Warwick, MA resident Diane Miller had never owned a chicken before but that all changed in 2012 when she agreed to take in several four-week-old chicks from a friend who could no longer care for them. As she went through the arduous process of hand-raising them, Miller found herself slowing falling in love with her new found feathered friends.
“They all had lots to say when I went out to feed them,” Miller said. “I loved just sitting in a lawn chair and having them come up on my chair asking for treats. I soon realized how much I liked them and bought a few more.”
By the time her first group of chickens had reached six months she had already purchased six more purebred varieties. The flock continued to grow in number and before she knew it Miller found herself becoming a full-fledged poultry farmer.
Although Miller hand-reared her very first chickens, she finds it much more practical to purchase mature birds.
“I have never had live chicks born on my farm because my animals are high production and tend not to be great mothers,” Miller said. “They are not too fond of sitting on their eggs. I prefer to buy the stock than raise my own.”
Miller has had a variety of different chickens over the years including Wyandottes, Orpingtons, Rhode Island Reds, Barred Plymouth Rocks and Golden Comets. She even expanded her flock to include Ancona ducks and American Buff geese.
No matter what breed she uses Miller always follows the same philosophy, which is, if it doesn’t produce money then it doesn’t stay.
“All my birds are dual-purpose, meaning they make a good table bird as well as a good egg producer,” Miller said. “The male birds are fed up for meat while hens were kept for egg laying.”
Miller says she relies on her roosters for more than just meat. They play several important roles within her backyard flock.
“The roosters job is to protect from predators, reproduce and find food,” Miller said. “They will scratch with their feet looking for food. Once they find it they make a specific noise which draws the hens over. The rooster will not eat until the hens are done. That’s good rooster behavior. That’s what you want in a rooster.”
Despite these benefits, Miller says roosters can be difficult to cope with at times which is one reason why she has far fewer of them around than hens.
“Getting the right rooster with the right balance is important,” Miller said. “Very seldom can you have two roosters on one farm because they will fight. Sometimes roosters are not friendly towards humans or too sexually aggressive towards hens which causes them not to produce as many eggs.”
Egg production has never been a problem for Miller. Altogether she has 14 chickens and 33 ducks which produce up to 34 eggs a day. The challenge for Miller initially was finding a local market where she could sell her eggs and make a little money. Miller eventually found a place but says she was helped by the fact her chickens are all cage free and free range.
“It’s kind of a common practice now,” Miller said. “The typical buyer wants humanely treated birds. You don’t make much money this way because you can only have a limited number of birds. The thing is to find a market that allows you to make enough money for your eggs.”
With free range chickens roaming around the yard, Miller says she has to be extra vigilant when it comes to animal predators looking for an easy meal. To help with this Miller incorporated three American Buff geese into her flock. Large, loud and very protective, the geese are excellent in alerting Miller whenever a predator is nearby.
“I don’t always have rooster on site because I have geese,” Miller said. “The geese will protect against other wildlife. We have raccoons, coyotes, bobcats, hawks, eagles and owls. When the geese scream, I send the dogs out and they chase the predators away.”
At night Miller feels confident all her birds are safe and sound because she keeps them locked up in predator proof barns.
“They go into a barn for protection at night,” Miller said. “My houses are predator proof. They have concrete floors, good latches over the doors and screening over the windows. I also have motion detector lights around the building which tends to scare predators away.”
While chickens will always remain her first love, Miller has grown equally fond of her Ancona ducks. She was first introduced to the breed by a friend who happened to be raising them. Miller says she found herself drawn by the Ancona’s colorful feathers and friendly personalities. She soon found herself purchasing some of her own.
“Chickens are more independent but the Ancona’s come in many different colors and I love their personalities,” Miller said. “They are friendly and grow quite attached to people.”
Miller says the ducks get all the same benefits as her chickens do, which includes feed, housing, medical treatment, free ranging and protection from predators by the geese. In return Miller profits from her ducks as well. She says Ancona’s produce a flavorful meat and are known as excellent egg layers.
“Ducks are becoming the new chicken,” Miller said. “There is a call now for duck eggs. They are bigger so they have a higher protein and omega three value. Their egg whites are well known to have a better loft form for baking. The taste will change based on what you feed the ducks but free range will taste the same as chicken eggs.”
Although Ancona’s may seem common Miller notes they are actually considered to be a critically endangered heritage breed by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. A recent census study of domestic waterfowl found there to be only 128 breeding Ancona ducks in North America.
“Ancona ducks were almost extinct but they are coming back,” Miller said. “There was a period of time in 1913, during the Depression, that the breed seemed to disappear. The breed was brought back in the eighties. Two years ago they were on the critically extinct list but they are now just on the watch list.”
Miller says she isn’t just raising Ancona ducks for her own benefit. She has also taken it upon herself to help promote the breed whenever possible. Most recently Miller brought a few of her black and white Ancona ducks out to the annual Northeastern Poultry Congress in West Springfield, MA in order to help bring them some much needed recognition.
“My main focus is on the black and white Ancona bird and proving that they will always produce black and white babies that look like them,” Miller said. “I’m trying to promote their breed by getting them approved in the [American] Poultry Association. In order for a bird to meet those standards they have to go through a five-year testing period in which they have to produce a certain egg, be a certain size and produce a bird that looks like the parent. I’m making progress. According to poultry judges I already have a bird that meets all of the standards for a great Ancona duck.”