Mother Hen

With a popular blog and three books, Lisa Steele is spreading the gospel of (pretty) backyard chicken keeping. We pay a visit to her Dixmont hobby farm and meet her garrulous brood.

By Virginia M. Wright
Photographed by Greta Rybus

Mother HenWe’re standing in the chicken run, hens scratching and pecking at the dirt around our feet, when Lisa Steele, the queen ascendant of backyard poultry keeping, confides that she’s begun to question why anyone would own a rooster. “Supposedly, they protect the hens,” says the author of the ultra-popular blog Fresh Eggs Daily and three books on raising chickens and ducks. “But seriously — a coyote? It’s going to eat your rooster in a heartbeat.”

 

Baaa-wok bok bok BOK BOK BOK!

Is it my imagination or did the heretofore softly clucking chickens just take it up a notch? I smile questioningly at Steele, but she seems not to have noticed.

“Nowadays,” she continues, “you really need a pen. The rooster isn’t going to protect the hens, and if he tries, he’s going to get eaten first. So the main reason to have a rooster is to mate, but I don’t see the point — you can buy fertilized hatching eggs. Roosters are kind of obsolete. And they’re very aggressive. They rip up the hens when they mate —”

Baaa-wok BOK BOK BOK BOK BOK!

“— and then all the feathers on their backs are pulled out and raw — ”

BOK! BOK! BOK! BOK!

“— and I like my chickens to look pretty, I’m sorry.”

Baaa-wok bok bok bok.

A diminuendo? No need for Steele to apologize, I surmise.
Prettiness — pretty fowl, pretty eggs, even pretty curtained and wallpapered coops — is a Lisa Steele signature. As for you hard-core, back-to-the-lander types cluck-cluck-clucking your disapproval, be advised that the pretty (well, she is!) blonde in the blue-checkered shirt and jeans knows your breed. “I’ve been accused by my haters of not being a real chicken keeper because of this softer side of curtains and stuff,” Steele says, “but why can’t you have fun with it? Why can’t it be pretty?”

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Indeed, why not? Especially when the chicken keeper knows her stuff, which Lisa Steele does. Here on her 125-acre homestead in the hills of rural Dixmont, she enthusiastically tends to a dozen chickens and nine ducks, the majority of which she hatched. Her Fresh Eggs Daily blog (nearly a million page views per month) and its companion Facebook page (700,000 followers) are filled with solid, practical advice on raising chickens naturally without antibiotics and chemicals, instructions for DIY coop and run projects, and egg recipes. Her first book (also titled Fresh Eggs Daily) is Amazon’s best-selling book on chicken keeping, and she’s a frequent contributor to hobby-farming magazines. Last fall, her “chicken lifestyle show” (named — you guessed it — Fresh Eggs Daily) debuted on Portland-based television station WPME, and her third book, Gardening with Chickens, was published in December, landing her an interview with Time.

A former Wall Street accountant who traded the Big Apple for the itinerant life of a Navy wife in the mid-’90s, Steele acquired her first flock in 2009, when she and her husband, Mark, were living on a hobby farm in southeastern Virginia. “He had a horse. I wanted goats. I wanted to make soap and cheese,” she recalls. “Mark didn’t think it was a good idea: goats escape, they stand on top of your vehicle, they have to be milked. He said, ‘How about chickens?’”

Steele didn’t much care for chickens. As a child growing up in Massachusetts, she’d lived across the street from her grandparents’ chicken farm. Chickens were the chore that kept her from play. Chickens were mean, especially the roosters that chased her. But, she thought, ‘I’ll say yes to the chickens, and I’ll work on Mark about the goats.’” Together, they went to the feed store and picked up six fluffy yellow peeping baby birds. Forget the goats. “I fell in love right away, because the chicks” — she cups her hands — “they’re so cute. It had been 30 years since I’d even seen a chicken, but I fell right into it. I remembered more than I thought I did.”

lisa tending to eggs

Steele feeds her brood natural supplements like seaweed, calcium, and probiotics, which produce larger, nutrient-rich eggs with stronger shells.

