One of the main differences between sustainable farms, like Wyebrook or Polyface, and conventional farms is how they approach problems. Farming – sustainable or not – is a complicated business with a lot of unpredictable and uncontrollable variables, especially if you are working with animals.
Eggs are a perfect example. Here at Wyebrook we have a flock of about 75 laying hens which means we collect 70-75 eggs each day. On a typical day, we have 2-3 cracked eggs that have been rolled out of a box or stepped on and that’s OK. These things happen.
Lately though we’ve been finding a lot more cracked eggs. Like 8-10 a day. That’s well over 10% of our total egg profits! Obviously this is a problem.
The cracked eggs we’ve been finding recently are different from the normal cracked eggs. These new ones have obviously been pecked open by the hens. Yes, if left to their own devices chickens will eat chicken eggs. They’ll also eat other chickens if they opportunity presents itself. Remember what I said about their being dumb?
This is a fairly common problem with chickens. The conventional farmer looks at the problem and asks “How can I stop this?” A perfectly valid question and one we are asking ourselves here at Wyebrook. However, the most popular solutions among conventional farmers are caging/confining the birds and debeaking. In this process, the beak isn’t removed completely as the chicken wouldn’t be able to eat, but it is clipped and blunted to minimize the damage a bird can do by pecking at another bird or egg. The practice is ethically questionable, incredibly time and labor intensive, and certainly not natural, but it does provide a solution.
That solution, however, only addresses the symptoms of the problem. Sustainable farming of course asks “How can we stop this?” but it also asks “Why is this happening?” Asking “why” helps get to the root of the problem in order to find a permanent and natural solution.
So we’ve been asking ourselves what has changed in the past week? Last week our eggs were fine. And the week before that and the week before that. What’s different that could be causing the chickens to consume their eggs?
Only two things have changed in the past week or so. We started supplementing their diet with oyster shells. Oyster shells are rich in calcium and actually help make the egg shells stronger so it is unlikely that this is the problem. However, we also switched dog food. Faith the LGD went from puppy food to dog food. The chickens were eating more of the puppy food than Faith was so we switched her over to adult dog food because the pellets are too big for the chickens to eat. It worked because her food now lasts much longer. But the chickens are obviously missing something that was in the puppy food – fat? vitamins or minerals? – and are looking for it in their own eggs.
The hard part now is figuring out what the exact deficiency is and how to properly adjust their food to make up for it. Short term, it might be easier and more cost effective to simply clip their beaks. Trying to adjust their diet involves trial and error and probably a lot more broken eggs. But once we figure it out we will be set. Conventional farmers will have to continue to clip the beaks of their birds for as long as they choose to farm because they can’t be bothered to ask “Why?”