Voters and Chickens:

Rights (or the lack of) and Repercussions

A.V. Walters

The Chickens have the floor…

Our emus may have to adjust to a different future that I’d imagined for them. It all goes back to a wacky election in 2008.

You see, in that year, animal rights activists put a referendum on the California ballot that would forever change the way chickens are kept on farms in our state. The measure was poorly defined, and the drafters were a million miles from anything in the world of chickens or eggs or economic realities. Still, the objective was to decrease the level of “cruelty” in livestock agriculture. Who could be against that? With some measure of bitterness, I note that that same election cycle produced another measure that stripped marriage rights from gay and lesbian couples in our state. Here we are, over four years later and to date we haven’t sorted out either one of these issues. Chickens given rights, people losing rights! Only in America!!

On the same-sex marriage issue, we are leaping into the future. In part because of the unfairness in the Proposition 8 law, the public dialogue has changed radically. One by one, states are stepping up (as well as the international community) to ratify human rights, ending discrimination in our antiquated, marriage laws. Sadly, in California the situation remains unsettled because actual law moves more slowly than public opinion (and that may be a good thing, sometimes.) This deplorable referendum has worked its way up through the appellate courts and into the highest court in the land. I can’t say the chicken situation is working out so well, either.

Everyone would love to know that the chickens (or eggs) they eat come from some warm and fuzzy, loving farm-home. Modern farming, especially livestock, isn’t warm and fuzzy. Large scale farming is even less so. Since the Chicken Rights referendum wasn’t specific about how chickens should be kept, litigation immediately ensued. (How ironic, a “what came first” thing—the rules or the legislation.) So, farmers waited for instructions. While we’re moving towards an ascertainable standard, the deadline for compliance looms, and many of the older farmers are just closing up shop. What is clear is that the chickens need more “personal space” and elevated wire cages may soon be a thing of the past.

Elmer’s been watching the issue since that election. He’s attended the poultry conferences and seen the new, demonstration equipment. He’s lived on a chicken farm for his entire life and has watched poultry and egg production methods come and go. “Cage free is the future,” he says, “And that’s what we had when I was a kid!” He shakes his head.

“When the cages came in, it was supposed to be the wave of the future. The elevated, wire cages solved a lot of the problems—the waste dropped through the cage for easy removal, the feed was delivered to the troughs along the cage and the eggs rolled forward on the wire chute for easy gathering. Since the chickens weren’t standing in their feces, a lot of the diseases we dealt with, in the past, just disappeared. It was clean and modern.”

The downside to the economy of scale was, well, the scale of it. The press for more production led to overcrowding, and some kinds of wire cages were harmful to the chickens’ feet. Now the consensus is that chickens should be back on the floor, they should be cage-free and should have material (greens, straw or shavings) for “scratch.”

The new law won’t solve the issues of scale and size, and disease becomes a bigger concern. Given the new (and still unclear) restrictions, and the high costs of labor, the commercial solutions offered are high tech and expensive. Nobody wants to see egg costs go to $6.00 a dozen—which we sometimes see here from organic “boutique” farms. The operations challenges remain the same, waste removal and disposal, food delivery and egg collection. The industry is pimping gorgeous equipment—rolling (conveyor) floor beds, automatic feed dispensers and egg collection, all the bells and whistles. And the cost for an operation the size of Elmer’s? Try a cool, half-million dollars. It’s so high, that the only way to make it work is to seriously expand production. So this law, while well-meaning, will drive small producers out of business, and create even bigger factory farms. Good news for chickens?

Elmer is experimenting. He could retire if he wanted but instead, he’s going back to “chickens on the floor.” He’s cutting and bailing his own hay and straw for scratch and bedding materials. He’s resurrected old brooder boxes from over sixty years ago (farmers never throw anything out.) He’s modifying his manure collection system, using bedding materials for absorption, and thus minimizing the frequency of full removal (as relocating the chickens for cleanup is stressful to the chickens.) In short, he’s going back to the kind of farming they practiced when he was a boy. He’s mindful that he’ll need to keep an eye out for any increase in disease and, even at this experimental stage, he’s seeing a increase in predation

Chickens in elevated cages are relatively safe from predators. Elmer’s barns are designed for cage operations, with open sides for ventilation. On the open floors, especially where the chickens are given some access to open-air yard areas, he’s seeing a return of raccoon losses and fox and coyote problems. Even with his small scale experimental operation, he’s losing a chicken a day. This too, is like the old days.

He asked me today if I thought emus could guard against raccoons. In an instant, I saw the writing on the wall (or the broad side of a barn door.) It burst my bubble— the image of our emus patrolling the open range with sheep. I don’t know how emus would react to raccoons—but they’d be good guards against foxes and coyotes. A quick online search reveals no firm information on the emu/raccoon dynamic. It makes me a little sad to think of Gatsby and Kelvin guarding a chicken barn. But, on a farm, we do the work that comes our way. So, we shall see.

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