Commercial Cage Free Egg Production – Bigger Cage, Just As Crowded

This video promotes an engineering feat – the industrialization of cage free buildings for egg production.

https://cagefree.summitlivestock.com/

Even thinking about producing 1.1 billion eggs in only 10 layer houses in only 3 sites in the US is scary.   They never show how the building looks from the inside (ie-hen view) but it’s pretty clear from the other video stills/links provided at the end how it will be.  The “cage” is bigger and the amount of space provided is pretty much the same – way too small for a living animal.

People think they are doing a good thing by buying cage free eggs but big industry has figured a way to claim the tag phrase without allowing the hens to live like chickens.  “Free range” has similar issues although arguably somewhat better for the hens as they are only crammed wing to wing at night (vs 24 x 7).

Use your money to provide good lives for hens by buying your eggs from a local small farmer where the hens ARE cage free!

Dominique Hen Looking at Catnip

It’s a Goat Thing

Reader warning: photos show blood/ skulls and the text discusses medical details.

Mid February 2015,  Roberto broke his left horn whacking the hay feeder.  Whacking the hay feeder was one of Roberto’s greatest pleasures in life and he could often be heard throughout the night giving it an adjustment so that he could reach the most tasty hay morsels. He also constantly whacked the side of the barn and the doors, so that I couldn’t keep a coat of paint on any object he could reach.  I can only explain the need to whack as “it’s a goat thing”.

The fracture was small and clean so I opted to leave it alone since chances were good that it would heal on it’s own.  In 10 days it wasn’t bothering him anymore but he broke it again.  The break was larger but still looked like it would heal without intervention.  But as a goat must do, Roberto began whacking the hay feeder again since the horn was no longer bothering him. This time he made a real mess of it and I knew it was going to have to be removed. Roberto was 9 years old so a horn removal at his age was going to be a major, messy job.

Bandage Change Before Horn Removal

Roberto During Bandage Change Before Horn Removal

Goat owners often remove horns from newborn kids by burning the horn buds off their heads which keeps the horns from growing.  It’s extremely painful, which is why goat producers normally do this within a day or two of birth, before the nervous system is completely wired and thus the kid is not completely aware of the pain.  If you remove the horn, immediately below it is the sinuses and the brain, no skull to protect them.  Interestingly for cows, if a horn is removed it is normally left open to the elements to heal.

There are several fairly large blood vessels in the horn as well, so removal involves a fair amount of blood loss unless it is cauterized, which is why burning is often used to close off the vessels. Needless to say, this is not a procedure I would ever do without sedation and/or pain blocking medicine.

Drs. Bergmann & Wilson After Removing Roberto's Horn

Drs. Bergmann & Wilson After Removing Roberto’s Horn

Despite having two great vets come out to the farm to do the horn removal, I was uneasy in advance of the operation.  Thankfully, the procedure went very well with the vets putting him out and then applying the equivalent of Novocaine at strategic nerves around his head and horn.  Roberto lost a fair amount of blood but not enough to need a transfusion.  Once his horn was bandaged and he was given a shot for any after the fact pain, he was given a shot to awaken him.  After about 10 minutes he was up and we were able to help him back up to the barn for some rest.

Roberto Day After Horn Removal

Roberto Day After Horn Removal

Roberto was a bit groggy (as any one having surgery would have been) the rest of the day but was alert and eating, nearly his old self by evening.  This was March 9, 2015.  The photo above shows Roberto with his new bandage the day after his operation.  The plan was to keep the bandage on for a couple of weeks so that it could completely heal before exposing it to all the hay and dirt that comes with living outside.

The bandage was removed successfully after 2 weeks but I didn’t like the looks of the wound.  I emailed pictures to his main vet and she thought it looked as good as could be expected.  I kept changing the bandages regularly and it was a cool Spring so there were no issues with flies attacking the wound. Full recovery for this procedure is typically 6 weeks.

On April 28th 2015, I noticed Roberto running around the pasture shaking his head continually with blood flying everywhere.  Flies were being attracted to the wound so I got him into the garage (the only totally enclosed, fly free area readily available) and after 40 minutes finally got the bleeding stopped.  I called the vet and she was able to make a visit within the hour.  After a quick exam and a discussion we decided to put him down.  After he was gone we explored the wound and found that a scalpel could cut right through the skull.  Roberto most likely had osteoscarcoma which is why the horn broke.  Ending his suffering was what needed to be done.

After 6 months composting (the best method for handling livestock losses), I dug out his skull and found a fairly large hole in his skull right above his left eye socket.  Normally the bone is a bit thinner in that area (see photo of right side for comparison) but there should not have been a hole completely through the skull.  This helped me feel better about the tough decision to let him go.

