LIVINGSTON – What do chickens want?
Not so much, really: room for a dust bath, a place to perch, a nest. Absent those three basics – the nest especially – chickens get stressed, animal behavior experts say.
But most egg-laying chickens live without any of those things, in bare cages like the ones stacked four rows high in the J.S. West and Cos. barn in Merced County.
Nearly 150,000 white chickens pace and murmur here, eight birds in each 4-square-foot wire box. A fine dust sticks in the throat. It's 10:30 a.m. and the egg counter on the wall already has topped 59,000.
The Humane Society of the United States says caged chickens suffer – and it's gathering signatures to put a measure on the November 2008 ballot that would make California the first state to ban barns outfitted like this one.
From the Sacramento Bee
Can I begin to tell you how much I love my state sometimes?
Despite the fact that I am by choice not a vegetarian the life of a farm animal is something I have thought a lot about, and would like to see change. Truthfully I think pigs have it worse than chickens on the industrial farm, but I will take any progress I can get, and cage free eggs have been pretty successful in this area for a few years now, so I understand why they're starting with laying hens.
Naturally some farmers are arguing against this measure.
Europe's continent-wide experience in converting to cage-free egg production has already yielded thousands of pages of studies comparing the two systems, Mench said. Two key results:
• During their roughly two-year laying life, cage-free hens die at more than twice the rate of caged hens, likely the result of increased exposure to one another, and to their own manure.
• Cage-free hens suffer high rates of broken bones – 67 percent in one survey. Most modern laying hens suffer from osteoporosis, Mench said, and they're easily injured while jumping around a cage-free barn. On the other hand, she noted, workers often inadvertently break the bones of caged birds as they are removed before being euthanized.
The disease thing is an issue of lack of land, and pure laziness on the part of some farmers though. There are sustainable farms who manage not just cage free, but free range (what I try to buy) chicken farming without disease taking a big toll. But that's because they've completely changed the way they go about farming chickens. My hope is that to avoid the issues of disease, etc. more farmers will be forced to re-evaluate the way they farm, and certainly looking to tried and true sustainable methods will be the best place to look. If they do that, I think they won't be able to help noticing the big picture of the eco-system that is Poly Face Farm, and hopefully, hopefully, adopt it likewise.
Call me optimistic.