Of chickens and eggs
I have been having to learn quickly and somewhat painfully about chickens and eggs. Come September I need to be eating the eggs and the implications of that are more interesting than I would have thought a few weeks ago. And, of course, the metaphorical and philosophical and moral dimensions pop up, sure as eggs are eggs.
There is so much basic chicken physiology that I didn’t know. You can get day old chicks through the post: because a hen sits on a clutch of eggs that don’t all hatch on the same day, the first hatchers can survive for three days until they start being looked after by mother hen. And, of course, “mother” is far too anthropomorphic: a broody hen will sit on just about anything egg-like. We will have some hens that go broody often and will, at least at first, get fertilised eggs through the post to stick under them.
A pure breed hen at point-of-lay costs £25. At about two hundred eggs a year, depending on the cost of food and equipment, the payback period is going to be a year or so. That is OK. So far so conventional. Chicken breeders assume that this is about linear accounting in that way. My breeder was trying to tell me I needed broiler chicken breeds to raise meat really quickly.
However, the reason why I must have chickens is to start improving the pasture at the new place. Having done all this research, my wife and I watched the film Polyfaces about Joel Saladin’s farm in Virginia. There you can see armies of chickens being moved in a regular pattern across the land, to start to improve soil and biodiversity in the pasture.
Why do we need to improve the pasture? Lots of answers in different directions. It has had sheep on it — they graze too close and compact the soil — at the very least the sheep need to be rotated to keep resting the grass and let it recover. Or actually, I need lush pasture to keep a cow. The cow, it turns out, is part of the necessary cycle: brief grazing and manuring by a cow is part of the cycle to recover the soil biology. And it turns out the hens need enzymes out of the cowpats. If you watch Polyfaces, the best cinema is the hens pecking grubs out of wet cowpats.
And the third answer is that improving the soil sequesters vast amounts of carbon. That is what improves the soils structure, Didi Pershouse’s soil sponge, and that is where fertility and drought resistance comes from. So, I need chickens to help make the smallholding carbon neutral or better. What is that worth? Oh, and I promise to eat the eggs which will be better than any you can buy because of those grubs in the cowpats!
I can start in any place in this picture/cycle and come to the same set of components that I need to manage and manage the interaction of. You can also look at it this way: tall plants in a pasture that are growing rapidly and keep being eaten and trampled keep growing rapidly to capture the maximum amount of available light. All the sun is turned into plant energy. None is reflected back into the atmosphere to warm it locally. I can see what the cycle has to be by observing that too. Of course, it is that capture by plants that the plant symbiosis with fungi and bacteria that sequester the carbon in the soil: that is life controlling its environment.
My next piece of research is this: Joel Saladin and other people I have studied use turkeys after the hens as part of the rotation. Why do they do this and do I want to be eating turkey?
Vegans, vegetarians and eggs
Lots of the “plant-based diet” cult people get hot under the collar about feeding grain to cattle. I may have missed it, but I don’t hear the same complaint about feeding grain to chickens for eggs. I hear the animal rights people saying how cruel it is to keep chickens in cages all their lives and there is a health premium piece of marketing in pastured or free-range eggs, but no-one is saying that we shouldn’t eat eggs because we should just eat the grain, as they do with cows.
Let me be clear while we are here, that keeping cattle or pigs in large sheds is a bad idea for all sorts of very different reasons. Here we can just say that you can’t integrate the ecology while the animals are housed in that way, so you miss all the potential benefits of integration.
There have been parents of young children prosecuted for giving their kids a vegan diet. It is simply inadequate even if supplemented. Small children have died of malnourishment: can you imagine a cult leading you to ignore what is in front of your eyes and allowing your child to starve. This takes us to eggs being the saving factor for vegetarians. Eggs contain essentially everything you need in a diet: eat enough of them and you will not be malnourished. I think Aseem Malhotra in the Pioppi Diet recommends 14 a week.
However, if we make eggs that central, then the quality of the eggs really matters. The chickens need those enzymes and grubs and insects out of the cowpats. The nutritional value really goes up when that happens.
My daughter doing biology at Oxford did a project studying posh free-range chickens. Her finding was that only 10% of the birds came out of their large arks even though they were free to do so. And the much-vaunted herbs available to the chickens were further way than the chickens ever ventured and were only a few weedy twigs anyway. I think free-range only means a certain amount of space the hens are free to roam in.
