By Annette Hinkle
A Conversation With Holly Browder who co-owns Browder’s Birds Pastured Poultry Farm on the North Fork with her husband, Chris. This Saturday, Browder will be at the Sag Harbor Farmers’ Market to talk about raising backyard chickens.
How did you and Chris get started in the organic chicken business?
This is our fourth season — we started in ‘09. We were both in the city and were looking to do something different. My husband was a banker. He apprenticed for Garden of Eve in Riverhead. He just loved it. I still worked in the city McKinsey & Company. Garden of Eve lets you do your own project when you apprentice there. Someone was raising pigs, so Chris decided to raise poultry, because he was inspired by Michael Pollan’s book “Omnivore’s Dilemma.”
Going from the financial world to poultry farming is a big life change. How have you and Chris adapted?
It’s fun. You don’t make a lot of money, it’s lifestyle choice. There’s a romantic vision of life on the farm, but the reality is, you work every day. As a banker, he had long hours but got paid a lot. I was at a consulting firm, it was the same thing. Now every day we’re collecting eggs. It’s pretty relentless, but nicer to be outdoors.
How much land and how many chickens do you have?
We have five acres in Southold. Over the winter we purchased a farm that we live on, it’s 16 acres but we haven’t moved over the chickens yet. This year we have 300 egg layers, 1,000 meat chickens and we’ll have 10 lambs. Last year we had five.
In Sag Harbor residents are allowed to keep a limited number of hens but no roosters. How important are roosters anyway?
If you wanted to actually breed chickens you’d want a rooster, but it’s easy to maintain a flock without a rooster. You just have to replenish with new hens when they get older. There will be a dominate female if there is no rooster who sleeps highest on the roost and determines the pecking order of eating.
So pecking order is more than just an oft used cliché?
From the time they’re in the brooder, little babies puff their chest out and butt males to see who’s stronger. There are always the chicks that eat first and those that eat last and hang out.
How old are the chicks when you get them?
The pullets we buy are 16 to 20 weeks old and almost ready to lay at five to six months. Pullets cost more, but can lay faster. Chicks are cheaper but you have to raise them. If you raise them from chicks, and the time to order chicks is in spring, they bond more with people.
Chickens are very friendly, social and good with children. They’ll know when you come out to feed them and some will jump on your shoulder.
What breeds do you recommend?
There are hardy breeds and there are those for warm weather. For this area you want a mix. I like New Hampshire Reds and Rhode Island Reds, which lay 250 to 300 eggs annually and are cold hardy, so you can leave them outside year round.
The egg color is based on breed. If you want white eggs, and hardly anyone does, you want Leghorns, like the character in the old Loony Tunes cartoon. They’re a hot weather breed and very heat tolerant.
What’s the life span of a hen?
Chickens will lay for two years and then production drops off. We keep a geriatric ward and they die on their own. Most pass away between three and four years.
What about coops, space and number of birds?
You want a little outdoor area and a place for a chicken coop. It can be anything like a dog house. It just has to be safe at night and protected from predators.
You need to have decent outdoor space — there should be two square feet per bird in the coop and four square feet in outdoor run areas. You also should have at least two chickens because they’re social. They lay about an egg a day, so figure out how many you want based on the number of family members. I think three or four chickens is manageable.
What effect do chickens have on your yard?
To contain them you can make a chicken run. For free range, let them roam. Many people have backyards that are fenced in, they will get anywhere they want to go in the yard. The love to scratch around and also eat greens. If you have a garden it’s hard to protect your greens.
What about ticks? Do they eat those?
They really do eat ticks and other stuff we hate. They have good eyesight to spot microorganisms in the soil. They’ll eat everything there and there’s no time for the grass to regenerate. That’s why our coops are on wheels, so one part can recover where they scratched the dirt.
And once it recovers, I bet you have great grass.
Our grass grows fast and is dark green because of the chicken poop. Instead of mowing it, we put the lambs ahead or after the chickens to mow down the grass. They work well together.
Holly Browder presents “Raising Chickens in Your Backyard” this Saturday, June 29 at 11 a.m. at the Sag Harbor Farmer Market, Bay and Burke Streets. For information on Browder’s Birds Pastured Poultry Farm visit www.browdersbirds.com.