We awoke to carnage this morning. We found 16 chickens dead, another three injured. At least another 10 are missing. We have a little more than 30 remaining.
This is our first year of being chicken farmers. It is step one in a lifelong goal of sustainable living. We want to grow our own food. We want to be connected to the cycle of life of both plant and animal. As we learn to grow that life, we’re learning more about death.
We ordered chicks from a hatchery and picked them up at the post office in April. Twenty-five were aracauna, also known as the Easter egg chicken for laying pink, green and blue eggs. Twenty-five were Plymouth barred rocks and another 25 were Rhode Island reds, both for meat.
Egg-layers seem simple enough. You feed them; they give you eggs. It is a simple exchange.
But raising chickens for meat is more intimidating. I eat meat and I don’t plan to change that in my diet. In that sustainable argument, it means I need to grow and harvest meat.
Once upon a time ago, while having lunch with a friend, he told me how he wrestled with the guilt of eating meat. He talked about the enslavement of animals and of their death. As we ate these luscious savory crepes with spinach and cheese and ham I pointed out that everything on our plate was once alive.
I respect the vegetarian and vegan for their ethical choice, but I know it is a lifestyle I couldn’t keep. So therefore, my ethical dilemma comes down to how well I respect the life before it becomes my meal.
But we’re not to the chapter of harvest in our story yet. Our chickens are only six weeks old. Our pullets have another six weeks or more to become hens. The males have at least a few more months to live before the to-be-scheduled slaughter. Now, it simply comes down to trying to keep the chickens alive and well.
We began with 75. We lost five the first day to a neighbor’s dog. We gave away two chicks to friends. One died last week. As of last night, we had 67 healthy chickens that pecked at the ground, rolled in the dust, and chased one another for scraps of food. But mostly they cooed. They expressed such a sweet contentment that I only wanted to sit near them and listen.
I didn’t expect to see the dead this morning.
We had been keeping the chickens in our garage to protect them from predators and keep them at a more constant temperature until their adult feathers grew. This week, we moved them to a coop outside.
I worried about predators. Within the first 10 minutes of putting the chickens in the coop, we saw a turkey vulture circling. I put mesh on top of the cage to protect from intruders from above.
But I still feared raccoons, coyote and skunks that could dig underneath. I worried about skunks most of all. Skunks are vile. They will slip into a coop to decapitate the chickens to drink their blood, leaving the carcasses behind.
I don’t know what killed my chickens today. I only know it was violent. The chain link fencing was mangled. The animal used a strength I don’t even possess. It seemed more about mayhem than it did about food. I worry that our loss was again from a neighbor’s dog.
I’m angry at the loss. I’m wracked with guilt. Yet, I’m comforted by friends who raised chickens and lost those chickens to predators.
I’m reflecting on the words of one of my fellow farmers here in Castle Valley. It is no longer as simple as going out and tilling the ground to plant a garden. We talked about fencing to protect young plants from deer, mesh to protect plants from grasshoppers.
In his wisdom, he repeated an old adage he learned as a child. “Plant three: One for the insects, one for the animals, and one for me.”
Perhaps, in that cycle of life, there is another adage for raising animals and the loss that comes from predators as part of this cycle of life.
Kristin Millis is married with five children and two grandchildren. She likes to play outside with Ubu the Wonder Dog, and she blogs at intersect.com/Kristin.