As Autumn rolls on, our baby chickens are growing rapidly. The youngsters that we raised as surrogate parents from the incubator are enjoying the A-frame chook house that Stace built – complete with a llama to watch over them (when she’s not distracted eating grass or daydreaming!)
Even though our babies are growing quickly, it still takes about 5 months for a young female to start laying. With the demand for our tasty White Stone Farm eggs amongst our family, friends and work colleagues growing, there was an increased need for more immediate layers – and fast!
Hmmm…where to get good layers quickly? We could have bought some pullets at point of lay (ready to start laying eggs), but decided instead to make our decision benefit not only us, but chooks in desperate need of a new home. So, we decided on getting some ex-cage hens. The commercial egg business demands high production rates – chooks need to be pumping out eggs as fast and frequently as possible. The hens responsible for Cage Eggs live in small, cramped cages their entire lives, in huge sheds with tens of thousands of hens in each shed. Although it’s climate controlled and they are fed the best possible ration to get them to produce eggs en mass – they never get to see the sunlight (usually they have extended artificial lighting hours to enable faster egg production), never get to scratch in the dirt, dust bathe or carry out the natural behaviours true free range chooks experience. Their beaks are trimmed back to prevent them pecking at each other, their necks are rubbed raw against the bars of their cages and their nails grow exceptionally long.
And then, once they get to 18 months, they are despatched. In the highly demanding world of commercial egg production, a small lessening of egg production in hens that comes after the first year is apparently not good enough to supply intense demand, so their short life of pumping out eggs for our table is done. And they never once got to see a sunrise.
Many egg producers will sell these 18 month old hens cheaply, so we decided to give 10 of them a go. We should still get a couple of good years out of them and there’s nothing more heart warming than knowing that you’ve saved an animal from a premature death and given it a new lease of life! But wow, what a roller coaster of emotion it’s been…
When we got them out of their boxes, I didn’t quite expect to see them in such a ragged state. A bunch of Misfits. Bare necks, skin rubbed raw from the bars, pale combs, strange growths on their faces, long curved nails, badly trimmed beaks and empty glazed expressions greeted us dully as we gently lifted them out of the car. If more people saw these chooks, there would be a LOT less cage egg consumption!
Their nails had never scratched for grain or bugs and so had never worn down and were in desperate need of a trim! For many, walking was difficult with such long nails, so we carefully took each hen and gave her a much-needed pedicure.
After a quick inspection, important nail trimming, lessons on how to drink from a water bowl and a dusting with Diatomaceous Earth to get rid of any fleas and mites, we introduced them to their new home – a converted Ford Falcon, to begin their lives as free range pasture poultry. It’s amazing how quickly they showed their innate chook behaviour, their newly trimmed feet instinctively making delicate scratching movements once they felt the dirt between their toes for the first time. To our delight, within hours they were scratching in earnest, dust bathing and enjoying the sunshine on their backs. And their new lease of life.
In the Falcon – or Chook Wagon as we call it, Stace had removed all of the seats except the driver’s seat and decked out the car with roosts and a wire floor so that their poo will fall through. By day they explore the surrounding pasture and by night, they are tucked up safely in their car roost where we can close the doors and keep them secure from foxes. And drive them to their new bit of pasture for another day’s foraging and discovery!
To assist in their assimilation to their new lifestyle, we have combined them with our Araucana pasture flock, complete with strong and strapping rooster Aragon, who protectively watches over them and helps to find them food. Since their arrival a month ago, we have been amazed at how quickly they have turned from prison inmates to freedom fighters – from blank stares to sharp, bright eyed problem solvers. Their combs and wattles, once pale, are a vibrant crimson and their feathers are growing back and thickening around their necks and bodies.
It hasn’t been smooth for all however – the demands of intense egg production have taken their toll with 3 hens succumbing to complications internally with their internal egg production systems and unfortunately passing away. I call it Clapped-out Cloaca syndrome! But, they got to see a sunrise or two, feel the dirt between their toes and get a taste of true freedom – which is more than 15,000 of their peers got to experience.
For the most part, seeing each of them show their true personality, find romance with the rooster and enjoy hours of exploring, foraging, clucking and freedom have been worth the effort and emotional roller coaster for all of us! They are affectionately called our Misfits.
Neighbouring the Misfit area in the back paddock is the A-frame. With the dry weather impacting on insect numbers and available food for foraging and the daily chore of having to drag the A-frame to a new spot each day, we decided that they were big and grown up enough to ‘leave the nest’ and experience true freedom. We let them out of the A-frame to forage further afield. After some initial training on getting in and out, they are now pros – and happily explore the field for bugs, returning to the A-frame in the evening to roost, where we can lock them up safely.
Each day they mingle with the Misfits, teaching and learning from each other and experiencing the wondrous freedom of the back paddock. Chickens with very different backgrounds, now both enjoying the same freedoms and lifestyle here at White Stone Farm.
Bringing ex-cage hens onto White Stone Farm has been a real eye opener for us. Seeing the state they were in: their listlessness, injuries, hideous growths, overgrown nails, maimed beaks and psychological stress really puts a stark reality to the cage egg business and hammers home just how commercialism for high demand products can make life absolutely miserable for these chooks. Whereas all 27 members of the European Union, Switzerland and 7 states in the US have banned cage egg practices, Australia still allows cage hens and sadly over 55% of the consumer market still buy them. For many consumers, fast food outlets or large catering companies, buying cage eggs vs free range is down to cost, without regard for the high cost of comfort and ultimately a short life that these animals face so that we can save a couple of dollars. But that choice really does make a difference – to the lives of chooks and ultimately shapes the demand for better living conditions for hens. So the next time you buy your eggs, consider the conditions the chooks may have endured to lay those eggs…and vote with your buying dollar. Make your opinions count when eating out – talk to your local restaurants, cafes, fast food outlets and ask if they use free range eggs (and if not, why not?!). Better yet, get your own backyard chooks and enjoy your own fresh eggs every day, as well as the sheer joy of watching these amazing birds eat your scraps, rid your garden of pests and go about their hilarious chooky business. They are a fantastic (and highly entertaining) investment to any household!