Sustainability Book Chat
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Having backyard chickens, like having your own garden, is a small but significant way to take control of your food and decrease its carbon footprint. While backyard chicken keeping has become more popular in recent years, some people are still intimidated by the idea.
In this episode, we are talking to Lisa Steele, fifth generation chicken keeper and author of Fresh Eggs Daily and Duck Eggs Daily. Lisa tells us about the circuitous route she took before becoming a chicken owner and why she loves having hens in her backyard. She also talks about her favorite breed of chicken, as well as what’s acceptable when you want to give your chickens a treat (or two).
We also talk briefly about the option to keep ducks for eggs. How are ducks and duck eggs different than chickens? And who might prefer one or the other? And I mention the one time I was ready to say good bye to our ducks.
Lisa Steele’s other books on Bookshop:
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Learn more about Lisa Steele
More on raising chickens
- A Beginner’s Guide to Chickens
- 5 Steps to Starting a Backyard Flock Responsibly
- 5 Myths about Backyard Chickens
- Keeping a Closed Flock or Herd
- Controversy Over Backyard Hens
- Keeping City Chickens: 7 Things to Consider
Listen right here by clicking on the player above, or on your favorite platform:
Fresh Eggs Daily – Transcript
Deborah Niemann 0:04
Whoever you are, wherever you live, whatever size your living space, you can do more than you think to lead a greener lifestyle. In the “Sustainability Book Chat,” we are talking to authors and experts about all the different ways that achieving sustainability is within your reach.
Deborah Niemann 0:28
Hello, everyone, and welcome to today’s episode. This is gonna be a really fun episode today. I am talking to Lisa Steele, who is the author of the classic book Fresh Eggs Daily, which I happen to have a copy of with me right here. And also, Duck Eggs Daily. And, we are mostly just going to talk about chickens today. Welcome to the show, Lisa!
Lisa Steele 0:52
Hey, thanks for having me back.
Deborah Niemann 0:54
It is really fun to chat with you again. So, I know lots of people know your story. But for those who don’t, can you just tell them how exactly you got interested in chickens and why you started keeping them?
Lisa Steele 1:06
Yeah, I actually raised chickens as a kid. I grew up across the street from my grandparents chicken farm. And they were honest to goodness chicken farmers. That’s what they did for a living. And we had a small flock. You know, growing up I was in 4-H and did that whole thing, living in the country. But, I realized that there was a big world out there. So, after college, I got a degree in accounting and I went to work on Wall Street. And it didn’t take too many years before I realized that really wasn’t where I belonged. So, long story short, I ended up living in Virginia with my husband, who was in the Navy, and we got a small flock of chickens. And that sort of was the beginning of the end for me. We’re in Maine now. But it’s been, I guess, 12 years since we got that flock, and as an adult, it’s just such a different experience than when you’re a kid. You know, when you’re a kid, animals just mean more chores, and we loved the baby chicks, but after they grew up, we really had no interest in chickens at all. But you know, as an adult, they all have names, and they’re so friendly, and you know, I just am really enjoying it the second time around.
Deborah Niemann 2:10
Yeah, I think they are a lot… For a lot of people, I think they are their favorite pet with benefits. Because they’re entertaining, they’re fun, and they give you eggs!
Lisa Steele 2:20
They do. And they’re pretty low-maintenance. You know, once you get your routine down, and you have your whole setup, they really are pretty low maintenance, which is nice.
Deborah Niemann 2:29
Yeah. I always tell people that if they can take care of a cat, they can probably take care of chickens. Do you have any kind of a benchmark like that for people?
Lisa Steele 2:39
Yeah, I would say, on our farm, our dog is probably the most high-maintenance. You know, needs the most attention and wants to be played with and walked and everything. And then probably come the chickens, because you know, you do have to be careful with predators, and you have to lock them up at night, and collect eggs and stuff. And then the cat is, like, lowest on the totem pole. He shows up twice a day for meals and that’s about it.
Deborah Niemann 3:03
Yeah. So, one of the things that I really love about your book—and I think if I do a revision of my goat book, I should add a chapter on this. Because, so many people want to spoil their chickens and their goats. You know, if you didn’t grow up on a farm, and you get some of these pets with benefits, you’re so used to dogs and cats and spoiling them. And so, I love the fact that you have that chapter in there. Because, like, you’ve just accepted it. When I hear people that are like, “Oh, I want to get my goat treats,” and I’m like, “They don’t need treats!” Like, I just need to go with it. So, love the fact that you have that chapter in there. Can you give people a few pointers if they want to spoil their chickens? Like, just a few things of what’s okay, and then what are some of the definite no-no’s that are not going to be good for your chickens?