My only point here is that given that the cows need to rotate through the grazing, the chickens need to rotate after them. Then the ecosystem starts to function with a raft of benefits, only one of which is that the eggs support human health properly. I don’t know that there is another way.
The cow economy
There is a book titled Keeping a Family Cow that endeared itself to me by stating that it was cruel to give people raw cream from a Jersey cow, because after that nothing else would be good enough. Anyway, the keeping of a cow which the author advocates so strongly for, had some implications. We have explored here the grazing, the rotation and the hens. But a single cow gives a lot of milk — averaging apparently eight gallons a day.
As a cured diabetic I need to avoid sugars and starches. Milk is full of lactose, a sugar. So, there is a conundrum here. The lactose is in the milk not in the cream, which is good because cream and homemade ice-cream feature heavily in my diet. And kefir has fermented much of the lactose out, and cheese takes this process further and separates the curds from the whey, leaving the lactose in the whey.
So partly keeping a cow scales the minimum size of the enterprise for everything to integrate. There needs to be enough room to grow enough herbal ley and to rotate the grazing. But also, there is major by-product: the whey. Whey is traditionally fed to pigs, so this implies pigs. Pigs are also very good at reconditioning land and are especially happy under trees.
An if you look at the rewilding of the Knepp Castle estate, the triumvirate of animals that rebuilt the landscape were pigs and cattle and horses. Horses (and sheep and goats) have a different way of browsing, with their front teeth rather than as cows do with their tongue. So their impact of regeneration can be complementary. Besides, free-range pigs frolic in a way that cannot fail to gladden the heart.
What I am trying to illustrate here is that none of the animal stocking questions, or indeed the plant growing questions make sense independently. If I want a mutually reinforcing cycle I have to look at the interactions, obviously. And some of the interactions are about me and my health, but the central pivot is, not surprisingly, the soil. To live in harmony with the soil ecosystem I have to eat eggs and Jersey cream and bacon. That sounds tough!
The duck economy
One more excursion. I am happy to live on meat and eggs and cheese, products at one remove from the plants that are eaten. But I am OK with cabbage and onions and autumn squash to add colour and variety. So, there will be vegetable beds and polytunnels to supply vegetables and there will be permaculture style edible forests full of a wide variety of fruit and nuts.
The vegetables imply ducks! Ducks are unparalleled at going through a vegetable patch and eating all the slugs and snails without eating the plants. Hens eat the veg too. And ducks lay eggs and are good to eat so that all hangs together.
The significance of co-opting the ducks to deal with one sort of pest is that the biodiversity that you can build in means you don’t have to use chemical pest control and that the nutrient density of the plants that you eat can be much higher than anything that is grown as a monoculture, organic or not. The micronutrient content of both vegetables and meat supplied commercially is in monotonous steep decline. A carrot is not necessarily what a carrot once was.
If you are not vegan, you can use ducks to eat slugs and snails and then eat the duck eggs and ducks. Otherwise you will end up poisoning the plants and the soil. This is the clue we need to understand where the vegan cult goes wrong.
Vegans sort of assume that you can make arbitrary supermarket choices of what to eat. Obviously, no-one can. Every choice has a raft of implications going back deep into the ecosystemic support systems. To choose an example at random, growing avocados uses so much water that often the people in the growing regions go short. We have spoken before about the metabolic rift that describes how we no longer have any inkling of what we are eating.
What we have tried to illustrate here is that we need to understand our place in the ecosystem otherwise our choices have unknown implications. And we can never be simply consumers of food: we play a role for good or evil and whether we understand it or not. I have used my future smallholding to illustrate what an active choice of ecosystemic role can look like and how much it can achieve for a vast panoply of organisms.
If I choose to keep and eat ducks, I can turn a source of waste and harm into amazing nutrition. I suppose, to a vegan, snails are already animals, and certainly the frogs that might eat some slugs and be eaten in turn by ducks count as animals. Nothing is quite as destructive of animals and birds as a combine harvester. It is the mechanisation and accompanying need for monocultural production that causes ecosystem death and damage going far wider than the slaughter of a cow or a duck. Why is this not obvious to vegans wearing their moral hearts on their sleeves. How can they not see it?
The generalisable point is that the decisions that we see as independent and part of our freedom almost never are. Sometimes as in this case once we see the connections huge new possibilities open up. It is always good in my experience to ask what might be made possible if the things that look like problems (slugs) are a sign of where further integration can benefit everyone. That is the life process: endless complexification.