1. What's all this I hear about inhumane treatment of chickens?
A. You'll get two sets of answers: one from the people who have worked with large numbers of chickens, and another from those who haven't.
2. What do the experienced chicken folks think about animal welfare?
We like real animal welfare. Healthy, alert, contented chickens are fun to be around, easy to manage, and often profitable. Stressed or ailing chickens are none of these things. Anything that distresses a chicken or makes it uncomfortable causes an immediate drop in production and can lead to one or more of the nightmarish problems related to bad management -- disease, cannibalism, or piling (where the chickens crowd into the corners and the ones on the bottom smother. Birds have weak lungs.)
Having healty, happy, non-stressed-out chickens is important, and doing this well is endlessly fascinating, since there's always more to learn. There are a lot of other people interested in this, and the experiences of farmers and the scientists at the agricultural experiment stations (past and present), have been an enormous help to me.
Keeping chickens isn't rocket science, but there are some things you need to know if you're going to do it well. I wrote my book, Success With Baby Chicks, because, like a lot of people, I had disappointing results at first, and this involved more baby chicks dying than seemed reasonable. After surveying the poultry books, magazines, and experiment station bulletins of the past hundred years, I discovered a fund of ideas and techniques that work very well, and my results have been much better ever since. These things are no longer widely known, so it was time for a book. It's helped hundreds of poultrykeepers do a better job raising chicks. Fewer of them die, they are healthier, and everything works better in general.
What's odd about this whole process was that I never found anything from the "animal welfare" groups to be of any use. Taking care of chickens is a matter of understanding them, knowing the right management techniques, learning how to spot trouble almost before it happens, and recognizing that the dangers to your livestock are many, varied, and come from many quarters: leaking automatic waterers, rats tunneling into the brooder house, children who are not used to livestock, and so on. Chickens will become frightened if you carry an empty feed sack; it makes you look big and scary. It's mostly a matter of observation and careful, thoughtful attention.
What I see from the animal welfare groups is not like this. It's like a cartoon guide to animal welfare. Actually, it's worse than that, because of all the time spent on cartoon villains rather than real-world problems. The idea is to divide farmers into good guys and bad guys, mostly bad guys, and to encourage readers to be angry at the bad guys and to try to legislate them out of existence. All by remote control: I have yet to run into an activist who makes even part of his living by running a chicken farm. Doesn't anyone have any relevant experience?
People like me aren't sitting in the city making this stuff up. We try to discover what works and what doesn't, and share this information with others, and generally set a good example. I have neighbors who became wealthy by developing sustainable forestry techniques that they used on their own land long before it was fashionable. Because they were highly successful, their techniques were widely copied and they changed the entire industry for the better. That's the standard I'm used to seeing. Show me that it works by doing it, and having it sustain you in style. Talk is cheap.
The other thing that bugs me about the welfare groups is that they think that keeping livestock can be reduced to geometry. They like to write rules that hens need a certain amount of perch space, some number of square feet of floor space, and so on. (It reminds me of the incredibly lame propaganda coming over Radio Moscow and Radio Peking in the Seventies, which couldn't tell the difference between steel production and quality of life.) But in reality, rules are largely just a distraction from the serious business of paying attention to what's going on, and changing what you do accordingly. It's the difference between managing the process and managing the outcome. You can often get the same outcome using wildly differing techniques, depending on how you balance different trade-offs. Actual skill is involved.
Milo Hastings, who understood this a hundred years ago, said in The Dollar Hen (1909):
Combination and specialization so commonly cut down expenses because of larger operations and the use of better tools, that we may take this saving for granted. When it comes to labor there is a different story. The manual laborer working with boss and gang or the machine-tender in the factory work as well or better for large than small concerns, but the labor of a poultry plant is different. It is made up of a great many different operations well scattered in space and time. For the most part it is simple labor, but it is essential that it be performed with reasonable concern for the welfare of the business.
