Regular readers will recall that we are now trying a different method of hatching chicks, which involves letting the broody hen stay in a box in the henhouse, rather than in the usual nest. Our first attempt at this didn’t go as well as I had hoped. The fault was not with the new method, which I’m convinced will work well (we have a second experiment underway now), but with my failure to enforce it diligently. I don’t intend to let that happen again. After hatching only two chicks, one of which didn’t survive, the hen happily left the box with her new baby and didn’t return.
That left a bunch of unhatched eggs in the box. I gave her a chance to reclaim them, but she didn’t. The next day I went out to dispose of the unhatched eggs. All were rotten or unfertilized, except one. To my surprise I discovered a chick beginning to peck his way out of one of the eggs. I knew he’d get no support from the hen, who had moved on, but I also knew the chick could hatch just fine on his own. So I put the egg/chick in a safe place and waited for nature to take its course.
Lately I’ve been enjoying listening to the podcasts from Farm Dreams. Tim and Liz are sustainable farmers and on the podcast they share stories and tips from their farm. It’s good listening while I’m out doing chores. In fact, they’ve inspired me to consider doing a podcast of my own. More on that another day.
In a recent episode they talked about the life of a male animal on the farm. For the most part male farm animals are useless. They don’t lay eggs, produce milk or have babies. They don’t even make honey. Their only useful function, unless castrated, is to breed the females. One male can handle those responsibilities for a large number of females, so there just aren’t many male animals on a farm.
Of course male animals are born on the farm as often as females. So what happens to them?
When our young bucklings are three months old we sell them. Sometimes they’re bought to be breeding stock or pets. But most of the time they’re destined for a slaughterhouse. Their sisters go on to live long happy lives here, and even when they are past the age for kidding we let them live out their lives here. But the young males have a different fate.
Often folks will ask me why we don’t raise dairy goats instead of meat goats. They are clearly upset about the notion that some of our cute goats are going to be killed for food. This reaction of course is the product of well-intentioned ignorance. These kind-hearted folks simply don’t understand how dairy production works. When I ask them what they think happens to male kids on dairy goat farms it becomes clear they’ve never thought about it for a second. The truth is that the male kids are killed at birth–by strangling, with a hammer to the head, or maybe (but not usually) a bullet. Ours play, frolic and nurse their mothers for three months. Theirs are killed at birth. Which is more humane? More natural?
In the industrial chicken hatcheries there are workers whose only job is to sex the hatchlings. If the chick is female, she is placed on a conveyor belt which leads to a brooding facility and later a tortured life in an egg factory. If the chick is a male, it is tossed alive into a meat grinder. This is the fate of millions of chicks in America every year.
Like us, Tim and Liz believe male farm animals have lives that are worth living. They are cheesemakers, but they’ve found a way to raise the male offspring of their dairy cattle for beef. The breed chickens for eggs, but they keep the young roosters until they’re large enough to eat then sell them, even though they’ll never compare to the breeds engineered for meat. They may or may not make any money with these parts of their farm enterprises, but they believe the animals have lives worth living.
So do we. It is just a fact of farm life that we cannot have lots of billy goats and roosters on the farm. They fight each other and would make life miserable for the females.
But we don’t toss them into meat grinders at birth, or bash their heads with hammers. We raise them humanely and caringly. When the time comes for them to leave the farm, we do our best to minimize distress and we feel the pang of regret at the nature of life’s circle.
I wish the story of our little hatchling had a happy ending. But sadly it doesn’t. The little chick just had too many things going against him. He didn’t survive. But it wasn’t because we believed his life had no value. He wanted to live and we wanted him to live. He had a life worth living.
Animals entrused to our care do die on this farm. But we are never indifferent about that and we never ever take any joy in it.
On this farm, their lives are worth living.