One of the roles our farm has, rather unintentionally, taken on is as sanctuary (mostly temporary) for the unwanted roosters of friends and loved ones. First, there was Cora, who turned out to be Corey – and not permissable under town regulations. My step-mother relocated him here and found Eunice, a hen, and Corey lived a happy life on our farm for about a year, until he got aggressive and started attacking my children. After he jumped Asher, then two, as Asher puts (still with some satisfaction), “We ate Corey.” There are far too many gentle animals in the world you can’t keep to hold on to the mean ones.
My youngest sister keeps chickens also, and she and her husband bought a lot of chicks at a local auction that turned out to be largely roosters. So 7 roos came to our home, and not long after, were dispatched. Camilla, my friend Bess’s chicken, suspected to be Camille due to some strange noises, came here too, but redeemed herself when she laid an egg, and got to go home and be Camilla again. My step-mother just asked me if I would take the chicks that are likely to be the outcome of a local school project in incubating eggs. I said I probably would, depending on the breed, but I admit, I’m tempted to ask in exchange to be allowed to come to the kids’ class and talk about what happens to the chickens afterwards, because our cognitive disconnect about the future of animals is vast.
I see it when we take friends to Indian Ladder Farms, a local tourist farm. Every spring they have “baby animal days” and every year, the baby animals discreetly disappear at some point in early fall. We celebrate the arrival of the animals, but no clue to their fate is ever given. This, I think, is a problem. Most of us don’t really grasp that the life and death of animals has a direct connection with us.
I am blunt to people who wish to bring me their roosters – I will keep them if I need a rooster, otherwise, they will be soup. Some people take me up on it, others are shocked and horrified that I reserve the right to kill their pet. They want me to be an animal sanctuary, not a farm. But that’s not my role.
I think until recently a post with this title would be assumed by most people, who do not raise livestock, to have nothing to do with them. By this I mean that it is a fairly new (and fragile and has not reached everyone) realization that the husbandry of livestock has something substantial to do with the people who eat, rather than the people who simply raise animals. Now one partial answer to the problem of husbandry is veganism. Vegetarianism, as long as it includes milk, eggs and honey does not solve the problem. Veganism is one good solution. The other is a high degree of awareness of the realities of livestock, and a very conscious and careful eating of animal products.
What do I mean by “the problem of husbandry?” What I mean is that generally speaking, in the rearing of domesticated animals, one gender of the animals is more valuable than the other. Often, but not always, females are preferred, because they lay the eggs, give the milk, and can reproduce themselves perfectly well with only a very tiny number of male participants.
For sheep, for example, one might keep 20 ewes for every ram. For cows, it may be a similar number – or more likely, people use AI, and millions of cows may be fertilized by only a few hundred bulls. For chickens, a dozen hens to a rooster is the norm – although you don’t need roosters at all and in many municipalities these are prohibited. In a few cases, males are more desirable – mostly for animals that put on meat fairly quickly, like turkeys. Or in some cases, they are equally desirable – meat hens may be sold to the broiler market while cocks go to the roaster market. Either way, in most cases, the lifespan of a female will be radically longer than that of most males.
For some of these creatures, there’s a logical way of handling them – for sheep and goats, for example, the most sensible thing is to raise them on grass, which people can’t eat, and then butcher them at the end of the season for protein that people can eat. Sometimes neutered animals are also valuable for pet or draft. But a problem occurs when people want more of one sex of an animal than another, when people lack the land or resources to feed out a male animal to butchering size, or when people are confronted with the necessity of eating male animals.
Alan, one of my regular readers forwarded this article to me from The Oregonian about the problem of extra roosters. With a resurgence of interest in backyard poultry, there is an increased demand for layer hens. But most municipalities do not permit roosters, so people are increasingly abandoning roosters that they get by accident (chicken sexing is not perfect), and hatcheries are euthanizing large batches of them.
“Our roosters are valuable, but the biggest percentage (of our sales) is hens,” said Bud Wood, president of Murray McMurray Hatchery in Webster, Iowa. “Anyone who says, ‘I only want pullets’ — the unwanted cockerels have to be put down.”
McMurray shipped 1.7 million chicks last year.
Some of McMurray’s unwanted males go to feed the raptors at a nearby sanctuary, Wood said. The rest are euthanized.
“We do the best we can,” he said. “We destroy them very humanely; we use CO2 gas.”
Two Pacific Northwest hatcheries also differed in their answers to the cockerel question.
Angie Dunlap of Dunlap Hatchery in Caldwell, Idaho, said the company runs weekly specials on cockerels and sells most as meat birds.
