Animal Husbandry, OR Yes, I think we are going to eat these

On our urban farm we already have chickens, but these chickens are for eggs. Yesterday, we got chickens for meat. In some ways, thinking of the adorable balls of fluff cheeping under their heat light in our boiler room, it seems unthinkable that in September we are intending to turn them into chicken, the meat. Are we really going to spend the entire summer raising these chickens and then kill and eat them?

Small chicken enclosure with chicks in utility room with a man and a fluffy cat.
Handsome animal husband with house predator, Bodhi, survey the baby Sussexes [the cat is not allowed in here on her own]

Well, I surely hope so because we got ten Speckled Sussex chicks and already have 5 egg birds. I don’t think our operation can realistically support 15 birds. Now that it is spring [at least according to the sun] we get at about 4 eggs a day and most days we get 5. Over a week that is 28 eggs on the low end. We certainly use a lot of eggs and enjoy giving them away to friends and neighbors as gifts, but the idea of the occasional 15-egg day is a bit much for our family of 4. I don’t really want to sell eggs and definitely do not want to waste any.

One of the things that attracted me to this particular breed is that it is supposed to lay eggs through winter more reliably. Up here in the frozen north, we have a lot of winter to contend with and most breeds of chicken only want to lay if they are under artificial light. Because egg production is so tied to the light we would need to have a full spectrum light for them but we would also still need a heat light [because we don’t want them thinking the night is the day and it is coldest at night]. For this and other reasons, we have decided to not trick our birds into thinking winter is really laying season. Still, we had one chicken [Aurum, the Gold-Star Sex Link] who laid an egg almost every day even when it was darkest January and February. Another chicken [Blueberry, the Blue-laced Wyandotte] also laid several eggs a week over the winter. If we added a Speckled Sussex to the mix then we might be able to get through the winter with about 9 eggs a week and that would suit us very well even if it meant that through most of the spring and summer we were dealing with a cool half dozen every day.

Texas Heeler dog with small tray of green and brown eggs, golden chicken in background.
Aurum, the super chicken, with our dog Cinder and a day’s eggs [plus one]. Aurum’s eggs are the largest brown ones.

But that still leaves 9 Speckled Sussexes doesn’t it? Due to some interesting supply [people deciding they want chickens because Covid] and weather patterns [the terrible ice storm in Texas which disrupted some mail at a critical time in chick development], the ranch supply store had a hell of a time getting us chicks at all, and I was unable to get a few other meat varieties I had wanted to try. I considered ordering direct from a hatchery but we would have had to order 20 or pay a special rate for a smaller amount and then also we would have had to pay shipping. I know that people ship poultry all the time, but I didn’t want to open a box of 20 chicks [knowing that they each cost half as much already as a 8 pound broiler I can buy locally] only to find one dead.

As with growing your own produce, you never really save money on your food doing it yourself, at least not in the short term. I had thought maybe if we got straight run we could keep a rooster and a hen and never have to buy meat chicks again. This is a slippery slope [that we may well find ourselves sliding down] to another more expensive hobby of raising our own chicks, but alas it was not to be. Because of all the issues that I mentioned above, our chicks are all ladies, which means that if we do want to try hatching our own we will be buying more baby chicks next year. We got these 10 for $47, plus chicken starter [we already had all the equipment].

But am I really going to kill 9 chickens, butcher them, freeze them and the then eat them throughout the next year?

Ten brown and cream-colored baby chicks in a brooder with heat light, food and water containers
Speckled Sussexes in their brooder

In the winter, we eat a lot of chicken. It is our main meat source. About one whole broiler every two weeks from September – May, about 13-20 chickens [because we do sometimes eat them in the summer]. Right now, we buy all our chickens from the Milford Colony Hutterite farm outside of town. These are good chickens, treated well and local, though not strictly organic and certainly not pastured. We like that they are local [because transportation costs] and that in buying them whole we cut down on packaging specifically styrofoam and the cost of them being cut up. They tend to cost about $10 a bird and come pre-frozen. That probably is a price that comes with the scale of their operation. We will never get our price per bird under that [we just paid over $4 per chick].

But our chicks are going to run around in the sun eating bugs and taking dust baths. Happy kids are going to pick them up and talk soothingly to them. In the winter a handsome gentleman will make sure their water is clean and warm and their heat light is keeping them from getting frostbite. They will not be overcrowded and stressed. They will get to be idyllic happy chickens, like the ones we think we are getting from the store when we’re not thinking too much about it.

