To Rescue or Not to Rescue???
Pic: Light Sussex Heritage Chickens on Winter Pasture
Over twenty years ago I purchased one day old chicks and point-of-lay (POL) pullets from the local produce store, and gladly received a non-working (unbeknownst at the time) bantam rooster with my wide eyed naive hope of increasing our new flock of chickens, and I have since learned a great deal about keeping poultry as livestock.
Besides the natural methods of feeding, worming, de-licing and breeding chickens, I have also delved into the ethics of keeping chickens for both food (broilers) and eggs (layers). I am an advocate for heritage dual purpose breeds of chicken for both backyard egg production as well as larger scale organic and freerange systems.
I recently found myself in a conversation with Shirley from Handsourced Rare and Heritage Breeds, an ethical food supplier for the Brisbane region, about laying hens used in images for marketing for broilers. At first glance, this may not even raise an eyebrow for most people, but it does for anyone who has had experience with the organic or freerange poultry industry. It's classed as a form of 'greenwashing' whereby the audience is led to believe that these plump brown egg laying hens (usually either Hy-line Brown or ISA Brown or Lohmann Brown in industrial egg laying) are the same as the Cobb 500 or 700 (TM) or Ross broilers bred solely for chicken meat.
The picture below shows a 6 week old 'meat' bird, with a heavy breast and extraordinarily large legs. They are predominately raised completely indoors with lights on majority of the day (a countdown from 5 hours dark in a 24 hour period, to 1 hour dark in a 24 hour period leading up to their last 5 days of life) to encourage feeding and growth rates. The broilers are usually processed at over 3kg in body weight after around the 6 week mark. More from Animals Australia about the broiler industry can be found HERE.
Picture of 6 week old commercial Cobb broiler courtesy of National Geographic
When speaking with Shirley, my concerns went like this:
"I'm grappling with a recent rescue hen issue. Apparently an organic pastured poultry farm is giving away for rescue hundreds, maybe thousands of 4 year old hyline browns. They're telling people they'll get an egg a day, although the shell may be a little thin. There's a rescue team doing the noble task of rehoming these hens, but I'm not sure the forever homes understand the wider ramifications of this. These hens, if bred won't breed true to type so egg laying ability of their chicks will be extremely variable. These hens usually slow down their laying from 18mths old and are quite possibly near the end of their lifespan at 4 years. Also supporting an organic farm like this may allow the farm to use their 'feel good disposal' of the hens for marketing to perpetuate their business model image. I have no idea what their stocking rates are, but purchasing this breed as either 1 day olds, where the roosters are culled at this point, or POL is supporting the industrialisation of these low welfare (in the chain) birds. I want to be happy for all the forever homes, some are good friends of mine, but I can't help feel they're being used."
Note: I have since found out it was not an organic farm, but a certified free-range egg farm. The Australian National Standard for free-range labelling is stocking rates of 10,000 birds per hectare and was introduced in 2016, against the requests from small producers who preferred to stick to the Australian Certified Organic Standard of 1,500 chickens per hectare. Many believe the term 'free-range' has been greenwashed and are now using the term 'pastured' instead. I can see where all of the confusion comes from, who can keep up with Australian food labelling laws?
You can read more about the changes in egg labelling laws HERE.
Picture above: Hy-lines in a free-range poultry system - in their shed.
Picture above: Hy-lines in a pastured poultry system.
I do believe it is noble to rescue animals, noone wants an animal to be treated poorly or discarded at the end of it's commercial value. My concerns are that in rescuing what essentially will become pets, under the proviso that they will produce abundant amounts of eggs in return for the high quality feed and care we give them, we may be supporting a farm or industry we aren't quite aware of.
The other option is to encourage diversity by purchasing heritage breeds. They are slower to mature, have a longer lifespan, and often are dual purpose in that they lay eggs and can be kept for meat. As the majority of chickens in Australia are the industrial egg layers or broilers, raising heritage breeds is one way to help sustain breeds that may otherwise go extinct, increase disease resistance and expand the genetic pool. In small and urban farming, we do this without question for flora when we plant a diversity of fruit and veggies in our gardens. It is the same concept for poultry.
As part of heritage breed conservation, Rare Breeds Trust of Australia list critical, endangered, vulnerable and at risk poultry and waterfowl HERE.
Thank you to each and every person involved in hen rescue, I hope this blog gives a more rounded view of the egg laying and broiler industry in Australia.
- The Barefoot FarmHer
More information from the Handsourced About Facebook page:
"We are a niche market distribution company based in Brisbane, Queensland. We help launch small batch producers into the retail/wholesale/food service market at no cost to farmers and growers. We source pasture-raised livestock and limited wholefoods direct from Australian farmers and growers who dedicate their practice to sustainable cultivation. We are proud to be the sole Brisbane distributor for the Delicious Produce 2015/16 Award winning Sommerlad Heritage chickens; Lambtastic Saltbush lamb; Awassi QLD fat tailed sheep and dairy - and more."
A special mention of Sommerlad Poultry:
Having met both Michael and Kathryn Sommerlad (they attended my public screening of Polyface Farms) and spoken with them on numerous occasions about chicken welfare, there business, Sommerlad Poultry one completely ethical business I support. You can read more about the ethically bred, raised and 100% Australian family business HERE.