Thursday, November 6, 2008

Poultry Reprieve

So I'm in a quandary this week about my four laying hens. Since early summer I've been mentally preparing myself for their slaughter. I've never slaughtered an animal before, though I have done some butchering. There are lots of reasons I'd made the decision not to keep them through the winter, none of which would have made sense had I put the decision to the hens.

These girls are more than two and a half years old; well past "retirement age" for the average layer. That means they produce fewer eggs and will only grow less productive as time goes on. I don't have a way of keeping the hens warm through the winter. The shorter hours of daylight over the winter will also mean less and less productivity from the hens. These animals are not pets, though I consider their care and well being a solemn duty.

But the most important reasons I have for making the decision to slaughter these hens will sound nonsensical to some people. I planned to slaughter them because it's a sort of moral reckoning for me, a life-long meat eater. As Michael Pollan pointed out in his excellent Omnivore's Dilemma, too many meat eaters "look away" from the realities behind the meat they consume. While I'm aware of many of the issues and I now source my meat locally from sustainable and humane farms, there is still a difference between slaughtering the animal myself and purchasing a dressed and packaged piece of meat. I won't say that I was eager to kill the girls, but I was, in a way, looking forward to taking that final piece of responsibility for what I eat and how I live. I expected to feel a sense of honesty and respect towards the hens, even as I was killing and eating them. It was to be a way of facing the relationship I have with animals directly, instead of turning away.

And then there's the whole competence issue which Sharon discussed yesterday. I feel very strongly that I don't want to be a helpless dependent of my food system - local, and sustainable, and humane as it may be. I want to have the knowledge and the skill it takes to slaughter a chicken and put it on the table. I want to know, intimately and directly, that the animals I eat had good lives and humane deaths.

So, to my quandary. A real farmer friend of mine asked how my hens were doing. When I told her that they were still laying pretty well, but that I planned to slaughter them before Thanksgiving, she asked the obvious question: Why are you slaughtering them if they're still laying well? I then explained their ages and that I had no winter setup for them. Her reply was "I'll keep them for you over the winter. You can have them back in the spring if you want them."

This produced a cascade of thoughts and feelings that really surprised me. I wasn't initially at all pleased by this un-looked-for offer. I've been preparing myself for the slaughter for so long, that I felt disappointment about not getting to do it. I've been looking forward to seeing whether a three-year-old hen can be turned into a decent coq au vin. I've been looking forward to developing those new skills, and to being able to say, "yes, I did it; I can do it." The strength of my own reactions surprised me. And then there followed the more rational side that talked me down from my emotional response: they can have a few more months of a good life. I can still slaughter them in the spring. Not having to slaughter them now frees up the better part of a day later in this busy month.

Still, I wonder about my initial reaction, which was a strong disappointment. I haven't yet given her an answer, but I guess I'm going to agree to it. I'm glad that the girls will live a little longer, and that their continued potential as egg producers will not be wasted. I just wish that there were a way to have my hens, and my moral reckoning too.

Update: The girls were finally dispatched in late July, 2009.


Anonymous said...

How cold does it get where you live? What is their coop like? My experience is chickens need less warmth than we think they do. We keep a light on a timer in the coop for the cold nights; this extra light (and what heat it puts out) allows them to lay throughout the year.

I'm not trying to let your birds off the hook. I have one girl who's approaching her third season and yes she lays only about 2 eggs a week. Old laying hens are much better tasting (IMHO) than the big fat meat blobbos I raise. I say all this and readily admit I will never kill any of our egg birds.

As far as skills go, I wouldn't put chicken killing up there with basic carpentry knowledge or even rudimentary gardening skill. It's a moral hurdle certainly but frankly it is not hard. I don't have a lot of experience doing it: this was my first year with meat birds and I've probably got 35-40 notches in my belt. Each one was hard for me. Plucking is the hardest part, frankly.

Email me if you have questions, though, Kate. I am more than willing to spread the knowledge around!

Kate said...

El, it'll get down to 0F here at least once during an average winter. And 5 or 10 below isn't out of the question either. I think the record low here is -15 over the last 50 years.

Our coop is very basic and cobbled together. The roof is a piece of hardware cloth covered with a few layers of plastic sheeting. During the summer I left the gable ends open, with just the hardware cloth, for ventilation. Now that it's cooler, I covered those to block chilly winds.