Roberto Right Skull

Right Side of Roberto’s Skull

 

 

Roberto Left Skull

Left Side of Roberto’s Skull

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Roberto was a gentle giant with gorgeous fiber who is greatly missed.  He always looked out for his twin sister, Ingrid, who was much smaller than him.  Roberto is also the goat pictured on my original blog’s home page.   My learning for the future is to question why a horn would have broken in an adult goat with no prior history of illness or injury to the horn.

 

Welfare for All

According to Merriam Webster welfare is “the state of doing well especially in respect to good fortune, happiness, well-being, or prosperity”.  I think most people would take no exception to this definition.  The more difficult question is which living beings are allowed to experience welfare, how is this decided and by whom?  As a society we’re still struggling to resolve this for our own species, much less for other animal species.  Regarding our own species I think that people generally feel that all humans should be able to experience welfare, but differ in their approach as to how this should occur (food stamps and other social programs for example).

When it comes to domestic animals or wildlife there are additional barriers to coming to a consensus on this issue.  These include the lack of a common language or  communication medium with other animals, differences of opinion as to the relative value of non-human animals, and preservation instincts to name a few.  Recently I was reading news highlights on the 2008 California Proposition 2 concerning standards for raising poultry.  A good overview which also presents the case for and against the law is available on BallotPedia:

California Standards for Confining Poultry (2008)

The short version: “Proposition 2 created a new state statute that prohibits the confinement of farm animals in a manner that does not allow them to turn around freely, lie down, stand up, and fully extend their limbs. The law is set to go into full effect on January 1, 2015.” (Source: BallotPedia link above).

Why would anyone not want farm animals to be able to move about?  It comes down to trading farm animal’s welfare for people’s welfare.  The change is disadvantageous for large commercial farmers, better for small family farmers.  Less money for large corporations potentially means job losses.  The price of eggs are also estimated to increase 20-25% which means fewer eggs sold and some people will no longer be able to afford them.  There is also the argument that it pushes the egg industry across country borders so that we potentially get food that is less safe because of differing regulations in other countries.  Moving farm industries across country borders is a topic for another day.

Food in the US has gotten amazingly cheap based on what is required to create it.  In 1901 the hourly wage was $0.17-$0.28 ( higher in financial and real estate industries) and a dozen eggs cost $0.22 or about an hour’s worth of wages.  In 2002 wages were $15.24-$18.87 hourly and a dozen eggs cost $1.24 (2003) or nearly 14 dozen eggs could be purchased for an hours worth of work.  In 1901 American families spent 42.5% of their income on food, 19.3% in 1972-1973 and 13.1% in 2002-2003  [Source: 100 Years of US Consumer Spending US Bureau of Labor Statistics Report 991.]  This is what industrialization did for farming beginning in the 1950’s.  It was claimed as a breakthrough because food became available to even the poorest people due to the sharp decease in the cost of food.  The resultant efficiencies of mechanization and scale are such that small farmers struggle to survive among large corporate farms.  More on this will have to wait for another blog entry as well.  But what is the real price?  The total price is far more than monetary cost alone.

There are still way too many people living in poverty without access to nutritionally sound food and by making food so cheap we’ve also made our society over weight with serious health consequences and associated health care costs.   Humans don’t need to eat as much meat as we do, but we do so because it has become so cheap and readily available.  Not to mention that the consumer has no idea what goes into getting that steak or chicken to the grocery store.  Most consumers don’t want to know either.  In summary, there are environmental costs, animal welfare costs, ethical and long term health consequences to the eater by producing and eating cheap food.

Here at my farm I break even on out of pocket costs at about $3/dozen (excludes insurance, property taxes, labor but accounts for seasonal laying habits ie- fewer eggs in the winter, more in the warmer seasons).  I could trim costs by selling chicken meat (ie- culling hens after their first laying season) but prefer the satisfaction of keeping them for the 10 years or more they will live with retirement status as pay back for the eggs they provided over time.  My hens all lay eggs up until they die, just not as many as when they were young; so they continue to be productive their entire life.  They also eat a lot of bugs out of my orchard and provide me with entertainment when I have the time to watch them.  They interact with me, they know who I am versus other humans, I can recognize the meaning of a number of their vocalizations, they have learned a small human vocabulary and thus they are sentient beings that can be communicated with at some level.  Because my hens are allowed to roam in a large electric fence protected pasture they do not get sick or carry diseases and they live and lay eggs for many years without my feeding them antibiotics or even worming them.  I believe it makes the eggs better for the people who are eating them as well.

Dominique Hens in Wildflowers

But the fundamental consideration is that as intelligent, highly versatile and capable beings we should be able to choose a course of action that protects the welfare of all living things rather than only looking out for humans.  Sometimes it takes more effort or creativity but I don’t believe that decisions impacting the welfare of humans can be approached in a vacuum as if what happens to us can be isolated or separated from all other life.

