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.


Dana said...

Cock fight roosters= Income diversification. J/K
No really, I think that eating the young roosters would be a good idea, but if the industry must "dispatch" them sooner than that for efficiency purposes, it should be done with swift and final measures.
Someone should do a marketing campaign for how delicious Young Cock Stew is...

Milkweed said...

Dane! I have had the thought in the past month that I understand the whole rationale behind fighting gamecocks more than I ever did before. For real! I never thought I'd see the day. And as far as your final point, Harold and Kumar have done their part on that marketing campaign. Have you seen "Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay?"

Hope said...

we let our hens brood naturally and therefore have a serious rooster surplus. So far, when we have done is let them grow to the point that they begin fighting with each other, and then offer them free on craigslist. I know they are most likely being eaten, which is fine with me. We would eat them ourselves except that I hate processing chickens and would rather let someone else take them away and do it. Some lucky roosters become the kings of their own flocks elsewhere. Since I have a fairly large flock (thirty hens) I have room here for about 4 or 5 roosters without a lot of fighting. I don't mind feeding the roosters as they do provide a service in the form of hen prtection and general beautification... but if you let the ratio get up beyond about 1/5 the roosters will fight and then you will have injured, ostracized roosters limping around.

Stevie Taylor said...

I think the concept of "extra" males shows how far we have gotten from our roots. Male livestock were certainly not "extra" in my grandparents' household. They were the necessary meat component to raising chickens for eggs or goats or cows for dairy. In other words, they were an instrumental and valued part of the system of raising your own food. We try to continue to value our "extra" males bu butchering roosters for meat and selling bucklings as breeders to continue the line or as wethers to provide a herd component to families that only want to keep 1 or 2 dairy does (goats are happier in larger groups).