The Pullet is a Rooster

One of the young hens who hatched here over the summer has started to crow.  He’s got that hoarse little crow they start out with, and I can tell by looking at our boss rooster Elvis’ feet that he’s been fighting. Our pullet, it seems, is actually a rooster.

That’s too bad.  I’d prefer that all our chicks turn out to be hens.  But of course that’s not the case.  Half of them will be roosters.

We don’t raise “broilers” or meat chickens here.  Our chickens are dual-purpose breeds.  They’re layers, and when we end up with extra roosters they become food for me.

In the not-too-distant past that’s how all farm chickens were raised.  The Cornish-cross broilers of today were an invention coinciding with the arrival of the chicken nugget and our cultural chickenmania.  Now tens of thousands of them at a time are raised inside giant “poultry house” chicken factories, with well under one square foot allocated to each bird.  The sex of these “broilers” is irrelevant since they’re incapable of reproducing and will be slaughtered when only 6-7 weeks old.  Over the last 40 years the amount of chicken Americans eat per capita has tripled, and the number of birds raised this way has skyrocketed to meet that demand.

Of course there is no use at all for roosters in industrial egg operations.  They hatch chickens in giant incubators then sort them by sex on a conveyor belt.  The young hens are sent off to a brooding facility before going on to their miserable caged lives.  The day old rooster chicks are tossed alive into giant meat grinders (or into large containers where they will die more slowly). About 200 million of them are killed this way in the U.S. every year.

So while I’m sorry that our chick has grown up to be a rooster rather than a hen, I’m satisfied that his life here has been pleasant and that he will now contribute to the sustainability of our farm.

That’s the way things ought to be.

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19 comments on “The Pullet is a Rooster

  1. Joanna says:

    We are waiting for our pullets too, to find out which is which. We are pleased that we seem to get more hens than roosters and this time of the four we think we have, we have jobs for two of them. That does mean two are destined for the plate, as long as they are definitely roosters that is. I wish they would hurry up though, they are growing and our 2.5m2 (27sqft) ark has 9 chickens in there and we want it down to 5 or 6, which we are more comfortable with. They still have 3 times the space of the broiler chickens though – scary! I think the only good thing about the broiler chickens over the laying hens, at least their time of confinement is very short.

    We do free range some of our hens, but not all. That way we are more certain of not losing them all to predators, one of which has been picking off our cockerels this year. We got through 3 of them.

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    • Bill says:

      We had 14 hatch over the summer (far fewer than we’d expected) but only 4 of them are still alive. Predators (likely a fox) took 10 of them, which we really hate.

      It seems that of the 4 survivors, two are likely hens and two are roosters.

      That’s an unusually high rate of loss. We lose a few chickens every year to hawks (primarily) but have never had so many chicks disappear. That is definitely a cost and risk to letting them roam freely.

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  2. Jeff says:

    Funny how I developed an allergy to poultry about 12 years ago. I used to eat lots and lots of chicken and turkey but no more – no more duck, either. Maybe I should try some farm-raised organic chicken to see if the allergy is to the chemicals in the feed …

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    • Bill says:

      It wouldn’t surprise me. Take a look at the list of ingredients on any chicken already cooked and you’re likely to be shocked. Even if you buy uncooked raw birds you’ll likely see the words “enhanced with broth” (or something like that). That means injected with saline solution to make it appear plumper and to increase its weight.

      Chickens raised in CAFOs are given feed laced with antibiotics and chemicals and residue from them will remain in the bird.

      It could be that you’ve just developed a food allergy. They’re increasingly common these days and likely also related to our chemical environment. But it’s also possible that you’re not allergic to the chicken, but to whatever has been added to it.

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  3. nebraskadave says:

    Bill, it’s interesting to me that you would say that only the hens are used for commercial chicken meat. I don’t remember that we cared when raising chickens for those Sunday dinners on the farm. They were free range chickens and when their short life ended they all went to freezer camp. It is sad that our taste for chicken has to cause inhumane practices in the raising of them. I, personally, have cut back on all meat. I don’t think I could actually do without it but meat today on my table is almost a seasoning. The eating of it is rarely just a chunk of meat but mostly in soups, casseroles, or even in green leafy salads. Holidays, of course, are still the traditional hunks of meat with all the trimmings. I can’t believe that we are closing down on three weeks until Thanksgiving. Summer is definitely gone and Winter is knocking on our door.