Lisa Steele 3:51
Absolutely. And it’s a big point of contention, because there are people—even backyard chicken keepers—who believe that chickens don’t need treats. They just should eat their chicken feed, period, that’s it. And, you know, the way I feel, like, our dogs love treats. You know, we as people like treats. And chickens might not have the most developed taste buds, but they definitely have preferences when it comes to foods, and they get super excited when they see you coming with, you know, maybe trimmings from the garden, or some kitchen scraps. And, I think one of the big benefits of chickens is that they’re little composters. You know, so we don’t waste any food in our house. I have a bowl next to the stove when I cook—and my mother did, and my grandmother did. And all the ends and trimmings and anything that doesn’t, you know, go into our food goes into that bowl, pretty much. And the chickens eat it. So, you know, it’s a great way not to waste any food, to cut down on your food bill. And, as long as it’s in moderation, and your chickens aren’t filling up on, you know, really fatty- or greasy- or salty-type foods, it’s gonna be fine.
Lisa Steele 4:49
You know, the rule of thumb is to feed them about 10% of their diet treats. So, a chicken eats about a half a cup of food a day, so you’re talking, like, a tablespoon a chicken. But no, I don’t measure anything out. You know, as long as your family’s eating healthy, and you’re eating a lot of fruits and vegetables and whole grains, chickens are omnivores. So, they can have meat scraps; they can have fish scraps. Our chickens love when we get lobster, because I throw them all the shells and the insides and everything; they pick them clean. You know, it just makes a little fun in their life. I mean, it’s gotta be fairly boring to be a chicken, especially if their locked up in a run for most of the day. You know, so that little bucket of scraps…
Lisa Steele 5:24
I admit, I don’t buy a lot of commercial chicken treats. You know, there’s enough in the garden or in the lawn. I mean, I could pick a bucket of dandelion greens, and throw it in the water, and the ducks especially, you know, they think they’ve hit paydirt. You know? Ducks are super low-maintenance; they are not really picky at all. But you know, we’ll go out to dinner—and I know my husband gets so embarrassed. But I mean, I’ll ask everybody at our table for all of their leftovers that they’re not going to eat—you know, that little piece of tail, and the thing of parsley, and whatever is on their plates. And I just ask for one big box, and I bring it all home for the chickens. So, our chicken live… We just lost one; she was 9-1/2 years old. I have a lot that are 6 and 7 and 8 years old. Our oldest ducks are 12 years old. So clearly, chickens and ducks can have treats. You know, they’ve had treats almost every day their whole life. So, I’m a big believer in treats.
Deborah Niemann 6:14
Yeah. So, I have a friend who is a vegetarian and has backyard chickens. And I’m glad you mentioned having some senior chickens, because this is an area where I am really not very good at answering people’s questions. Because we raise chickens; we sell the eggs. And so, usually after age 3, they go to the stewpot. And so, my friend who’s a vegetarian, you know, who has chickens that have lived to be 9 and 10 years old, said that it’s really a misnomer to say that they ever stop laying completely. Because she knows her chickens so well; she knows who lays what eggs a lot of times. And, she says that she’s had some that, you know, she’s like, “Yeah, they still pop out an egg every now and then when they get older.” What would you say, really, can someone expect if they keep chickens beyond about age 3 in terms of laying?
Lisa Steele 7:09
That’s a really good question. Because we have the room, and nobody cares how many chickens we have. So we don’t have a problem with keeping the older hens. They still will eat bugs and weeds. They still provide a lot of fertilizer. They’ll still sit on eggs; some of my older hens have been really great moms. You know, they don’t like to walk around as much, and they’re fine with just sitting in a box for 3 weeks. You know, so they really do make great moms—just want to hatch some chicks. So, there’s definitely benefits to having the older hens and keeping them around. They don’t eat, you know, terribly much. So, it’s not a huge expense if you don’t have a huge flock, but they will slow down laying after about 3 years old will drop about 20% a year. So, by 5 or 6 years old, they’re probably only laying a couple eggs in the spring. And that’s all you’ll get from them. But, like I said, there’s a lot of benefits to keeping them around. And, you know, I know a lot of people, when the chickens get older, they’ll kind of let them free-range a little bit more, figuring, “Well, you know, if something happens, they’ve had a good life.” So it’s not, you know, the end of the world. And that way, they’re going to eat even less, because they’re eating a lot of grass and herbs and things like that on their own.
