When you’re not the opening batsmen. Life for our spare roosters.

This fine looking rooster below represents many generations of selective breeding, but right now he is not needed in our breeding programme. He has to wait on the sidelines, just in case we may need him. He may get an opportunity to make his mark, but he might not. It’s expensive to keep spare roosters, and we have up to four generations on our farm at any one time, but this post is about the difficulty of caring for them humanely.

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What happens when you put a group of roosters together? They don’t all hold hands and play nice. What happens when you put a group of roosters together on a long term basis? When the initial fighting subsides, and the pecking order is established, those at the bottom continue to have a hard time, sometimes they don’t survive. What happens when you bring a rooster back from the field and place him in with the rest of the boys? The pecking order is disrupted and the fighting begins again, in earnest, and the new arrival can be badly knocked about. However aggression is often linked to fertility in roosters, so it’s not something we want to select out of them. These are the issues we have been dealing with for many years.

When we first began breeding our meat chickens, we knew this reality about roosters, so we invested in individual cages. That may sound strange to those who consider a caged animal as a stressed animal, but when an animal is at the bottom of the pecking order, sometimes a cage is their haven. We gave each rooster the opportunity to feed and water without being attacked, and we also took them outside on a rotational basis to spend the day in an enclosure on the grass. This was labour intensive, but our endeavour to improve their quality and length of life.

We then decided to take the plunge, and place all our spare roosters together outdoors. We gave them double storey shelters, and large range areas – all in an attempt to alleviate anti-social behaviour (i.e. give the roosters at the bottom of the pecking order enough room to get away from their attacker).

Spare roosters June 2015

 

On the surface this seemed better than cages, but we found the roosters at the bottom of the pecking order were suffering more than we were prepared to accept. So it was back to the drawing board.

We designed and built pens that allow room and height for the roosters to stretch and crow, and they have litter on the floor, not wire, so they can scratch for their grain. There is also good air flow and light.

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I walked between the pens with Michael, and listened to his husbandmen’s heart as he spoke these words. “Look at this fellow” he said, as he pointed to one of the roosters. “His comb is now redder, and fuller in the short period of time he’s been in here. I’ve been working on getting food into him, and I may have just saved him.”

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It would actually be easier for us to keep them all together outdoors, and would cost less in labour to feed them, but we have made this decision based on their well-being, and continue to monitor them daily.

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3 comments

  1. Kathryn

    That’s one of the best posts I’ve read in donkey’s. This is EXACTLY the sort of information people need to know – to understand the complexity of running an operation.

    On one hand, if you have to lock animals in cages to do what you’re doing then is it worth it and should it be done? Should we eat animals at all if this is what we have to do to them? How different is this, then, from the intensive farming that we’re all working so hard against?

    On the other hand, what you and Michael are doing in developing genetic diversity is key to ensuring a sustainable future for all of us. Without your work, the gene pool narrows, the biosphere shrinks and our capacity to flourish and thrive is reduced.

    Consumers want simple choices in an ever more complex world. They want to know that something is ‘ethical’ and ’sustainable’ and ‘humane’. It’s hard from them to accept that nothing is ever that simple.

    I feel uncomfortable looking at those cages as I’m sure you do, or you wouldn’t have bothered writing the post. But the more time I spend interacting with farmers and considering these issues and running our own business, the more I realise how complex the journey can be arriving at an ‘ethical’ or ’sustainable’ outcome.

    Natural systems are complex and involve life and death at every level but most of us are so removed from daily interaction with these systems that it feels terribly harsh when we are confronted by them. So we squirm and fret and want the simplicity of platitudes and neat, catch-all descriptions like ’sustainable’ and ‘ethical’. It’s a perfectly understandable reaction.

    Mmmm, I might write a blog about it myself!

    Anyway, thank you for this, I thought it excellent but sobering and will share it with our subscribers.

    (I am in awe of you being able to write so thoughtfully when you have 9 children and a farm to run. Hats off.) Laura

    Laura Dalrymple M: 0409 929 896

    Feather and Bone T: 02 9818 2717 Unit 8, 10-14 Lilian Fowler Place Marrickville, NSW 2204

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  2. What a beautifully written, informative post, Kathryn. How thoughtfully you have expressed the issues underlying, and core to, ‘ethical’ farming. I thank you for the succinct information and look forward to sharing this across my networks.

    Shirley Harring

  3. Thank you Laura and Shirley, we are very grateful for your comments.

    Laura, thank you for articulating these important points, and the only one I would add is this: Australian consumers have not had to consider this area of meat chicken production for many years. The main consideration is now about the rearing of the chickens that end up on our tables. To compare how the conventional chicken industry conducts their pedigree breeding work, one would have to travel overseas to Aviagen and Cobb Vantress, the developers of the Ross and Cobb meat chicken strains grown by all other commercial chicken farmers in Australia.

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