Gene Bunting, owner of Lazy 54 Farm in Hubbard, said that while some of his cockerels go to people in rural areas, where they are raised for consumption, a large percentage are put down with gas.
“For many of our breeds, it takes 16 to 18 weeks to get them to size, and they’re still not heavy enough,” he said about the difficulty of selling cockerels to meat customers.
The two hatcheries sell largely identical breeds and ship about the same number of chicks.
If we eat eggs, we are implicated in the problem of extra males. So the question becomes, what’s the most ethical thing to do? How should we deal with the fact that roosters are intrinsically less valuable to us than the hens in many cases?
Now one possible answer to this, offered about the same article by The Matron at Trapper Creek is that people should simply raise double the number of chickens – for each hen, take a rooster and then eat him before he becomes a nuisance.
This is a potentially excellent solution, and the Matron is generally right. The problem, of course, is that it runs up against many backyard chicken keeper’s presumptions – that they can clean up their project of producing their eggs and thus escape the responsibility of killing. I understand that some people don’t feel they can kill, others have moral objections to doing their own killing. At the same time, however, I think it is important to remember that all livestock keeping is steeped in death. That is, if you avoid the subject yourself, you are still morally responsible for the conditions of life and the conditions of death of those creatures that live because of you. You can choose not to handle it directly, or you can, but you cannot say that you are not responsible.
Moreover, other, more plebian problems come with the idea of keeping roosters. The Matron argues that most roosters don’t start crowing until 15-20 weeks, at which point they could be butchered. But many of my roosters have started crowing as early as 10-12 weeks, at which point most non-meat breeds are still pretty scrawny. We can and should start by reconsidering the zoning laws, however.
Moreover, it really depends on what you are feeding them. For those who rely primarily on purchased, grain-based feed from a feed store, you are converting people food (grains) into more people food (meat) at a not-terrific conversion rate. If you have a fairly large area where the birds can get as much as half of their food from grass, bugs and scrap, that’s one thing. If you can arrange to provide food scraps (my co-author on _A Nation of Farmers_ Aaron Newton raises all of his chickens amost entirely on a local coffee shop’s food scraps) beyond what you grow yourself – from neighbors, local stores and restaurants, college dining halls (Eric is working on this one at SUNY), then raising the males may make sense. But in the net, without these sources, raised entirely on chicken feed, it might be more ethical to euthanize them.
We’ve come a long way in recognizing that agriculture isn’t something separate from us – that is, the things farmers do aren’t the things farmer’s do, they are what farmer do to feed us and our needs. We have come a long way in recognizing that if we do eat animal products, we must do it humanely and wisely.
But we’re still a long way from fully grasping that agriculture itself is steeped in death, and that we can’t escape that reality as long as we depend on it. We’d be steeped in death even if we were all to become vegans (which is unlikely in the extreme) as domesticated livestock breeds went rapidly extinct because there was no reason to raise them anymore, and we lost the sound and sight and relationship that tie us to these animals that we have chosen for domestication – and that chose us as well. Even if we were vegan we’d be steeped in death as combines behead rabbits and roll over the nests of ground nesting birds. We’d be steeped in death as we increasingly mined scarcer soil minerals that we used to get from animal manures.
The truth is, we can’t get out of death – or its corollary, life. These animals we rear get to live because of what we eat as well. They get their day in the sun, their breeds continue and go forward because we eat them or their products. The truth is that there is no full escape from the problem of death here – there is only the careful consideration of the material conditions of both life and death.
The truth is that if something is going to die for me, I would rather do it at my own hands. I do not enjoy butchering livestock. The first time I killed a rooster I was weeping and my hands shook. But I also know that I can do it quickly, and painlessly. That my animals live a good life, unlike those raised by large industrial meat producers. That my animals do not suffer fear or anxiety by long periods of transport and waiting in slaughterhouses. We are not perfect – we too have ordered pullets before from hatcheries, and will be changing our practices. There is more to be done for all of us.
Reasonable people can reasonably disagree about what we should do. Most Americans eat far too many animal products to begin with. And even with a more reasonable diet, there are good questions to be asked – how do we minimize suffering? How do we balance our desire to be good people and to eat well? Should we be vegetarian? Vegan? Grow our own? Buy locally? Eat one thing but not another? All of these are serious and conscious efforts to find a way through a tough-to-navigate dilemma.
What I think is impermissable is unconsciousness. We are not allowed, ethically speaking, not to know that for every hen for our backyard, there was a rooster chick, euthanized and disposed of. We are not allowed, ethically speaking, not to have the ability to put down animals that are suffering, even though we’d rather have no truck with their deaths. We are not allowed to pretend that our diet doesn’t leave us with blood on our hands.