She shared pictures of her brood on Facebook, and suddenly people were flocking to her for advice, so much so that she felt obliged to start the blog. “It kind of took off,” she says. “I threw myself into it and turned it into a career.” Yearning to get back to New England, she and Mark zeroed in on Maine, in part because backyard chickens are so widely accepted here. The couple packed their dozen chickens and nine ducks into a horse trailer and moved to Dixmont in 2015.

Steele’s goal is to get more people to raise chickens. “Just like gardening, it makes you more self-sufficient, and the more self-sufficient you can be, the better,” she says. “It gives you a sense of purpose. You’re feeding your family healthier food. And once you’ve tasted fresh eggs, you’ll never want store-bought eggs again.”

Plus, she says, keeping chickens is easy — and fun. “My thing is to get people to see how friendly they are. They’re not barnyard animals. They’re pets. They’re very social.”

As if to prove her point, Bonnie Blue, an 18-week-old little gray hen, tags along like a puppy dog as we poke inside the prefab shed-turned-coop that Steele has wallpapered prettily (and practically) with washable vinyl floral shelf paper. A wooden sign hangs over the roost. “Sweet Dreams,” it reads. By the door, another: “I love you a bushel and a peck.” I feel a pang of nostalgia; I want to play house.

Bonnie’s sociability is unusual for an Olive Egger, a cross between a Marans, which lays dark-brown eggs, and an Ameraucana, which lays blue ones. “They tend to be skittish,” Steele says. “Sadly, all the nice chickens lay brown eggs, and the crazy ones lay colored eggs.”

Inspired by none other than Martha Stewart, who has more than 200 chickens in a variety of breeds, Steele keeps a mixed flock. Back out in the run, she introduces me to some of its members: Charlotte and Annie, a pair of calm, motherly Australorps; Abigail and Amy, high-strung black Ameraucanas; Violet, a sweet, docile Lavender Orpington; Ophelia, a friendly Mottled Java; and Kate, aka “Mean Kate,” a gorgeous blue Ameraucana with an attitude. “Kate lays these beautiful blue eggs,” Steele says, “so I put up with her. A pretty egg basket was part of my agenda.”

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As we’ve been talking, five ducks have waddled into a semi-circle in front of us. They’re quacking loudly, incessantly, and, may I suggest, indignantly. “They’re grumpy,” Steele confirms. “It’s because they’re molting. I’m sure it’s uncomfortable.”

Indeed, the ducks, producers of
fine eggs themselves, don’t seem happy, and they’re certainly not pretty, not with those ragged, moth-eaten feathers, which are making way for new plumage. The hens, meanwhile, go about their business, scratching and pecking at the dirt and giving their miserable pen-mates a wide berth. Bigger and more aggressive, the ducks rule the run, Steele says, but for the most part, they and the hens ignore each other and live peaceably side-by-side.

It’s a poultry paradise, in fact. Steele wouldn’t think of butchering her old, spent hens the way her grandparents did. Barring illness or predation, they’ll live to the ripe old age of 10 or so, long after they’ve stopped producing eggs, then die a natural death. “Our cat never laid an egg in his life, and we keep feeding him,” she reasons. “I mean, they’re pets!”

Baaa-wok bok bok bok!

Chicken feet prints

Backyard Bird Basics

Martha Stewart outlines three steps for raising a healthy brood at home.

For as long as I’ve had a home of my own, I’ve delighted in having chickens. My first henhouse was fashioned from my daughter Alexis’ outgrown playhouse, around which we installed a wire fence that kept the chickens safe from curious (and hungry) varmints. Now, my chicken coops house 200 or so chickens of various breeds: Araucanas, Polish, Cochins, Speckled Sussex, Jersey Giants, Mille Fleurs, Silkies, Orpingtons, Silver Laced Wyandottes, and Minorcas. For most of the year, my feathered flock provides more than 100 eggs a day, which I use in my home and share with colleagues at my office in New York City.
Fresh eggs have beautiful, bright, golden-yellow yolks and a rich flavor. And the birds that deliver these treats are relatively easy to care for. But they do require a commitment — one I recommend sharing with the whole family. Children, in particular, learn the importance of responsibility and kindness when looking after animals. Before purchasing your birds, check local regulations. Some towns ban roosters or outlaw chickens altogether. Ready for a roost? Here are my tips for getting started:

Prepare Your Yard

When choosing a coop, allow 2 square feet per chicken, and set up an enclosed outdoor space (called a run). Hens also need nesting boxes where they’ll lay their eggs inside the coop. A 12-by-12-inch box accommodates two to four hens — a good range to start with (one hen will get lonely). Expect each hen to produce an egg a day during their first year of laying, their peak production period. Fill the boxes with pine shavings and make sure the birds have ample fresh water dispensed through a waterer. During the cold months, use a small heater to prevent the liquid from freezing; heated waterers are also available.

