My Ideal Homestead Flock
Photo courtesy of Mack Hill Farm
The following is the original version of my article of the same title in the October/November 2014 issue of Mother Earth News.
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In addition to being fun, keeping a home flock of chickens makes us less dependent on food purchased elsewhere. But how much does our flock contribute to food independence if it is itself dependent on a constant supply of purchased feed—and on purchases of replacement stock? Our dependence on manufactured feeds and mail-order chicks scarcely fits previous models for the home flock, historically managed as a scavenger—of free natural feeds otherwise unavailable as resources—with replacement stock the spontaneous gift of “broodiness” in the hens themselves (the instinct to incubate eggs and nurture chicks—a trait deliberately bred out of modern breeds).
I am fortunate to have had a living example of such a traditional model: my grandmother’s rugged flock of chickens, ranging over a fifty-acre farm and feeding themselves almost entirely. From time to time a hen would disappear—and show up three weeks later, a clutch of chicks in tow. Granny kept that self-feeding, self-replicating flock going for decades. And every egg, every serving of fried chicken or chicken ’n dumplings, came to her table without cost.
Emulation of my grandmother’s flock has been my guide: I give my chickens as much range to forage as possible, and receive their help in the work of the homestead—cover cropping, compost making, insect control—based on their quest for live, natural foods. I hatch chicks under mother hens, having never used an incubator. When I learned the fascinating history of Icelandic chickens, I wondered if they might offer a version of my grandmother’s flock—if they might be the best choice as my ideal self-sufficient flock.
Icelandic chickens originated with the settlement of Iceland in the tenth century by the Norse, who brought their farmstead chickens with them. (In Iceland they are known as Íslenska landnámshænan or “Icelandic chicken of the settlers.”) Over the centuries, selection favored breeders capable of feeding themselves on Icelandic smallholdings, and hens with reliable mothering skills. The result was a landrace of active, naturally healthy fowl adapted to harsh conditions, on the small side (mature cocks weigh 4½ to 5¼ pounds; hens, 3 to 3½ pounds), with good egg production, even in winter. (A landrace is a group of domesticated stock selected for utilitarian traits only—not to conform to specific breed standards, such as for color, pattern, or comb style.)
For a thousand years, the only chickens in Iceland were of this robust landrace. But the 1930s brought importations of strains of Leghorns for more commercial egg and chicken production. Inevitably, those chickens were crossed with the natives—the pure landrace was in danger of being lost. Efforts to conserve the native population began in the 1970s. The success of those efforts was followed by importation of these genetically priceless birds into other countries, including the United States.
In late winter 2013 two experienced breeders of “Icies” supplied me with four pullets and three cockerels representing among them all four of the importations into the US to date—four to six months old, but already mating. When hens from my previous flock became broody (Shamo, New Hampshire, Old English Game, Buff Orpington), I had plenty of hatching eggs at the ready.
In addition to the broodies in service from my old flock, two of my four Icelandic pullets went broody as well and proved to be excellent mothers. The brooding season ended with a total of six dozen chicks.
By the onset of winter, I had culled the excess young males and some of the females to end with a breeding flock of twenty-seven: one cock (older male) and one cockerel (male younger than one year) plus seven females in each of three “clans” or “families.” (Given the high proportion of males in the flock, I was especially pleased to find that Icelandic cocks are not overly aggressive. They spar in order to establish dominance—completely normal behavior—but only once to date have I had to intervene to prevent injury between two particularly determined cocks.)
The ongoing culling furnished all our table chicken last year. The flesh is fine-grained and unusually flavorful, even compared to home-raised chicken of other breeds we’ve enjoyed in the past. When we retire older layers, I’m sure they will make superb broth as well.
Please understand that carcass size is small—a recent group of seven-month-old cull cockerels dressed out at an average two and a quarter pounds—and could be a disappointment if your expectations have been pegged to heritage dual purpose breeds, to say nothing of modern meat hybrids. Any breed developed as Icelandics were to largely feed themselves by foraging would inevitably be on the small size. So if I opt for Icies for their self-sufficiency virtues, my notion of “meat chicken” necessarily changes. Around here anymore, any bird needing to be culled, of either gender and at any age, is “meat chicken.”
