REVIEW: Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens
From egg to table
Reference book presents comprehensive look at chicken production

Reviewed by Laurie Milford

Details:

Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens: Care, Feeding, Facilities

Gail Damerow; Storey Books, 1995;
ISBN 1-580173-25-X, 352 pp., $18.95

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February 7, 2005: To begin, I must disclose that I have no experience raising chickens. Before I read this book, I didn’t know a pullet from a pip. But the birds fascinate me, and I love eggs, so I dove into Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens with the enthusiasm of a novice.

From the start, Gail Damerow has a word of warning for people like me: “Many have thought … chickens could care for themselves by scratching out a romantic existence in the back lot.” But a harsh reality sets in, she says, and many find it difficult to keep up. She may be right. After reading all but the glossary and index of this dense book, I felt overwhelmed. Choosing your variety, housing and range, feeding, egg production, meat production, breeding, showing, incubation, chick care: All of these topics Damerow covers at length. Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens is nothing if not complete. But 340 pages later, I wondered, Is it really this difficult? Or do I need a book to teach me the alphabet before I try to write the novel? Something tells me I need the primer. Even though it’s a “guide,” Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens is like the hiking guide written for people who already know the trails.

I talked with the family down the street, who, I learned while researching this review, keep two hens in their backyard. (I was surprised to learn that while it is illegal to raise male chickens in my town—population 26,000—the ordinances here do not preclude backyard hens.) I asked my neighbor, “Just how difficult is it to keep chickens? And how did you get started?”

“It’s easy,” he said. “A rancher we know thought the kids should have the experience of raising chickens, so she gave us a couple of hens. We have a coop in the garage, and we get about 240 eggs from each of them each year.” My self-confidence returned. If two attorneys and their children could produce forty dozen eggs a year behind their house, then I could too, my dog population notwithstanding.

I looked at Storey’s Guide in a new light. It’s really a reference book, not a how-to book. The chapters on breeding, incubation, hatching—this is material for the advanced producer. I can return to it after I retire to 40 acres in the country. In the meantime, I’ll bookmark “Layer Management.”

For the egg consumer, “Table Eggs” may be the most interesting chapter in the book. It covers everything from recipes for pickled eggs to the debate over cholesterol to egg storage (two weeks at 68 degrees if thermostabilized!). How do you cook eggs for easy peeling? Damerow dedicates a full paragraph to the question. If you like eggs, it’s worth checking the book out from your library for this chapter alone.

For those of us who still buy our eggs at the grocer, the book is also a wake-up call to the not-so-pleasant realities of raising chickens. For example, Damerow encourages owners to caponize (castrate) cockerls if you want to keep them beyond the “stag stage,” which they reach at 5-6 weeks. This makes cockerls more docile and their meat more tender. Caponization is not a minor procedure, as the bird’s testicles lie inside his body. Most states, Damerow admits, require the surgery to be performed by a vet. Despite this, she explains how to caponize a cockerl and concludes, “If you chance to kill a bird, don’t feel bad about it—even the most experienced caponizer occasionally loses one.” As for the incision, she writes, “If it makes you feel better, coat it with a dab of Neosporin.” Damerow is just as cavalier about beak-clipping (done when birds cannibalize) and toe-clipping (performed as a last resort when cockerls injure hens while “treading” them). I am very likely naïve about even “humanely produced” eggs, but my friend who grows and sells broiler hens to specialty markets in Iowa tells me these procedures can be avoided in small-scale chicken operations.

Furthermore, Damerow gives organic poultry short shrift. To her credit, the book was published in 1995, before the boom in organic agriculture and before many people worried about growth hormones and antibiotics in the food they eat. If she were writing today for the same audience, I wonder if Damerow would encourage spraying brooding nests with pesticides. And would she reconsider dismissing organic certification as a “marketing tool?”

I haven’t yet ordered my first brood of pullets. When I do, I will reach for Storey’s Guide. But I will also look around for a basic manual, and one that more fully considers humane and organic production. Short of other resources, this book is a fine place for the beginner to start. But don’t let its abundant details scare you off before you’ve even built the coop.

Laurie Milford is a writer and fundraiser living in Laramie, Wyoming.