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Last fall, 2016, Massachusetts citizens voted to pass a law that ruled that chickens and other livestock be “cage free.” For us farmers, this was a REALLY bad idea. I’m sure many of you are asking “why? shouldn’t all animals be cage free?” Well, not if they are being kept in captivity.
From the beginning chickens have a “pecking order.” This is not a quaint saying, but actually an order in which animals have at the feed bin, the waterer, the best places to roost. Top birds are the fattest, cleanest, and healthiest. Lower birds are often bloody, bald and sickly. This is made worse when space is limited. Stress makes things abundantly bloody and unhealthy.
To make things worse, chickens can see color, and red is their favorite color. Tomatoes are red. Berries are red. Chickens know a good thing when they see it. But blood is also red, so a bird that is bloodied often becomes the victim of “piling on.” Commercial farms have resorted to “debeaking,” which limits the birds ability to protect itself, or to eat properly, so to me that isn’t appropriate. They also make “spectacles,” which clamp on the beaks, making everything look red, so the birds are so confused they don’t peck each other. These are both unnecessary if the farm can keep the proper number of birds, with ample space.
When birds are allowed to run free, as in “free ranging,” they can avoid these problems. The top birds will still be assertive, but there is ample room for all birds to access food, water, and avoid problems. There is a less fervor to protect resources when there’s so much to eat, drink and explore.
If birds can’t be allowed to free range, whether because of space, or because of outside dangers, then keeping animals in cages is kinder than letting the “lord of the flies” mentality take over. Some people might think that it’s the cage that causes stress. It’s not. Chickens are docile when they are content. They sit. Yes, they do need the room to stand up, turn around and get away from their manure. Most experts recommend free ranging, and keeping the appropriate number of birds. But if a farmer needs to have a large number of birds and they can’t free range them, then cages are an appropriate approach to keeping that many birds.
Why do farmers need to keep that many birds? Because we have so many consumers to feed and buyers don’t want to pay too much for a dozen eggs. If you, as a consumer, want to support humane treatment of chickens, don’t legislate blindly. Buy your eggs from a farmer that you trust, you like and that you understand why they make their choices.