Backyard Hens: A Trend Coming Home to Roost?

The infamous egg recall of 2010–which identified over 500,000 eggs infected with salmonella–inspired not only widespread condemnation of industrial egg production, but a reactionary upsurge in the trend of keeping backyard hens. For reasons that seem intuitively straightforward (but lack concrete substantiation), a critical mass of do-it-yourselfers determined that it was, among other benefits, safer and more humane to raise their “own” birds and eat their “own” eggs. As this movement continues to take shape, it’s worth asking if these evaluations are all they’re cracked up to be.

As for safety, we’ve really no way of knowing at this point. To the best of my knowledge (and please, if I am wrong, show me), nobody has calculated comparative rates of infection between backyard and industrialized birds. What we do know is that backyard chickens aren’t immune to disease outbreaks. Just last month Food Safety News reported that the CDC had identified 71 cases of salmonella (more than half under the age of 5) linked to backyard chickens. Eighteen people were hospitalized.

Trackback investigations found that the infected chickens were sourced from an Ohio-based hatchery called Mt. Healthy Hatchery. This connection reiterates the crucial point that, unless chicken owners breed their own birds (burdening them with unwanted roosters) or screen for disease upon the chickens’ arrival (very expensive), they’re forced to depend on the vagaries of a distant supply chain–something they hoped to avoid in the first place because, of course, it exposes their birds to contamination.

By the same token, it’s certainly possible, with effective management, to have a perfectly safe large-scale egg operation. As I wrote here last year, an Illinois egg producer generating 800,000+ eggs a day never had an issue with salmonella. The owner understood the importance of precautionary testing and was meticulous about sanitation. He was industrial and clean–a seeming oxymoron in today’s discussions of agribusiness. This observation should in no way condone the welfare nightmare of factory farming, but it does remind us that, for all the horrors therein, it can be an efficient place to produce eggs safe for human consumption.

These anecdotes remind us that, when it comes to the safety of chicken eggs, what matters is not so much the setting in which the birds are raised (factory or backyard), but rather quality control and managerial acumen. To thus boldly assert that the eggs of backyard hens are safer–something I hear all the time– is to place faith ahead of evidence. Again, we might very well, based on personal experience, have the grounds to claim that the backyard hen is a safe hen. But, by this measure, anyone who regularly eats factory eggs and avoids sickness can say the same thing about factory eggs. Bottom line is that we just don’t know.

The welfare issue is less ambiguous. Chickens who live in a backyard coop, as opposed to a factory farm, are undoubtedly happier. This is common sense. As the Humane Society of the United States puts it, “Every family that gets their eggs from backyard hens is likely reducing or eliminating their purchase of eggs laid by hens who suffered on factory farms.” Hard to argue with this assessment.

But the relative comparison between these systems–factory and backyard– shouldn’t obscure the rarely acknowledged welfare problems that can plague backyard chicken arrangements. For one, backyard chickens are like fish in a barrel for predators. As a quick perusal of any on-line forum for chicken keepers will attest, chickens frequently fall prey to dogs, hawks, skunks, coyotes, and, naturally, foxes.

But the worst predator to menace the backyard chicken is surely the raccoon, as evidenced by this poll on backyardchickens.com. Raccoons have adapted seamlessly to urban and suburban environments as a primary result of easy access to human trash. The popular decision to force chickens into these locations, and to inhibit their natural survival tactics by securing them in a coop, is in the same vein as a hunter loading a feeder with corn and sitting above it in a deer blind, or keeping outdoor cats and throwing birdseed near the kitty food. It’s not fair.

Structured predation, however, is only part of the problem.  There’s also the issue of hatcheries and roosters. Most keepers of backyard chickens mail-order their chicks from a hatchery. Whether they’re supplying chicks for factory egg farms, free-range egg farms, or backyard egg farms, hatcheries, which are much like puppy mills, generally don’t give a cluck about male birds.

The result of this indifference is sad. As Jasmin Singer, co-founder of Our Hen House, and others have reported, male chicks are routinely killed–sometimes in a grinder– as a matter of course (needless to say, farm animals intended for food and fiber are not protected under the Animal Welfare Act. Other males are shipped to the consumer, either as “packing material” to keep the hens from knocking around in the shipping container, or as a result of “sexing errors,” i.e., mistaking males for females. In either case, because male chicks are considered useless by egg producers, they’re more often than not terminated upon arrival (again, this is perfectly legal). Backyard chicken owners, no matter how lovingly they treat their birds, remain complicit in this cruel, albeit hidden, reality.