The plastic doesn't hold in very much heat, but it does have the advantage of not blocking much light at all. So the girls get as much light as the sun provides.

I think you're probably right about it being more of a moral hurdle than a difficult skill. I had a plucker project in the works too. So yes, it's still disappointing in a way. But I let my farmer friend know that I'd be happy to have her take the girls for the winter.

Thanks for your offer of help, El. I may yet take you up on it.


Anonymous said...

We did in one of our girls this morning. I skinned her and she is chilling down in the fridge until my husband gets around to the gutting. (O.K., so I am still a little squeamish - I'm getting there!) I have also read Mr. Pollan's books. I figure if I can't stand the guts, I have to stop eating chicken. So guts, here I come!

Wendy said...

I live in Maine. We have NO heat in our henhouse or coop. If you're interested, there was a story published at Groovy Green and Hen & Harvest about my chicken coop set-up. Our hens have been fine without any external heat. Their coop is wrapped in 4mm plastic during the winter, which does a really good job of holding in the heat. We're going on our second winter with our current set-up and our third winter with hens, and we've only lost one to cold.

I'm not trying to save your hens either, though. As a "farmer" we have to be willing to cull the flock, when it's necessary to do so. Our chickens are pets, but they're also food, and, like you, I find it very difficult to "go there."

But if it's just thinking you need heat for your girls, my experience is that as long as they're out of the wind, rain and snow, they'll be fine.

Kate said...

Jessica, good for you! I'm looking forward to having that much direct control over my food.

Wendy, thanks for the further input on keeping hens through cold temperature winters. I can see I may have to rethink this for next year. Still, for this year at least, I'm kinda looking forward to being relieved from twice-daily chicken duty. The girls are going to a good home, temporarily. We're gonna miss those eggs though.

Anonymous said...

The problem I have with killing critters is once I get to know them "personally," it's harder to do the deed. The solution? My husband, who never does any of the chores, serves as my hit-man (he's also good at it) and once the critter's dead, I'll butcher it with no problem.

My grandmother raised chickens and turkeys and butchered them by herself with no further thought, but then she had so many that it was that thing of impersonal numbers.

BTW, when I was growing up we had about five Rhode Island Red chickens who lived - I don't know -- over eight years? Maybe nine or ten? While they didn't lay a lot, they kept us in eggs without the expense or hassle of starting new chicks. Since they were fed table scraps and farm-grown ground feed, I think they were economically viable. I remember the vet would always ask about them because he was curious what the natural life of a chicken was. Too bad we never found out -- we had to move and my dad dispatched the old girls one day because they weren't coming with us.

Jan Morrison said...

oh so much to say! I have 4 hens and a rooster. Got 12 day-olds beginning of August. I gave one roo and two hens to a farming friend as I only wanted 5 or 6 - size of house etc... I live in Canada - it is cold here. No insulation at all. Once in awhile a light but not really because we didn't want them used to it as there are frequent outages. I used deep litter so they had heat from that. My four gals are giving us lots of eggs - always at least 3 a day and often 4. They started in January!!! I kept hens before and I think you can keep them along time as long as you aren't putting more into them than out. There is still some snow on the ground here but they pick and scratch all day long and don't eat too much of their feed. We give them leftover everything and they love it - on really cold mornings I would make them oatmeal - och aye - scottish hens! My guy killed four roosters of the six. He has in his past hunted and trapped but he did have a hard time with these because he knew them. I would go upstairs and put the pillow over my head and then go down and be good cleaning etc... (he did all the eviscerating and plucking). We thought we couldn't keep the roo because we live in a suburb but we asked around and no one much cared so we're keeping him. He protects the girls and he's a handsome bugger. He is also kind to us - probably because his brothers went to freezer camp and he doesn't want to. I think it is a dillema as Michael Pollard points out. There is no easy answer. It is way fun to make a nice chook house though and you can do it Frugally! More than heat they need no drafts but plenty of ventilation in the winter. BackYard Chickens is a great site for all questions.

Good luck and struggling with these questions is what is important.

Kate said...

labanan, thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. I love the Scottish hens thing! I am going to try very hard to maintain some laying hens over the winter this year. Even though I will almost certainly need to slaughter the ones I had last year. They'll be quite old by the standards of chooks. But I have a lead on some one-year-old hens, and a plan to convert part of our shed into winter quarters on deep bedding. The problem is going to be getting them enough light and ventilation. But it's in the works.

Thanks for stopping by!