Raising Eco-Friendly Chickens to Decrease Your Environmental Impact
Is raising eco-friendly chickens one of your homesteading goals? Are you looking for ways to decrease your carbon footprint? One of the reasons I started raising my own chickens for eggs and meat was to live a more sustainable and environmentally friendly lifestyle.
Are Chickens Environmentally Friendly?
Eggs and meat purchased at the grocery store generally come from large Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) that pollute waterways and treat livestock inhumanely. Disease and unsanitary conditions cause many animals to die prematurely and can lead to illness when their eggs and meat are consumed. This is very damaging to the environment.
When raised on pasture, chickens are healthy and great at converting plants and insects into protein for your family. They also create manure that provides fertilizer for your garden instead of polluting waterways.
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When you raise your own flock of chickens for eggs and meat, your food travels fewer miles to reach your table. Raising your own poultry is a great way to provide humanely raised food that is much more environmentally friendly than mass produced eggs and meat.
So, you ARE reducing your carbon footprint when you raise your own chickens or purchase them from a small local farmer instead of purchasing eggs and meat from the store.
However, there are more steps you can take to make sure you are raising eco-friendly chickens. This is something I’ve been working toward on my own homestead for years and I’m here to share my tips and tricks for reducing the environmental impact of your chicken flock!
Raising Environmentally Friendly Chicken Feed
If you have enough space to raise feed for your chickens you can eliminate the plastic feed bags and fuel needed for transporting the grain. You may want to try your hand at small scale grain production using no-till methods to reduce the expense and fuel of a tractor.
No room to raise grain? The good news is that chickens love to eat other foods too. Check out the article ‘How to Feed Your Chickens Without Grain.’
Here are some other plants to feed your flock:
- Sunflower seeds
- Pumpkins and winter squash
- Sweet potatoes
- Zucchini and yellow crookneck squash
Here are some ideas for free or inexpensive chicken feed…6+ Ways to Save Money on Chicken Feed.
Buy Organic Chicken Feed or Locally Grown Feed
If you do need to purchase grains for your flock, consider organic feed. Organically raised grains don’t contribute to fertilizer runoff and herbicides leaching into the groundwater. If you have a source for organic, locally raised grain that’s even better for raising eco-friendly chickens!
Grow Your Own Fodder for Raising Eco-Friendly Chickens
Raising fodder for a small flock isn’t very complicated. They will especially love the greens in winter when there is snow on the ground. Homegrown fodder will help your hens lay eggs with deep orange yolks even if they aren’t raised on pasture. Here are instructions for raising small batches of fodder for your flock.
Use Low Impact Bedding
Your chickens will require bedding to keep the flock comfortable and happy. Raising eco-friendly chickens means choosing a locally sourced, environmentally friendly bedding material whenever possible. Organic straw from a local farm is a great option. If there is a sawmill close by that gives away the sawdust, you will be saving this resource from the landfill and adding the nutrients back into your garden. You can also bag up dried leaves from your yard and the neighbors’ properties to use as bedding for your chicken coop…this is a great option because it won’t cost you a dime, the leaves won’t be burned, and the chickens will love scratching through them!
Compost the Bedding and Manure
Not only do chickens love to eat your kitchen scraps, but they will turn their feed, scraps, grass, and weeds into nitrogen-rich compost for your landscaping, lawn, and garden. Be sure to compost their manure to kill pathogens and break down the nitrogen. You’ll make your own fertilizer instead of buying plastic bags of blood meal, bone meal, or other soil amendments.
Whatever you do, don’t add to the landfill problems by throwing your chicken litter in the garbage! On my way into town, there’s a house with an ‘eggs for sale’ sign out front and I considered purchasing some…until I saw that they throw away 6 or 7 feed bags full of chicken bedding each week.
Reduce Your Chicken Purchases
Buying chicken saddles, chicken ‘nappies’, toys, and treats can also have a negative impact on the environment. If you can purchase products made locally from repurposed or environmentally friendly materials, that’s great! You’ll help a local artisan earn some income while reducing their own environmental impact.