Procure Your Chicks

Purchase baby chicks from your local feed store or a mail-order online resource in early to mid-spring so that their feathers have time to grow in before winter. Make sure the birds come from a National Poultry Improvement Plan (NPIP)–registered hatchery, which must meet industry, state, and federal health regulations; contact your UMaine Extension county office for a list of sources. Chicks have been mailed through the U.S. Postal Service for more than 100 years. They are sorted, sexed, vaccinated, and shipped on the day they are born, and the Postal Service requires them to arrive at their destination within 72 hours; during this window, the chicks live on nutrients from their yolk sacs.

Care for Your Flock

Baby chicks have special heating requirements and need specialized feeders and waterers, which are designed to limit waste and stay clean. For step-by-step instructions on raising healthy chicks, surf the publications catalog at extension.umaine.edu. As your chicks thrive and grow, provide commercial feed (preferably organic) and vegetable scraps from the kitchen (my chickens love nutrient-rich greens). Once you grow accustomed to caring for these fascinating, funny fowl ­— and cooking with fresh eggs — you won’t be able to imagine life without them.

 

 

Chicken feet prints

Feeding the chickens

Get Your Chickens to Work

In this excerpt from Gardening with Chickens, Lisa Steele dishes on how a brood can assist in weed and bug control.

Once your plants are established and growing well, but before the vegetables are ripe, you can let your chickens into the garden for short periods. They will love pulling any weeds that have grown and searching for bugs. Chickens are a bit picky as to which bugs they will eat, but unfortunately their preferences probably don’t align with yours. They won’t discriminate between “good” bugs (such as worms, praying mantises, and ants) and “bad” bugs (such as Japanese beetles and stinkbugs), so you might want to safely relocate any of the good bugs you spot before the chickens can gobble them up. Chickens will also eat toads, which are extremely beneficial to gardens, so keep an eye out for them as well so you can move any you find to safety.

If your garden is large, and you don’t want the chickens exploring all of it during the growing season, a very easy way to keep your chickens in the areas you want is to build a movable “chicken tractor,” which can be as simple as a wooden frame with the sides and top covered with chicken wire. Leave the bottom open, then drop the box in the part of your garden where you want the chickens to concentrate and put them under it. It should be large enough that they can move around a bit, but not so big that the box is hard to move. Your chickens will work the area you have them confined to, then you can move it around as needed. Be sure you provide shade on hot days and water for them, as always. Also, remember it’s not predator proof, so use this method only when you are outside with the chickens or can easily supervise them.

Another benefit of caging your chickens within your garden plot during the growing season is preventing them from pooping directly on or around the bases of your plants. Chicken manure is extremely high in nitrogen and can burn plants, especially smaller ones, if it is applied directly onto them. For health safety reasons, it’s also advised to let chicken manure age for several months to kill any E. coli, salmonella, or other bacteria it contains before using it in your garden — even healthy flocks carry these pathogens in small amounts. If you are extremely worried about the small amount of poop that ends up in your garden — for instance, if you have small children or family members with compromised immune systems — it’s easy to rake the poop out of each section after your chickens are through in that area.

Even if you don’t let your chickens into your garden throughout the growing season, be sure to share any bug-eaten produce with your chickens. Not only do they not mind if a tomato is half-eaten, they consider the offending bug a tasty treat as well! Same goes for any vegetables nibbled by rabbits or deer — your chickens will love to eat them.

Gardening with Chickens: Plans and Plants for You and Your Hens by Lisa Steele. 176 pages. Quarto Publishing Group USA. $13.99.

Chicken feet prints

 

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Virginia Wright

Virginia M. Wright is the senior editor at Down East.