Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Chicks Have Arrived!

This morning I drove with Gibson to the post office in Cambridge to pick up a small package. In a very loud box, no larger than a VCR, were 45 chickens. Babies, of course. Little day-old hatchlings who were shipped express up from Mount Healthy Hatchery in Pennsylvania. It was over five years ago that I picked up my first postal order of chickens on a winter day in Idaho and so many springs and states later it never stops delivering a happy thrill. Chicks, all chicks, are adorable. And to set them into their brooder for the first time ever never gets old. Right now all these tykes are under a heat lamp with food and water and in a few days folks coming to the Backyard Livestock workshop will take them home with them to start their lives as beloved laying hens. I don't know if these little guys know how lucky they are! Shipped to a chicken author's home to be fawned over and then sent to live in free range backyards and coops! They hit the jackpot with us. But alas, nothing in farming animals these days seems to come without controversy or pushback. Some people feel shipping chicks in the mail is animal abuse. Joel Salatin addressed this in a recent book and again in this article from Flavor Virginia Magazine,where he wrote an open letter to vegan and vegetarian animal rights activists about chickens in the mail from hatcheries.

Some people sign petitions to criminalize shipping chicks in the mail. The reasoning goes like this: “I need food and water daily. These chicks spend up to three days in the mail. Therefore the chicks are being abused.”

Can you abide me some farm wisdom? A hen can’t lay more than one egg a day. A clutch is normally seven to ten eggs—that’s about all a hen can keep warm under her body at one time. It takes several days for her to lay that many eggs. She lays one the first day and goes to eat and put on extra weight. She lays egg two the second day, and goes and eats and puts on more fat. When she leaves the nest to eat, the eggs cool off and that retards the embryos’ development.

This early forced developmental slowdown, caused by the hen gorging herself to gain weight for the multiday setting period, brings the first and last eggs laid to similar levels of embryonic development. With her clutch complete, the hen begins setting, losing weight, and almost never leaving the nest. Finally the first egg hatches.

If that first hatchling ventured out to get feed and water, the hen would be forced to choose between protecting the adventurous chick or continuing to set on the almost hatched, critical-temperature dependent embryos still in their eggs. God designed the chicks, therefore, to go without feed and water for three days to let the siblings hatch. Once all of them have hatched, the hen takes them to feed and water. Once the chicks have tasted their first feed and water, they need it several times a day. But this is nature’s protective plan for species propagation. Is that cool, or what?

Lesson du jour: chicks are not humans. And in case you missed it, I didn’t mentioned how hens nurse their chicks. You see, a hen has six nipples tucked under wings…

Today’s level of farming ignorance is unprecedented in history—including all time and all cultures. Never have so many people in a civilization been able to be this far removed from their food umbilical. I think it actually brings into question the sustainability of a civilization that has twice as many people incarcerated in prisons as it has people farming. But that’s another question for another day.

When the only connections people have to the living world is a pet dog or cat, it skews their view toward animals in general. The fact that Americans spend more on pet veterinary care than the entire continent of Africa spends on human medical care should give us all pause.

Sometimes, on the farm, animals die.In that respect, animals are like humans. They don’t live forever. And sometimes farmers make mistakes, or have accidents occur that create a temporary, difficult situation. But I beg my non-farm readers: if you see something that doesn’t look right, be neighborly. Go over and talk to the farmer. You may find out you are ignorant. You may have seen something he missed and he’ll thank you for bringing it to his attention. And you may have seen a mistake or accident. But at least give the farmer the same courtesy and benefit of the doubt you’d want for yourself.

Beyond that, go visit a farm. And by the way, if a farmer won’t let you come and visit, you probably shouldn’t buy food from that farm. Integrity can only be hung on a framework of transparency.

Now go feed some strawberries to your cat.

Joel's comments are wonderful, but one thing he didn't mention to the concerned folks was that these hatcheries that deliver rare breed and heritage chicks in boxes are the main alternative to corporate hatcheries and battery-hen hatcheries owned by folks like Tyson. A sustainable farmer can not order chicks from Tyson breeders unless he is a contracted grower, so he either has to breed his own stock, buy hen-sat chicks from a local farmer, order chicks from a hatchery. Now, for a backyard flock I can provide for you 3-7 home brewed chicks of various breed mixes and unknown gender. But if you wanted a predictable breed of quality laying hen, or fifty of them, you need to call the folks at a place like Mt. Healthy. Same goes for birds raised for meat. So think twice about tsk-tsking mail-order livestock. The people who are doing it are doing it so they don't have to buy animals who lived in cages out of sunlight their whole lives, and are offering a quality of life to those box birds few chickens (less than a .001%) ever could dream of. If I were a laying hen I'd take an overnight plane ride to Cold Antler over a life in a battery cage any day. ANY DAY!