The Milkweed Diaries

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Chicken Ethics II: The Sequel

One of our Black Australorp hens

I linked to my Chicken Ethics post on Facebook, and the responses and discussion there were so good I wanted to post them here. Special thanks to Ashley at Small Measure and Kristina at The Rocking Horse for permission to repost their comments. Thank you to everyone (that's you, Ellen, Desta, Lynn, ahd KJ) for engaging with me on this difficult and complex topic.

I'm so grateful to be part of a community where this conversation is happening. I'm reposting exactly as is from FB - so ignore the informal punctuation and etc that is part of the culture of Facebook communication!

Thank you friends


Kristina Mercedes Urquhart: when i first got into keeping chickens, i wasn't aware of the "disposal" practices that big hatcheries had for male chicks. after our first order of chicks, i quickly learned there were at the very least tiers of humanity with hatcheries...for instance, i wouldn't purchase chicks from TSC for the way they treat the chicks once they had them, and directly ordering from the hatchery is just slightly more humane. but like you Beth, we chose to do things the easy way the first time by buying directly from the hatchery, and lucked out not having received any males.

unfortunately, the alternatives to traditional hatcheries are not always available to everyone. first, the issue of straight run. while sand hill is great (and i considered ordering from them the first time around), we couldn't order even the minimum of 15 birds - it was too much for us.

obviously, straight run inevitably leaves you with some percentage of males... at the time we were not considering "processing" our own chickens, and certainly don't have the capitol to have 7-8 roosters as pets (nor the space or patience!). for many, if not all, small-scale urban backyard chicken keepers, male chicks are a huge no-no in city limits and if they were to buy straight run, having to figure out what to do with a handful of roosters is beyond their scope of experience.

i don't know what the solution is for straight run, but the second major alternative to buying from hatcheries is to buy chicks from a local farm, and that also has its risks. buying locally hatched or raised chicks presents biohazard issues, particularly with marek's disease (which is the #1 reason why we buy vaccinated hatchery birds). you could get vaccines to administer yourself, but that must be done in the first day of life to be effective (and come in packs of 1,000s).

the third alternative is to buy started pullets, or laying pullets, which, if you're starting a flock from scratch (no pun intended!) is just fine. but if you already have an established flock and want to add in a few more, this also presents biohazard issues in the form of spreading disease (even birds raised on soil a mile away have still been naturally inoculated to different microbiology in the soil). so, yet another risk.

the bottom line (after the longest facebook post i've EVER WRITTEN) is that i have no idea or solution. for ian and me personally, we one day hope to get local, heritage breeding stock, with several genetically diverse roosters, and breed, hatch and raise our own chickens. til then, we take good care of our hatchery chicks and learn the best flock management skills we can.

Feeding the flock

Desta Rudolph: With the rooster I would keep it until it became a problem I also got an accidental male from Eagledove and have become fond of his male presence in the flock it seems to be the prefect equalizer for our little flock

Ellen Green: Oy vey, I am getting a headache thinking about this topic. I love my roo, but at the moment he is having his own crisis. Sad that their significant contribution is protection (of a large group), fertilization, and .... a lovely crowing in the morning...More than one breeds fighting.

Even if you get older birds, the ugly truth is, there is still a disproportionate number of males hatched. And it needs to be "addressed" -- doesn't that sound nice??? So at what point in the chain do we intervene? As soon as they are born? The process sickens me. Later, when they have at least had the chance to have a life? How do we handle them until then? I am a firm believer that animals raised for food accept that fact, even come into their life with that purpose. Those that embrace veganism would disagree, but I feel it is quality over quantity, and a short life is better than no life...Why would you deny any creature a life, regardless of how short? Eww, does that mean I am for hatch-to-grinder????? No...

We had two roos that we raised from day-old chicks, not voluntarily, we thought they were hens... Surprise...They got along well until they were about 9 months old...Then the testosterone kicked in and the fighting began... Men....In the end we had to choose.

Lynn Johnson: my first thought was a less eloquent verion of your sharon astyk quote. that death is part of the process of eating, regardless of your diet, though certainly more 'in your face' when eating meat. if it doesn't make sense to raise boy chicks for meat**, then humanely killing them as soon as possible is what feels right.

i imagine i will continue to think about it, especially when i have my own beautiful cluckers:)

Beth Trigg: Wow, thank you for the conversation, friends. Kristina Mercedes Urquhart I so appreciate your experience and your advice and your super-thorough and thoughtful response....that's the direction we are heading as well - local, heritage breeding stock. Maybe our farm will get to the point of breeding for sale to local chicken-keepers one day, who knows. The Marek's issue is a big one when moving away from the big hatcheries. Ellen and Desta, I'm not opposed to killing some roosters - although it is not Harvey's fate anytime soon. I'm glad for the hawk protection and I like him. If he gets too macho and mean, we'll see - but I've heard that Ameraucanas are terrible meat birds. All of the other breeds we are raising are "dual purpose" - a lot of the traditional homestead heritage breeds were bred with this very issue in mind.

