Raising Hens Reasonably

An 18th century painting by Jean Baptiste Oudry showing the reality of a hen’s life out on the range.

As always, there are two extreme camps when it comes to raising animals, and they are both fueled by the hope of making money rather than any notion of sustainability.  In the hen business, there are those industrial egg producers who use the battery cage system to maximize egg production to supply large urban and suburban consumers.    On the other extreme are the “free range” people who suggest that hens “naturally” belong out on the range, under the sun gathering their daily diet, and that this will produce the healthiest–and most expensive ;)–eggs.

Of the two, I respect the industrial method more because, at least, the goal is clear and the method makes sense.  For all the romance, free-range egg production is neither “natural” nor sustainable if we’re allowed to think for a few seconds.

There was never a day when hens raised themselves in the wild, folks.  Hens were created by God and given to man to manage according to reason.  Man, the superior creature, could know God’s will for the hens and keep than in a way that agreed with that will.  You may disagree with the manner in which men keep hens for industrial production, but you should realize that the problem is the city, not the industrial henhouse.  If we accept the fact that millions of human beings are going to live in condensed locations where they produce none of their own food or clothing, then we must accept the necessary consequence that animals will be managed in a way that serves the city’s needs.  In other words, the industrial henhouse is not the cause of the problem, but a symptom of it.  If we’re realistic, most of the people complaining about the poor hens have embraced and enjoy the social structure that created the circumstances those poor hens live under.  I just don’t believe we can have this kind of self-contradicting emotion-driven food policy.  To be fair, if the hens in the cages were suffering, they wouldn’t be laying eggs.    The abundance of eggs is a sign that they’re quite happy in those cages!

The birds on the range are not safer than those indoor birds.  Just as many hens who die from diseases in industrial will die in the fields from the danger of dogs, hawks and foxes.  I’m not convinced that the hens are as excited about being in the open as the owners are.  The reality is that the hens are foraging out in the open because they are hungry, not because that they want to.  When hens are well fed and watered, they stay near the henhouse, which proves that they have no “natural” interest in roaming abroad–they’re forced to when they’re not fed well.

Thus, the motivation for many hen-keepers is the idea that leaving hens to go and get their own food will allow them to sell eggs without spending money on feeds.  It’s a fantasy world of making money without spending any that seeks the same goal as the industrial henhouse:  maximizing profits.  

Another 18th century painting by Oudry showing yet more troubles of domesticated fowl kept out in the open.

The reality is that both of these options are inferior to the golden mean.  Hens like to be well-fed and watered, and they reward their owners with eggs when they are.  They like to have some room outdoors to spread their wings and take a dust bath.  However, they show no interest, when well-fed, in roaming away from the hen house, or being out in the open.  Therefore, the ideal care is feed hens well–but not to the extreme that industrial hen houses do, while giving them some space and fresh air–but not to the extreme that the “free-range” people do.

When hens are well-fed, there is no need for clipping wings or raising tall fences to keep birds in.  They’re jumping over the fences because they’re hungry or thirsty!  Hens left to range for their food won’t stop at the garden gate, so free-range methods will require great expenses in garden fencing–all so hungry birds can hunt down their own food.  It’s like a man who refuses to provide for his children, and then concludes that because they, starving, begin to roam about through the streets eating out of trash cans, that must be man’s “natural” way of life. Can we be reasonable and not pretend that the farmer’s work is any less “natural” as the animals’ desire for food and drink?

In the 21st century, we have the option of purchasing man-made feed that is healthy and affordable, and which offers a balanced diet in a single feed.  In 70 AD, the Roman farmer Columella wrote that food proper to hens included “bruised barley and tares, or small siftings and the refuse of wheat”.  That’s pretty much what you’ll find in the feeds available from the local mill. To this feed, we need only provide some oyster shell and clean water and the hens will live happily ever after.  A 50 lb. bag of layer feed can will feed 200 hens a day, and costs around $13.00.  So, if only 120 of those hens lay eggs on a given day, a man will have 10 dozen eggs for $1.30 per dozen.   If he sold them for $3.00 per dozen, he’d profit over $500 each month–and that’s assuming 80 birds don’t lay any eggs.  Any man who thinks that’s too expensive proves that he’s seeking something for nothing, and that’s the real reason he’s interested in letting his hens loose.  It would be much better for him to grow food for his family–corn, potatoes, vegetables, etc..–on the acres his hens are roaming around on than leaving his hens to do so. 

It would be more appropriate to refer to these as “free” range-birds,  since they are left to range that the owner might have them at no cost, rather than “free-range” birds.  Let’s ignore the crazy talk and just raise happy hens.

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William Michael
Beatitudes Farm

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