As a lifelong animal lover, I try to be a kind, respectful farmer. And while I once thought it would be easy to identify the most compassionate farming practices, some choices prove to be more complex than they seem. Case in point: welcoming chickens into the farm ecosystem. While you might have some preconceived ideas about how chickens should be housed, raised, and fed, there may be more to consider if you’re truly invested in raising cruelty-free food. Here’s a list of five things to think about before adopting your next flock of chicks.
Step #1: Selecting A Breed
Although you could choose a breed based on which chick is cutest, you’ll have more success if you carefully select a breed that suits your climate, lifestyle, and goals. A chicken who was born for life in the tropics will not be happy or healthy in a climate with harsh winters. Likewise, a cold hardy breed may not thrive in a region with sweltering summers. Next, think about how you will interact with your chickens. Are eggs your only goal, or are you willing to sacrifice a couple of eggs per week in exchange for friendlier personalities and beautiful feathers? Are you willing to choose a healthy, strong, all purpose heritage breed, even if they eat more than some of the less hearty breeds? If free range chickens are important to you, look for a breed that knows how to forage, fight, and hide. If your chickens will have less free space, look for one that bears confinement well. Selecting the right breed for your situation gives you and your chickens every chance of a successful partnership.
Step #2: Placing An Order
After you choose your breed, you’ll need to find a place to buy chicks. Mail order hatcheries seem to be the most common choice, and for good reason. Hatcheries are cheap, convenient, and offer a wide selection of many different poultry breeds. They’ll even ship the chicks to your door. However, despite the convenience, hatcheries may not be the kindest source of chicks. Some hatcheries are factory operations, which employ some of the very same cruel practices you may be trying to avoid by raising your own chickens. Hatcheries also favor volume over quality, so you may not receive the strongest, healthiest birds when ordering this way. If you choose to breed your chickens, the offspring from hatchery birds may sell for a lower price than those from a top quality breeder. I chose to order my chicks from a well respected home breeder, who breeds show quality chickens. Although I don’t intend to show my birds, I love supporting small farmers with ethically sound practices. Plus, since I selected a heritage breed in threatened status, it is important to me to support those who are working to preserve and improve the breed, and for me to pass on the best possible traits to future generations of chicks born at Strawberry Moon Farm.
Hatcheries offer a choice between sexed chicks (all male or all female) or “straight run” (a random mix of male and female chicks). Most people will order only female chicks, since they’re all that’s necessary to harvest backyard eggs. However, if you don’t take the male chicks, no one else will either. More information on this here: Where Do All The Roosters Go.
Step #3: Adoption Day
It is a common practice to ship chicks through the mail. However, chicks sometimes die, or are lost in the shipping process. Even if they arrive safely, I wonder whether this is a kind and respectful way to treat a newborn living being. The breeder I chose agreed to let me adopt my chicks in person, rather than sending them on a harrowing journey through the postal service in a dark, cold box. This spring, I plan to take a road trip to a neighboring state, equipped with a heater, food, and water for the chicks to enjoy during the five hour journey home.
Step #4: Living Space
I had always taken it as a given that when I had chickens, I would allow them to free range. I believe it’s important for chickens to engage freely in their natural behaviors, to soak up the sunshine and forage for insects and fresh plants. They also benefit the land in many ways. But after hearing all-too-common stories of entire flocks being massacred in a single day by a single stray dog, I began to have second thoughts. We live on the edge of a woods, in the company of many predators from foxes to dogs to bald eagles. I have also learned that chickens find fruits and vegetables even more delicious than bugs, so it may also be advantageous to limit their access to the food crops. My revised plan is to build an extra large mobile chicken coop, connected to a movable covered aviary and totally surrounded by a very spacious portable electric fence. The entire setup can be moved as needed to circulate the chickens around the property, and will provide ample space for the chickens to play. This system will provide good protection for the flock, while still offering most of the benefits of free ranging. If you do choose to contain your flock, keep in mind that tight spaces encourage pecking, fighting, and other nervous behaviors. Each full size chicken will require four square feet of coop space to stay happy, plus a spacious outdoor run.
Step #5: The Retirement Plan
After 2-3 years, a hen’s egg production will begin to decline. Since I choose not to slaughter my chickens (except in cases when it is the only humane choice), I am committed to caring for them even in their old age. This will reduce profits, but even old hens are good partners. They will probably continue lay an egg from time to time, and they can still turn food scraps into wonderful fertilizer, prepare new vegetable beds, and serve on the insect control squad. Not to mention the value of their wonderful company!
Though the quest for the cruelty-free egg is proving to be more nuanced than I once thought, I look forward to this challenge. It is an opportunity to become more connected to our food, to learn more about our world, and to enhance the land and the lives of a few lucky birds.