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Chickens Need Hobbies Too

One of my big “things” in keeping animals is providing an environment where they can remain mentally stimulated and practice natural behaviors daily. Just as exercise and physical activity are good for our physical health, problem solving and using all of our senses is good for our mental health.

Think about how nutty you would go if you were stuck in a tiny room day in and day out, without enough room to stretch your legs or turn around. Then add, on top of that, nothing to read, no new sights to see, and your only social interaction was being stepped on or over by the other people squished into that tiny room with you. What kind of psychosis would that lead to?

Unfortunately that’s just the kind of life that laying chickens in a typical battery or large-scale factory farm experience. They never have the opportunity to enjoy life, and even worse than that, their caged lives are dragged on for over a year for laying hens. At least in meat birds (who live a similarly awful life, but also have to deal with severe physical ailments), their torment is over after just 6 short weeks of life.

Typical housing of egg laying chickens in a battery

But there is another way to raise chickens- the right way, in my humble opinion. And that way includes caring for their mental health as well as their physical health.

During the spring and summer months it’s pretty easy to provide a stimulating environment for your animals. Just give them access to the outdoors and they find plenty to do, all on their own. There is green grass to peck at, bugs to chase and dust to roll in. What more could a chicken want? But when it comes to the winter months, especially when the temperature is subzero and the snow piles up above their shoulders, we’re sometimes forced into keeping them confined to a smaller (more boring, but more comfortable) space than they’d like. When the air temperature is above the single digits, we typically leave the top half of the barn door open so that they can fly up and out if they like, but they rarely do. Chickens are pretty wimpy when it comes to snow or rain.

Winter barn
The yard goes unused when the snow reaches halfway up the barn door.

So what do you do to manage their sanity? It’s actually pretty easy. The answer comes from asking the right question- “what would the animal typically be doing, if given the choice?” For chickens it’s probably scratching around, looking for food. A close second might be dust bathing or, if the opportunity presented itself, mating. That’s about it. No rocket scientists in the chicken world. But hey, who am I to judge? Whatever floats your boat.

If foraging for food is what you like to do in your spare time, then that’s what we’ll let you do. Any time our chickens are indoors for any length of time (whether it is their choice or ours) we set up a mini treasure hunt for them in their pen. At least twice a day we toss some kitchen scraps into the straw so that the hens have to “hunt” for their treat. Today we just so happened to have some black beans in the refrigerator that needed to be used up, so that’s what they got. (It’s just a nice side benefit that they look like little black beetles hiding amongst the roughage. Maybe that will train them to be Japanese-Beetle-hunting-assassins come summertime- I can’t stand those things!) But since chickens are omnivores, they’ll eat just about anything that people do. When we’re lacking kitchen scraps, they get a scattering of cracked corn to keep them busy.

Chickens scavenging
Our chickens scavenging for kitchen scraps dispersed in straw.

Another nice winter treat is a bowl of whey left over from cheese or yogurt making. Over the summer, the pigs drink most of the whey that turns up as a byproduct of making cheese from our raw goat’s milk. But during the winter, the chickens have fewer competitors on the farm and they could use the extra protein boost, so they’re the lucky winners of the white gold.

Chickens eating whey
Fresh whey left over from making cheese from our raw goat’s milk is a big treat for the flock.

We also keep one corner of the pen loose with sand/dirt so that they can bathe when they feel the urge. And of course our resident rooster keeps the ladies busy. I’ll spare you from an image of that.

This same philosophy can be applied to any animal that needs added mental stimulation. Zoo keepers and aquarium staff have long been enriching the environments of captive wild animals in order to provide more humane care for them. Octopuses, for example, are often fed out of Kong toys in aquariums to simulate their natural hunting and feeding behaviors. (Check out this article on Pandora, The National Zoo’s octopus, who just recently passed away holding onto her favorite Kong toy.)

But why stop at wild animals for environmental enrichment? Are domesticated animals any less worthy of the opportunity to behave naturally? They may have weaker drives than their wild counterparts, but that should only serve to make it easier for us to entertain them.

To me, having a healthy animal requires more than just adequate nutrition and loads of medication. It’s a whole package deal. And that package is at least 50% psychological. Let’s start giving that other half some attention too.

 This post was shared on The Homesteaders Blog Hop

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A Farm? Really?

So this is a story all about how my life got flipped turned upside down.  Oh wait.  That’s another story.

This is my story.  Our story.

Everyone always asks “So how did you get into this?” when I tell them that I train assistance dogs for a living.  My answer is always the same- “Well, I always knew that I wanted to work with animals.”  And then I diverge into the various careers I looked into- veterinarian (too much school), vet tech (not enough fun- sorry techs!), kennel assistant (not enough money), groomer (too tedious), and finally the job that I thought was my dream job- marine mammal trainer.  As it turns out I’m not a very good swimmer and there is more to being on stage at Sea World than just liking animals (like, for example, enjoying being in the spotlight.  How did I manage to overlook that one little detail?)

Anyway, that’s just not me.  At all.  I always wanted a career that meant more to me than just a paycheck.  I wanted to do something that was stimulating and rewarding and made an impact.  And that’s when I found the world of Assistance Dogs.  It was all of those things and more.  And best of all, it involved a personal relationship with animals.  I’m still very happy with my career choice and enjoy working with people on a variety of levels, as well as with the dogs.

So why am I telling you all this?  Isn’t this blog supposed to be about a farm or something?  Yeah, yeah.  I’m getting there.

Something that people might not know about me is that I’m not one of those people that stops on the side of the road to help a turtle get to the other side.  (Sorry, call me cold-hearted but either he’ll get there or he won’t, and I don’t need to risk my life to speed that up. If you are one of those people, you’re a better person than I am. Truly.)

I don’t want to completely ruin my animal-lover reputation. But if I’m being honest, I’m a little bit selfish. I need to get something out of a relationship in order for me to commit to it. Here’s what I get out of having animals: enlightenment. Stay with me, I know that’s a big word to live up to. What I mean is that I appreciate the beauty of an animal’s mind and I enjoy watching the intricacies of different species and personalities behaving. And when you own an animal, you not only get to witness those things first-hand every day, you also get to interact with the animal and affect their behavior. How cool is that?

You may be starting to see the appeal of a farm to me. Farms have animals, hence that should be right up my alley, right? But then there’s the whole killing thing. Animals don’t grow old on a farm, they’re there for a purpose and that purpose has an end date. Oh. Yeah. Another detail that I may have overlooked.

That last part doesn’t seem to jive with my animal-lover image either. But here’s something else that most people don’t know about me. I’m okay with death. Death is a part of life, and as long as the life that was taken (either by natural causes or for another purpose, like for food) was enriched and full of purpose, then the death is less meaningful than the life. In order for one thing to live, another must die. This has become clearer for me as I’ve gotten older. It’s not an easy thing to accept. I’ll get into this more in another post.

So here’s my answer for when people ask “So how did you get into this?”…or what they really mean: “You? A farm? Really?”


I’ll delve into our journey a little more as the weeks go on, and maybe jump around a bit as our story continues to unfold.  I hope to keep it real.  This blog isn’t intended to be a lecture or to persuade you into becoming a farmer too (although it just might!) I hope to use this as a tool to help organize and share my thoughts on raising a family and building a farm.  There are some ups and downs.  Some funny moments, some sad ones, and a lot of reflecting on life lessons.  In the end, we’ll either make it to the other side of the road or we won’t. Maybe we’ll even gain some perspective along the way.  Wanna join me?  😉