I’m not one of those people [like a college acquaintance who used to sit next to people eating in the dining hall and tell them about factory farms] who likes to lecture others about meat production. If you are a human being who eats meat and you don’t know the way that the animals got turned into that meat, you have to be willfully ignorant because the thought of not eating meat feels – to you – like more of a hardship than what the meat industry does to animals. Yes, there are a number of ways to eat more humanely raised meat, but ultimately, most of the labeling that exists to demonstrate to you that the creatures you are eating now lived on Old McDonald’s farm is advertising designed to comfort you, not farming practices that treat animals or farm land properly.

We can argue all day about what “properly” means with regard to the treatment of animals, people and the land. I know that chickens, pigs, cows and other livestock are not pets and not people. I understand that buying organic food is very expensive and a barrier for almost everyone. I understand that in most of the US you can’t even get grass-fed beef like we can in Montana. I know all those things. The bottom line is that the production of meat in the US and abroad [because a lot of the meat people in the US buy isn’t even raised here] is deeply problematic. If one does not care about how animals and the land are treated, the greenhouse gas emissions from raising animals are still really jarring. Not just the shipping, but also the methane. And, consider the caloric footprint: it takes so much grain and vegetable matter to turn land into meat, so much more than just turning land into plants. For the amount of food we feed a cow or a pig we could basically feed a human. Then there are the considerations of the meat packing industry, the fact that it is dangerous for workers and contaminating to the food.

I think about these things every time I eat any meat, though I still do eat it. Consequently, the meat that I do eat has increasingly become more local, more from smaller operations, locally processed. I’ve toured many farms over time learning about how the meat I eat is produced and by whom. This isn’t possible for everyone, but it has been possible for me. And with the knowledge that I have about food production, I am generally inclined to raise as much of it as possible myself.

And that brings me to the 10 Speckled Sussex chicks in our boiler room. If I can’t turn them into meat in September then who am I to ask anyone else to do it for me?

I don’t really want to be a vegetarian or a vegan. This is not because I think those are bad nutritional choices because I know that they are not. If I didn’t like meat, and if I didn’t find myself to be a too-small person who often does not consume enough calories, then I would be a vegetarian. It would be hard to be vegan because [dear god] I love cheese. Though I could live without it, I don’t want to, and therefore, after dealing more thoroughly with the meat that we eat, the next step is diary [but that is the next step].

Functionally, our household is transitioning to eating only the animal protein that we can produce. But it is a slow transition. Because we work full time, because I have less experience cooking vegetarian, because [in truth] this is a global problem and it is literally impossible for one household to be able to counteract the systemic affects of the meat industry. So we didn’t get meat birds so that we could make other people feel like shit for eating factory meat. Perhaps your path to better food consumption looks different than ours [maybe you don’t want to marry cheese and you’re vegan – hats off to you, that route is probably better].

Our goal for this year is to get meat that we have not raised to be present in less than one third of our meals. This was an adapted suggestion from Jonathan Safran Foer’s book, We Are the Weather: saving the planet begins at breakfast. In a very heavy, but deeply authentic exploration of his own lifestyle choices, he basically asserts that one does not need to quit eating animal protein to be a “good person.” People are not really going to do that [they are just going to not think about it and create a web of justifications for how they can care about the Climate Crisis while still eating animal protein] because behavior changes are about habits more than they are about decisions. Rather, if everyone did something incremental an aggregate change could be made. And the something he suggests is eating animal protein at just one meal per day.

I like this as an idea because it doesn’t mean one is deprived of anything. You can still eat meat, just not like a typical American. Want burgers on Friday night? Skip the animal protein for breakfast and lunch. You don’t have to be a vegan or a vegetarian and make it about your identity. You are just a person who eats not that much animal protein. And if every American did this then our consumption of animal protein goes down by two thirds. This would have a measurable effect. I mean, I’m not stupid, I know people are not going to all do this [they can’t even all agree to wear masks or get vaccines], but some effect is better than no effect.

I have found that many people want to do things better but they don’t know how. In the years since I started posting on social media about my conscious consumption journey, many friends have said to me that I helped them figure out how to make some changes in their life or gave them something to think about or inspired them in some way. These things are not nothing. These things spread. After all, Americans didn’t used to eat this much meat, so the culture of doing so must also have spread.

Maybe you are not ready to raise your own meat chickens in your backyard as your main source of animal protein. I’m not sure I am ready to do this either [they are very cute]. However, we all have to start somewhere. Here is to starting where we can.

Check back in September to see if we manage to pull it off.

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