In other industries, as with men working at a bench, the presence of a foreman keeps them busy and their work may be daily inspected. To have foremen in poultry work would require as many foremen as laborers, and even then they would be useless, for when the last round of the brooder is made at night, a foreman standing three feet away could not know whether the laborer who had placed his hand in the brooder had found all well or all wrong...
The bulk of labor in poultry work must be self-reliant labor and the only test for such efficiency is number of chicks reared and the weight of the egg basket.
Education is the real key to raising happy, healthy livestock. The agricultural extension service is good at this sort of thing. They perform experiments to see what works and what doesn't, and make recommendations based on these results, not on how they thing things ought to work. They're also into education rather than coercion.
3. Aren't laying cages bad?
To make a general observation, all objects are morally neutral. A laying cage can't be bad, any more than a vase of flowers can be bad. A better question might be, "How do laying cages compare to 'cage-free' operations"? The answer is, as usual, "It depends."
The vast majority of laying hens in the U.S. are kept in laying cages, and have been since the late Fifties or early Sixties, though laying cages are far older than this. They were developed in the Thirties by farmers. People pretend that laying cages were invented by Evil Conglomerates, but, like almost everything else, they had been around for a long time before the consolodation of the poultry industry.
If you make the assumption that farmers are stupid and evil, it would be easy to assume that laying cages are a terrible idea, and it would be a good thing to get rid of them. If you make the assumption that farmers are smart and good, you'd wonder why cages are a good idea, and what's wrong with cage-free systems.
Our national folklore assumes that farmers were smart and good until after WWII. Then chemical-based farming was introduced, and our folklore assumes that farmers were stupid and evil after that. But we're talking about the same farmers! A whole generation of farmers had one foot in each world. So anytime you want to know what the deal was -- why farmers who started out with old-time methods made the switch, and what they liked and disliked about it -- you only have to read farm publications between, say, 1945 and 1965. Few people have made this effort. The results are surprising and don't support a black-and-white, us-vs.-them, conventional-vs.-organic worldview. Spraying chemicals like a drunken sailor is bad. Letting your livestock die because you refuse to use medication is bad. There's a large area in the middle that works well if you do it right, but a little inattention or cluelessness will invalidate any method.
The consensus has been that laying cages can be an excellent management system if you use them well. I remember reading in a 1959 or 1960 issue of "Egg Producer" that long-time egg farmers, who loved being chicken farmers and took excellent care of their chickens, often preferred high-density cage confinement to high-density floor confinement once they had tried both. Many others found little difference until they went away on vacation. The substitutes who tended the farm while the farmers were away tended to do very well with a cage operation, while the caretakers of floor confinement operations stumbled from one minor disaster to another.
So, to answer your question, many thousands of farmers with decades of experience with cage-free operations, who liked working with chickens, switched to cages in the Fifties and Sixties and found them perfectly satisfactory. The implication of the vacation experiences is that people without decades of experience would have a less painful time learning how to run a cage operation, and would likely do a better job overall. It's good for the chickens when the farmer does a good job, of course.
Keep in mind that my own commercial laying flock consists of an extremely low-density free-range operation. I have no reason to go to bat for cage confinement, other than a regard for the truth.
Anyway, there are cages and cages. "Colony cages" are supposed to be the best. These are bigger cages with a flock of, say, 12 hens, and have a perch to roost on and a nest box to lay in. Chickens like nest boxes and perches. Standard cages have neither. For that matter, high-density floor confinement has nest boxes but leaves out the perches. A colony cage has a social organization that's a good match for a hen's social instincts -- chickens seem to like a flock of about this size. Standard laying cages have 1-3 chickens (too small for a proper pecking order), while high-density floor confinement has thousands or tens of thousands of chickens in one enormous room. A chicken can recognize about 100 other chickens and doesn't like to be surrounded by strangers. This means that even in "open" floor confinement, the hens don't move around much. It's like being in a cage with invisible walls.