Farmer’s Dilema – Existence vs Thriving

You know it’s cold when your breath freezes instantly into icicles!

TyeDye With Icicles IMG_6701

The animals handle the cold really well – much better than me!  During bad spells of weather I am happy that humans discovered how to make fire and then invented central heating.  You have to be impressed by the humbleness of animals and their ability to take what comes their way.

Goats and sheep are very similar but their personalities are very different.  Goats are much more interactive than sheep.  My goats walk in front of me in a blocking move to stop me from leaving.  My sheep will follow me for a treat but would never try to trip me.  One of my sheep, Bella,  is more aggressive than the others and at nearly 300 pounds can be a handful.  She will push me with her nose for treats if she smells them and follows within inches behind me with her head down, looking like a missile.  An amusing sight!  Mostly the sheep watch my activities with attentive paranoia but will come forward to take a treat if one is offered.

Goats really appreciate personal attention if they are feeling bad and will nuzzle you with their thanks.   Sheep are generally so much more nervous about being handled that it doesn’t noticeably help them.  They do love to be scratched, between the front legs and on the checks are favorites of my sheep, but they have to be in a happy, relaxed mood to allow such behavior.  Generally if they are sick, they are fearful as they know they are more susceptible to predators.

Prey species don’t show they are hurting until it is very bad indeed so farmers have to keep a sharp eye on their charges.  Even very minor behavior changes can indicate that an animal is in trouble.  I can sometimes tell almost as a feeling, not because they are doing anything specific to indicate they are hurting.  They all have their own personalities and knowing each of them well is the key to keeping them in good health.  Large farms can’t possibly do this.  I had over 50 goats and I reduced my flock size after realizing that I could not give them the care they deserved.  Since animals “handle” what they are given I feel a greater responsibility to ensure they have healthy, happy lives.

As an animal lover I struggle constantly with the continuum of offering an animal an existence vs providing them a ‘quality’ life.  I believe that it is better to put an animal down humanely than to keep them alive under bad conditions but where to draw the line?  There is no single correct answer, but for myself I have become more conservative over time, feeling that the animals in my care deserve a good life and if I’m stretched too thin it is best that I don’t take on additional animals.   Currently I have 10 goats and 3 sheep and this feels like a good number.   All the same, it is always hard to pass on sheep or goats needing homes as their options are slim vs companion animals such as dogs.

January Thaw

Ingrid is in the mood and letting the entire county know with her loud calls.  Goats are very vocal about such things which is handy if you are breeding them; you know exactly when to introduce the buck and will have a pretty accurate due date.  Sadly I came home last March to find my buck dead in the front pasture.  No idea what happened, but I suspect his pasture mates broke his neck.  Sienna was such a dear goat, never aggressive and did not fit into the goat world very well.   He was a bottle baby as his mother wouldn’t accept him, living in the house for about 6 weeks with 2 cats.  I suspect he always thought he was either a cat or a person.

Sandy and Sienna

Sienna with Sandy

His pasture mates broke his back hip when he was about 4 years old so it is easy to imagine one of the big wethers hitting him with more deadly consequences.  Anyway…..sheep are much more subtle in expressing their interests.  Sheep instead use a maneuver I call “kaschnoodling” instead of crying incessantly as goats do.  Kaschnoodling involves rubbing heads and noses together, at times head on, staring into each other’s eyes for quite some time.  It is also curious that ruminant voice volume is inversely proportional to physical size.  Thus Ingrid is the smallest goat and has the loudest voice.  Luckily the impulse only lasts several days (although repeating ever 3 weeks or so) and Angora goats are seasonal breeders which means they only breed ~late October through January.

Roberto and Ingrid

Ingrid (right) with her twin brother Roberto.

Changes in weather always makes the goats frisky and Boo (aka Black Magic) never needs a reason to give me the “Sister Bertrille” move (look at her ears).  She was also a bottle baby but was such an exuberant kid that she only lasted 2 days in the house.  Unable to contain her in the laundry room, she was put out with her mother Megan and twin sister Starlight.  Although Megan did not like Boo, she tolerated her (vs Sienna’s mother Ginger who made it a point to beat him to a pulp if he was left with her).  This allowed Boo to play with her twin sister and grow up in a more normal environment.  So Boo knows she is a goat, but thinks that people are also goats and thus can be a handful when she is in a frisky mood.  Frisky goats like to challenge each other to some good old fashioned head butting but unfortunately this is not a good sport for humans.

Frisky Boo  Black Magic

When you have a kid which has been rejected by it’s mother you have to bottle raise them or lose them, and yet being raised by a human will totally change the goat they might have been.  A bit like playing God.  Although I always felt it was the right thing to do, and could not have left a kid to die without trying to save it, I always wonder about the long term impact of that decision.