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    All Things Chicken | Spring 2012 Out Here Magazine

    Poultry expert and author Gail Damerow knows her audience very well

    Gail Damerow with some chicks
    Each of these chicks will develop its own personality and food preferences, which makes them so enjoyable to raise, Gail says.
    Out Here

    By Carol Davis

    Photography by Mark Mosrie

    The bookshelves in Gail Damerow’s secluded rural home are filled with reference books about growing, raising and harvesting plants and animals. Gail reads for more than just pleasure; she craves discovering new things and learning how to improve upon what she does know.

    Perhaps that’s why the poultry books she authors have become must-haves for urbanites, suburbanites, 4-H kids, those embracing the self-sustainable lifestyle, and anyone else starting their own flocks of chickens.

    Gail knows they want to learn something new — and she has a wealth of knowledge to share with them.

    With titles such as The Chicken Health Handbook, Your Chickens: A Kid’s Guide to Raising and Showing, and a third edition of Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens, which is sold at Tractor Supply, Gail is known as the voice of authority on chickens.

    She provides advice on all things chicken, ranging from hatching your own eggs and raising chicks to how to select hens for harvest.

    Her newest book, The Chicken Encyclopedia; An Illustrated Reference is scheduled to be released this month.

    BECOMING AN EXPERT

    Chickens have captivated Gail since the very beginning.

    "When I was growing up, my grandmother had chickens and they fascinated me. We didn’t have chickens at home, so as I got older I decided I wanted to keep my own chickens," she recalls.

    As she left home and looked for a good place to buy, chickens figured prominently into her house-hunting strategy. "When I looked for my first house, one of the important criteria was that it be zoned for chickens," she says.

    She did better than that — she found a place that already had chickens in the back yard and they were staying with the place.

    Gail was as smitten with her new little flock as she was with her grandmother’s so many years before. Her flock, however, was a hodgepodge of breeds.

    "The former owner must have bought the hatchery’s assortment special, because no two of those chickens were alike in size, shape, or color," she says. "Some of them had bunches of feathers on their heads or feathers on their legs and feet."

    This flock didn’t look at all like her grandmother’s laying hens and Gail was curious. "I wanted to find out what breeds they all were," she says. "I’ve been researching chickens ever since."

    The more she learned, the more she became the local go-to person when others had questions about chickens.

    "I noticed I kept being asked the same questions over and over, so I decided to create a one-page handout answering the 10 most often-asked questions. The one page turned into 20," she says. "I mentioned to my mother that I hadn’t planned on running off 20-page handouts to give away, and she suggested I keep writing until I had a book. So that’s what I did."

    Chickens in Your Backyard; A Beginner’s Guide was published in 1976 by Rodale Press, about six years after she got her first chickens. "I’m told it is considered a classic," Gail says.

    ROOM TO GROW

    These days, Gail and her husband Allan have much more than a back yard for raising about 140 chickens and a small herd of goats. They own more than 200 wooded, rolling acres in Jackson County, Tenn., about 80 miles east of Nashville, with several barns, coops, and a large incubator to hatch eggs.

    In one barn, Allan has built a bank of substantial brooders where newly hatched chicks can stay protected and warm under heat elements until they’re old enough to venture out into a pen. He’s constructed the brooders so that the chicks can be fed, watered, and checked on with minimal disturbance to them. A slide-out wall on each brooder makes it convenient for cleaning.

    WHAT ARE GAIL'S MOST-ASKED QUESTIONS?

    We asked Gail to compile a list of questions she gets asked most frequently about chickens.

    What is the best breed? Which breed is best for you depends on your purpose in raising chickens. Most hatcheries organize breeds according to whether they are layers, meat breeds, or ornamental. If you want lots of eggs, choose a layer breed such as Leghorn or Rhode Island Red. For a meat breed choose a Cornish cross. For pets or showing, choose from among the many ornamental breeds, such as Cochin, Polish, or Buttercup. Ornamental breeds lay eggs, but not as many as the layer breeds, and may be raised for meat, but aren’t as meaty as a Cornish cross.

    How much space do chickens need? I like to see 3 or 4 square feet indoors per chicken, or at least 2 square feet per bantam. Outdoors, a nice-size yard offers 8 to 10 square feet per chicken.

    How many eggs does a hen lay? Hens of the laying breeds may average 250 to 300 eggs a year. Other breeds may average between 150 and 200 eggs per year. Some of the fancier breeds average fewer than 100 eggs per year.

    How long does a hen lay eggs? A hen may lay eggs for many years, even all her life, but as she ages she will lay fewer eggs per year.

    How long does a chicken live? A chicken kept in an ideal environment may live 10 to 15 years, although some pampered hens have survived as long as 25 years.

    Do you need a rooster to get eggs? No. But you do need a rooster if you want to hatch the eggs. In this respect chickens are like people — females ovulate regularly, but babies don’t develop unless a male is involved.

    How can you get a rooster to stop crowing? You can’t.

    Over the years, they’ve tried about 15 different chicken breeds and she’d be hard-pressed to choose a favorite. "They all have their unique features," she says. "When I look at the different breeds available at TSC during Chick Days, I want them all."

    For now, they’ve settled on the New Hampshire, Rhode Island Red, Plymouth Rock, and Silkie heritage breeds.

    The exotic-looking Silkies, with hair-like plumage and feathers on their feet, are pets while the utility breeds are raised for their eggs and meat. The Damerows also offer eggs, chicks, and adult chickens for sale.

    BACKYARD CHICKENS

    She’s delighted with the backyard-chicken movement and that others are experiencing the enjoyment of raising poultry.

    Those considering raising chickens should focus first on providing housing that will keep them safe from predators.

    "A huge number of critters find chickens tasty, ranging from friendly family dogs to wildlife such as raccoons and hawks that find their way even into urban areas," she says. "I’m always saddened when I hear about newbies who gave up on chickens because their first flock got wiped out by a fox or whatever."

    "Newbies" should also make sure that the coop they’re planning will be large enough, Gail says.

    "Building the coop too small is one of the biggest mistakes," she says. "You need to be able to get in there and clean it out. And a lot of people decide they want more chickens than they originally built their coop for."

    Be prepared for the responsibility that comes with taking care of live animals, she advises.

    "Some people feel tied down by having to go out and feed and water them every day and check to make sure everything is okay in the chicken yard," she says. "If they want to go on vacation or otherwise be away, they have to find someone to take care of their chickens."

    But they’ll also get the enjoyment of, as Gail says, "watching chickens being chickens and doing what chickens do."

    "The thing that surprises a lot of first-time owners is that each chicken has its own personality, food preferences, and other little differences that make each individual distinctly different from all the others," she says. "That’s also what makes them so much fun."

    Out Here editor Carol Davis grew up with a small flock of chickens, a few ducks, and one very mean rooster.

     

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