Farming in Season
As spring 2011 arrives in the Kansas heartland, Heritage poultry farmer and Farm Forward board member Frank Reese and his birds are in the middle of the liveliest and busiest time of the year. Spring on a standard-bred poultry farm is a remarkable sight and we wanted to give you a bird’s-eye view of the process (pun intended).
As you read this webpage a barnyard cast of ducks, geese, turkeys, and chickens on Frank’s farm are now mating, laying eggs, and enjoying the change in season like the rest of us. Especially in the spring, Frank’s network of farms, Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch, presents an encouraging contrast to the season-less, unsustainable, and cruel production of birds on the factory farms that produce more than 99% of America’s poultry products.1 By using traditional husbandry techniques2 that work with the fertility of spring and the natural social behaviors of their birds, Frank and his colleagues model the more humane and sustainable production that was the norm prior to the rise of factory farming—and that could be the norm once again.
In early March, warmer temperatures and longer days help lush, wild grasses grow back at Good Shepherd, creating pleasant shade and a place to forage for the ducks, geese, and turkeys as they begin their annual mating rituals. Even the chickens, who mate and lay eggs year-round, increase their intimate activities in the warm spring months. Since Frank’s animals are healthy and since they enjoy mating and seek it naturally (who knew?), Frank insists that none of his birds be forced to mate or lay artificially and he never hatches birds out of season.
This way of working with the animals’ natural behaviors contrasts sharply with the aggressive process of artificial insemination that is often used on factory poultry farms and that is the exclusive method of breeding in the turkey industry (industrial turkeys are incapable of natural reproduction). Ironically, it is precisely because factory farmers breed unhealthy and unnaturally large birds that they now must artificially inseminate animals, inevitably resulting in abusive handling.3
By the end of March, the female turkeys, ducks and geese are already laying their first eggs. Frank then gathers the eggs twice a day and transfers them to special incubators whose temperature (99.5 degrees) he carefully and personally regulates during the four-week gestation process.
The hatching is perhaps the most exciting time on the ranch. This year the first of the baby turkeys, called poults, hatched only a few weeks ago, and others will continue to hatch through the end of May. The first of the geese hatched only a few days ago, and the ducks will soon follow. Frank will continue to gather and incubate turkey eggs until the end of May.
On Good Shepherd Ranch, hatching time—whether the once-annual hatching of ducks, geese, and turkeys or the year-round hatching of chickens—is a joyful time. It is difficult not to be intoxicated by the swell of all that new life, and the slaughterhouse seems far in the distance. Yet factory farms have radically changed this. Consider the plight of egg-laying industrial chickens: since these birds are not usable in the chicken meat industry, all the male chicks are killed upon hatching—250 million are killed for this reason every year.4 The female hatchlings fare worse and are welcomed into the world by “debeaking,” the painful process of cutting off the tip off of chicken’s sensitive beaks, their main instrument of exploration.5
During the summer, the warmest and driest season, the ducks, geese, and turkeys at Good Shepherd do most of their growing. The turkeys that hatch now will take 28 weeks to fully mature, just in time for Thanksgiving. It is in fact this natural maturation of turkeys in November that led the bird to become a staple of so many Thanksgiving tables (turkeys are the only animal Americans eat that are native). During this time, all Good Shepherd birds will roam the ranch with their kin and enjoy the grassy feast brought by spring rain. Frank’s ducks and geese are also provided access to a pond.6 A few of the birds that hatch now will be sheltered over the winter and will then emerge in the spring to help start this cycle over again.
Industrial turkeys, by contrast, have been genetically altered so that instead of living for 28 weeks, they mature in less than half that time (8-12 weeks).7 Or consider industrial chickens, who mature in 6 weeks8 as opposed to the 18 weeks that Frank’s chickens take.9 Accelerating the birds' metabolisms produces all sorts of unintended side effects, leaving industrial birds in pain for much of their short lives.10 Additionally, since turkeys, ducks, and geese are all naturally inclined to grow during the long, warm spring and summer days, factory farms manipulate light and temperature to further accelerate the birds’ productivity, often exacerbating welfare concerns.11
Frank and many other farmers devoted to husbandry-based farming would sooner stop raising birds than cause them suffering and deprivation in these ways. It’s not nostalgia that motivates Frank and other conscientious farmers to adopt this stance—it's basic ethics. We at Farm Forward agree: to raise birds as the industry does is to deprive them of the basic experiences that, quite simply, allow birds to be birds—to live as their bodies are built to live.
Please help us make humane, and sustainable farming the only kind of poultry farming by making a spring donation.
- 1. Farm Forward calculation based on U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2002 Census of Agriculture, June 2004; and Environmental Protection Agency, Producers’ Compliance Guide for CAFOs, August 2003.
- 2. Animal husbandry refers to the body of knowledge and techniques used to organize animal agriculture prior to the rise of “animal science.” Where animal science has tended to ignore animals as living beings with interests of their own, treating them like cogs in a larger machine, husbandry traditions have often aimed to work with the natural behaviors of animals to align the wellbeing of animals with the interests of the rancher. Science can play a valuable role in refining and improving animal husbandry, but it should build on the insights of husbandry rather than supplant them.
- 3. For further information on the humane issues involved in insemination see this first hand account.
- 4. M. C. Appleby and others, Poultry Behaviour and Welfare (Wallingford, U.K.: CABI Publishing, 2004), 184.
- 5. Hester, P.Y. and Shea-Moore, M. (2003) Beak trimming egg-laying strains of chickens World’s Poultry Science Journal 59:458-474. See also United Egg Producers Animal Husbandry For U.S. Egg Laying Flocks 2008.
- 6. Interview with Frank Reese, 2011.
- 7. Ibid.
- 8. Industrial chickens raised for meat, also called “broilers,” live between 38 and 42 days before being shipped to slaughter. Some alternative breeds that make up less than 1% of the U.S. poultry industry such as the “Freedom Ranger” (also called “Label Rouge”) live as long as 84 days and have less severe welfare problems. These birds are often and inaccurately described as “slow growing.” However, prior to the rise of factory farming it took birds at least 120 days to grow to maturity. An 84 day growth period indicates a profound genetic alteration of the chicken metabolism and requires reliance on inhumane and unsustainable factory farm hatcheries.
- 9. Industrial chickens not only grow three times as fast, but also eat 1/3 the feed of their predecessors. This is a profound metabolic and genetic alternation roughly equivalent to engineering human children who by age 5 would be well past puberty having only eaten breakfast.
- 10. T. G. Knowles and others, “Leg Disorders in Broiler Chickens: Prevalence, risk factors and prevention,” PLoS ONE 3, no.2 (2008): e1545, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0001545; S. C. Kestin and others, “Prevalence of leg weakness in broiler chickens and its relationship with genotype,” The Veterinary Record 131 (1992): 190–194. For discussion see Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals page 126 and HSUS, “An HSUS Report: The Welfare of Animals in the Chicken Industry.”
- 11. James R. Gillespie. Modern Livestock and Poultry Production. New York: Delmar Learning, 2004.669.