Used to be every farm in Kansas raised chickens along with cattle and swine. This wasn’t just country folks either. Town and city families often raised their own chickens, too, especially if they lived in rural areas.
I’ve been visiting farms across our state for more than 30 years, and I can count on one hand the number of working chicken coops I’ve seen during that period of time.
Things have changed. Today’s colossal chicken farms are a sight to behold and a far cry from the small, one-room coops we used when I was a youngster. Modern poultry farming is efficient and allows meat and eggs to be available to consumers in all seasons at a lower cost than free-range production.
While today’s automated, mechanized facilities house thousands of birds, our small chicken coop was home to approximately a couple dozen hens. One of my first responsibilities on the farm was to carry the garbage out to the chicken pen and dump it for our flock. This is one of my most vivid memories, and as I recall, I was not quite 4 when my mother assigned me this task.
Our white chicken house was no more than 20 feet long by 12 feet wide. It had windows clear across the south side for sunlight in the winter and a breeze when opened in the summer.
These were the days before the phrase “free-range chickens” had been coined. We didn’t keep the chickens cooped up during the day, and they could wander around in the fenced-in yard picking up gravel, clucking and scratching in the dirt. The chicken houses were really just roosting and nesting places.
Some farms didn’t bother to keep their birds in a fence and their chickens could wander anywhere. This created a lot of interesting situations when we visited my Uncle Charlie in Phillips County. You had to be really careful where you stepped in the yard and even the front porch.
Gathering eggs was my second main responsibility when I turned 6. This was always a real adventure. Most of the hens didn’t make much of a fuss when you coaxed them out of the nest and reached in for the egg. There was always one hen that didn’t want you messing with her most cherished possession.
Another chicken-related activity that never made my “top-10 list” was preparing a fresh fryer for a family meal. This didn’t involve darting to the grocery store and buying a dressed bird, it was instead stepping into the chicken yard and chasing down the victim, wringing his neck and plucking and dressing him.
While I hated to do this, I loved eating a fresh, tender young chicken fried in butter in Mom’s cast-iron skillet. Add mashed potatoes, gravy, new-picked beans from her garden and home-baked bread. Nothing tasted better.
The most memorable experience I remember was putting an end to the giant red rooster on my Uncle Bernie’s farm. This hellish devil weighed in at close to seven pounds. He ruled the roost and most of the farm. Whenever we drove over to see my cousins and this beast saw a vehicle pull into the yard, he ran up just like a dog.
But unlike most farm dogs that wag their tails, slobber all over your jeans, shirt or sometimes your face when you step out of your vehicle, this crazy rooster couldn’t wait to chase, scratch or claw you with his long black spurs. This demon scared my sister and girl cousins to death. They sometimes cried at the sight of this evil bird.
We boys steered clear of him as well until I reached the age of 8. That’s when we decided to dispatch this bird once and for all. My brother, cousin and I cornered this bird behind the barn one day and gave him the drubbing of his life.
It was him or us, and good triumphed over evil that day. In the process, we defended the valor and honor of the fairer sex.
Just like this story, yesteryear’s do-it-yourself system seems hard to imagine when you compare it to today’s scientific, automated and efficient procedure.
Back then it took us approximately 90 days to produce a fryer which would dress out at a pound and a half. Today’s modern commercial poultry facility produces a bird nearly twice that size in one-third the time.
And while we thought back then those fryers were mighty tasty and delicious, if we compared one of those with the chickens we buy today at our local supermarket, I’m certain we’d agree our modern birds taste just as good as those from yesteryear.
John Schlageck is a leading commentator on agriculture and rural Kansas. Born and raised on a diversified farm in northwest Kansas, his writing reflects a lifetime of experience, knowledge and passion.