Home to roost

Ten year-old Ella poses with Lila, a Rhode island Red in front the Stier family’s chicken coop in Highland. (photo by Dion Ogust)

A growing number of Hudson Valley homeowners are keen on raising their own chickens. Over 700 regional chicken, goat and livestock enthusiasts are part of the Hudson Valley Chickens Yahoo Group. I looked it up.

Hope Steir is one of these chicken-raising homeowners. She, her husband Tom and their two children have 13 free-range chickens in their Highland back yard just off Old New Paltz Road.

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While the home, a classic Cape Cod sitting on four acres of land, is hardly a farmhouse, the back yard has a chicken coop (with a sign that reads “Bless this Nest”), a fenced-in run, a large garden and a bunch of chickens.

When she met her husband in Delaware and they got married, Hope Steir said that he wanted to return home to his family farm in Red Hook to help his uncle with the apple farm. “But we began having kids,” said Hope Steir, “and Mark is a geotechnical engineer and soon found a job in his line of work in Highland Mills, so we moved to Highland to be closer to his work.”

Both Mark and Hope had always dreamed of incorporating some sort of farming into their lives. With work, kids and a small home, they just weren’t sure how to fit it in.

“You know those Ulster Community College continuing education catalogues that come in the mail?” said Hope. “Well, I was flipping through it a few years ago and saw a class being offered on Chicken Keeping 101.” After seeing the course description for two years, she finally decided to “just sign up,” and she’s happy she did.

The course, offered by Jennifer Muck, who runs a farm in Stone Ridge, took place in Muck’s barn. “There were chairs set up right in the barn,” Hope said, “and she walked us through everything from how to choose a chicks, to what raising chickens requires, all the different breeds, their various benefits, why to go free-range instead of commercial, even how to wring a chicken’s neck. I wasn’t cut out for that!”

Graduating the course in 2008, Steir researched the subject on line, purchased books on how to raise chickens, and began to discuss with her husband what type of chicken coop they should get, what type of chicks were best for the region, which ones laid brown or white eggs. “There’s a lot that goes into raising chickens!” she said. “And there are so many choices. I have a friend, my daughter’s dance teacher who really likes ornamental chickens. I went for a cold-hardy good-egg-layer breed [Plymouth Rock].”

Conscious of neighborhood concerns, Steir she said that the family went for aesthetics when it came to choosing a coop. They first purchased a tractor-coop that could be moved around the property on its wheels. As their flock grew, however, they upgraded to a garden-shed-style coop that matched their home. Fearing predators, they also built a fenced-in run for their free-range chickens. When it is cold, the chickens stay very close in their coop.

“What’s funny is a lot of people say that chicken-raising is easy,” said Hope. “I love it, but I don’t think it’s easy. You wake at 6:30 a.m. or earlier during the summer when the rooster wakes [they have one rooster]. Then you have to let them out, bring them fresh water and food, put down fresh straw, scoop out the poop, gather the eggs, and round them up when the sun is setting .…”

And then there are the issues of predator attacks on chickens, a broody chicken that won’t get off her eggs or move and will “try and tear your arm off if you try! I know, we had one,” said Steir. While they’ve been fairly fortunate, one chicken was attacked by an owl. “We’ve seen foxes but thankfully they’ve never attacked our chickens,” she said. “My husband also saw a hawk swoop in that just missed nabbing one of our chickens.” Keeping chickens is not for the squeamish, that’s for sure, she added.

But there is also something calming about the cyclical nature of raising chickens that the Steirs enjoy. There’s the deep satisfaction that comes when you make an omelet or get to bake with eggs that you helped to create and nurture. “There is an entire guide to what to feed chickens, and at what age to feed them to ensure that they produce the highest quality eggs,” she said. “Some people even make their own chicken scratch. I don’t. I just go to feed stores and buy organic feed.”

Hope and her family enjoy the fresh eggs on a daily basis. She calls the morning meal The Breakfast Club. “It’s like getting this little box of presents every day.” But she also likes the lessons chicken-raising provides for her children. The kids share the various chores, which “teaches them a lot about responsibility.”

“There’s some part of chicken-raising for me that’s nurturing and peaceful and honestly,” said Steir. “It’s really satisfying to be in a grocery store and walk by the commercial eggs and say, I don’t need that! She also grows a ton of vegetables and herbs and dreams of the day when she won’t have to go to the grocery store for much!

While she’ll give eggs to her neighbor or sell some to a friend, Hope said that she has no grand designs on selling eggs for profit. “I think it’s great that people are doing that, but I’m happy with what we have,” she said.

The chickens seem to be happy, too,. They should be. Even those that stop producing eggs after a year or two (some hens that live ten years) will still be welcome at the Steir home. “They’re like pets,” said Steir. “I would never get rid of a chicken just because they stopped laying eggs. I couldn’t!”

To their credit, the chickens fertilize the lawn, keeping it healthy, and adding to the compost which helps enrich the garden. Steir said they’re “just funny, quirky animals that never cease to fascinate me!”

 

To learn more about chicken-raising go to the Hudson Valley Chickens Yahoo group or log onto www.backyardchickens.com. Also consider taking a course at UCCC or buying a book.

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