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Jessie Knadler is the author of Rurally Screwed and coauthor of the preserving cookbook Tart & Sweet. She’s been featured on NPR.org, in the Washington Post and French Elle. Her writing has appeared in Martha Stewart Living, Newsweek, Self, among many others. She lives in beautiful rural Virginia with her husband and daughter. Jessie blogs at rurallyscrewed.com.

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When Archaic Farming Practices Still Prevail

By Jessie Knadler |

 

About a month after my husband got back from Afghanistan, we ordered a small flock of 12 laying hens. The hens came to us as pullets — teenage chickens. We opted for pullets over chicks, which is how we normally order them, because we were both eager for farm-fresh eggs as soon as possible.

Well, the pullets came, we went and picked them up from the store where we ordered them. But when we brought them home we noticed something was amiss: the tips of their beaks were missing. Our chickens had been de-beaked.

For those of you who don’t know, debeaking is one of those old-fashioned but disturbingly common industrial farming practices intended to reduce cannibalistic pecking. To be clear, pecking is totally normal chicken behavior. It’s how they root for food, groom themselves and establish hierarchy in a flock  — it’s where the term “the pecking order” comes from. Chickens aren’t really chickens unless they peck.

Pecking only becomes a problem when chickens do it habitually and obsessively or violently — eating their own eggs or pecking one another or themselves to death. This is abnormal chicken behavior, often resulting from the stress and duress of being reared in captivity — cramped battery cages, crowded floor systems with little to no access to fresh air, grass or sunshine. To paraphrase from Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, when chickens or any animal (including humans) are denied the right to express their creaturely nature (in the case of birds, foraging, rooting, roosting,  flapping), they tend to go a little koo koo, either by trying to harm each other or themselves.

You’d think industrial farmers would have thought to remedy the situation by attacking the root of the problem — reducing livestock stress by giving animals a bit more space — but someone decided it was better and more cost-effective to tackle the end result of that problem instead: bye-bye, beaks. It’s like chopping off the hand of a bully who you know is being abused at home.

So now we find ourselves with 12 debeaked birds. And I have to say, every time I see them, I’m a little put off.  All I can see are animals that have been, well, mutilated!  More disturbing is that they behave as if they’ve been traumatized. I realize I may be anthropomorphizing here, but we’ve had them nearly two months and they have yet to lay a single egg. It took them two weeks to finally venture outside the Hen Hut, and when they did, they huddled  underneath it for another week or more (you can just make out a pair of legs hiding beneath the Hen Hut in the photo). They don’t allow us to get close but scamper away on approach. I can’t even get a decent picture of them, they’re so skittish. They are the most nervous, shell-shocked bunch of birds we’ve ever owned and I can’t help but blame it on their beak-less faces.

Which leads me to the second part of this issue.  We live in an area where debeaking is still considered normal and okay in certain pockets.

“It’s not a big deal,” I’ve heard debeaking pacifists say. “People have been doing this forever.”  To which I’ve responded, “Funny, they say the same thing in countries where they burn women alive for cheating.”

I wanted to complain to the store where we bought them (who I’m sure ordered them from a large poultry supplier/wholesaler). But Jake, who is more of a “kill ‘em with kindness” kind of guy with a gift for ingratiating himself to the locals, was concerned my complaint might only highlight my outsider status as an armchair tree-hugging hippie who doesn’t understand “real” farming.  I guess I don’t much care what people think, but we do live in a small town, and once you have a reputation — good, bad, or otherwise — it tends to amplify. You have to be careful discussing these issues when the prevailing ethos goes the other way.

At the same time, neither of us want to give June, who just turned two, the message that it’s ever okay to accept the status quo just because that’s the way things have always been done. Jake opted to insinuate our displeasure to the store rather than say it outright.  ”Do pullets always come debeaked?” he asked, concerned look on his face. “We were surprised to find them like that.”

Who knows if they got the message, and we probably won’t buy chickens from them in the future.  In the meantime, we’re stuck with 12 beak-less, non-laying birds who still deserve fresh air and forage, ample space and sunshine … the cornerstones of good animal husbandry, a lesson we want to instill in our daughter.

Every night after work, Jake and June amble hand-in-hand down to the Hen Hut where she helps dad fill the food troughs and change their water.  And every night they check all the laying boxes just in case.  And you know what?  Two nights ago, June collected her very first egg.

Maybe those chickens are coming around after all.

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About Jessie Knadler

jessieknadler

Jessie Knadler

Jessie Knadler is the author of Rurally Screwed and coauthor of the cookbook Tart & Sweet. She’s been featured on the Katie Couric talk show, NPR.org, the Washington Post, French Elle and made the cover of the New York Post. Her writing has appeared in Martha Stewart Living, Newsweek, Jezebel.com among many others. She lives in beautiful rural Virginia with her soldier husband, her two year old daughter and a wily dog from Afghanistan. Read bio and latest posts → Read Jessie's latest posts →

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9 thoughts on “When Archaic Farming Practices Still Prevail

  1. Erik H says:

    Jesse,

    Great article, and great blog. I also raise chickens, and currently have 15 in my suburban yard. I was given three by a neighbor who was moving, and they were all debeaked. I was very surprised by this, because I have never had an issue with pecking. My chickens have enough room to move around, and seem to be happy enough in their situation. When they establish a pecking order, the debeaked chickens have almost to method of fighting back, so they get picked on a bit more than the others. On the flip side, I know a farmer who has over 100k free-range layers, and he debeaks all of them. I inquired as to why he does this, and he told me that they have always done it, even before the farm was free range. As your title states, archaic farming practices prevail.

    Erik H

  2. sarah says:

    i agree with you jessie, a chicken should live a normal chicken life, as should veggies in there natural state and all animals if possible..so even tho its a royal pain. i order my chicks from the feed store or people that raise them up right..a few days old..then they get used to you and they can still be skittish as im sure you know..better to do the long ass way than to have abused chickens that had god knows what done to them and injected into them..no offense to your sweet neighbors or family..i love the ole way of doing things my self..but with that said..fuck em if they dont like the way you wanna raise your own :)

  3. [...] it appears our debeaked birds are starting to come around because Jake and June discovered the very first egg the other [...]

  4. joyss says:

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  5. Dakota Rose says:

    Hi, I just thought I’d give a little inside into what a pullet is…A pullet does not mean it’s a teenager, rather a pullet is a female chicken and they are considered a pullet until they go through their first molt, at this point she becomes a hen.

    1. Jessie Knadler says:

      Aah, I see. Thanks for clarifying!

  6. Blaire h says:

    As efficient as jake is, farmers as a whole need to see financial improvement for a change. You know what feeng a family is like and especially when the breadwinner is a farmer. Debeaking solved the problem as they saw it. Buying or renting more land is not easily done, however is probably the best solution. Luckily, the national movement toward more homegrown, natural, less torturous rearing should help a small movement toward the right direction. Perhaps your writing can instigate a change? Check into the county extension offices, FSA offices and see where perhaps you can make an impact? Did you ever see the movie on temple grandin? You’re in for a struggle, but is one worth fighting for!

  7. Christy says:

    We have more than 10 acres of land and are considering rescuing some birds from an egg laying facility. These birds are debeaked and the idea horrifies me, but like I said we would be bringing them to a better environment to finish out their days.

    My question is this: can your debeaked birds still eat grass? Does the fact that they have the tip of the beak removed make it so that they can’t pull grass up to eat it?

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