This month has been really, really busy with life in general, off-farm work obligations, Jewish holidays, an art exhibition, and a special farmgirl’s eighth birthday. On top of all that, we got new chicks!
Here’s the backstory…
Animals all over our neighborhood relocated this summer as a result of extensive and ongoing road and sewer work. After spending the second half of the season watching seedlings get trampled to the ground, giant half eaten tomatoes left to rot, and corn eaten off the cob while it was still on the stalks 5 and 6 six above the ground, we bought a trail cam. The Spurgeon General caught a series of images that shed light on the nightly garden parties happening out back.
In addition to the raccoons, skunks, and opossums that were eating our crops, we had rats. Rats?! They nibbled on tomatoes on the vine and they dug tunnels under our chicken coop and shed. The tunnels were so prolific they shifted the flow of water around the chicken run causing rain to seep in, creating the first foul smells we had related to chickens in the three years since we started keeping them. It was time to (temporarily) clear the coop so we could rid the rats by taking away any food source and shelter the hens were providing.
We spent a lot of last winter talking about the next step for our hens. They were approaching three years old (the average age heritage birds’ egg production seriously slows down – from November 2017-March 2018 we got ZERO eggs) and we always said we wouldn’t keep chickens that weren’t laying. But what then?
We had a few choices – kill them and bury them, butcher and eat them, send them someplace to retire, or give them to a friend to do… whatever she pleased. I personally had no interest in eating them. On the small scale we farm, the hens were our pets as much as our farm animals. They ran to the back door for treats when I opened it and followed me around when I called them.
I’ve learned a bit about chickens these past years. Meat chickens are slaughtered anywhere between 21 and 170 days old (that’s 3 to 14 weeks). This is surprising for folks who regularly who eat a lot of poultry. Noone wants to think they are eating such young creatures, but we are… Our hens were over 3 years old. You do the math. They were old by meat eating standards so even if I wanted to cook our girls, they would only be good for stock or stew and I don’t care nearly enough about either to do the work it would take to clean them for that. And, again, I couldn’t imagine consuming them myself.
In the end, we felt fortunate that Stratford Ecological Center agreed to take them. They would retire on a “real” farm with a bunch of new chicken friends. Maybe…
When flocks of chickens mix, the pecking order is disrupted and has to be renegotiated. The one time I tried to add girls to our mix so difficult to watch – like mean girls in a school cafeteria, but with blood – that I vowed never to do it again.
Also, Stratford has roosters and I couldn’t help thinking in putting our girls in with them was like putting 50 year old women in a brothel. As expected, they were spotted and stalked from the moment they were introduced to their new home.
I was also reminded at drop off that they could be culled anytime, as early as this week. And still I left them there.
I have spoken with many friends and family about this scenario. Many of these folks are poultry eaters, few chicken keepers. I like to think they learned something through our conversations – about the chickens they eat and the hens that lay their eggs. Most thought I did the right thing taking them to the farm to retire. You gave them a chance to live a little longer, they contended. You didn’t kill them, they applauded. But at what cost? And at what quality of life?
I have long loved Stratford as a place children and families in Central Ohio can go to learn how food gets to their plates, and how a small group of people can preserve a piece of land in the midst of a real estate development boom. But the current space they have setup for their chickens pales in comparison to our backyard full of trees and flowerbeds to forage and take dust baths.
I’m grateful for the time I had with R2D2, Dot, and Golden Honey. I appreciate every egg they laid for us. And I’m sorry I didn’t have the strength to kill them quickly and peacefully, to be the cause of their “one bad day.”