By Matt de Simone Contributing writer
Last Thursday at the Fincastle Public Library, Bruce and Elaine Ingram, the co-authors of “Living the Locavore Lifestyle,” welcomed the community to their tutorial on how to properly raise a backyard full of chickens.
Bruce Ingram is an outdoors writer as well as a creative writing teacher at Lord Botetourt High School. His wife, Elaine, is a former fourth grade teacher in Salem who is now a freelance writer. Both have taken their passions for teaching students and extended it to anyone interested in learning about Southwest Virginia both indoors and out. Ironically, that’s also the name of their blog: “Bruce and Elaine Ingram Indoors and Out.”
Bruce stood before a room filled with Botetourt County residents and told his and Elaine’s story of raising chickens on their 38 acres of land. “We started raising chickens in 2010. Elaine had breast cancer in 2008. After she recovered from that ordeal, she hired an oncology nurse to give her some tips on healthy eating.”
Elaine explained that the nurse told her the best food that helps maintain a healthy lifestyle comes from grass-fed livestock. At first, she was skeptical, but Bruce managed to convince her they could handle raising chickens to better their nutrition.
The Ingrams started out by purchasing 10 baby chicks from Southern States. Out of the eight survivors, they ended up with six roosters and two hens. Obviously, this isn’t ideal, but is often the case when beginning to raise chickens. There are a number of ways to purchase chickens from tractor and farm supply stores or even having them mailed directly. Bruce suggested purchasing industrial chicks in the beginning to better sort the ratio of hens and roosters. However, to maintain a steady production of clutches (groups of eggs), Bruce said that heritage chickens are the best buy. The Ingrams recently purchased chicks from Dick Horstman, a poultry farmer in Pennsylvania.
Industrial chickens are raised in sheds cooped up with thousands of other chickens. Heritage chickens live and reproduce in a natural environment. It makes sense that industrial roosters are aggressive boys. The industrial hens don’t know how to sit on eggs because it has been bred out of them. However, they do know how to turn out an impressive clutch. Bruce revealed that genetic alterations allow industrial hens to produce more eggs, but the busy ladies tend to burn out quicker than heritage hens. Bruce added, “There are advantages and disadvantages of [raising] both.”
Elaine oversees the hens. Not just for their care, but also for their distinguishing names. “At first, it wasn’t very specific. We had ‘Little Jerry Seinfeld’ and the ‘Hot Chicks’,” Elaine told the audience, “then we had some that were named after ‘Downton Abbey’ characters.”
“Mary’s (their highly-praised hen) named after the ‘Mary’ from ‘Downton Abbey’,” Bruce added. Those familiar with the series understand the name fits the Ingrams’ stately hen.
Other names of Elaine’s ladies include “Thelma and Louise,” “Lucy and Ethel,” their sister, “Six” (playfully named for being the sixth chick), as well as “Wednesday” and “Friday.” Elaine pointed out there wasn’t an “Addams Family” theme intended with the latter names, the chicks happened to hatch on a Wednesday and a Friday, respectively. They clearly have fun in raising their chicks. The names don’t stop with the hens, Bruce names his roosters as well. His favorite is “Don Draper,” named after the central character from AMC’s “Mad Men.”
Don’s the hero these chickens deserve. Bruce told a story involving a hawk attempting to attack the flock. Protection is essential in maintaining a productive backyard of chickens. Despite having netting over both runs to keep out aerial predators like hawks and owls, Don alerted the brood to get inside their hen house before he faced off against a hovering hawk. “That is exactly why you have a rooster. [Don’s] alarm note is what he should be doing,” Bruce pointed out.
One question posed to the Ingrams regarded the start-up cost to farming chickens. “We probably don’t track it,” Elaine explained, “It’s not a money-efficient thing. We do it because we like to do it. By the time we put the fencing up and built the house, I’m going to say we spent $250 [on inexpensive materials]. Then we added solar/electric wire around the fence.”
Bruce mentioned a chapter in their newest book about healthy, Locavore living (those who eat principally locally grown food), which focused on protection of their two hen houses. (One pen stretches out to 30 feet by 30 feet, while the other is around 20 feet by 30 feet.) “Having a house is not enough. You’ve got to have a fence and you’ve got to have two types of wire around it.”
The strands of wire and fencing he spoke about included chicken wire overlapped by garden fencing to keep out various sizes of outdoor creatures. Outside of their base fencing, two strands of electric fencing— pumping out 9,000 volts— protect the houses from threats. Bruce brought up an instance when a bear attempted to thwart the defense system only to end up unsuccessful and shocked that the chicken kitchen was closed.
“Electric fencing is the most crucial thing for your chicken protection,” Bruce added. Other elements are needed as well including thick bird netting, hardware cloth buried in soft soil, and cinder blocks to keep the cloth grounded. The Ingrams also suggested raising the elevation of the houses to give the chickens a place to go outside in the rain or snow. Bruce used the word “fortress” to describe their backyard set-up.
The Ingrams are always working to make their backyard chickens’ homes fitter, happier, and more productive. Whether it’s a way of showing their respective gratitude, the flock also helps out around the property by fertilizing the Ingrams’ garden. “They do a tremendous job cleaning up the harvest. They’re great composters,” Bruce told those in attendance. The Ingrams keep their chickens fed and thriving with pumpkin and butternut squash seeds, cobbler dough, and even the occasional sweet potato skin.
The event closed with audience member posing questions about where to purchase materials, how to maintain a steady brood, and how to care for a sick chick. Elaine brought medicines she uses to treat ill chickens and offered up suggestions on which products and methods work best.
It’s clear the Ingrams are happy living the healthy lifestyle they’ve not only worked hard creating for themselves but also for their chickens. For more information, visit their blog: bruceingramoutdoorsblog.blogspot.com and check out Bruce’s latest book, “Living the Locavore Lifestyle: Hunting, Fishing, Gathering Wild Fruit and Nuts, Growing a Garden, and Raising Chickens toward a More Sustainable and Healthy Way of Living.”