Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Pot Pies and Egg Money Premise #1: Purebred animals are more sustainable

As the first draft of my book "Pot Pies and Egg Money: The rewards of living sustainably with heritage-breed poultry" is nearing completion, I thought it would be a good time to summarize the concept of it. I have realized, in the process of researching and writing, that Pot Pies and Egg Money is a genuine reflection of our values and the kind of lifestyle we choose and strive to achieve. In fact, unlike most current books about poultry, it is less a "how-to" than a "why-to" kind of book. Throughout the book I have endeavored to share the steps we have taken (and the reasons for our choices) in our progress toward a more sustainable way of life.

What does "sustainable" mean? I have lately been reading Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma" (Penguin Books, 2006), and I agree with his view that the term has in recent years been overused to the point where, for many people, it has little meaning. He also suggests that anything unsustainable "sooner or later must collapse". For us, so far at least, "sustainable" has the most relevance in regard to our animals.

As most of you know, we grow heritage-breed chickens, turkeys and ducks, along with a couple of pigs for part of the year. The chickens and ducks are mainly kept for eggs; we keep a small breeding group of turkeys and raise about 20 every year to slaughter. The pigs, while grown for meat, also provide a valuable service by plowing up previously unused fields and eating the roots, allowing us to re-seed with grasses and clovers to create better pasture. Choosing the breeds we raise involved a lot of research and a conscious decision to keep only purebreds, also known as "heritage" breeds. From all we've read and heard, as well as learned from our own experience, it is clear to us that purebred livestock is the choice when the aim is sustainability.

For example, you may remember from a previous post that the Broad-Breasted turkey (a commercial hybrid) cannot mate naturally; it must be artificially inseminated. (Incidentally, you wouldn't be able to buy turkeys year-round if this weren't the case; purebred turkeys normally lay eggs only 4 or 5 months of the year.) Cornish Cross chickens, the ubiquitous grocery-store bird, has been bred to reach an impressive broiler size in 7 weeks or less. Obviously, these chickens are being slaughtered long before the normal breeding age of around 18-22 weeks (depending on variety). However, their warp-speed growth comes at a high cost: leg problems and sudden death from cardiac arrest are not uncommon.

I have no problem with those who are trying to make money in the poultry business and have found that they must raise these fast-growing hybrids in order to stay afloat financially. After all, in a sense, no business is sustainable in the long run if it loses money. Also, we don't raise chickens for meat (although we do occasionally slaughter a few roosters when we have too many of them), so perhaps my view doesn't seem to carry much weight. What I've said in the previous paragraph, however, are known facts, not just my opinion. That said, I hope you don't hear any judgment there; I assure you I feel none.

Aside from reproductive issues, another reason we prefer purebreds is the variety of instinctive behaviors that contribute to the long-term health of the farm. For example, one of my criteria for choosing a chicken or turkey breed is foraging ability. All our birds free-range during the day, and we expect them to do some of the work of feeding themselves. (Statistics suggest that foraging can account for up to 30% of a chicken's daily feed, but the numbers give no data as to which breeds were sampled.) Our observation has been that the birds spend a few minutes eating grain first thing in the morning, then head off to happily scratch and peck until it's time to head back in at night. In the wintertime especially, we make sure they get a little extra grain before bedtime, as a little boost in carbohydrates helps keep them warm through the long, cold nights.

Our Midget White turkeys also are excellent foragers. I noticed the first year we had them that they did a great job of cleaning up the windfall apples near the house, which kept the deer from coming into the yard. The ducks love to dabble in the freshly-plowed fields after we move the pigs to another paddock; they break up the manure piles and eat the larvae of intestinal worms, thereby interrupting the cycle of  parasites and disease. The pigs have thankfully retained their instinctive rooting behavior; they not only find a good portion of their own food, the rooting is also a super-efficient way to rid the land of the roots of weeds and other unwanted plants. The chickens and turkeys then follow the ducks, picking out leftover weed seeds and worms. This progression, by the way, also closely imitates nature; for example, woodland birds break up bear manure, in the process spreading around seeds from the berries the bears eat in large quantities in the summer.

We are still learning a lot about how to fully utilize purebred livestock on our farm, but we have already seen a little of the value of diversifying, step by slow step. In the next few posts, I will go into more detail about the other facets of sustainable agriculture and how we are working toward our goals. This is all just a teaser, of course; Pot Pies and Egg Money will give you the rest of the story.

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