On why I eat my chickens…

Its a gloomy day here.

We are in the middle of 4 days of rain….

EJ is on the couch watching way too much YouTube Kids on her iPad.
Lexie is barking in her crate.
By 8AM Brewer had already opened the fridge and spilled an entire bottle of raspberry vinaigrette all over the house.

I only feel trapped during social distancing when it rains.

Mary and I worked a lot in the yard this weekend so most of the outside chores are done at least.

I went out this morning to let the chickens in my main flock out in their run. Decided not to free-range them today because I didn’t want to chase the not yet-well trained 8-10 week olds I hatched around the yard in the rain to get back in at night.

When I opened the door and everyone piled out, my heart sunk.

By the door, I saw him. A 10 week old Partridge Plymouth Rock cockerel- dead.

So- here’s the thing. I hatch chickens and sell them. Its entertaining, educational, and something to do while social distancing. All of the large hatcheries and feed stores are completely sold out. I am NPIP/AI certified (National Poultry Improvement Plan/Avian Influenza) and I vaccinate all my chicks for Mareks- something most small homesteads and backyard breeders don’t do around here. I take great pride in making excellent, healthy pet quality chickens for my friends and community to enjoy.

It also helps teach EJ about financial responsibility- as the money we earn goes into her savings account- and we use a portion of it to help cover the feed bill. We also sell eating eggs of course, but they are only $3.50/dozen- compared to certain chicks going for $5-10 each. Its a sustainable hobby. We don’t make tons of money- but its something to do- a distraction from the reality of being quarantined. We look forward to hatch days and love candling the eggs to see how the chicks are forming. Plus the fresh eggs are amazing- so soft and buttery. Far superior than anything store bought.

So here’s the thing about hatching chickens: Most people only want pullets (young hens). I try my very best to sex the day old chicks. The males stay here unless someone says they want a roo- and it has to be someone I personally know and trust.

I’m very particular about the roos. Almost overly protective. I always tell our customers to please bring back any unwanted roos back to me. I will happily exchange them for a pullet free of charge. And here’s why:

I love sharing the joy of responsible chicken ownership- but since I’ve started this hobby I’ve learned the reality of what happens to unwanted roosters. They are abandoned or dumped to fend for themselves. “Given away” on craigslist or facebook- and often wind up in 2 situations: the local cockfighting scene or as bait for dog fighting. None of the situations I’m okay with.

Large hatcheries often sex day old chicks and immediately cull (kill) the unwanted males. I read about one hatchery that took a different approach- they are a “no kill” hatchery, and give all of the unwanted males to a local Amish community to raise for meat.

And that sparked an idea. I decided I would keep all the males, raise them, and process them for my family. They would live here with us. Enjoy free ranging. Worm treats. Getting excellent cage-free care, love and attention from our family. When they reached maturity, we would humanely process them and they would nourish our family. Rather than being raised in cramped, unsanitary cages, over fed, and never seeing the light of day or even touching grass or foraging in the woods for bugs- we would give the males a different kind of life. Never at risk for being cruelly treated and attacked by dogs or trained to fight other roosters for some sick sort of human enjoyment. They are perfectly good, healthy birds that deserve a quality of life. Good care. Attention. Treats. And when the time comes, humanely and quickly processed for the purposes of nourishing my family.

And so- yes. The young cockerel I found this morning- was likely going to be processed in 6-12 months. Plymouth Rock breeds make excellent dual purpose birds. They lay great eggs (when hens)- but also grow to be quite large, meaty birds. They grow more slowly than pure meat birds- but their meat is said to be better tasting and less bland- a bit darker, resembling more of a turkey.

When I found the deceased bird in the coop while I listened to the rain tip tap on the coop tin roof- sadness just overcame me. Did something break in the coop? Was he sick? Is it contagious?

I checked the bird over. No signs of parasites. No signs of illness or injury. He was vaccinated. He was getting medicated feed. (Ruling out Mareks and coccidiosis). He even had a full crop which indicates he was eating well. So- all signs point towards a heart attack- which sometimes happens with growing birds. They literally just “drop dead”.

I check over all of the other birds. No signs or symptoms of anything. But I’ll still be keeping a super close eye on everyone for awhile just to be sure…

He was a young bird. One I hatched myself. I spent hours making sure that even as an embryo in an egg he developed well. That he had the perfect settings to hatch. When he hatched and I sexed him, I determined he was a male and slipped a blue band on his leg. I vaccinated him against Mareks. I spent another 8 weeks making sure his brooder was clean and always had fresh pine shaving bedding. That he always had clean water and plenty of high quality medicated chick feed to make sure he grew well and didn’t succumb to coccidiosis. I checked his little fluffy chick rear daily to make sure there were no signs of pasty butt. I carefully monitored his feather development. I made sure he always had access to a safe heat source and that he wasn’t being picked on by other chicks. I made sure he got electrolytes, probiotics, and apple cider vinegar for the best gut health. On pretty days I took him outside to forage in the grass and get some sunshine. Gave him some dried meal worm treats and scratch treats. I even give them left over scrambled eggs on occasion- chicks love scrambled eggs.

And when he was big enough, I started slowly introducing him to the main flock, where he had been for the last 9 days or so. He spent most days free ranging for bugs around the yard. Taking naps in the sun and dust bathing. Eating our leftovers-gorging himself on strawberry tops (their favorite).

Here’s the thing: I do this for all my chicks. Not just him- all of them. I have about 8 other young cockerels about the same age I’m growing out- and each gets the same good care.

And yes, I was going to process and eat him in a few months. But just like a gardener carefully puts love and attention into their garden, but later eats the plants- I poured love and care into him. Gardners are devastated when parasites infect their garden, as I am when my flock gets sick. They’re devastated when deer destroy their garden overnight- and I am devastated when a predator gets one of my chickens.

So. All this to say.
Yes- I will be processing the young males. Yes, I will be processing the quail I’m raising.
But- let me make it clear: This doesn’t reduce the level of care they receive. This doesn’t reduce their value to us. This doesn’t reduce the sadness we feel when we lose one unexpectedly, especially when its from something out of our control.

This is the difference between “homesteading” and commercial factory farming. The birds are still going to be consumed- but they get to experience a real life. Good care. Grass. Bugs. Sunshine. No cages.

And any homesteader mourns the loss of livestock. And its not because of profit- I promise you. You can go to any grocery store and get a ready to eat rotisserie chicken for less than $5. We’re heartbroken because to us, this little animal still deserved a good life- we put a lot of time and energy into their life (and to us, their life mattered!)- and this isn’t the way it was supposed to end.

While the rain was still just a little drizzle and not yet a full downpour- I walked over to check on the garden. I found new little baby tomatoes, little teeny tiny watermelon, the green beans are blooming, baby pumpkins, and the squash are still growing out of control. Checked to be sure no parasites…and then went inside the chick house to make sure all the baby chicks and quail were still happy and healthy…