They get old, and slow down laying, well before they die. In fact, their peak, in terms of egg laying, is between 6 months and 18 months. For a chicken, that’s their teenage years. A back yard chicken can live anywhere from 3 – 10 years.
I use the phrase back-yard on purpose. Nature is cruel- and farming rarely kinder. Chooks are preyed on by foxes, dogs, and birds of prey. In the the wild chooks would rarely make it past 3. Most farmers kill, cull or rehome their birds at 18 months. A few stretch them out to 2 years.
Our girls have just turned three. And they don’t lay anywhere near as many eggs as they used to. I wrote an email a few weeks ago to all the people who are part of our chook egg subscription, and then I realised that, actually, I want this information to be available to more than just those 30 families.
I’ve written about shades of grey in farming before. We are committed to producing nutrient dense food for our local community, and doing it in a way that improves our soil and our environment. But we also want to do it kindly. Kindly to our customers, to our staff, to ourselves and to our animals. And it turns out it’s a really fine line to walk.
Now, I don’t know any farmers who are purposefully unkind. No one sits in school and dreams of the day they can kill animals, underpay workers, or cause nutrient runoff and topsoil loss. But our current food system and our current economic system, just don’t add up to kindness.
For their first year of laying, each chook lays nearly an egg a day. We feed them organic grains and veg scraps, to support other farmers who have the same ethics and priorities as us. Once they’re old enough to survive outside we keep them on pasture, moving them multiple times a week to fresh grass, and never shutting them away. Once you add in fair wages, superannuation, and work cover, it’s a pretty marginal business. But chooks bring other, non financial benefits to the party (or paddock!). They scratch around, mixing their manure into the soil and fertilising for us. They eat bugs and worms, breaking up pest life cycles. In their rush to find these bugs and grubs, they trample lots of grasses, squashing them into the soil, and helping us to sequester carbon and build soil. If chooks could lay an egg a day their whole lives, we would have no problem- it’s an easy line to walk.
But as I wrote earlier, most farmers kill, cull or rehome their chickens at 18 months old. Why? As chooks get older, they lay less eggs every week, but keep eating the same food. And they also have a longer moult break each year over winter, where they barely lay at all. We spend 21c per chook per day on organic feed. And at this time of year we get 2 eggs per week per chook. That means we spend 73.5c on food per egg. And we sell those eggs for 83c-more than many other farms. Now that maths doesn’t include cartons, or wages, or even the initial cost of the birds. Simply put, the economics just don’t add up
So what do we do? I don’t want to kill our birds before their even halfway through their potential life. We’ve pushed further than any other commercial farmers I know. Our birds are three. That’s twice the age of the chooks on even the best free range egg farm. And were feeding them through another moult right now. We are committed to farming ethically. To respecting the life of every animal and human on our farm. And to giving our chooks a longer life.
Does that mean that we will never kill these girls? I don’t know. I honestly don’t know if we will be able to afford to. But I do know that we are walking that line, for as long as we can as far as we can.
This line we’re walking, it relies on us always questioning, and pushing boundaries further. Finding a solution that’s better than the last, but always looking for how we get better and beyond that. It relies on Matt and I having the confidence to keep acknowledging our flaws, keep adjusting our systems, so that we can keep learning, and keep improving.
And it relies on you. It relies on a community of people who believe in the same things as us. People willing to pay a bit more for their eggs. People who are trying mixed cartons of duck and chook eggs, while our old girls get through their moult. People asking questions of their farmers, and reminding us that the health, welfare and lives of our animals are important.
So please, keep an eye on us as we balance our way down this path. Give us a clap on the back to encourage us, a hand to hold when we wobble. And if it ever looks like we’re going to jump off, give us a kick up the arse.