Finally, there’s the simple biological fact that, for most breeds, egg production begins to decline after about a year–but a chicken can live for over ten years. What to do with a hen whose output is on the wane? Regrettably, this is a question rarely asked by those eager to channel their inner husbandman. The options, even more regrettably, aren’t encouraging.

You can kill it for chicken soup, of course. But isn’t there something paradoxical about opposing factory farming by raising a chicken for a couple of years and then wringing its neck when productivity heads south? Another, and much more humane option, is to send it to a farm sanctuary. However, as the backyard hen trend takes off, sanctuaries are finding themselves bursting at the seams, not unlike dog shelters. Keep it as a companion animal? This  option is hardly sustainable, at least if you hope to keep having fresh eggs. I can’t imagine that many urban and suburban backyard chicken keepers have the space to both raise fecund chicks while nurturing their slowly retiring relatives. Plus, to make a backyard chicken a companion animal strikes me a risky endeavor given that a) chickens haven’t been bred to be companion animals, and b) the chances of them dying a violent death at the hands of a predator is relatively high–something nobody truly close to a non-human animal wants to experience.

The foodie media generally tends to glorify the practice of backyard chicken-keeping without paying particular attention to the downsides of this growing trend. At the very least, future chicken keepers should be cognizant of the less publicized challenges they face. As I see it, the drawbacks of eating backyard eggs far outweigh the benefits. And, be assured, this is not support for factory-farmed eggs, but rather yet another reminder that, when it comes to the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products, sometimes the easiest answer is to just say no.

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  1. Enter your name says:

    Problem 1: Chickens get killed by neighborhood predators.
    Problem 2: Chickens live too long (relative to egg production).

    Doesn’t it seem possible for these two to cancel each other out?

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 6
    • Mike M. says:

      Actually yes, we raised chickens at my childhood home in the suburbs east of San Francisco, and we would have to refresh the number of chickens even two years or so because they would be killed by racoons and cats or just die from fright, chilly nights, or natural causes. Ours would last about three to five years each.

      The eggs were better than anything store bought, because we would fed them leftover vegetables and fruit. In fact they are so good at eating waste produce and keeping weeds down that you can keep them far longer than after their egg laying years, and they still make great pets in the same way a bird or rabbit does, they can be very tame.

      Just make sure to give them enough space and a nice coop with a door you can close at night.

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  2. caleb b says:

    “Chickens who live in a backyard coop, as opposed to a factory farm, are undoubtedly happier. This is common sense. ”

    I don’t think it is common sense. I’m quite confident that it’s a guess. Unless you speak chicken.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 23 Thumb down 21
    • Michael Peters says:

      I don’t think you understand what most factory farms for chickens are like. No sunlight, walking around in feces all the time, being bred to weigh too much for your legs to support, housed in cages that are too small to turn around, etc, etc.

      Event just evolutionarily speaking (not even bringing emotions into it) I think it’s safe to say chickens don’t enjoy those conditions.

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      • caleb b says:

        Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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      • jncc says:

        You don’t think that chickens can “enjoy” something?

        Anyone who has observed chickens for more than, say, two minutes, would know that is a profoundly ignorant statement.

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      • Joe says:

        Sad but true. Second comment can be re-written as a commentary on the US food supply in general:

        “I really don’t care how FOOD makes it to my dinner plate. I also think that the vast majority of people agree with me, based on the amount of FOOD sold in the US.”

        However, this minority is growing. Maybe one day ignorance will be the minority.

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      • caleb b says:

        Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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      • Aaron says:

        caleb,

        As you where quite good at stating the apparently chickens have no capacity for higher emotions, I would question if you are capable of higher emotions as well.

        I raise chickens, and I promise you chickens are quite intelligent. Far smarter than bugs and fish.

        It’s not about crying over this or that, it’s having a deep understanding for where your food comes from and the actual LIFE cost attached to the items you are stuffing into your mouth breather gape.

        The earth is not here for you to rape and pillage sir.

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      • caleb b says:

        Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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    • John says:

      Factory-farmed chickens are cross-bred and pumped full of antibiotics to make them huge. It is common to see chickens that are carrying so much weight that they can’t stand up. I doubt this makes them very happy.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 16 Thumb down 2
  3. Joshua says:

    Backyard goats, FTW!