My latest one-liner on the subject is: if you're raising chickens for eggs, you're either going to have to kill some chickens or outsource the killing to someone else.

Ashley Adams English: Oh, it's SUCH a dicey issue. Kristina Mercedes Urquhart beat me to writing what I'd have written, if I'd been around earlier in the day when you sent this. It's actually a large part of the reason we recently got a cockerel, so that we'd have our own fertile eggs. We've long had a broody Australorp, so between her habits and those of the 3 pullets we picked up with the cockerel (Blue Wheaten Ameraucana's, all of them), we hope to be able to take care of this issue our selves. That said, lots of people taking up chicken-tendering don't have this as an option, as they live in no-roo areas. For such folks, it's simply a matter of either purchasing from no-kill hatcheries (to the best of their abilities) or getting straight runs and re-homing their cockerels (knowing that might very well entail, ultimately, their demise-I can't tell you how many "free" ads I've seen for roos in the Iwanna).

As Sharon said, death is inextricably linked to animal husbandry. It's linked to all food, for that matter, really, as she also states. Hank Shaw wrote that "we all have blood on our hands" and that, as a hunter, his is simply visible to him.

Also, the protection the roo will ultimately offer the flock is huge. We have loads of predators out here, and lost two birds to a raccoon last year. That said, if he turns out to be mean (he's super sweet and docile right now), as my mother's former roo "George" was (he attacked me years ago and I still have the scar on my leg to prove it), I'll have no issue putting him in a pot.

During my classes at AB-Tech, this subject has been raised repeatedly. Telling folks that the big hatcheries cull most males is something I never hesitate to mention. People should know how their birds arrive in their possession, for better or for worse, and then make an informed decision from their. It would be great if the larger hatcheries would keep all of the unwanted males and allow them to age a bit and then process them for food. Either way, though, ultimately, as I said above, animal husbandry involves death. Lots and lots of life, too, but death is in the mix. Death with dignity and mindfulness on the part of the hatcheries is the issue to seek out. I'm so glad you raised this issue on your blog and here, Beth Trigg. It often gets lost in the chicken-keeping love shuffle.

Kristina Mercedes Urquhart: you're very welcome Beth! you're right that roosters serve a very beneficial and often critical role on the farm - to protect the hens as individuals, but also your investment. no one gets rich farming, and when you get in the triple digits in birds, i imagine feeding a flock that big gets pricey! i've read that you should average a rooster for every dozen hens or so, even if they're one large flock, you'll need multiple roosters to keep eyes on everyone.

Ian and i have considered "processing" our own birds one day... our personal belief is that if you're going to eat meat, it's only fair to understand just how that chicken breast arrived on your table (the reason why i'm also taking up hunting this year, but that's another story entirely!). until we get our own dream farm, we can't do a lot of that in our fairly residential backyard.

on another note, for those birds that may not be "fit" for human consumption, we've tossed around the idea of feeding them to our cats and dogs (after a good life and a humane death, of course). i know i'm going to get a lot of raised eyebrows and some folks might stop reading). but the truth is, our domestic pets are carnivores and omnivores by nature (respectively). ian and i feed ours the BARF diet as much as we can (acronym for "biologically appropriate raw food" - and endless google topic). that's a fabulous way to keep the the food loop completely closed on a farm that has working herd dogs or barn cats. just some food for thought! :)


KJ Laurro: I agree Beth, for if one chooses to eat chicken it is best to raise them ourselves and there is a way in honoring their lives. I also agree with seeing how things work with more than 1 roo. sometimes they do okay and sometimes they do not. I feel I have a responsibility to allow them to live safely and that includes within the flock. I have taken on the responsibility of keeping them all safe.

When I walk into the group, it is I who is at the top of the pecking order even with my roos. I talk to them to set the tone. They get along or someone is going to be chicken soup. If I don't want to eat chicken then I keep the flock to a minimum and do not allow them to continue reproducing. It all depends on what each farmer wants.

We had some girls that where getting injured by our roo who was a huge buff orph. and wasn't too good at his job of mounting, I had to separate him for a while and tend to healing some of the girls back up. He was a protector and he also was extremely excellent in his manners with me. He was extremely tame even when he came into his own sexually.

