So I’ve got a dilemma. It’s fall. It’s getting cooler, the days are getting shorter, and when I woke up at 6AM it was actually sort of dark outside. Weird! And strange not to be woken up by annoyed chicken noises because they’re actually still in their house, huddling for warmth, at 6 AM.
This also means we’re not getting many eggs. When the days get short, chickens stop laying eggs. Unless, of course, you give them a light. I think you need at least 14 hours of daylight for chickens to consistently lay eggs. Also I think chickens molt in the fall, though I haven’t seen much evidence of this, except for a couple days the white chicken lost a whole bunch of feathers. That seemed to be it though. Does that count as molting? Regardless, she’s stopped laying, again, and the other two are off and on. Like, 4-5 eggs a week rather than 7. And Georgia, poor Georgia, is still stuck in the shed. She lost a bunch of feathers, but in her case I think Rita ate them (Georgia and Rita are the two Rhode Islands, if you’re wondering). I’ve mentioned how after the storm she wouldn’t come out of the house, and was very mopey and wouldn’t eat or drink. Well, she’s better now, but she’s still relegated to the shed because of the weirdness of her poo, even though I let her out in the yard to run around and eat grass and stuff. She’s just not allowed back with the other chickens until everything looks normal. And her tail feathers at least are grown in. I just hope she’s warm enough, inside by herself.
But all of this raises some difficult questions. Most chickens, left on their own, could live to be like 15 years old, though most I think are more like ten. Of course, broilers are typically raised for at most 4 months, and commercial layers about two years (those are in friendly situations- in industrial situations broilers are more like 3 weeks, and layers a year). After two years a chicken just stops laying as many eggs. She might be ok for her third year of life, but then that’s about it.
When we first got the chickens I was resolute. I was not going to be one of those people who kept their chickens around forever as pets, just because. We were going to keep the then year old chickens for one year, and then slaughter and feed them to the animals (cats and dog, which as you’ll know if you read regularly are typically fed chickens from a nearby farm). And if I were being really sensible, I would take care of this before the winter, rather than feed them all the way through the winter when they aren’t going to be laying eggs anyway, unless I figure out some way to hook up an artificial light in the house and put it on a timer for them. This all seems complicated, and who knows how long they’ll lay next year, or how well. In the spring the plan was to get chicks and start from scratch.
Only now the chickens have kind of grown on me. I wouldn’t be torn up or anything if we did kill them, and to be honest a lot of my hesitation in killing them is laziness and fear of doing it by myself (the last time I butchered, I let someone else cut the throats, and I did all the rest, which is plucking, cutting off the head and feet, yanking out the organs, etc). Because I’ve gotten to know them, and their very unique personalities, I would feel awful if I did it wrong, and one of them had to suffer. I mean, poor Disco (the white one). She’s always a little slow, and has always been a crappy layer. There’s no reason at all for us to keep her. But she’s so ridiculous looking, wandering around all puffed up like a giant white, fluffy disco ball. But why keep her? She eats a lot, and that’s about it.
Here is I think where vegans have the most problem with our eating animals (or should). We only keep animals alive long enough to serve our purposes. I have a problem with it myself- commercial dairy cows are typically kept for only six years before they’re sent off to become meat, because that’s how long they produce milk at a volume that makes them “efficient” or “commercially viable.” But a cow on its own could live 15-25 years. The farm where we get our beef (which is also a dairy) keeps a few of the spent cows as sort of pets/ nursemaids for the calves, and they’re happy as can be, living out their lives in style. But that’s only a few. To keep every cow past the age when she produces milk would be ridiculously expensive. And what are you going to do? Set them free?
It’s one of the biggest flaws in the domestication of animals. There’s really no “humane” (and god do I hate how loaded that term is) way to do it. In many ways it’s why hunting is just so much more… moral. Until you come along and pick off the weakest animal in the herd, that animal at least was living its life. And if it gets away from you, it goes on living its life. It’s not a matter of its “usefulness.” You don’t go around slaughtering deer just because they’ve outlived their “purpose.” But this is exactly what we do with chickens and cows. It’s not that they get wasted- they get eaten, at least, and we have to eat, and for whatever reason I have no problem eating broilers- it’s just that it’s arbitrary. We’ve decided that the purpose of this hen’s life is to produce eggs, and when she stops producing eggs, we eat her. There’s no- I don’t know- she doesn’t have the opportunity to take part in the decision.
So when it comes to the matter of when to kill our chickens, I’m kind of stuck. Even if I dismiss the whole morality argument and strictly go with the “purpose” thing, I have no idea if they’ll keep laying in the spring, or how well they’ll do, or whether it’s worth keeping them through the winter with a light to see how that works. I feel like I read somewhere once that people would keep spent animals through the winter but pick them off one at a time as they got hungry (like, pioneers or something). That wouldn’t be such a bad idea except, of course, that we can get all the chicken we want from aforementioned neighboring farm. No one is going hungry here. The chickens aren’t that expensive to feed. They don’t take that much time out of my day (until they get sick). Right now they are all strong and healthy (or Georgia at least gives that appearance), and it’s hard to imagine killing them while they still give every appearance of being in their prime.
So what to do? Leave the others, which were all excellent layers and gave me one a day all summer, in hopes that they will continue to lay well into their third year (some do)? Just kill Disco, who has never lain well and goes for weeks at a time without an egg? Keep them all as pets? Setting them free (just in case someone gets this idea) would result in their immediate termination at the claws of hawk, owl, cat, fox, raccoon, or roaming dog, I can guarantee that. And when it comes down to it, I’m still afraid to actually do the job of slitting their throats.
So what’s the answer?