    Have a great pullet/rooster day.

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    • Bill says:

      For meat it doesn’t matter if they are hens or roosters. I meant for eggs. Chickens being raised for eggs are sexed after hatching and the little roosters are thrown away.

      It wasn’t that long ago that chicken was either a fryer or a stew hen. In other words we ate young roosters and old hens. Now the “broiler” has taken over and hardly anyone eats chicken the way we used to. Instead of chicken being a once a week treat, now we eat it every day.

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  4. Farmgirl says:

    I have heard some odd sounds from our coop too. We may have two roosters. I love how you wrote this though. There is a huge difference in our farms from the industrial institutions putting out chicks and chickens. Well said!

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    • Bill says:

      I’ve had plenty of evidence that this one was a rooster, but I’ve been in denial. Yesterday I saw him chasing a hen. I’m sure they’ll be relieved when he is gone.

      We’re facing a battle here over whether to bring in a 200 acre chicken processing plant where 120 chickens will be slaughtered every minute of every day. 24-7-365. 1.25 million slaughtered chickens every year. The birds will come from 550 nearby poultry houses holding over 20,000 chickens each. That is what the industrial model has come to.

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  5. I raised 75 day old sexed chicks this summer, and 4 turned out to be roosters. I’m keeping 2 and 2 are destined for dinner. I’m not thrilled about the downside to buying sexed chicks, which as you mentioned, means the roosters are inhumanely disposed of, which is why I’m planning to hatch my own in the coming years. I figured when I bought the chicks that I’d get a couple of roosters in the mix, as I usually do, and sure enough…so with 2 roosters for 50 hens (I sold about 20 pullets), we’ll see what happens.

    I raise broilers, the Cornish Cross, sticking pretty close to the Salatin method, right down to the pens. Everything you say about them is true. I try to give my birds the best life possible in their short time with me, but the sad fact about this breed is that much of what gives a normal chicken pleasure is either hard work or just terrifying for a broiler. A few people have had success free ranging them, but it takes a lot of TLC from almost day one…I’m still working on it, and I’ve been at it about 5 years.

    I think with a lot of savvy marketing it might be possible to get customers to appreciate a slower raised chicken for their table, but it will probably remain a niche market until chicken nuggets, frozen chicken breasts and all those soups and microwave casseroles switch over too – which won’t happen anytime soon. It costs more to raise a bird for longer, and with all the strong flavourings in processed food, people can’t taste the chicken anyway, so there’s no incentive in big ag to do things differently. Even for roasting birds, most people’s palates are accustomed to a very bland, soft, pale meat in chicken. The darker, firmer, chewier, albeit tastier chicken that we should be selling – the other half of the layer hen equation that you talk about above – would not be considered by most customers in the grocery store as “good” meat.

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    • Bill says:

      We have lots of friends who farm sustainably and raise Cornish Cross. I’ve heard Joel Salatin say he wishes he could raise a more natural bird, like the Freedom Ranger, but he’s giving the people what they want. His model of pastured poultry has been critical to the success of our movement, and it’s therefore a good thing. It’s just something we’ve chosen not to do. We don’t eat much meat so the extra roosters are plenty for us.

      You’re right that these days people have forgotten what a chicken is supposed to look like. A couple of years ago we had an intern from Saudi Arabia. She told us that when her father came to visit she took him grocery shopping with her. He saw the chickens in the store and was shocked. He picked one up and said incredulously, “What is this thing? A turkey?” He refused to eat it.

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  6. beeholdn says:

    Makes me sick to read of the commercial practices. But then I’ve got this problem with death altogether. (Sigh. I know, I need to get real. Afraid am one of those people not quite fit to face existence.)
    So Bill, how do you kill the roosters, is it ok to ask? (I mean no disrespect.) I guess you can do it in such a way that ‘they don’t even know what hit them’?
    Anyway, thanks.

