Talking Chicken: Practical Advice on Heirloom Chickens and Eggs by Kelly Klober
Reviewed by Craig Soderberg
I was surprised to learn that there are more chickens than any other livestock species on Earth and more people keep chickens than any other livestock species and that the most enduring and productive chickens are the group of heirloom or heritage purebreds. The book was helpful because Klober provided a glossary (pp. 361-366) and a black and white photo gallery of several breeds (pp. 348-358). Several additional breed sketches were provided at the beginning of each chapter. The resources section of the book also lists poultry associations, poultry clubs, poultry periodicals, hatcheries and poultry supply firms.
In chapter one, the poultry yard today, I was glad to learn about Silkies because if I can't find a reliable battery powered incubator in a grid-down situation, I will have a few Silkies available to brood the eggs (p. 9). Supposedly Silkies will raise almost anything, including geese and even turkeys. I was also fascinated to learn that Klober's most productive species of chicken was the Single Combed Rhode Island White acquired from an Iowa hatchery (p. 12). The reason Klober likes this breed is because they lay earlier and longer than anything else on the farm (p. 33).
Chapter two, making sense of the moment, gives some advice on ordering chicks and/or eggs: (1) order from smaller hatcheries that are somewhat off the beaten path (p. 37), (2) get a directory of hatcheries from your local extension office or state department of agriculture, and (3) request directories of those producers participating in your state's Poultry Improvement Program and the National Poultry Improvement Plan (p. 37). When selecting breeding stock, Klober recommends selecting a breed with rosecombs, clean legs, solid colors, yellow flesh and yellow legs. The rosecombs are an aid in cold climates, clean legs are easier to manage on pasture than feathered legs, yellow skinned legs are prefered by most American consumers, and the solid colors are far simpler to manage in a breeding program
Chapter three, making your start, Klober lists steps to consider for bettering your chance of success with purchased hatching eggs: (1) have your incubator up and running before the egg delivery date, (2) request that you be sent eggs that have sat for no longer than three days because after seven days the hatching percentages start to decline, (3) do not order eggs to be sent when weather extremes are likely to occur and, if at all possible, drive to pick up any hatching eggs, (4) if received at the post office, open the container at the post office in case some sort of damage occured in transit and a claim for loss needs to be filed, (5) at home unpack the eggs, remove broken or cracked eggs, candle them for cracks, and then let them stand for twenty-four hours to all the air cell to reposition if it has been moved out of position, (6) wipe off dirt from the eggs with a soft cloth, (7) order chicks as early in the year as possible. Late-hatched chicks tend to grow more slowly as the hours of available daylight decrease (p. 67), (8) cover the brooder with paper towels to prevent problems with spraddle legs.
Chapter four, the hen house and poultry yard, had a few suggestions to minimize the problem of chickens eating their own eggs: (1) load a blown or cracked egg with red pepper and put it back in the nest, (2) remove the egg-eating birds, (3) provide an admission into and an egress from the nest box through a single 8x12" opening in one corner. Here the birds are less likely to eat eggs because the birds can not see into the area where the eggs accumulate.
Chapter five, building the flock -- some assembly required, gave some tips on chicken breeding. When beginning chicks from a hatchery or other single source, it is best to assume that they are all going to be full or half-siblings. Prolonged very close inbreeding can impair vigor, reduce fertility, and increase the risk of certain defects. Parent x offspring matings are not nearly as close as sibling matings and many flocks have shown good results by continuing with the rolling mating for generations. But better line mating choices are cousin to cousin, aunt to nephew, and uncle to niece.
Chapter six, caring for your birds, spoke of the importance of boosting the protein in the diet of the breeding birds by adding cat food, pea-sized lumps of hamburger, milk or yogurt, and wheat germ oil or cod liver oil. Six ounces of red cider vinegar per gallon of drinking water is held to be a natural treatment for coccidiosis. The mixture of garlic, pepper, and vinegar seems to contain a natural antibiotic that invigorates the birds (p. 192). A long time practice for mite prevention is simply to provide the birds with an area or box of wood ashes in which to dust themselves. But do not use the ash from treated lumber for this (p. 200).
