So, this weekend I had the good fortune to be asked about my little farm. The person who asked was considering keeping a few chickens and wanted to know more about them in particular.
There were the usual questions like - what kind of fence do you have for them, can I keep them in my garden, and do I need a rooster if I just want eggs. This all led me to think I need to do a chicken keeping 101 post but for right now, I'm going to rant about the concept of a no kill farm. And yes, it will be a rant so if you'd prefer not to read one while you enjoy your morning tea or coffee, please scroll down to my lovely post on greywater or feel free to dip into the archives. For those of you who are up for a rant... let's go.
As is too often the case, the conversation came around to "do your chickens hatch?" and then "do you kill the roosters?" which was followed with the predictable "I never would". Now, to give this person credit, she is someone who is a vegetarian who works hard to better the lives of animals. She buys eggs from local people who have good relationships with their chickens and milk and cheese from people who have good relationships with their cows. She truly tries to live by her code and I do respect that. It's also um... well... wrong. Here is what I said to her:
"I truly don't believe you can have a no kill situation when you have any animals in your life and I certainly can't see how you can with farm animals. You might not kill them but you're definitely part of ending a life."
She was horrified and you may be too, so let me share with you some of the realities. Oh - bona fides first. Not only do I come from a long line of farming, I have been keeping farm animals for about 10 years of my adult life. The Reluctant Goatherd, had a long tenure as an animal control officer during which he was certified in humane euthanasia (spoiler alert - a well placed shot is the most humane way to kill an animal) as well as (funnily enough) being a paramedic. LG (aka the Young Man) is neither of those things but is a very capable teen who has had to euthanize beloved animals (by his choice -never by our coercion). For most of his life, this has been our lifestyle. We do process our own poultry and have been part of raising and transporting pigs for slaughter. Ok - back to the reality.
In my experience, when you have animals in your life, you also have death. Now there are the horrible accidents when a dog (or other animal) is hit by a car and suffering and you need to put it out of it's misery but more specifically, when you're talking about livestock, there are other factors at play.
The obvious one for me, when talking about poultry (which we all know is a gateway livestock) is that roosters kill or be killed. There's no way around it. Even if you have laying hens, you are part of something dying. For me this is especially poignant because I just had to take a favourite hen over to the funeral spot as a result of a bad rooster/hen ratio.
For those who don't know what that means, rather than the 8 or 10 hens to 1 rooster I prefer to have, I have about 3 hens to 1 rooster. This means hens who are favourites of the roos tend to have a rough go of things. This hen was so badly misused that she was put into isolation a few days ago but succumbed to her injuries over night. It was especially tragic because yesterday it seemed she turned the corner. She was a beautiful blue laced red Wyandotte.
Now, I take full responsibility for her needless death. It's a shameful result of not having enough time (or making the time because let's just be honest - here I am blogging and they're still running around) to process my surplus roosters.
How did I get surplus roosters? That's simple - a lot of chickens come as "straight run" from hatcheries. And when you have roosters and good heritage breed hens, inevitably you'll end up with someone on a nest. When they hatch you often have about 50/50 hens to roos.
So, the roos can kill the hens and they'll kill each other, if you don't have enough space for them and sometimes, even if you do. We have lost a few that way but fortunately, we have a lot of space so they generally can keep away from each other.
Now you might be reading this and thinking: "no problem, I'm not going to have roosters so I won't order any straight run chickens, just hens. I won't keep roosters so no fighting or baby making and therefore no killing."
But no, that's not really how it works either. Keeping hens means there are roosters out there, somewhere, and I can pretty much guarantee they're part of the surplus. If you buy them from a backyard producer, that producer is doing something with those roos, likely eating them. If you buy from a commercial hatchery, most of the roos won't make it past the first couple of days. Some are sent to people like me, who have ordered straight run or actual roosters from the hatchery. The straight run chicks almost always come at a disproportionately high ratio of roos to hens- I'm often in the 75-80% roosters to 25% hens range. So not what happens in nature but once I understood what happens to the roos that don't get sold, I was less upset about it. The hatcheries also send the surplus along for extra warmth with the babies being shipped. This is a good thing given how cold they can make it on their long journey from hatchery to home (which is a post for another day).
As I understand it, the hatchery assumes that if you're ordering straight run or roosters, you've got a plan for your own surplus roos so they feel ok about sending more along. Some of our favourite roosters have been a result of the "bonus" roos they have included. Who could blame them when you consider that the ones they don't find homes for get sent along a conveyor belt to be killed (I will spare you that pic though a quick Google search will uncover it). Some supposedly go to wild animal rehab centres and other such places to feed the animals which, to my mind, is definitely a lesser evil.
Dairy animals are no different. How many of us are horrified at the thought of eating veal? I know I was until I learned that the alternative to veal is killing the bull calves from dairy cows at birth. Not nice. And now there is a move to have rose veal (which really started in the UK). Rose veal? Dairy bull calves are raised not in a crate but in larger pens with other calves where they're able to play and have a much greater quality of life. On higher welfare farms, they're given a great deal of space -that's what makes them a rosy colour which historically, was undesirable in raising veal.
And then there are the other brutal realities - like when your goatling has some sort of abnormality that causes an intestinal obstruction that in turn causes massive, unrepairable pain in the middle of the night. Do we call out the vet to euthanize him with sodium pentobarbital which then renders the carcass a risk to anything that could come across it, never mind prolongs his suffering, especially if the vet is already at an emergency? Or, do we do it safely, humanely, and quickly at home?
I guess I just hope that people stop shying away from killing and learn to accept death as part of life - and certainly as part of farming. Learn more about it so that when the time comes, you can be as humane in death as you will are in life.