Bringing Up the Average

“Let’s raise a few hundred meat birds and try to sell them.  What’s the worst that could happen?”

That’s a pretty naive question.  I asked it once.  Lots of things go wrong but I’ll share the one I fear the most.  Chicken death.

Chicks just die.  They may die from being abused or neglected by postal workers.  They may be eaten by snakes or bitten by rats.  They can get any number of ailments; curly toe, pasty butt, coccidiosis.  Some of these can be prevented with diet and hygiene but sometimes they just die for no reason.  Chicks can get too hot.  Chicks get cold and pile on top of each other, killing the ones at the bottom.  Worse, the smothered chicks don’t die and you waste a few days nursing a dying chick along.  Then it dies.

Let’s say you got them through the critical first 5 days and they survived the two or three weeks before you put them on grass.  You kept things clean and kept them healthy and they are ready to go to pasture.  Once there they can die from heat, cold, raccoons, skunks, opossums, minks, cats or dogs.  Everything thinks a chicken is tasty.  I take precautions to keep the birds safe from predators with electric netting but nothing is perfect.  Even if the netting works buffalo gnats can suffocate them.  Hot weather or cold weather will kill them.  Heavy rain can drown them and wind can crush them under their houses.  A waterer can clog on a hot day and they’ll all die.  They can get run over by the wheels on the chicken tractor dolly.  They frequently die of heart attack, especially as they get older, though this is manageable.  Honestly I pray for safety every night my chickens are on pasture, pray every morning when I get up and pray every time I peek in the tractor.

I want to emphasize that these are fragile little creatures that taste good to predators.  Even with good management bad things can happen.  I lost nearly 30 layers to one mink in one night.  I can’t tell you how sad I felt when I opened the door to the chicken house and found all those chickens piled up on the floor.  Then, the next night, I saved the remaining 40 layers when I shot the mink in the hen house.  I’m not out in my field hunting down everything that shares my farm but I have an obligation to take steps to protect the animals in my care.  That mink found a way into my Ft. Knox chicken house two nights in a row.  That’s enough.

This is a part of why pastured products cost more.  Not only do my animals live normal chicken lives in the sun and grass, not only do they eat real, whole grains instead of leftovers from manufacturing processes, I expend a tremendous amount of time per animal watching over them.  A mass-produced, confinement bird can live or die.  A chicken that costs less than $1/pound was never cared for, let alone allowed to embrace it’s inner chicken.

To recap, it’s really, really hard to keep the meat birds alive for 7 or 8 weeks.  We are better at it than most but still have room for improvement.  It saddens me to find a dead bird, not because of the financial loss but because it means I failed in my part of the agreement.  I provide health and safety for a short time.  They pay me back with a meal.

Chickens like sunlight.  They like to scratch in the dirt, eat bugs and really enjoy eating greens.  These are things denied to all but a few chickens in this country.  Find yourself a farmer who is willing to make the chickens happy.  His chicken will cost more.  His chicken is worth more.

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