Let me be honest and say that this experiment, thus far, has been far from simple, cheap, or successful. We have had failures left and right. We've lost several birds, including half of our meat flock, to predators. While they were still brooding at a friend's house, a cat broke in to the coop and killed several chicks. After they'd feathered out and we were able to take them home, some other predator, most likely a raccoon, ripped the fence apart and carried away at least 20 birds into the hills. Most of them, we have never found. Several died the next day. A few needed help to die.
That was not a good day. I thought I would be able to keep it together -- after all, these are prey animals and we are literally surrounded on all sides, including the sky and under the earth, by predators -- but then I saw one poor mangled bird whose organs had herniated out of his chest wall, and I lost it. I told Jeremy that I never wanted to do this again, I just want to eat these birds or give them away and then focus on our layers, this is too much, I hate it!
After the shock wore off, I expected to feel differently... but I don't.
This whole project has been more complicated, and more expensive, than I expected. After the initial investment of the birds, we racked up a bunch of costs in building supplies for the tractors themselves. The electrified fence was especially costly, but essential -- not only because of predators such as coyotes, raccoons, bobcats, mountain lions, skunks, owls, hawks, foxes, and our own beloved Tuna, but because the cattle who share the land here are incredibly destructive and would smash the tractors and plow the garden without losing a step.
We're investing in this project entirely with our own funds, without any grants or loans. The money I'm making is mostly devoted to this project. That's a lot of expectation, a lot of idealism. And so far I'm not too excited about the results. Jeremy seems to feel relieved, like the worst of it is behind us: the electric fence is built (and extended around the coop, so hopefully raccoons won't be a problem again), the remaining birds are healthy and happy, and the tractor process seems to be working. He jokes that we should do 200 birds next time. But I'm not happy about some aspects of this project.
|Right before the flock was divided in half.|
The first is the issue of feed. Right now our birds are blowing through 50 pounds of grain every five days. I'm not sure how to get around this. Chickens are omnivores; they cannot survive on grass alone, nor would they be happy with the meager insect population. Feed seems essential. This means monocropped grain and soy trucked in from the Midwest. We hoped to choose organic feed to mitigate at least some of the environmental impact, but we didn't anticipate how much the birds would be eating. Organic feed is twice as expensive and we just can't afford it.
If we're entirely dependent on an outside input, especially one that is unsustainable, that means our operation is also unsustainable. Period.
Another issue is the stress associated with raising chicks. Because we don't have electricity at home, we can't run a brooder, so they were living at a friend's house until they feathered out. This means that we had to go by her house twice a day to feed and water the chicks and keep the pens clean. That was a lot of pressure on top of working all day and getting home after dark each evening, and we'll be doing it every time we get another batch of meat birds.
And our birds came from a hatchery. We were lucky to have such healthy birds that we lost only two to unknown causes; much bigger losses are typical. Hatcheries are an adjunct to the CAFO system, not something I want to support, and they were shipped from several states away.
I love chickens, and the flipside to all this stress and waste and unsustainability is the building of the soil as we prepare for a garden, and having a healthy source of protein from animals we've raised ourselves. These are good things. But this situation is clearly not ideal.
I do believe we'll continue to raise layers here, and with a smaller group of birds we could afford organic feed. Broody girls could provide us with new layers each year as well as roosters for fresh eating. This seems a healthier approach to raising chickens without so many inputs. There's even a local grain project here that may be able to supply us with feed in the future.
But I can't imagine raising so many birds specifically for meat again.