I think in caring for animals there comes the responsibility of culling... for food, if they are injured beyond help, in pain that can not be alleviated.etc. I do not agree with hatcheries and the killing of male birds just because they are male. I also know of a farm that does not kill any of the animals because they do not eat meat at all. They keep it simple for them and keep the flock from reproducing until needed. They find homes for the few males when they need to. It all depends on the farm.

When I have had to cull chickens it was because they had a disease that broke my heart to watch what it did to them physically. They all had it and I had to end their lives. It is not easy. It never is easy. I don't want it to be easy. I thank them every time for sharing their lives with me and bringing me joy.

When the day comes that I cull for food, I will do the same. It will be "sacred" and not mindless when I do it. I will be grateful and I will do it in the fastest/painless way I can. To follow such a path in ending a life for food or other reasons is a sacred act for me. I will have them again, but I will not get be a part of a place that culls babies just because they are male and they mass produce them. I am not interested in mass produced birds and think a lot of health issues happen from it. I thank you for a place to share how I feel.


Beth Trigg: I am so grateful to participate in this conversation with you all - Ashley Adams English, I am so glad you are out there facilitating honest conversations about this in your classes. I feel lucky to be part of a community where people are willing to look at these hard issues head on with eyes open. Kj Laurro, thank you for sharing your own perspective.

Producing my own food has radically shifted my perspective on the world in so many ways. I never thought I would be thinking about "culling" and killing chickens myself, but it is a very short path from eggs to meat.

I am hopeful that with all of the consciousness and caring that's out there now about food we will transition to a system that makes more sense. We ARE transitioning, and I believe this conversation is part of that process.

KJ Laurro:I would love for more of us to become even more aware. I have sometimes wondered how different it is those of us who cull our own chickens for meat and those who go out and hunt and use the meat for food? I only think that leaves me with the question of how fast the animal dies when someone goes hunting. That is what is first and foremost in my life whenever it is time to cull: "what is the fastest way for them?. I do it where the others can't see or hear what is happening.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Chicken Ethics

This is Harvey, our accidental Ameraucana rooster.* His life began as a "packing peanut" thrown in with a hatchery order of pullets (female chicks).

Last year, when we decided to get serious about chickens, we ordered 25 pullets from Eagledove Greenhouse, a locally-owned garden center that offers brooding services.

Since a lot of beginning chicken-keepers don't feel confident doing their own brooding (taking care of the chicks for the first few weeks of their lives, mimicking the care of a mother hen), this is a great service offered by a wonderful local business that we wanted to support. Eagledove also fed organic chick starter, which was a great bonus. Win-win, right? Supporting a local business, getting started with chickens, organic layers ready to kick-start our yard egg sideline at the tailgate market.

Here's where the story gets complicated. Our friends at Eagledove ordered our chicks from Mount Healthy, a hatchery in Ohio, who shipped the chicks via the postal service.

I admit that I chose not to look too deeply into Mount Healthy, or spend too much time thinking about what happened to all of the male chicks with the thousands of female chicks being shipped out every day. I knew it wasn't likely to be a train of thought that ended up in a happy place.

I had already been plotting out future chick orders from Sand Hill Preservation Center, which ships only "straight run" (unsexed) chicks because they are a no-kill hatchery. I remembered having heard bad things about hatchery practices and it didn't take a lot of brainpower to figure out that if Sand Hill was a "no-kill" straight run hatchery, that the alternative to "no-kill" is "kill." I was feeling kind of overwhelmed with life at the time that we decided to place our order, though, and decided for once just to go with what was easy and not spend a ton of time researching where these chickens were coming from.

One of our pullets, a lovely Silver-Laced Wyandotte

All 25 of our heritage breed chicks arrived, plus one extra. At six weeks old, these little chickens were integrated into our existing flock of 7 Buff Orpintons, and then we added 10 2-year-old Black Australorps that we bought for a good price from a neighboring farm.

At some point in the past month, I began to feel pretty confident that the extra chicken was a rooster. At the same time, I started working on our next chick order (this time we'll be ordering from Sand Hill and brooding them ourselves) and thinking more deeply about roosters.

I decided to go ahead and look behind the curtain and see how many (if any) of the big commercial hatcheries were "no-kill."

A Speckled Sussex pullet

I knew we wanted to order from Sand Hill anyhow because of their focus on heritage breed genetics. I had been reading a lot about heritage poultry and learning that the big commercial hatcheries don't pay nearly as much attention to preserving heritage breed qualities as smaller-scale heritage breeders do. In fact, many don't consider hatchery birds to meet the technical definition of "Heritage Breed." I won't go down that rabbit trail too far here, but suffice to say that just as with the definition of the word "heirloom" in the vegetable world, there's a lot of controversy about the use of the word "heritage" in the livestock world. The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy is a good place to start if you're interested in that rabbit trail.

