Not long ago, our son was complaining about having to butcher chickens, and wanted to know if it was cheaper to raise our own. When I said it was definitely more expensive, he couldn’t understand why we would go to all the trouble of raising our own, when we could just buy them cheap at the store. So for our son, and anyone else who may be interested, this is why we are raising our own poultry for meat and eggs, despite the greater financial burden.
It really started way back when I was in high school and did a research report on factory farms (also called concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs). My teacher said I almost convinced her to be a vegetarian. The #1 goal of a factory farm is profit, and they rarely put any thought into the welfare of their animals, unless it affects their bottom line. The conditions under which those animals are forced to subsist are deplorable and unnatural at best, and generally include high rates of disease and premature deaths.
Most CAFO chickens never see a ray of sunshine, never taste a blade of grass or a worm, don’t have space to dust bathe, and live in their own toxic manure. Even if they are ‘cage-free,’ they are generally so crowded they don’t even have space for their natural ground scratching and wing flapping behavior, much less any outdoor access. Often, they are cruelly debeaked so that they can’t peck each other to death in their overcrowded conditions.
Meat chickens are bred for super fast growth, and are generally fed cheap GMO feed laced with antibiotics and arsenic, in order to increase growth and counteract their unsanitary living conditions. They are slaughtered at about 6-7 weeks of age, and even that process can be extremely stressful for them, with many birds dying in transit. Chickens are exempted from the USDA’s Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, which mandates that animals be rendered insensible to pain before being slaughtered. Some chickens even end up being boiled alive when the automated throat slitting blade misses them.
But the meat birds have it easy compared to battery laying hens. Erik Marcus, in his book ‘Meat Market: Animals, Ethics, and Money,’ says of those hens,
“I personally believe that the average battery hen has it worse than the average veal calf. I think it’s probable that a forkful of egg comes at a cost of greater suffering than a forkful of veal… For people making a gradual switch to vegetarianism out of concern for animals, I therefore believe that the first food to give up should be, not meat, but eggs.”
Most battery hens are kept in small cages with 8 or 9 hens each, none having enough space to so much as preen, much less perform their instinctive nest building behavior. Lighting is manipulated to increase production, so they don’t go through their natural molting cycles. This, along with their inability to have meaningful exercise, increases osteoporosis, which leads to painful broken bones. Since they can hardly move and are on wire floors, feathers are rubbed off, leading to skin abrasions. They suffer for up to 2 years like this, and are then turned into animal feed or discarded. Sometimes they are run through a wood chipper while still alive. And all the male chicks are also inhumanely discarded.
When I watch my birds free ranging on our pasture, they wander to and fro scratching and pecking for food, socializing with each other, napping in the warm sunshine, dust bathing and preening, flapping their wings and chasing any hen who seems to have found something especially yummy. They come to me when I go out there, hoping for treats, and will follow me to the barn at feeding time. They have plenty of space to roost, and can cuddle up together on cold nights, or leave more space on warm nights. There’s plenty of barn floor space for them to hang out in when the rain pours, or that scary snow is all over the ground, and plenty of nesting boxes. I don’t need a face mask to walk through the barn, so I know the air in there is safe for them to breathe. And I know that this is how chickens were meant to live and thrive, able to perform all their natural, instinctive behaviors so they are content and healthy.
Even if we did not care much about animal welfare, there is another good reason to raise our birds in a natural environment. They are much healthier, which means that their meat and eggs are healthier and packed with more nutrients than those of the CAFO animals. This brings to mind the phrase, “ you are what you eat.” If we eat foods that are deficient in nutrients, our bodies will also be deficient, and we will likely spend far more money on health care than it would have cost to buy nutrient dense foods.
Meat from chickens raised outside on good pasture all day, and supplemented with a quality organic feed, have been shown to be higher in vitamin E, vitamin A, monounsaturated fat, and omega-3s; have a higher protein concentration; are lower in omega-6s and have a lower ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s; have lower fat concentrations and a lower risk of food borne illness; plus their total antioxidant nutrients are increased while their risk of oxidative damage to fats in the meat is decreased.
Meanwhile, eggs from pastured hens have increased omega-3s as well as high amounts of vitamins A, D, E, K2, B-12, folate, riboflavin, zinc, calcium, beta carotene, and choline; they also have less cholesterol and saturated fat than CAFO raised eggs.
While there is certainly nothing wrong with making a profit, when what is produced involves the care of living creatures, their quality of life and manner of death should be one of the top priorities of the producer. So before you grab those cheap, nutrient deficient supermarket eggs, stop and think about the price paid by the hens who laid them. If a price were put on their suffering and added to the price of the eggs, could you afford them?
So to answer my son, yes it costs us more money up front to raise our own birds than it would to buy cheap meat and eggs at a supermarket. But if we add in the ethical and environmental costs, as well as factor in poorer health for us, I think we will come out ahead in the end.
For more information on treatment of CAFO birds, see these articles: http://advocacy.britannica.com/blog/advocacy/2007/05/the-difficult-lives-and-deaths-of-factory-farmed-chickens/
To find out what labels like cage free, free range, pastured, and organic mean, see these articles:
For more information on the nutritional value of pasture raised chicken meat and eggs, see these articles: