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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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?

caleb b

"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.

Michael Peters

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.

caleb b

Again, you are assuming that chickens can "enjoy" something, which is an emotion. I’m on the side that votes that they lack the higher brain capacity to perceive feelings, much like fish, bugs, etc.

Maybe I’m wrong. Either way, they are delicious, and I really don't care how they make it to my dinner plate. I also think that the vast majority of people agree with me, based on the amount of chicken sold in the US.

jncc

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.

Joshua

Backyard goats, FTW!

caleb b

Next question: are bee-farm bees less "happy" than bees in the wild? What about plants in a botanical garden? What about a virus in a Petri dish?

Oh, you mean not all living things have emotions? huh.

Des

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

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.

Swintah

"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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Ritchie

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

jncc

Not unless you have large family that eats lots of eggs and are very stingy with coop construction.

Scott Laird

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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John

You failed to account for the costs associated with sleep deprivation suffered by individuals who live near backyard chicken-keepers who also keep roosters. Roosters don't crow at dawn. They crow all night.

James

Yes, the roosters crow. The frogs croak, the owls hoot, and the coyotes howl (usually more of a yipping), and the neighbors drive by in their diesel pickups at absurd hours. But compared to what you'd get in a city? Nirvana.

As for the economics &c of chicken-keeping, it's not about cost, but value. I'm willing to pay more for my neighbors' home-raised eggs, and the occasional chicken, simply because they taste a lot better than what I can buy in the store. Just as the time I spend on my vegetable garden & fruit trees is a bad bargain in a purely financial analysis, but a fresh peach, eaten sun-warmed straight from the tree, reduces that financial analysis to tatters suitable for the compost pile.

Patrick Minton

There isn't really anything "paradoxical about opposing factory farming by raising a chicken for a couple of years and then wringing its neck when productivity heads south". Most people's opposition to factory farming has nothing to do with vegetarianism, but rather with how the bird is treated *while it is alive.*

In other words, people don't have to be opposed to killing and eating chicken in order to be opposed to the conditions at a factory farm which make the birds suffer during their year of egg-laying.

Ron

I suppose for most people, raising chickens on a smallish scale is a net loss. Not for me. We raise about 50 at a time, though, so maybe the economics are a bit different.

We incubate and hatch out our own heritage-breed chicks. They go into a brooder for a couple of weeks while they grow out some feathers. At that point, they can be put on the grass, in "chicken tractors" that I've built. The tractors give them the best of both worlds... they can hunt for bugs, scratch, eat clover and grass, all while being safe from predators. Every couple of days, I move the tractor, which is on wheels, and give them access to fresh pasture. They still eat feed that I buy, but the grass, sunshine, and bugs add a lot of variety to their diet and, ultimately, to ours.

Sure, there was some investment initially in the incubator, chicken tractor, and mechanical plucker (roughly $100 total + some time, creativity and tinkering), but the result at the end is chicken that tastes like chicken. It's fantastic. And you haven't tasted heaven until you've eaten an old rooster... they acquire a flavor that is more chicken-y than people will experience in shrink-wrapped meat. In terms of dollars, it costs me slightly less than what chicken sells for at the grocery store to raise slower-growing heritage breeds. Since it is a far superior-tasting product, though, I come out ahead.

"But you haven't accounted for your time and effort!" Ok... fair enough... but shopping at the grocery store involves some time and effort too (especially in our case, since we rarely go there). To further balance my time and effort, I don't just get superior-tasting meat out of the deal. I have the chickens in the orchard, where they fertilize the soil and eat pests that would otherwise damage my gardens and trees. I grow a plot of food for them, and locate them on it to prepare for next year's veggie garden.

In an industrial sense, chickens just produce meat and eggs. The manure is mostly a waste output. Unwanted chicks are a low-value output.

In a small diversified setting, though, chickens not only provide food, but also fertilizer, a great way to dispose of veggie trimmings, improved pasture, raw dog/cat food (entrails after butchering), compost for soil amendment (feathers), and pest reduction. And even in terms of food, we take advantage of the feet and heads to make superior soup stock, and enjoy the gizzards, hearts and livers. All that for roughly the same price as a shrink-wrapped bird.

Sure, there's a learning curve associated with this, as with any other endeavor. Still, just because some people spend more on their hobby than what they get out of it (in terms of dollars) doesn't mean that a person can't make it a practical thing if they try. As more people do it, there are more resources to help people do it practically and without making as many mistakes.

Industrial chicken is convenient and 'cheap'... but very low-quality and with no fringe benefits, in my opinion.

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Michelle

Another reason that backyard chickens are a good idea is that if the chickens are allowed to roam around and eat insects and grasses, the resulting eggs will be much higher in omega-3 fatty acids than the factory farmed variety.

cbp

I have conducted a thorough scientific investigation into this topic, having talked to 4 or 5 friends who keep chickens in their backyard. They all love getting tasty eggs and all relate how the chickens are fun companions to watch.

I don't know what you're on about.