Back to the subject at hand: commercial hatcheries and their rooster practices. There is a ton of bad information out there on this subject. By "bad," I mean: incomplete, inaccurate, and outright untrue. One of the things you will find if you just start googling "no-kill hatchery" is a series of claims on various forums that various hatcheries are "no-kill." For instance, here's a post on stating in no uncertain terms: "Both Meyer and MyPetChicken are no-kill hatcheries." The poster even goes on to explain: "This means that like most hatcheries, most of their customers want hens, not roosters. Rather than kill the roosters that they are unable to sell as day old chicks, they send them to livestock auctions."

"Wow," I thought, "could a big hatchery like Meyer really be a no-kill facility?" It turns out not so much. Following up on the post, I came across this grisly news story from a newspaper in Ohio (where Meyer is based): Two Ohio Hatcheries Violate Livestock Care Standards by Suffocating Chicks. I won't get into the details here, but suffice to say, it takes a high degree of animal suffering to violate the paltry standards that exist for animal welfare.

And for anyone who clicked through to the story, the next surprise is already out of the bag, but guess the name of the second Ohio hatchery cited by the state Department of Agriculture. Yep, none other than Mount Healthy. Which is where our chicks came from.

Which brings me back to Harvey. It would appear that Harvey was spared a pretty awful death (crushed and/or smothered by hundreds of other chicks stuffed alive in a garbage bag) by getting slipped in to our pullet order by an employee at Mount Healthy. I'm glad. Having him around will enable us to make more Ameraucanas without having to order from a hatchery, although our birds will surely be, like him, more along the lines of "Easter Eggers" than top-of-the-line Ameraucanas.

But of course that doesn't address the much bigger problem of roosters. Which is part of an even bigger discussion about the ethics of "extra males" in the world of animal husbandry.

Little Felix, the first goat kid born on our farm, a buckling. Our solution to the "extra males" problem in his case was a buck trade with another local farm - he'll help diversify the gene pool in their herd and little Merlin, who came to us in the trade, will help diversify ours.

It's a topic about which Sharon Astyk has written about beautifully in her post, "Blood on Our Hands: Dealing Ethically With the Problems of Husbandry". I heartily recommend reading Astyk's whole article, but will excerpt a really excellent bit here:

"But we're still a long way from fully grasping that agriculture itself is steeped in death, and that we can't escape that reality as long as we depend on it. We'd be steeped in death even if we were all to become vegans (which is unlikely in the extreme) as domesticated livestock breeds went rapidly extinct because there was no reason to raise them anymore, and we lost the sound and sight and relationship that tie us to these animals that we have chosen for domestication - and that chose us as well. Even if we were vegan we'd be steeped in death as combines behead rabbits and roll over the nests of ground nesting birds. We'd be steeped in death as we increasingly mined scarcer soil minerals that we used to get from animal manures.

The truth is, we can't get out of death - or its corollary, life. These animals we rear get to live because of what we eat as well. They get their day in the sun, their breeds continue and go forward because we eat them or their products. The truth is that there is no full escape from the problem of death here - there is only the careful consideration of the material conditions of both life and death."

A mature Black Australorp hen and other members of our flock

This discussion is important not only for people who raise chickens -- either commercially or on the backyard scale or somewhere in between (like us). We aim to have a flock of about 100 by the end of this year, so we're a little beyond the backyard scale, but certainly tiny compared to "real" chicken farmers. It's also important for people who eat eggs or chicken, especially if you're concerned about where your food comes and the ethics of animal welfare.

As backyard chicken-keeping has become increasingly popular in the past five years, people have begun raising chickens on a home scale presumably at least in part because they care about where their food comes from. I'm curious if and how this issue has been discussed in backyard chicken circles--I haven't seen it, but I have really not been deeply involved in those networks. Here's an article from The Oregonian that spells it out pretty clearly, including the responses of hatcheries to questions about the issue: As backyard chickens increase in popularity, roosters' fate is nothing to crow about.

So I end this post uncertain, just having laid some of the issues out. I'm curious to hear how other chicken-keepers have thought about these things. We'll be ordering some quantity of straight-run chicks from Sand Hill in the spring, and will likely have both roosters and pullets for sale. That said, we haven't decided if we would be willing to sell roosters to someone who's going to butcher them. I'd honestly rather do that ourselves here on the farm, where we can trust that it will be a quick, humane death. But that's a subject for another time.

*Harvey is named after Harvey Ussery, who has written eloquently on the subject of the ethics of roosters and chicken breeding, among other topics covered in great depth in his excellent book, The Small-Scale Poultry Flock, which I reviewed in an earlier post. Ussery hates the use of the word "rooster" to describe male chickens - that's your teaser to entice you to read more in his book.