Star2's gardening series Ready, Set, Grow! interviews a couple raising antibiotic-free chicken in their garden.
Growing up in Australia and Malaysia, Baida Hercus always knew she wanted land of her own to grow and nurture her family in nature – complete with chickens, too.
Hercus, 40, is a mother of three and the managing director of design firm VR3D as well as a passionate environmentalist and president of the Free Tree Society of Kuala Lumpur (freetreesociety.org).
She works with husband Ricki Fritz, 41, at VR3D, where he manages the company’s building information modelling and design services. The couple seems to share a green sensibility, as Fritz also designs green buildings, and they have an off-grid 2ha family farm in Janda Baik, Pahang, that they manage together.
A decade ago, the farm was just an overgrown patch of land being reclaimed by the jungle. Today, it is an orchard with over 1,000 trees, a vegetable garden, 100 chickens, two goats, and an upcycled cabin, where the family spends weekends.
Tell us a bit about your farm.
When we bought the land we couldn’t connect it to electricity or develop it quickly, but we stuck to our guns and made sure that it was kept off-grid and as sustainable as possible. Our cabin is upcycled from an old kampung house as well material from renovations of offices.
What motivated you to do this?
We wanted to take control of our food source. We don’t trust what we buy. If you don’t know it, you’d have to grow it yourself. Secondly, to live gently and have that bond with nature.
And when we had animals we wanted to make sure that they’re free-range, healthy and looked after.
What kind of edible plants do you have in your farm?
Ladies’ fingers, tomatoes, eggplants, asparagus and herbs like parsley and sawtooth coriander.
We also have local fruit like buah rambai, mountain fig, custard apple, Vietnamese apple, kundang papaya, pineapple, starfruit, rambutan, durian, pomegranate, pulasan, bananas – five varieties of those – cherries, longan, nutmeg, lychee, mulberries, avocados, jambu, passionfruit.
And coffee, tea and spices like cinnamon, cengkih, allspice, pepper.
What made you want to have livestock – chickens in particular?
Chickens are quite easy to manage and largely look after themselves. You let them out in the morning, and they put themselves to bed at night. Eggs are also a superfood, and you can get it yourself.
Also, being able to slaughter a chicken, put it into your cooking pot knowing that it hasn’t got any antibiotics in it – the chicken actually tastes clean.
How did you set up the space for the chickens?
I made a seven star chicken coop! I made sure that it was hygienic with concrete floors that I could wash and keep clean from diseases. Also, I made sure snakes wouldn’t be able to break in, insects wouldn’t be able to come in. It also has an earth wall built into the side of the hill to keep it cool.
Starting with 12 chickens, we now have 100 in seven coops. After the first coop, we wanted some “meat” chickens, so we built temporary structures made of split bamboo harvested from our farm.
What have you learnt so far?
Not to have white chickens in a farm setting because they kind of glow!
Eagles can see them, so the white ones got picked off quite quickly.
Also, we learnt not to free-range our chickens for two months every year, between mid-October to mid-November, and March, during migratory season, when you can get 20 raptors at a time in the sky instead of the usual one or two.
And we bought an incubator to incubate some eggs to replenish the chickens.
What types of chickens would you recommend?
Kampung chickens are layers, and the meat is suitable for rendang and soups.
The laying breeds, black skinned, are a hardy local breed that lay large, speckled eggs. And leghorns lay plentifully.
What’s the difference between your chickens and chickens in the supermarket?
Not a lot. Except that mine are all healthy, free-range, and have personalities!
We give names to the layers, or we give a collective name for different coops. The black-skinned chickens are the “Witches of Eastwick”.
We’d name the roosters, so if it’s a coop, we’d go by the rooster’s name, and he’s probably got around five to 12 “wives” in the coop.
Most commercially-raised chickens are fed chicken meal that has antibiotics or is very high in protein.
I grow my own meal worms, and they get their protein from that, which is much healthier.
What happens to them in the long run?
Laying chickens don’t get eaten, even after they’ve finished laying. They have a shelf-life for laying, but I don’t eat them after, and they become pets.
They’ve served their purpose and they deserve to retire rather than be eaten.
Any tips for chicken rearing?
Keep up the protein in their food if you want consistency and stronger chickens. After eating the eggs, wash the eggshells, bake and crush them, and mix them into their corn to make sure that they still have enough calcium for producing more eggs. Hang their food from the ceiling rather than leave it on the ground so the rats can’t access the food. And train the chickens from young to eat food scraps!
Any advice for people who would want to have chickens?
For a family of four, you’d need about five hens to get a decent supply of eggs. Build a nice coop, make sure that they get sunshine and space for two to three hours a day. And don’t get a rooster if you are in an urban area!
How self-sufficient are you from the farm?
We supply all of our own eggs and we can probably supply one-third of our vegetables, one-fourth of our chicken meat and half of our fruit supplies.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to be self sustainable?
You can grow so much in a small city garden – just try to grow as much as you can and focus on what you want to eat. If you wanted to be more self-sustainable, though, you’d need to buy an acre of land, secure it, and visit it regularly if you don’t have farmhands. So it’s a commitment.
What are your plans for the future?
We’ve started growing our own corn, and soybeans (for chicken feed). The other thing we want to do is grow more moringa, and chop and mix it up with the food.