Most of us think that organic and free range hens are better than caged ones but this isn’t always the case. Sometimes, free range hen can be in worse condition due to the weather drought. Here is a story of a similar roadside pasture-based hens kept for egg production.
Tucked down a country road is a farm raising “pasture-based” hens for egg production. Peering into the field, it’s hard to see the pasture. I see acres of dirt and a sea of red hens. Presumably it is green when there isn’t a four-year drought. Chickens dart in front of our vehicles as we pull into the driveway.
A dozen eggs sell for $7.99. These are the eggs consumers switch to when they hear 95 percent of hens live in cages so small they cannot turn around. The kind of eggs people feel “good” about buying. But there is a dark side to organic, free-range, pasture-based farming – a side that farmers do not want you to see.
We are at this farm to rescue several hundred hens. I meet an employee who signs us in and sprays down our vehicles, boots, and crates with an iodine mixture.
“How many chickens do you have here?” I ask.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he replies, and looks out at the chickens. “Too many.”
Okay. I ask an easy question, “So, what breed are the chickens we are picking up?” He didn’t know that, either. Or their age. Or whether they had ever been vaccinated. His best guess is 5,000 chickens, with 5,000 one-month-old chicks cheeping in a barn nearby.
The farm hand directed us to the “barn” where the “older” hens lived. We could only guess their age – they were ending their first molt, when chickens lose their feathers to replace them with new ones. That would put their age at 16-22 months. Old, by industry standards.
We cautiously drove our van and trailer to the “barn,” a movable tractor-shed with plastic shades partially drawn down. The birds are not locked up at night, and lower-ranking hens clump together outside the shed. Their only predator protection comes in the form of two “livestock” guardian dogs. In the mobile shed, the feces from the birds drops below a wire mesh floor, but the smell is unpleasant. Each mobile shed houses 800-1,200 hens, producing “organic” eggs. At Animal Place, we might put 400 hens in a comparably sized barn until they’re adopted.