Chapter seven, hens hatching eggs and chicks, provides a list of considerations when gathering and handling eggs: (1) gather eggs to be hatched a minimum of 2-3 times per day, (2) keep nests well bedded with soft, dry, absorbent material, (3) in muddy weather, hold the birds inside until at least 10am to get the eggs laid into dry nests, (4) clean the lightly stained eggs, (5) store hatching eggs for no more than 7 days because after that hatchability goes down, (6) store eggs small end down between 55-65 degrees F, (7) store eggs in cartons or flats of incubator trays. Elevate one side by placing it on a brick or empty egg carton. Then each time you pass them by, turn and elevate the opposite end. This will prevent the air cell from sticking or becoming mispositioned. Klober doesn't discuss this, but Barry Koffler, from feathersite.com, mentioned that it is a good idea to turn stored hatching eggs daily so the membrane doesn't stick to the shell.
Chapter nine, thinking about tomorrow, mentioned some points that we should remember as we market our farm raised eggs and chickens. Four out of every five birds tested from American grocery stores carried some type of bacteria. That ratio was found to be the same even in birds labeled "organic." Real quality chicken and chicken in volume will always be concepts that are at odds with each other. Klober suggests that we also think about poultry ventures beyond chicken. For example, swans may find a growing market outlet, as they will drive away nuisance Canada geese from ponds and lakes. Guinea fowl have a well-earned reputation as feathered watchdogs and are believed to keep lawns rid of different insects pests and sometimes even snakes (p. 297). They are also a good tick deterent in Lime disease areas. There might be a market for selling pickled eggs from a small colony of Coturnix quail. There might be a shooting preserve nearby that needs flying Mallards.
In chapter ten, poultry breeds - the final word, the author reveals that he is just working with three breeds: Buff Orpington, Rosecomb Rhode Island Red, and Single Comb Rhode Island White. Klober believes that the Buff Orpington has the same name recognition factor as the Black Angus cow or Clydesdale horse. Rhode Island Reds also have good name recognition and the Rosecomb Rhode Island Red has greater winter tolerance since the rosecombs are not nearly as vulnerable to freeze damage and frostbite as are the single comb varieties. The Single Comb Rhode Island Reds are 'hands down' the most productive birds on Klober's farm because they lay earlier and later into the year than all other birds (p. 325). For meat birds, Klober likes the Silver Laced Wyandottes since they are striking and cold hardy (p. 345).
Some of the weaknesses of the book include the following:
Klober mentions the term 'cage-free' frequently throughout the book as though it was a positive term that actually meant something. This term means nothing because even the steel gulag commercial chicken factories use this term to describe their eggs as long as they leave one door open at the end of their mammoth chicken factory (Lee and Foreman, 2002:80).
Also although there is no nutritional difference at all between white shelled eggs, brown shelled eggs or eggs of other colors (p. 4), Klober spends an inordinate amount of text discussing this topic of egg colors.
Sometimes Klober got a bit repetitive since he would mention something and then mention it again in a later chapter. For example, on page 42 he mentions how difficult it is with a single farming venture to get a net income of twenty thousand dollars and that ten small [agricultural] ventures each netting two thousand dollars per year would be far easier to accomplish. But he mentions this same thing again on page 249.
The chapter on hen houses contained no diagrams, drawings, or illustrations. The chapter on chicken feed did not mention the dangers of GMO feed to the chickens. Klober suggests applying cedar chips or shavings in the nest box. But Foreman (2010) notes that cedar chips are toxic. She suggests Aspen shavings instead.
However, despite a few weaknesses, I recommend the book to people who are considering getting started in the business of raising chickens. If you are interested in trying alternative poultry species for your farm, like turkeys, ducks, geese, swans, pigeons, guineas, quail, peafowl, or pheasants, consider reading Klober's other book which is listed below in the references section.