If you purchase these products from an online company they may be made from non-renewable materials that are packaged in plastic and shipped from the other side of the planet. There is a better way!
You can make your own chicken saddles to protect hens from rough treatment by roosters during mating. Use fabric scraps or old clothing instead of purchasing new fabric. Here are instructions from Janet at Timbercreek Farm.
Do you have a pet chicken that is kept in the house? I don’t actually recommend keeping house chickens, but everyone has their own idea of chicken keeping! Here are instructions for making chicken diapers or nappies for your pet chicken.
DIY Chickens Toys
Are your chickens bored? You can make toys from scraps or even ‘garbage’ to entertain them! Here are a few ideas for DIY chicken toys:
- Thread a head of cabbage or lettuce on a string and hang it in their pen. This will entertain them as they peck at it!
- Poke several holes in the bottom of a plastic milk jug or soda bottle. Fill the bottle with birdseed and hang it where they can peck at the holes for their treat.
- Build your own chicken swing.
- Dump your compost or weeds in their pen and they will enjoy scratching through them for tasty bits.
In addition to compost, you can give your chickens plenty of homegrown treats rather than buying plastic bags of mealworms and other goodies. Remember not to overdo it on treats because hens don’t lay well when they are overweight.
Here are some ideas for chicken treats that don’t come in plastic:
- Grow your own comfrey, sunflower seeds, millet, amaranth, and other treats.
- In hot weather, freeze water with vegetable scraps and place their ‘popsicle’ in the pen.
- Raise extra veggies in the garden for your chickens.
- Learn how to raise mealworms for your chickens.
- Save pumpkin and squash seeds for the flock.
- Feed them ground bones, organ meats, fat, and gristle leftover from your table.
- Consider free ranging your flock if it is safe.
- If free ranging isn’t an option, create a pasture for your flock or build a moveable chicken tractor from scrap lumber.
Repurposing Chicken Feed Bags
Most people purchase chicken feed in bags made from tightly woven plastic strips. These bags can be repurposed in quite a few ways rather than throwing them in the garbage or recycling bin.
Recycling the bags might seem like an environmentally friendly option. However, some recycling centers don’t process these bags and they often go to a landfill.
I have re-used feed bags as insulation in my chicken coop, layered on garden paths to kill weeds, for storing dried alfalfa and weeds for my flock for winter, and as a rain resistant covering for outdoor pots. You may also sew feed bags together to create your own tarps!
One of my goals this year is to start making shopping totes with old feed bags. You can find instructions for this project on Fresh Eggs Daily.
Don’t Raise More Chickens Than You Need
Keep only enough chickens to provide food for your family. Don’t keep extras unless you know you can sell the eggs. Every chicken that you keep will need to be fed, housed, and cared for and this increases the carbon footprint of your flock.
Keeping extra chickens, roosters, or unproductive poultry also increases your expenses. So, unless you need a rooster to hatch your own chicks or you are keeping a breed of heritage chickens from extinction, you should consider keeping just enough hens to provide you with the eggs and meat needed.
What to do with Old Hens?
If you consider your chickens as pets, then this may not fit in with your idea of raising them.
One way to keep an environmentally friendly flock is to use your chickens for both eggs and meat. This means processing the unproductive members of the flock. I realize that many people may have a problem with this idea and I’m not trying to force anything on you. However, consider the amount of feed that it takes to keep those birds that are not laying eggs or giving your family a return on their monetary and carbon investment. The plastic feed bags, bales of straw, extra water…all of these resources are going toward chickens that don’t produce eggs for your table.
If you believe that ordering only pullets will prevent the untimely death of unwanted roosters, be aware that most hatcheries kill the cockerels that aren’t sold and use them to make a protein meal for feed. This may sound horrible, and I hope that they do this in a humane manner, but realistically, most roosters are not wanted and they make up about 50% of the chicks hatched. So processing your unwanted roosters for meat is not as hard-hearted as it might sound.
