By Julia Frisbie
posted March 22, 2022
Our family is omnivorous, but we have serious concerns about both the ethics and the carbon footprint of conventionally raised meat. The more time we spend with our animals, the harder it is to imagine that they don’t have feelings, and the harder it is to eat meat raised on factory farms. I’ll never forget being passed by a flatbed semi on I-5, and glancing up to try and figure out why there was all this white fluff hitting my windshield… before realizing that the truck was stacked high with cages full of live chickens. After my initial bout of nausea, I wondered: why are we trucking chickens around on I-5, when they’re small enough to raise in any backyard?!
That was when I got motivated to raise my own meat chickens someday. I read books about the process. I took a weeklong class from Joel Salatin, a famous permaculturist who raises pastured poultry this way in Virginia. I learned that birds bred for meat production are basically defenseless against predators, and don’t fatten up if they get too much exercise. Rather than giving them a large area to roam, people who raise them on pasture do it in small pens which they move to fresh grass every day. This has the added benefit of stimulating extra carbon sequestration, just like any other rotational grazing plan but in miniature.
I even cleared it with the city planning department; they told me that as long as I didn’t erect any permanent structures, we could do whatever we wanted in the easement next to our house, including raising meat birds in a moveable pen. I asked, what about briefly exceeding the number of chickens allowed in the city code? Was that a problem? As long as it was temporary, and the adjacent neighbors didn’t complain, they weren’t too worried.
The only problem is, to raise chickens this way, you have to be at home every day for several consecutive months in order to move them daily so that they have access to fresh pasture. As two young professionals, we sometimes traveled for business, and we also visited family in Oregon several times a year. We couldn’t figure out how to make all that work with meat chickens, so we tabled the idea.
COVID-19 gave us the opening we needed. In March of 2020, as soon as it became clear that we’d be staying home for eleventy-bajillion days, we brought home 25 day-old “Freedom Ranger” chicks from the feed store. We set them up in a traditional brooder (okay, it was just a big cardboard box) with bedding, food, water, and a heat lamp. Usually we delegate the raising of chicks to a broody mama hen, but 25 is too many, even for a very good mama. This time, the raising would be up to us.
The very next day, we moved them and their food, water, and heat lamp into what we called our “outdoor brooder”: the bottom rung of an empty stacking compost barrel that was windproof and easy to clip the heat lamp to. Even tiny chicks can tolerate cold temperatures– and quite enjoy the fresh air and sunshine– as long as they’ve got access to a 90-degree heat zone where they can warm up intermittently.
We moved this simple setup every day so that they had constant access to fresh grass. For two weeks, they commuted between their daytime outdoor brooder and their nighttime indoor brooder via bushel basket. Helping move the chicks was a favorite activity for our preschooler! They all looked the same, so he named them all Marshmallow.
Construction of a “chicken tractor” began. We built a three foot wide, ten foot long, two foot tall box with a slide-open door on each end. We attached steel roofing panels to one of the long sides and two thirds of the top so they’d get a nice balance of sunshine and shelter. Where we didn’t put roofing panels, we put hardware cloth. We left the bottom open. It was heavy enough not to blow away or get knocked over by a curious predator, but light enough that two adults could easily lift it a few inches off the ground and move it to a new spot.
On April 7, we put the chicken tractor in the easement, loaded all the chicks into a wheelbarrow (because they didn’t fit in the bushel basket anymore) and moved them into their new home. They immediately started running around, scratching, and sunbathing. They would still need a heat lamp on at night for a few weeks until they were fully feathered, but after watching their happy behavior, we had no doubt: the chicken tractor was a good habitat. They quickly learned to move along the ground inside their new home each day when we carefully lifted it to fresh grass.
The chicks in the easement turned out to be a great conversation starter. Of course, everyone who lives on our block is used to our antics by now, and they didn’t bat an eye. But kids, exercisers, and dog-walkers from the larger neighborhood often stopped to look at the chicks and chat. People wanted to know how they got there, why they were in a different place every day, and what we were going to do with that many chickens. Responses upon learning that we planned to eat them ranged from polite to enthusiastic. Helpful neighbors alerted us when a teenage chicken tunneled out between two big tufts of grass, and when coyotes were seen and heard nearby. Several people volunteered to help move the tractor, visit on butcher day to learn how it was done, or even buy meat from us!
