high levels of nitrogen will scorch the plants, advises fowl expert Suzie Baldwin.)
On the matter of bugs, Roberts quipped: “The birds love insects, and really help to clean a yard of pests. To a chicken, a cockroach is like steak! I remember my mother quoting a saying: 'Cockroach have no right in fowl party,' because fowls devour cockroaches with such joy. You would not believe.”
For those who love their gardens, Roberts warned that fowl love to dig and scratch everywhere. “They excavate plants. Unless you have your plants in pots, you may have a problem. I cordoned off a portion of my yard that the chickens can't access, to have my garden, where I plant my ochro and other things.”
A ministry of health poultry expert advised a minimum space of one and a half to two square feet per bird, with raised, airy cages, and a fenced chicken run. He said chicks are usually fed fine-grained “starter” food (20 per cent protein) up to their sixth week; then from six to 20 weeks, they eat “grower” food (18 per cent protein), until they start to lay. Laying rations have 16 per cent protein and more calcium.
“An adult bird will eat 1.4lb of feed a day. Have food, and clean, fresh drinking water, available all the time; and you can add some poultry vitamins once a week to the drinking water,” he said.
Roger Roberts feeds his own hens a mix of cracked corn, greens, and kitchen scraps – including veggies, potato peelings, leftover rice, and of course chicken feed. Then his hens roam the yard during the day to forage for other green stuff and bugs.
Roberts well remembers the day he got his first egg:
“I was lying in my bed and I heard the chicken carrying on at a rate... Chickens, especially new layers, tend to announce their eggs. So I ran outside with the camera, and took a picture, and posted it online, saying: 'Look, my rooster just laid an egg!' - because it was Chips, whom I'd originally thought was a male. And within a week, the other one started laying too.”
Some of Roger's delicious home-grown eggs.
The chicken coop built by Roger Roberts himself.
A hen checks out Roger's toe.
A hen checks out a toe.
Roger's hens enjoy free run of most of the yard, except for a section fenced off to grow vegetables. Here, Chicken and Chips hang out in the verandah. All photos courtesy Roger Roberts.