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  4. caleb b says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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    • Jesse Dhillon says:

      This is so asinine.

      Nobody said that all living things have emotions, only that some non-human ones do. But of course you knew that. If you weren’t a troll, you would have gone and read a Wikipedia article on animal sentience, instead of posting another in a string of uninformed comments.

      I gather, from your other brilliant posts here, that to you nothing is sentient unless is speaks English. Let me assure you that state of neuroscience has a more informed standard than this.

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  5. Des says:

    I’m with you on this, until the assumptions start kicking in. You say that “most” backyard hen keepers get their chicks from hatcheries. That certainly sounds plausible, but I don’t see where you’ve cited any source for this information. I would expect to see that here, especially when you made such a big deal about the lack of non-anecdotal evidence for the safely of home chickens earlier in the article.

    Also, others may disagree, but I see nothing “paradoxical” about humanely treating animals intended for consumption. Allowing a hen to be “happier” (as you put it) for the two years she is laying eggs and then slaughtering her quickly is a far cry from what happens to them in the cages. That is just common sense – would you rather live a somewhat happy life for two years then be killed, or be tortured for two years then be killed?

    The issue of roosters being disposed of is true – but it applies to factory farmed chickens as well, so doesn’t add to your position here.

    To summarize your points:
    1. We don’t know which method is safer
    2. Hens are killed after egg producing in both scenarios
    3. Roosters are poorly disposed of in both scenarios
    4. Hens are “happier” in backyards
    5. Backyard hens run the risk of predation

    I can only see one “drawback” ($5) and I hardly think this outweighs the one listed benefit (#4). Most people may not choose to keep hens for any number of other reasons (hassle, cost, smell, noise, etc.), but the ones mentioned here are flimsy and unconvincing.

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    • cackalacka says:

      Then there is the fact that chicken scat is great for the soil, do a pretty good job scratching out things that are bad for the soil, and generally speaking the efforts a hen-owner has to perform compliments a kitchen gardener’s tasks fairly well.

      Maybe some folks prefer factory eggs or factory tomatoes; some folks like good, wholesome things, and like to be in control of where there food comes from. I call people in the latter category “thoughtful people.” Yesterday’s shout-out book review from Cornell Wests’ friend, and then this drivel… I’m starting to fear that this blog constitutes folks in the former category.

      Thumb up 5 Thumb down 7
      • pablo says:

        [Maybe some folks prefer factory eggs or factory tomatoes; some folks like good, wholesome things, and like to be in control of where there food comes from. I call people in the latter category “thoughtful people.” ]

        Everyone can have their own opinion, as long as it’s the right one? Yikes.

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    • Aaron says:

      Not to mention that raising your own animals puts you on a completely different perspective than a standard consumer. I raise chickens, and the experience has broadened by thinking, by far. I would suggest that everyone should raise something at some point to, rather hopefully, gain a deeper perspective on the experiences of other forms of life that we humans leverage to enhance our lives.

      I know this has changed my life and not only in a single way. It was given me a new way of thinking even when I am shopping or being a consumer and so forth.

      Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0
    • Jacob says:

      I was excited to read this article, as I have backyard chickens, sheep, and bees. I was quickly disappointed for the same reasons Des mentioned. What was the point of this article?

      Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1
  6. Swintah says:

    “But isn’t there something paradoxical about opposing factory farming by raising a chicken for a couple of years and then wringing its neck when productivity heads south?”

    No.

    There is a substantial difference in quality of life between a backyard hen and a factory farm hen. I think it’s the difference between harm and cruelty. From the perspective of the chicken:

    Backyard hen roosts in a small coop with others hens. During the day, backyard hen can perform hen behaviors like scratching the earth and hunting for insects and small animals. They can feed and interact normally and generally live a largely balanced life. Then, in backyard hen’s dotage, a quick snap of the neck and her life ends. Certainly, killing the hen harms it, but then the purpose of the domestic chicken is to die to feed us. It’s certainly a far better deal than its ancestors had in the wild.

    Compare this with the plight of the factory hen. Usually they’re stuffed into overcrowded cages where they exist in a stinking perpetual twilight. At the end of their time, they are clipped into a conveyor belt and mechanically slaughtered. I would argue that this is cruel, because they experience unnecessary harm.

