As you probably know, I’m not one for hyperbole or over-the-top bragging and self-promotion, but I am comfortable with the claim that the happiest chickens on the planet live here at Sunflower Farm. Nope, no hyperbole there.
I say this because I’ve read a few articles recently how industrial agriculture raises chickens, and it ain’t pretty. I’m not faulting the farmers here, or the consumers of eggs for that matter. It’s just the way it is. In their quest to reduce costs and produce food as cheaply as possible, often times the welfare of farm animals suffers. Or perhaps I should phrase it that the spiritual and emotional side of animals may be over looked when we raise animals too close together.
There’s a good article in Harper’s Magazine (November 2014 issue) called “Cage Wars” that describes the appalling conditions of most chickens. (http://harpers.org/archive/2014/11/cage-wars/)
People need food and they like it cheap so economies of scale dictate that the most cost efficient way to it is to pack them in tightly.
The chickens here at Sunflower Farm, have room to roam. We started with 4 laying chickens and are up to 26 right now. My attitude is that 24 chickens are as much work as 4, so the more eggs we produce and sell to our friends, hopefully there are fewer chickens out there living in cramped quarters. I spend just as much time getting up and letting the ladies out, and bringing them food, and herding them back into the pen after they’ve free ranged and cleaning up the coop and pen whether I have 4 or 24.
Our vegan readers will question why we have chickens at all, but as I’ve blogged about in the past, the biggest mistake I made when we moved here was to not buy a tractor while I had the money. So I do a lot of manual labor and a big plate of eggs and potatoes for breakfast is my fuel. I’ve replaced diesel fuel with happy chicken animal protein. The chickens don’t seem to mind and as a bonus we get great manure for the gardens that provide produce to for our CSA.
When we first got chickens Michelle started following other chicken blogs and discovered which foods they like. So our ladies get a bowl of warm large flake oatmeal and sliced bananas first thing in the morning. They devour this. Our local grocery store sells their over-ripe bananas at a reduced price and low and behold these are the ones our ladies like. Easier to digest!
As the day goes on they get a steady stream of treats. They love rice, which I imagine they think of as insect eggs. They go ga-ga over rice. They get cooked potato peels. Right now they are getting the ugly sweet potatoes that we cook and mash up for them. They devour sweet potatoes. They often get pasta if we have leftovers. I imagine that they think the spaghetti is a worm and they love it. During the growing season they get all of the trimmings from our harvests of lettuce, etc. As we’ve been cleaning out the garden this fall, they have enjoyed all sorts of leftover lettuce, spinach and almost anything else. It turns out that they love broccoli leaves. They don’t like cauliflower leaves, just broccoli. So every time we harvest some broccoli we pull the plants for the chickens and it sets off a feeding frenzy in the pen.
They have a very large pen with lots of room to roam. After they’re done laying around 11 am we open the gates to they can free range. They love grass and clover and bugs and will happily spend hours scratching and digging everywhere. Later in the day we herd them all back in and they tend to sleep or dust bathe and generally take it easy for the afternoon. They put themselves to bed around dusk and seem pretty happy in their coop. It’s warm and cozy but they all seem to have enough room.
We heard a kafuffle outside one morning this summer and discovered a red fox on the other side of the pen watching the ladies. Jasper the Wonder Dog tore after the fox. I thought the fox was a goner because Jasper is a very fast border collie but by the time he had chased it through the corn patch and across the back garden, the fox was out in front and looking back at Jasper, with a look that said, “is that all you’ve got?” Jasper didn’t stand a chance. Foxes are very fast.
The pen is large enough that I cannot enclose the top, and I also often change the boundaries. One recent morning there was commotion and when I went out to check a large bird was flying away. It might have been a hawk or some other bird of prey (I didn’t have my glasses on). The ladies were freaked out and spent most of the day cowering under their coop and gawking at the lilac bushes where I presume the hawk had come from. We did a head count and luckily everyone was present and accounted for.
Short of installing a TV in the coop with Chicken Netflix, which would consist of endless loops of grasshoppers jumping and grubs being dug up out of the soil, I’m not sure what else we could to enrich our chickens’ experience here at Sunflower Farm. They would enjoy the “grub TV” since they spend many hours following me around wherever I’m digging and uncovering unseemly insects. And it’s quite a panic watching a few of them chase a grasshopper across the lawn. It reminds me of being a kid when someone brought one of those really bouncy “super balls” to school and threw it at the pavement and we all ran around trying to figure out where it would come down.
I love the eggs we get from the ladies. I love buying straw to line their coop. I love selling their eggs knowing I’m displacing eggs from chickens not being allowed to live up to their potential the way our ladies do. For a city boy from the suburbs I think I’ve come pretty far!
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