Friday, 22 January 2016

What keeping chickens has taught me and the kids

I thought keeping chickens was about getting fresh eggs, getting rid of my kitchen scraps and for digging up my garden.

But there was a whole lot more I learned about chickens once I got onto Google to research how I should be looking after them.

In my quest to learn more about chickens, I came across this post in Flavour Crusader:
Australia’s chicken history 
Just a generation ago, Australians kept chickens for their eggs. The meat they ate was six-month-old males (cockerels), or spent layer hens. Eating chicken was considered a luxury, savoured at Christmas and other special occasions. Over time a cottage industry developed, providing greater volumes of much the same.
Chicken, something that I had taken for granted as being a cheap meat, was a luxury? I do remember my parents and others of their generation talking about their backyard chickens and composts.

Behind cheap and convenient
Just two companies control 70 per cent of the Australian chicken meat market: Ingham (owned by US-based TPG Capital) and Baiada (with brands Lilydale and Steggles). Since 1990 the vast majority of broilers are from the same genetic stock—the Cobb 500 or Ross 308—developed by international agribusiness. They may be slaughtered as early as 35 days. The meat is unbelievably cheap.
35 days! All the chickens we eat are just chicks themselves? How can they get to 2-3kg in just over a month?

It's because they are bred to be that way. In an article in the Australian "Is this Australia's most expensive chicken?" Bruce Burton, a farmer who raises the much touted Sommerlad chicken, talked about his experience trying to raise meat chickens.
“We spent five years trying to find a venture that suited our needs and the size of the farm … We had some layers and I absolutely fell in love with chickens. So I bought 60 standard Cobb and Ross broilers 18 months ago and I was just aghast at what I found. 
It became clear really quickly these birds would do nothing more than sit by the feed bin and eat. They wouldn’t forage. I had layers that went everywhere, ate everything, and these birds that wouldn’t leave the feed bin.”
In short, these big-breasted birds failed to thrive. Feeding them with organic chicken feed simply wasn’t enough and they started dying. 
“I was basically told I was an idiot. I was told these things are a super hybrid and they need to be fed rocket fuel and that’s the only way you’ll keep them alive.” 
Basically these chickens were bred to put on weight and slaughtered before they were ready to reproduce. They wouldn't survive to reproduce because they were so heavy breasted they could hardly walk - essentially, it was like obesity. The heart couldn't keep up with the rapid weight gain that it would give out after 7 or 8 weeks - perfect for the meat industry that needed rapid, fast growing birds that would produce maximum profit after minimal time. They can't walk because they're so fat, and would probably need antibiotics to stay healthy and prevent disease from sitting in their poop all day long.

I could see why people who read this would suddenly go vegetarian. It sounds like a horrible way to live. But the reality is, animals are farmed for food. Surely there is a better way that I can slake my meat requirement and do it in a way that seems humane.

So I started thinking about eating my own chickens. If the chicks turned out to be males, I would probably have to send them away or eat them, because crowing roosters are frowned upon by the council, especially in the suburban backyard. My chickens would be raised ethically, but then I had to think about how I wanted them "despatched". And what was I going to tell the children?

I decided that they should know the truth.This is where chickens come from. Chickens and meat don't come from supermarkets or the butchers packaged in plastic. They come from real live animals, and they should respect the life the animal gives to become our food.

My workmates and colleagues told me I was cruel to my children by telling them I was "killing their pets." That it would traumatise them. But I think my children are resilient enough to understand about life - and I was hoping that it would promote a healthy respect for being kind to animals, when you raise them for slaughter.

I started looking into Heritage Chickens. A Heritage chicken is a purebred chicken, from a long line of livestock (and are the chickens they "show" today at competitions). It all sounded like dogs to me. Lots of people like the look and the temperament of purebred dogs - so was that the same for chickens?

A heritage poultry breed has stood the test of time. A century ago, all the chickens were purebreds, and predictability of their laying, their food/temperature tolerance/temperaments allowed farmers to choose the breeds that would best suit them. Heritage breeds are longer lived, more adaptable and resilient and can hide in trees or eat rice or other foods if their feeds run out. The ISA brown, which is the egg laying chicken that everyone seems to want for eggs in their backyard these days, only lays for a few years, has a 4-5 year lifespan and apparently is prone to eating its own feathers to keep up with its sulphur and protein requirements for this mass egg production.

There are a few breeds of chickens that I thought were interesting and I would like to keep:

Wyandottes originated in the United States and are a dual purpose chook that lays about 200 tan/brown eggs a year. They are such beautiful birds with some colour strains having these gorgeous feather patterns (laced ones shown here)! They are quite broody - meaning that they like to sit and hatch eggs and look after chicks. They are quite large and can be 3kg for a hen, and 4kg for a rooster.  They are a docile chicken and good for children. It would be my number one choice of chicken to have in the backyard.

Plymouth Rocks also originated in the United States. They are also a dual purpose chicken with a calm temperament and lay up to 280 brown eggs per year. It is quite cold-hardy and will continue to lay through winter. They are 3-3.5kg in size and I think their barred pattern is quite stunning. They tend to go broody and are good mothers.

The Sussex originated in England (can't half tell with that name!) It is another dual purpose chicken, it lays up to 250 tan/brown eggs per year. They can be large (3-4kg) and are good foragers. They are alert, yet docile in temperament and can be quite broody. This is the chicken that my son likes best.

Araucana (left) and Cream Leghorn  (right) chickens lay blue eggs, and I thought that would be an amazing thing to have! Araucanas are said to be friendly but also prone to being flighty and lay up to 180 eggs per year. Cream Leghorns lay up to 180 eggs per year and are said to be autosexing (you can tell male from female chicks by their feather colours). They are both 2-3kg in size and bit smaller than the other breeds listed above.

So it sounds like having a heritage breed means I'll have a chicken that lives longer, acts more "like a chicken", and is hardier - something that sounds much better as a backyard pet than an egg laying machine hybrid. That wasn't something I had considered when I first wanted to buy chickens - all I wanted was an ISA brown so I could have eggs - but now with all these other beautiful breeds, I feel like I want to have them all.

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