Keep the Right Chickens for Your Environment
If you live in a hot climate or a cold climate, keep the best breeds of chicken for your area. Chickens that thrive in the sweltering heat may freeze their combs in cold winters. Breeds that are adapted to cooler climates may languish and stop laying eggs in hot summers. Not sure which breeds to keep? Rhode Island Reds lay a lot of eggs and can handle both heat and cold! Here are some articles to help you choose breeds:
Keep Productive Breeds of Chickens
This may seem obvious, but people often choose chicken breeds based on how pretty their feathers are or another superficial characteristic. If you wish to keep your expenses low, collect more eggs, and reduce the carbon footprint of your flock then choose a breed or hybrid that is known for their egg production capabilities. White Leghorns, Rhode Island Reds, Production Reds, and California Whites all produce large numbers of eggs for the amount of feed they consume.
Don’t Heat Your Chicken Coop
Unless you live in a frigid northern area you shouldn’t need to heat your chicken coop in the winter. Heat lamps require a lot of electricity and they aren’t very safe. If you need to keep the water dish from freezing, consider adding hot water from a tea kettle 2 or 3 times a day. If necessary, try using a water de-icer that is made for livestock waterers. They usually use less energy and are safer than heat lamps.
Keep Your Flock Comfortable
Chickens will suffer if their coop is drafty and freezing cold all winter. Make sure that the wind isn’t blowing on them and chilling them. In summer they need a shady spot to hang out during the day and they will be much happier if their coop is cool in the evening when they are shut in for the night. Plant trees, shrubs, or vines to shade them in summer and reduce wind in winter. Use old feed bags stapled over holes in the coop to reduce chilling in winter.
Chickens that are stressed by temperature extremes, lack of water, or other sources of stress are less likely to produce eggs. Protect your flock from predators. Not only will you lose your environmental investment if a hawk or fox makes off with a hen, but the rest of the flock may be stressed out and stop laying eggs. If you use an electric poultry netting fence, use a solar charger.
Make sure they are safe, comfortable, and happy in their coop and pen!
Preserve the Extra Eggs and Reduce the Flock Over Winter?
Chickens need 14 to 15 hours of light every day to continue laying eggs. Some people keep a light on in the coop to extend daylight hours over winter. If you wish to keep the hens in production all winter, use a warm wavelength LED light on a timer to come on for a few hours in the morning or evening. You might also consider keeping Khaki Campbell ducks for eggs in the winter. Khakis are prolific layers and will often lay through the winter when the daylight hours aren’t as long.
You may also give them the winter off from laying and preserve the bounty of eggs in fall for your winter food supply. Here is a great article on how to preserve eggs…with explanations of why some of these methods are not reliable.
Hatch Your Own Chicks for an Eco-Friendly Flock
If you have fertile eggs from your flock, consider hatching your own replacement chicks. An incubator may be made from plastic and styrofoam but they last for years. If you use it every year an incubator can be a great way to reduce shipping and handling, as well as the resources used at large scale hatcheries.
While hatcheries do attempt to keep their energy and waste low to reduce expenses, they may hatch out way more chicks than they sell in an attempt to fill orders quickly.
The shipping process can be very difficult on chicks and some don’t survive transport. Hatching your own reduces your environmental impact. Keeping a broody hen or two may eliminate the need to buy an incubator, heat lamp, and brooder set up.
If you can’t hatch your own chicks, check to see if there are any available for sale locally. You’ll keep your ‘chicken dollars’ in the local economy and the chicks won’t suffer from shipping long distances.
Keeping an Environmentally Friendly Flock is Well Worth the Effort!
Any steps you can take to reduce your carbon footprint and the environmental impact of your chicken flock is worth the time and effort. Maybe you won’t be able to enact all of these ideas on your homestead, but working toward a more self-reliant and sustainable lifestyle is usually a work in progress.
Try using some of these ideas with your chicken flock and you’ll be rewarded by saving money and the environment too!
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In addition to writing for her own websites, Lisa has contributed articles to The Prepper Project and Homestead.org.
The author lives outside of Chicago with her husband, son, 2 dogs, 1 cat, and a variety of poultry.