The methods normally proposed as "humane," such as high-density free-range, have too high a density for the chickens to really exhibit their normal social behavior. It's basically a scam whose purpose (from the producer's point of view) is to allow factory-farmed eggs to be sold at premium prices. God knows what the consumer gets out of it. A cut-rate feeling of smugness and virtue, I suppose. Not high-quality eggs or any fact-based reason to suppose that the hens are happy, that's for sure.
Cages also give some immunity to disease and parasites, because the birds are separated from each other and because their manure falls through the floor of the cage, which eliminates manure-related health problems. The chickens have little opportunity to smother each other, and you won't get the same level of wholesale cannibalism. Some of the fancier techniques, like the use of conveyor belts under the cages to take the manure away, make it easier to maintain a reasonable level of air quality in the chicken house.
Personally, I think that high-density cage confinement is a better management system than high-density floor confinement, but, like everything else, it's all in how you use it.
The thing about activists and cages is that cages look bad. The birds look crowded and they typically rub off some of their neck feathers when reaching between the bars to get at the feed trough. Floor operations are just as crowded, but this doesn't show up as clearly in a photo, and the cages look more like a jail. Floor birds have prettier neck feathers, too.
4. What about debeaking? I hear that the chickens can't even eat after their beaks have been cut off!
If you can make a chicken lay for a couple of years without eating anything, you're going to be a very rich person! Beak-trimming is done to prevent cannibalism, which can be a real problem in confinement operations and is not something that anyone interested in animal welfare should be able to ignore. Not that this stops anyone.
We don't do beak-trimming on our farm because it's not necessary. You generally don't see cannibalism except in confined chickens, and ours have free range. (One of the reasons you can tell that the so-called "free range" in the EU is fake is that the farmers have to beak-trim their hens.)
When comparing the beak-trimmed chickens we have bought from various sources (usually the Poultry Science Department at Oregon State University) with non-beak-trimmed chickens, they all behave exactly the same. If beak-trimming is supposed to make the hen's life a misery, no one has told the hens.
The real issue with beak-trimming, from the farmer's point of view, is that it's a laborious, disgusting job. The machine that cuts and cauterizes the beak works pretty well, but the smell is horrendous! But it's a lot better than an outbreak of cannibalism. Anything is better than an outbreak of cannibalism.
Modern broilers have had the tendency towards cannibalism bred out of them. Some commercial layer strains are much less cannibalistic than others. I try to buy non-cannibalistic strains so my layer chicks don't kill each other in the brooder house, before they go out on pasture. So far, no one has succeeded in coming up with a profitable layer strain that is sufficiently non-cannibalistic throughout a life in confinement that beak-trimming is unnecessary.
It is perfectly possible to keep a flock of laying hens in confinement without performing beak-trimming. You just need to get higher egg prices to pay for the expense of having more dead and injured hens due to cannibalism. You can call such a practice "animal welfare" if you want. Lots of people do. It seems sort of negligent to me.
Beak-trimming makes the hens look ugly. This seems to be the sticking point with some people.
4. What about forced molting?
Modern hens keep laying and laying and laying, but after about a year of laying both the shell quality and the interior quality of the eggs starts to plummet. The hen needs to stop laying, take a rest, and lose some weight. If she does this, she's good for another year of profitable laying.
To make the hen stop laying and lose weight, you have to put her on a diet. You can do it the fast way or the slow way. The industry uses the fast way, usually removing all food for up to ten days, and often removing water for the first three days. The water removal is to stress her hard enough to make her stop laying immediately. Othewise, she'll pour her body reserves into additional eggs. They say it's no kindness to hang a man slowly, and the same probably applies to hens and molting.
I never bother with forced molting. My hens have an outdoor lifestyle and the stress is provided by colder weather, shorter days, and heavy fall rains. All my feeders are outdoors, so the hens get rained on. Whether subjecting hens to six months of Oregon winter rains at mealtimes is more "humane" than subjecting them to a ten-day molting program, I have no idea. But because my operation is picturesque and old-fashioned, everyone just assumes it's humane (which is just about the dumbest thing I've ever heard).
In Europe, they don't force-molt hens. They just kill them after the first laying year. They say it's more humane. I am not making this up. Don't get me started on the kind of killing machines they think are "humane." It really creeps me out.