As my Icelandic hens began laying in the fall I phased out the last of the hens from my previous mixed heritage-breed flock. From that point, and into the foreseeable future, this worthy landrace is the only chicken I am raising.
In the year and a half I’ve worked with Icies, they have indeed, more than the dozens of breeds I’ve raised over the years, met my goals for a more self-sufficient homestead flock. I have ranged them on pasture, in a small area of woods, and on “mixed organic debris fields,” areas heavily covered with the sorts of organic residues produced on any homestead—autumn leaves, weeds, spent crop plants and flower bed trimmings, prunings from fruit trees and even sectioned tree trunks from felled “weed” trees such as Ailanthus—plus wood chips delivered free in huge quantities from a crew clearing power lines in my area. The result in effect is a series of compost heaps, more and more alive with decomposer organisms. These debris fields are my Icies’ favorite places to forage. (In their native land they are also called Haughænsni or “pile chickens” because of their preference for such debris heaps).
In all these settings they are aggressive foragers, seeking out natural foods by preference and visiting the feeder (with feed I make fresh from certified organic ingredients) as second-best “backup” only. Use of feeds based on purchased ingredients has dropped more than half—eliminating it entirely could well happen as I increase the size and diversity of the ranging areas on about half of our three acres. (See “Feeding the Flock from Home Resources” for ideas about maximizing natural feeding in the homescape.)
Icelandic egg production will never match that of the real egg-laying champs, such as Leghorns, Minorcas and Rhode Island Reds, but it is very good for such a self-sufficient laying flock. Most gratifying has been their production during one of the harshest winters in the thirty years we’ve lived here—for parts of the winter, at a rate of two eggs per three hens per day, a benchmark for decent production during summer. (Rate of lay seemed to rise and fall according to the condition of the ground in their winter range, being higher when the soil was unfrozen and they could scratch up worms and grubs, and dropping when it was frozen. My preparation of that area next winter will feature assembly of debris heaps deep enough to keep the soil unfrozen in even the coldest temperatures.)
Icelandic eggs are white to cream and small, though surprisingly large for such small hens. (Eggs from my older hens average 1.75 ounce, same as for commercial eggs graded Medium.)
My Icies are hardy, healthy, and robust, whether in harsh winter weather or in our hot, humid mid-Atlantic summer. In the first year I had only one loss, of a juvenile, to the sort of unexplained death I call JCOS (Just Crapped Out Syndrome). I protect my flock from predators with electronet fencing, but they rely on their own skills to avoid attacks from the numerous hawks in our area. To date I have lost only a single Icie pullet to a hawk.
At winter’s end I separated my breeding groups and began saving hatching eggs. Having kept none of the broodies from my previous flock, I was now entirely dependent on my Icie hens as mothers. Happily, near the end of April, hens began going broody and receiving clutches of eggs every couple of days. The first clutches hatched after twenty days, and the last—for a total of sixty-eight, all the chicks needed for the season, hatched by seven broodies—just ten days later. Both fertility and hatchability of eggs were very high, with only four eggs out of seventy-two discarded at candling and a hatch rate of 94%. (After setting the last of the seven broodies, I began discouraging broodiness on the part of the remaining hens, in order to keep egg production up.)
I moved the hens with their chicks outside as soon as each hatch completed, all mothers and chicks together on a well-aged debris field separate from the main flock. The hens showed the same preference for feeding their babies as for feeding themselves, turning up natural foods such as worms and grubs for the chicks by preference and leading them only occasionally to the feeder. Once the chicks were fully feathered, I moved them with their mothers to the main flock, the stage now set for a new round of nurture, culling, and breeding.
Did I mention that keeping chickens is fun? My Icelandics are proving to be the most fun of all: active, alert, with great personalities, and among them displaying every plumage color and pattern, both single and rose comb styles, many hens sporting charming crests of feathers on their heads. In a backyard with only one type of chicken, what a bonus they’re such a kaleidoscope!