We didn’t grow enough chickens to sell, but I certainly understood the appeal. That spring, amid supply chain uncertainty and slaughterhouse shutdowns, the factory farming poultry company Tyson made headlines by “depopulating” millions of birds. That meant pumping toxic white foam into warehouses full of caged chickens until every bird asphyxiated. People were justifiably horrified… and scared about food security. Getting to watch meat being raised a different way in their own neighborhood was exciting.
Only one person reacted negatively. She knocked on our door to accuse us of animal cruelty because the cage was too small. I tried to explain that if meat birds have too much space, they don’t reach slaughter weight before they start to crow. She was unmoved. I told her they have access to fresh pasture daily when we moved the tractor. She was unimpressed. I asked her if she ate chicken, and she said yes, but she only ate organic chicken. She couldn’t tell me where her chicken came from, but she was 100% sure it was “running around outside.”
That’s not actually what the “organic” label means. Organic meat chickens in the USA have to be able to “access the outdoors,” but usually a covered screened-in porch is all they get. There is no requirement for square feet of space per bird, or access to pasture, sunlight, or soil. The USDA’s “free range” label also doesn’t guarantee a minimum amount of space… or even full-body access to the outdoors. On balance, I think a life with sunlight and fresh grass in a moveable tractor is preferable; one of the main reasons we embarked on this whole project was to avoid animal cruelty.
But, it was true, the chicken tractor was getting a bit crowded.
In honor of the organic chicken lady’s discomfort, I slaughtered the birds who were obviously boys so that there would be no crowing and everyone else would have more elbow room. This was not the solution she had in mind. She called the cops on us. We got an apologetic visit from a young officer who said, “They’re meat birds? And you’re slaughtering the rest soon? Umm, okay, I’m just going to write a note in the report that says they look healthy and they have everything they need.”
And that was that. A few weeks later, our calendar read “CHICKENMAGEDDON.” One by one I lured them out of the tractor with handfuls of treats, held them in my arms, thanked them for their lives and the nourishment they would provide to our family… and then chopped their heads off. I’m not going to lie: it was a hard day. We scalded, plucked, and eviscerated them (Harvey Ussery’s book The Small Scale Poultry Flock was a huge help). We packaged, labeled, and froze them. We gave one to each of the adjacent neighbors to thank them for not complaining to the city, and packed the rest into the chest freezer.
We ate homegrown chicken, and drank homegrown chickenfoot broth, for more than a year. Meanwhile, the easement changed colors. Monoculture gave way to polyculture. The chickens’ grazing pressure created intermittent disturbance, their manure added fertility, and their spilled grain seeded oats, wheat, peas, mustards, and who knows what else out there. From a person’s perspective, it’s a bit untidy. For deer, bunnies, and birds, it looks like a complete meal. From a bug’s eye view it must be a jungle. Carbon was sequestered, just as surely as our freezer was filled.
Would we do it again? We didn’t last year, and won’t this year. The cost-benefit analysis of our time and effort didn’t pencil out; we might as well buy expensive free range chicken at the farmer’s market. If our family had more free time and less disposable income, that calculation might work out differently. Or if we could do it cooperatively and on a slightly larger scale– for example, with one other family to share the labor, and 50 chickens instead of 25– that might tip the scales in favor of homegrown chicken. But I’m glad we did it once. It helped us imagine and experiment with a different relationship to meat.
What if neighbors teamed up to raise chickens in easements? Or herd goats along the alleyways to keep the blackberries down? Or keep rabbit hutches along the shady edges of the forest? What if backyard hens became neighborhood hens, and each street had a dairy cow rotating through its front lawns? I know I’m every HOA’s worst nightmare, but… how much food could we raise right here? How would it change the way we eat, the way we landscape, and the way we interact with each other?
The only way to know is to get creative, try it out, and see what happens.