Deborah Niemann 8:14
Yeah. So, this is a hugely controversial question here, but do you have any favorite breeds?
Lisa Steele 8:22
I do, actually. You know, it’s funny, because the last couple podcasts I’ve done, people have kind of hesitated to ask me that. Or, you know, saying, “I don’t know if this is a hard question for you,” but I absolutely love Australorps. That was our chicken that we lost. She was our flock matriarch, and she was 9; she had just had her 9th birthday. And, we lost her a couple winters ago. But, they’re hearty. They’re good layers. They’re good moms. They have great temperaments. They’re beautiful. I mean, they’re solid black chickens. They lay kind of light pink eggs. I just think they’re a perfect all-around breed. We had them in Virginia, and they did okay in the heat, which is weird because they’re, you know, solid black; you would think that they wouldn’t, but they do great in the cold. So, if you can only pick one breed, I would say the Australorp. But you know, if you can get five chickens, get five different breeds. There’s no reason to just limit yourself to one breed.
Deborah Niemann 9:15
Yeah, I like that idea, too, because I heard somebody early on talk about having a flock of different chickens like having a flower garden with a lot of different flowers in it. You get to see all these pretty colors running around in your yard.
Lisa Steele 9:29
That’s true. They look prettier. They lay different colored eggs, which is fun. And also, you can tell them apart. You know, so if you have kids, and they want to name them—or, you know, as adults you want to name them. But also it’s important, because if one is sick, or if you think, you know, one looks like something might be going on, if you have five chickens that are the same breed, the next day you’re not maybe even going to be able to figure out which chicken that was. So, for lots of reasons. having different breeds is a good idea.
Deborah Niemann 9:53
Yeah. That’s why I like Nigerian Dwarf goats, because they come in all different colors. And I tell people, “When I look out onto the pasture and I see something happening, I want to know what goat I’m looking at.” You know, like, I think Saanens are beautiful. But I’ve had, like, three white Nigerians before, and I would look out there, and I’d be like, “Who is that? What’s happening?” And, I wound up getting them different colored collars so that I could recognize them from a distance.
Lisa Steele 10:18
Right. And there’s different personalities, too. You know, chickens have bigger personalities, I think, than people realize. And, once you start raising the different breeds, you’re going to narrow down which you like and which you don’t. Over the years, I’ve tried some breeds that I just don’t like, and I wouldn’t get again for various reasons. You know, but they all do have somewhat different personalities. So, you know, if you have five Buff Orpingtons, they might be a little different in personality, but they’re all going to be pretty similar. Whereas if you have an Australorp, and a Buff Orpington, and a Wyandotte, you know, and a Cochin and a Brahma, it’s going to be more like a little community, because each one of them is going to have their own personality.
Deborah Niemann 10:54
Yeah, exactly. I’ve noticed that, too. And that’s one reason that I have always had Barred Rocks. I may have other chickens out there, but I always have the Barred Rocks, because they’re so mellow, which I think that’s a really great attribute for chickens that are going to be around people.
Lisa Steele 11:11
Definitely. Yeah, I tried Wyandottes. And I found them not really friendly at all. I tried Black Copper Marans—same reason, did not like them even though I loved their dark, chocolate egg. And Rhode Island Reds can be pretty aggressive as well, you know, so it… Depending on your reason for getting chicken, if you want, you know, lap chickens or chickens that are going to be super friendly, probably those breeds you want to stay away from.
Deborah Niemann 11:37
Yeah. When I introduced you, I mentioned that your book is a classic. And it has been out there since 2013. So, I was just wondering if you had any plans for any type of a revision?
Lisa Steele 11:50
I actually don’t. A couple years ago, I did go through the book; my publisher asked me to go through it and sort of update anything that had changed. But honestly, the things that are in that book I personally do—and still do. I did back in 2013, and I still do now. So, you know, 90% of the book—when I was rereading it—it’s things that I still believe in and stand behind and do with my own flock. And then, I did update a couple things, and we added some new photos. But, as far as putting out a brand-new edition of it, not enough of it would really change. You know, it’s things that, early on, I had researched and tried out. And they work! You know, it’s almost like that old adage, you know: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And there’s not really a lot that I would change.