Molting involves growing a new set of feathers as well as going on a diet and taking a vacation from egg-laying, and hens who have lost a lot of their feathers are unattractive. That's apparently a death sentence among some of the more superficial and impressionable welfarists.
5. Is dust-bathing important to the hens?
I don't know. The emphasis on dust-bathing is mostly a marketing gimmick used by people with high-density floor operations trying to make their stuff sound better than cages. They don't want people to realize that, while cages are "chicken jails," confinement operations are "chicken concentration camps." It's not practical to put a dust bath in a cage operation, but in a floor operation the hens will dust-bathe in whatever's on the floor (dirt, wood shavings, dried manure, whatever). Probably the ethologists have done research on this and I could find out how eager hens are to have dust baths. But I think it's essentially a meaningless line of patter to prevent you from realizing that high-density floor confinement isn't much (if any) of an improvement over high-density cages.
6. How do you approach animal welfare?
I consider three issues:
I want to have a pleasant, rewarding time dealing with my chickens. Having the chickens be content is necessary to my having a pleasant time. It's also a basic requirement of good husbandry, and makes management easier. Making money is important, too. Sustainable agriculture has to sustain the farmer, or it's just make-believe.
Chickens are easy to please, especially in a low-density free-range operation like mine, so making them happy is mostly a matter of eliminating negatives and maintaining a good level of care.
I've discovered that chickens are terrified of being chased around, while their reactions to injury or the misfortunes of flockmates are much more muted than you'd expect. The first time a dog chased my flock, they were visibly upset for days, even though none of them had been hurt. But we had some pigs who learned that they could simply stand still and hens would wander too close, to be killed with a single snap of the jaws -- and the rest of the flock was not upset. They saw their flockmate die, but didn't care.
So chickens aren't very smart, and react more to appearances than outcomes. Just like people!
I don't think chickens have any concept of death. Treat them gently, don't startle them, and don't let anything chase them, and they'll be a lot happier. I hate it when kids chase chickens around.
The field of ethology, which studies what animals actually like and how they actually behave (as opposed to treating them like little humans in chicken suits) has turned up interesting information that's worth knowing. For example, hens don't like roosters much, but they have a strong desire to lay their eggs in a secluded nest. Paying attention to the chicken's preferences is good husbandry.
In general, I have found that publications about farming -- any aspect of farming -- are wildly inaccurate unless they are written by and for farmers. Armchair experts just don't know what they're talking about. On the other hand, I've found farmer-oriented how-to publications much more useful, often containing real wisdom.
But the most important thing you can do is to stop being such a cheapskate. My eggs cost $5.00 a dozen locally, and if I shipped them into big-city stores, they'd cost at least $10 a dozen. If you're paying less than that, you're either not getting the real thing, or you're getting it from a farmer who is doing it as a hobby, not as a real business.
Low-density poultry is very labor-intensive. People deserve to get paid. The reality is that factory farming works. It provides products very cheaply. You can't get away from factory-farming by paying a price premium of 10%, or 50%, or even 100%. The real deal is going to cost you about five times as much. Most people don't care anywhere near that much, and will be happy to settle for factory-farm products that pretend to be something else. And as long as consumers are willing to settle for Potemkin farms, the real thing can't happen, except as a niche product.
7. You're pretty hard on the activists, aren't you?
Well, I'm tired of people projecting their fantasies onto me. If you want to be wise and benevolent, that's fine, providing that you do it for real and not as an exercise in self-delusion. Go make the world a better place in your immediate vicinity, with your own hands, so you can tell whether it's really helping or not. Anything else is just make-believe.
You don't really know anything unless you've done it with your own hands. I wish people would stop giving money to big Scam-O-Rama organizations and would get their hands dirty instead. You can't save the world by writing a check or by believing what you're told. You have to see and do things for yourself. And when it doesn't work, you should clean up your own mess before moving on. You can't do that when you're not involved in the day-to-day reality of the problem.
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