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.


Pat

Chicken keeper here, with a few responses/clarifications.

Chickens do indeed make good companion animals. If you spend time with them when they are young, they grow to trust you. Mine will seek out affection by jumping into my lap and snuggling against me, and respond to petting by relaxing and closing their eyes. As far as I'm concerned that makes them good pets. I've stopped eating chicken to avoid the conflict between "this is my pet" and "this is my dinner". I don't buy commercial eggs, and I don't buy prepared products (Ex: mayo) that contains eggs, because I will not support the horrible conditions factory chickens live in. When I see my chickens being eager to be let out of their run so they can free-range and chase bugs and eat grass, it seems pretty likely that they enjoy the freedom.

Hens do not suddenly stop laying eggs as they age. The frequency will decrease, such that if you're considering the financial balance, you might want to get rid of them. But it's by no means necessary. Mine still lay eggs, just not every day.

The male chicks shipped with others are not to keep them from bumping around, it's to keep them warm. Baby chicks can not keep their body temperature up on their own, and there's a certain minimum number of chicks needed to generate enough heat to keep them healthy during the few days they're being shipped.

All you have to do is design their coop with some care, and it's predator proof. A quick search on backyardchickens.com will get you the info you need to make a coop raccoon proof.

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Tiffany

Thank you for this post. I rescue ducks, and since the backyard farm craze hit, suddenly I also rescue chickens. And a turkey. Oh and a goose. I have seen unbelievable cruelty from urban farmers who have no idea how to humanely care for chickens. Most of the coops I've seen in Seattle look like they were put together by a 3-year-old with tape and string. They're basically running raccoon feeding stations.

Regardless of whether you believe hens are your personal egg machines or they deserve to be treated with compassion, there is no question that they deserve to live and die without suffering.

Zoomzit

Hmmm... the level of thought that went into the original post and the subsequent comments is a bit disappointing for Freakonomics.

For the original post, it appears that there was a initial bias (don't eat any meat or eggs) and then a poorly crafted post to reflect this initial bias. It's absurd to dismiss backyard chicken keeping just for the fact that is in a imperfect solution. Sure, there are some chickens that get taken by predators, but with a bit of foresight, this issue can be resolved through careful coop and run construction.

There is also the issue of an excess of roosters, but this is a problem for the entire industry and certainly is not only a problem for backyard chickens.

Finally, the author assumes that the population is either 1. a meat (and egg and milk) consumer who does not care where their food comes from or 2. a vegan who rejects the entire system. There seem to be no thought for 3. a meat eater who desires to improve the system and desires humane treatment for the animals in the system.

Backyard chicken keeping is an imperfect solution, however, it is a system that in many ways is significantly better than the factory system. Just because it is imperfect does not mean it should be dismissed (how many economic theories would be dismissed by this criteria?).

Far more interesting for Freakonomics would be a comparison of the factory farm system to a polycultural system (think Polyface farms) that does a true cost comparison (including hidden costs) of each. The fact is, through government subsidies and lack of environmental accountability, there are far more costs in the industrial farming system than the $1.00 per dozon eggs that you pay at the supermarket.

Finally, for those who are thinking of backyard chicken keeping on a pure cost/benefit basis, what are you paying to keep your dog, your cat, your goldfish, your hamster, your parakeet? What benefit are you receiving from them? It's almost as if the fact that chickens provide a useful commodity works against them in the cost/benefit analysis. Chickens provide eggs, fertilizer, pest control, lawn care and are considered by many a pet. If you are not taking all of these into account, then your cost/benefit analysis is flawed.

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Jonas Manley

In my view on of the benefits of backyard chicken keeping, is to kill and eat the bird, it's not a drawback. You can make a truly excellent coq au vin, from an old egg layer! Lets the chicken roost out a couple of chicks or five a year, and you will also have a supply of chicken, and older birds for the cookpot, thats an added bonus.

JL

For those interested, we address many of the issues and questions raised in the comments in our recently released book: Compassion by the Pound: The Economics of Farm Animal Welfare published by Oxford University Press

Jacob

I just read through James' other articles. In my opinion he has no business posting on the freakonomics blog. He is coming from an extremely biased position, and it shows in his writing. Please leave the evangelism to other blogs.

Caleb b

I don't know about anyone else, but I've been jonesin' for some KFC since reading this post. I think I might just buy an 8 peice just to throw some away.

john

My town, home to a large state university in the midwest, has started allowing chickens and some other farm animals to be kept in the backyard. That leads to the following sentence that makes no sense in any other context: "I'm certainly glad that I live out in the country, rather than in town, so that I can avoid the noises and smells of farm animals kept by my neighbors."

tioedong.

your readers might want to know that Indonesia banned urban backyard chickens because of the danger of bird influenza transmission from chickens to humans. Hong Kong also banned them after a birdflu scare.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/6269941.stm

tioedong.

your readers might want to know that Indonesia banned urban backyard chickens because of the danger of bird influenza transmission from chickens to humans. Hong Kong also banned them after a birdflu scare.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/6269941.stm

Jono Miller

The author of this piece clearly set out with an agenda and selected facts to make that case. I was hoping for some intriguing new twist or novel approach that would reframe the discussion regarding backyard hens, but instead got a recitation of the predictable points of contention.

Citing recent cases of salmonella being disseminated from a single hatchery and using that as evidence against backyard hens while citing a large operation with no problems is cherry-picking data. It might be more helpful instead to postulate the differences between a salmonella outbreak in either setting and then extrapolate what happens next.

In a large scale facility thousands of birds could be infected, in a backyard flock the spread is limited by the more modest number of birds. So given the same initial conditions, we would favor smaller, isolated populations.

Chicken producers brought the birds indoors for a variety of reasons, including predation. But one thing they lack indoors is sunlight, which is proven to kill bacteria. In addition, accumulation of wastes favors Salmonella. Such conditions could occur in either a backyard flock or a large production facility, but anecdotally, it would seem the potential is much greater with greater numbers of birds.

Rather than pitting commercial operations against backyard operations, it might be more revealing to compare the practicalities of large flocks versus small flocks, whether commercial or not. Such an analysis would need to deal with the stresses that accumulate when the number of chickens interacting exceeds the limit of their ability to remember where they stand in the pecking order. My understanding is that laying hens are caged primarily to reduce such stress.

http://sarasotacluck.blogspot.com/2010/08/three-reasons-backyard-chickens-lay.html

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