    There’s no escaping that hens exist in the natural order as both predator and prey. Their nature is to be eaten by something else, whether a human, coyote, fox, hawk, or disease-causing organism or parasite. To deny that is to deny reality.

    Another method of denying reality is to pretend that humans can exist for a substantial period of time and in good health without eating meat or animal products, and without harming animals. We cannot deny our evolutionary history and physiology forever, and we cannot live without harming animals. But we can live without being cruel to animals, which is a distinction that seems to be lost on this piece.

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    • rhinokitty says:

      Comparing a backyard chicken to a factory farm chicken is venue shopping for your cause, because you support backyard chicken raising for eggs and meat. If you look at it from the perspective of the bird, the favorable comparison is domesticated vs. wild.

      Wild chickens (whether you know it or not) actually still exist in THE WILD. They are a tropical jungle fowl and live in Southeast Asia in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, amongst other places.

      Your TV version of what it means to be a non-predatory animal in the wild is quaint. I can almost visualize the nature show that you must have seen in a pot induced stupor when you are regurgitating this truism — the shock and awe of watching a tiger hunt and kill its prey. Living in nature is exactly that, natural. To domesticate an animal to be killed isn’t a “better deal” for that animal, you simply think that raising and killing animals is OK, so your logic all descends from that point.

      The sad part is that now you are arguing that YOU are a part of nature. Man and the animals that he has domesticated are, by definition, NOT NATURE. You aren’t taking part in the circle of life by breeding and killing chickens, you are taking away from it by creating a bastardized and version of the predator-prey relationship where the scales are completely tipped in your favor and no prey ever escape. It is sick, when you actually take the time to think about it.

      Most herbivore species in nature do not die a violent death. A small number of the total species are eaten by predators, in most ecosystems. By farming animals man actually uses land that free-roaming animals need for habitat. In a backyard, plain or prairie, land that is used to farm animals is land that could natural habitat. If you want to maximize food production, grow resource conservative crops.

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    • Jesse Dhillon says:

      Sorry, you are factually wrong when you say ,

      “Another method of denying reality is to pretend that humans can exist for a substantial period of time and in good health without eating meat or animal products, and without harming animals”

      That is most certainly not the case, unless the timescales you’re talking about are cosmic, in which case the jury is out as to whether or not any survival is possible. Moreover, the appeal to evolution is a fallacious attempt to boost your argument’s credibility with a surface-level understanding of the theory of evolution.

      This is like my saying that, since the ancestors from which I evolved would consume their food by extending their cell membranes around a foreign entity and enclosing it completely within their own cytoplasm, I also should eat in this way. Anything else denies my basic evolutionary history and physiology. The line you draw in that argument is arbitrary — you certainly aren’t appealing to the commonality of your own physiology with that of herbivorous animals, where the overlap is significant and well-documented.

      In short: what was good for an evolutionary ancestor of mine — when I am free to choose which one as long as it is convenient to my argument — is 1) largely speculative and 2) not indicative of a successful future path.

      Thumb up 1 Thumb down 2
  7. Ritchie says:

    Regardless of “safer,” or “happier,” are backyard chickens/eggs more cost-effective than store-bought?

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  8. Scott Laird says:

    Interesting, but you seem to be missing two somewhat practical points:

    1. Chickens are naturally omnivores. They love to eat bugs. Backyard chickens will (a) reduce the number of bugs in your back yard and (b) produce tastier eggs because of it. True free-range chickens would probably taste similar, but Pollan claims that most eggs marketed as “free range” don’t come from outdoor chickens.
    2. As for the “hen whose output is on the wane” problem–if you’re ethically able to eat factory-produced chicken, then you should probably be willing to kill a chicken and eat it yourself every now and then. Sure, it’s a bit outside of the normal suburban experience, but it serves as a concrete reminder of where meat actually comes from. If you can’t handle that, then you might want to consider the ethics of eating pre-packaged chicken. If you *can* handle that, then you’re probably safe from vegetarian scare films.

    Mind you, it’s not clear to me that the economics of small-scale backyard chickens make any sense. I live in a 3-chicken city; that would give me around 1.5 dozen eggs per week at best; that’s $3-$9 worth of eggs, depending on where I buy them and how I judge their quality. Most backyard chicken folks that I know have spent hundreds of dollars on infrastructure and spend quite a bit of time on the things. It seems like a lot of capital and work for $9/week.

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