Deborah Niemann 12:35
Yeah, exactly. My publisher told me… Because I told my publisher I wanted to do an expanded and revised edition of my goat book after five years. And they said, “Well, you have to have at least 25% new for us to do that. Otherwise… You know, if you just have a few things you want to change, that’s fine. Then, the next time we do another print run, the corrections or changes will be in there.” And I guess I’m pretty long-winded. And, in terms of goats, there’s a lot of research had been done in the previous five years. So, I actually had just a ton of new stuff—completely new stuff—that I wanted to add. And so, that’s why I did it.
Lisa Steele 13:13
Now, I think it is a good idea if it is that much changing. And there have been some studies that I suppose that I could cite. But I think the book is actually in it’s, like, 11th or 12th printing. I mean, it just keeps selling and selling. You know, but I kind of like… I kind of like that it’s sort of dated, in a way, because like you said, it is a classic, you know, and you don’t keep, you know, republishing Gone with the Wind every 10 years and changing it. Like, there’s something to be said for leaving it as-is.
Deborah Niemann 13:41
Yeah, exactly. Before we go, I want to just talk a little bit about your book about ducks and having duck eggs. Who should have ducks for eggs instead of chickens? Or is it a plus ducks?
Lisa Steele 13:53
Everybody. Everybody should have ducks. We love our ducks. If I had to choose, and someone said to me right now, “You can either have only chickens or only ducks,” I would have only ducks. They’re so much healthier, so much lower-maintenance. They’re so funny. The eggs are bigger; they’re better for baking. Ducks are better layers. Ducks love the rain, the snow, the cold… You know, chickens are grumpy. If it’s raining, they don’t want to lay. If it’s cold, they don’t want to walk on the snow. If it’s too hot… Whatever. Ducks are happy every day, no matter what the weather is. We just love our ducks. They’re just so much fun.
Deborah Niemann 14:32
That’s awesome. And the way that you said all that, like, yeah, you’re right. Like, I can’t disagree with anything you just said, because I have ducks too. The only thing I’ve ever said is we have a pond, and so that makes it really easy for us. We have an aerator on the pond that keeps it from freezing, and one winter the electricity went out, and the hole in the pond froze over, and the ducks went in the chicken coop and, like, within an hour had made the biggest mess imaginable with the chicken waterer. They had completely emptied it out. So, there was this massive slick of ice where the chicken waterer was. And I told my husband, I’m like, “If we don’t get electricity back soon, these ducks are history.”
Lisa Steele 15:12
And that’s the one thing that I think people don’t realize when they get ducks. They get ducks, and they just add them to their chicken coop. And we have a firm rule: No feed or water in the coop, ever. Year-round, everybody eats outside. You know, if the ducks had their own place to live, the chickens could definitely have the feed and water in the coop. But you’re right, the ducks learn to empty those gravity feeders and waterers in no time, and they think that it’s just a way for them to make a huge puddle. You know, so we have food and water outside all the time. I use big tubs, but I don’t use the gravity waterers at all. And I do try to get the ducks out into the yard as much as possible. They have a kiddie pool; they don’t have a pond, but they do have a kiddie pool, and I just put it out in the yard so it’s not getting the coop… You know, as long as you manage their water mess, I think ducks are super low-maintenance.
Deborah Niemann 15:57
Yeah, exactly. Well, this has been really interesting! Is there any final tips that you would have for somebody who wants to get started with chickens or ducks?
Lisa Steele 16:09
I would just say: Do your research. Do your reading. You know, don’t think that you’re going to learn how to raise any animal just following somebody on Instagram or Facebook. I mean, you’ve got to actually read some books, read some magazines, read some, you know, educational sites—or I find the Maine Extension Service has amazing poultry information. Before we even moved to Maine, I was reading their website, because they had so much great information. So, you know, know what you’re getting into. Learn the basics about your animal to decide if it’s right for you. But I mean, you know, they’re fun.
Deborah Niemann 16:43
Yeah, exactly. I know: Chickens, the gateway livestock.
Lisa Steele 16:49
Absolutely. We just added geese, like, two years ago, and they have been a blast as well. So, you’re right, you start with the chickens and then that’s the end. The end of it.
Deborah Niemann 16:59
All right. Well, thank you so much for joining us today. This has been a lot of fun!
Lisa Steele 17:03
Deborah Niemann 17:05
And that’s it for today’s episode. You can find show notes at ThriftyHomesteader.com/BookChat, as well as a transcript. If you haven’t already done so, be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss any future episodes. You can also find Thrifty Homesteader on Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest. See you next week on “Sustainability Book Chat.”
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