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  7. EllaDee says:

    I had read on another blog about a hen turning into a rooster… so I Googled it and came up with “Normally, female chickens have just one functional ovary, on their left side. Although two sex organs are present during the embryonic stages of all birds, once a chicken’s female genes kick in, it typically develops only the left ovary. The right gonad, which has yet to be defined as an ovary, testes, or both (called an ovotestis), typically remains dormant…
    Certain medical conditions—such as an ovarian cyst, tumor or diseased adrenal gland—can cause a chicken’s left ovary to regress. In the absence of a functional left ovary, the dormant right sex organ may begin to grow…” http://www.livescience.com/13514-sex-change-chicken-gertie-hen-bertie-cockerel.html
    I also found, fascinating stuff… “There was a famous case in 1474 when this apparent “sex switching” occurred with a chicken. It was the case of the “Rooster of Basel” and she was solemnly burned at the stake for “the heinous and unnatural crime of laying an egg.” What caused this “rooster” to lay eggs was not a sex change, though. It’s likely that the poor hen simply had a hormone imbalance or an infection which in her ovaries which cleared up, so she began laying again, while she was still feathered as a rooster. For this heretical outrage, the poor girl was taken to court by the clergy, found guilty and burned as a witch. Afterwards, the executioner is said to have cut her open and removed three more eggs from her body.”

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    • Bill says:

      I’d heard there are occasional sexually ambiguous chickens (as there are with humans). I’d never heard the story of the Rooster of Basel, however.

      I don’t think there was ever any confusion over the gender of our chicken, except in my mind. It’s very difficult to distinguish them until they grow up a bit (though a trained eye can do it). I choose to consider all our chicks hens until they prove otherwise. 🙂

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  8. Neighbors rooster like to crow directly under my bedroom window at 5:30 every morning when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa. So I set a bucket of water next to the bed and tossed in on the rooster in response to his 5:30 wake up call. Figured that would solve the problem, but kept the water just in case. Next morning at 5:30 there was the rooster crowing away. I grabbed my bucket and ran for the window, just in time to see the rooster hightailing it across the yard. He’d crowed under my window and then run away. And they say chickens aren’t intelligent? 🙂 –Curt

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    • Bill says:

      I remember your story. I imagine the rooster chuckling as he ran away. 🙂

      I’m wakened by rooster crows every morning. I’m used to that and kinda like it.

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  9. We let our girls hatch out chicks each year and “harvest” the roos for our table as well. When we get to the farm full time we plan to increase our laying flock and raise meat birds as well. I’ve been following this guy in Colorado, Adam Klaus, who has developed his own meat bird that happens to also be a good layer – and hope to follow a similar path. He grows them out to 20 weeks, sells them for $30 each and does it for about $6.50 per bird. He discusses his operation in a few places on permies.com. This is one http://www.permies.com/t/25111/chickens/Jersey-giants-heritage-meat-chickens and if you are really interested, you can pick through this very long discussion for some really great info on raising meat birds here http://www.permies.com/t/30250/chickens/meat-chicken-return-investment

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    • Bill says:

      That’s really interesting info. Thanks for sharing it. We’ve raised Jersey Giants, but not specifically to slaughter for meat. I’m glad to see someone experimenting with a new model. Pastured poultry (broilers) are crucial to the economic sustainability of many of the farms in our movement. We’ve avoided going that route. Because we have plenty of pasture we raise goats and pigs to supplement our vegetable enterprise. We raise layers but there isn’t any money to be made on eggs. We’re likely losing money on ours and we’re treating them as a loss-leader. So it’s good to see someone working on a meat bird alternative to the Cornish Cross. But even if the economics work, marketing them will be challenging. The public has come to expect chickens to have huge white breasts and white skin. I’ll be looking forward to hearing more about what you decide to do on your farm. Right now we think of ourselves as homesteaders with the chickens, not market farmers.

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