There are a lot of fun things that I get do every day on the farm. I’ve talked about fuzzy new chicks, gathering eggs and working with my family. But there are also days that aren’t quite as fun—a few weeks ago, it was the last day for the girls. The layers come in and give it their all for almost 12 months. They eat, drink, groom, wander around the barn and lay lots of eggs. Eventually though, they begin to lay fewer eggs and the quality of eggs begins to decline as shell quality declines. Over time, we can also see feather loss and bone loss. We try to mitigate all of these things by providing more calcium in the feed and making sure that the minerals and amino acids are balanced. However, the time inevitably comes when the old flock needs to be euthanized to make way for a new flock.
This is a difficult day for all of us. No one likes this day, but as farmers we all know the cycle of life. There is birth, growth, production and death. Those of us in animal agriculture learn and understand this—we live this every day. Sometimes animals die due to illness or injury and it’s our job to see to it that they don’t suffer needlessly. I love being a farmer and care about all the animals I raise, but farming is also how I make a living and provide for my family. The reality is that eventually production drops to a level where it isn’t feasible to keep the flock.
One of the most important aspects of flock removal is making sure that the process is done quickly, with the least amount of suffering. I have a euthanasia plan in p lace that is based on the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) guidelines for poultry. It is imperative that any methods we use “cause instantaneous and painless death or loss of consciousness lasting until death, and be conducted in a humane manner”. Euthanasia training for farmers is provided by veterinarians and welfare specialists. In our case, we contract a company that provides machines for gassing the birds with C02. This is one of the most humane methods and its use has been extensively studied for all types of poultry. In the case of the company we employ, they provide the equipment, trained personnel to supervise the gassing, and take the carcasses to be rendered. Many farmers compost the carcasses and utilize the compost as fertilizer for their land. Again, the cycle continues.
It takes approximately five months to raise the pullets to the point when they begin laying eggs, and then they usually lay eggs for about one year. Some people might ask why we don’t moult the flock to be able to keep them longer. Moulting is a practice whereby lighting hours are reduced and the hens lose approximately 20-30% of their body weight, and are forced into a rest period. Following the rest period, hens can be kept in lay for a period longer than the standard one year. Due to the welfare concerns, this practice is not recommended and is rarely adopted by farmers here in Alberta.
I really believe that everyone needs to understand what farmers deal with every day—the good, the bad and the ugly. Euthanasia is an issue that anyone who has animals deals with, whether you have a pet, a few backyard chickens or a large farm.
The cycle of life continues, but always with an attitude of respect and compassion for the animals in our care.