Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Should You Buy Chickens?

There's been a lot of sturm und drang in the poultry world over the past couple of days, primarily due to a certain woman who blogs about chickens and who has gotten very popular, and a video she made that stirred up the exhibition poultry people (I count myself as one of those even though I am not actively showing at present.) I'm not going to get into all the details and hash it all out here, suffice it to say, the tons of discussion has made one thing clear to me.

There are two basic types of people who own chickens: those who treat them as pets, and those who treat them as livestock.

Of course, there's a lot of grey in there, it's not all black and white. But if you boil it down, that's what you get. Most people who breed chickens seriously treat them as livestock. I am one of those. If you ever catch me kissing a chicken or putting a diaper or sweater on it you will know I've gone 'round the bend and should have my keys taken away.

But either way, there are some cold hard truths that people need to face before they get poultry. And the main one is, what will I do when a chicken needs to be culled?

There's that word, culling. It means, bluntly, usually, to put to death. To remove from the breeding pool. To kill.

And if you own chickens, sooner or later, you're going to have to kill one (or more, more likely, as time goes on.)

There are very few vets who deal with chickens, and the ones who do, generally don't know as much as the seasoned poultry breeder does about the birds. Poultry health is typically not something vets learn in university, and for the most part, most of the medications breeders use on chickens are off-label, as there just aren't that many developed for chickens.

I don't know who said it originally, but I'm pretty sure it was poultry judge and longtime breeder Matt Lhamon who quipped to me early on in my chicken adventures "The best cure for a sick chicken is an axe." And sadly, it's true.

Chickens are peculiar. When they become ill, they hide it very well until they are very ill, and close to death. So once a chicken starts showing signs of illness, they are usually too far gone to do anything about.

As well, there's the problem of the law of averages when it comes to hatching chicks. Give or take, about half of the chicks that hatch will be males. And unfortunately, most people don't need a flock of half males and half females for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that a lot of males will fight each other, sometimes to death. I find a good ratio of males to females is about 1 male to every 8 or so females. So then you have to decide, what will I do with all those extra males?

You can try to sell them of course, or give them away, but if you do it's likely they'll wind up being killed anyway to make dinner for someone. No one wants a yard full of cockerels as pets. And I prefer to keep my extra males and eat them myself.

So ideally, before a person gets chickens, they need to ask themselves, "Will I be able to kill a chicken when the time comes?"

If you can't answer that question with a yes, then you shouldn't get chickens, in my opinion. Of course, your mileage may vary, and I am sure there are lots of people who get chickens who don't ever kill one I suppose a vet, paid enough money, will euthanize a chicken, but I know I've never gone that route. But over time that would get relatively expensive, and isn't a really practical way to go.

I encourage friends who have the space for them to get chickens, I think it's a great thing for kids to learn about animal husbandry, and nothing beats an egg warm from the hen when it comes to taste. But anyone thinking about it should also be sure they can answer that question. Because sooner or later, the time will come when you'll have to kill a chicken.

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