A Murder Most Fowl

Chickens are funny little creatures. Unlike cows and sheep, chickens are omnivores, a fact that injects a whole new set of considerations when they are raised on the farm. While it is rarely their first choice, these little guys have no qualms with eating their peeping peers when they are compelled to (Just look to the left at the family resemblance to their ancestor Tyrannosaurus Rex. Who are you calling chicken?). Cannibalism is such a concern that the industrial food system now burns off chicks’ beaks in order to prevent it, effectively removing their ability to eat anything but processed feed for the rest of their lives.

This, like all problems on the farm, comes down to management. Cannibalism is a function of stress. Either the birds are living in a population that is too dense, they are not getting enough nutrition from their feed, or they are bored. If you picture an industrial chicken house where birds are packed into a constantly lit space (sometimes in cages) with stagnant air filled with fecal dust and then fed an assortment of medications and hormones dusted with whatever commodity feed was cheapest that month, you can see how this could be a serious a problem.

However, the real mystery is why it would show up on little ol’ Early Bird Ranch.

(Warning: ShaeLynn thinks I should warn you that what follows is a poultry murder mystery that's not for the faint of heart.)

On Monday, Shae came running in the house to get me because she saw a turkey running around the uphill brooder with a severed chicken leg in its mouth (We have two brooders- the uphill and the downhill. The difference in elevation is a foot or so, but it helps us to have names to call them by.). Right away we started looking the chick that the leg belonged to, but we couldn’t find the body. This to me pointed pretty clearly to a potential predator problem, and we went about setting trap after trap and plugging hole after hole, but we quickly learned this wasn’t going to do anything.

Like any good mystery or horror story, we realized the shocking truth that we were on the wrong track…effectively we learned that "the call was coming from inside of the house!"

At first, and just to be safe, I decided to give the chicks some extra protein in the form of some ground beef we had in the house to see how they liked it. I have been varying their diet with goodies like fruit, weeds, and grass clippings whenever I can. How they reacted was the first clue that something was not right.

The lower brooder chicks accepted the treat calmly and happily and finished their pieces after slowly investigating them first. The uphill chicks literally were leaping off the ground to catch the pieces of beef before they could hit the ground and then chasing each other in order to get even a tiny bite.

I immediately got on the phone to order some beef liver to supplement their feed with. Liver is fantastic because it is rich in protein, fat, and has an amazing load of vitamins and minerals. I’ll skip to the end because this post is quite long already and say that any and all signs of cannibalism disappeared in less than a day after we started giving the chicks a slice of liver in the morning. However, we were still scratching our heads over why only one brooder would be showing signs of nutritional deficiency. The brooders are identical in construction, proportion of turkeys to chickens, total population, feed ration, and every other variable we could think of. At least that was the case, until I stopped thinking like a methodologist and started to think like a farmer.

The other day I was talking about all the great benefits of the liver as I was proudly spouting off all the benefits of the extra Vitamin B12 and riboflavin the chickens were receiving now. Suddenly it hit me like a ton of bricks that the composting floor of the brooders provides those same nutrients with all the flora and fauna that thrive in it…once it begins to compost. In a rush I started to investigate the floors of the brooders and amazingly there was a distinct difference between the level of decomposition in the uphill brooder and the lower brooder. What is so striking about this is that the cause of this difference looked inconsequential to even our trained eyes just a few days ago.

The bedding for the brooders came in large part from a generous farmer up the road that does a lot of lumber work. His bedding was new and clean and looked and smelled great. However, two trash bags worth (less than 5% of the total needed per brooder) came from a trip Shae and I took to a recycled lumber yard during our first few days here, and the stuff had to be scraped off the floor and separated from all the dirt that had accumulated under it over the weeks it had spent on the ground. So here’s the part that would make Inspector Poirot proud: those two bags went into the lower brooder.

So amazingly, while the compost in the brooders really aren’t supposed to get going until the second or third batch, just a dose of old rotting wood shavings in one brooder inoculated the bedding to an extent where there was a significant enough nutritional difference to make one brooder an Eden, and the other…not.

I don’t want to get too high and mighty here, but as a big fan of compost and sustainable agriculture I am not surprised in the least that composting is a keystone in how to solve our nutritional woes and take us one more step away from the brutal chick-eat-chick world we’ve created.

P.S. We are happy to report that only a single chick was lost cannibalism. We check these guys 5-6 times every day and with the help of our specially designed hospital pen, we were able to take any chicks with injuries out of the general population and let them heal in peace. They are now back in with all the others and doing great.