I have narrated before what made me arrive at my decision to raise Kienyeji chicken as opposed to exotic varieties that mature faster and rake in higher profits.
One of the things that determined my decision was a conversation I had with a farmer on ethics of animal husbandry.
“You need to think like a chicken to understand and empathise with them if you are to get more profit,” the farmer told me.
Now, if you find that weird, don’t worry, you will soon understand. Thinking like a chicken or empathising with the birds is certainly not something that concerns most farmers, who are struggling daily with high cost of feeds and poor access to ready markets controlled by unscrupulous middlemen.
The farmer convinced me to balance profit with animal welfare. You see, in many parts of the world, including Kenya, there is pressure to increase production of eggs and meat to meet the needs of a growing population.
As a result, factory-farming industries have emerged to ensure chicken production is designed for maximum profit. I once watched a documentary on the BBC where one farmer in Brazil slaughters 500,000 chickens (kept under the cage system) per day. That is a feat.
Well, it may be true that large-scale chicken farming doesn’t lend itself to humane conditions like outdoor access to fresh air and ample space for pasture. As a result, I have always favoured chicken raised under free-range and that is why I keep Kienyeji chicken.
I provide my birds with a comfortable environment to protect them from the extremities of rain, wind, sunshine, predators and keep diseases at bay and to ensure adequate stocking density of two square feet per bird. I have also provided the birds with a run outside the coop enclosed with a chain link to allow them to free-range outside and get fresh air and sunshine.
I have also observed over time that chicken raised under free-range systems are constantly moving, pecking at the ground, and interacting with others and this makes them happy and productive.
If you think about it, this free-range system cannot be compared to battery cages that allow each hen an average of 67 square inches of space only—less than the size of a standard sheet of paper.
DEMAND FOR CHICKEN GROWING FAST
I asked an expert to help me to put this into perspective and was utterly shocked by his answer.
“A hen needs 72 square inches of space to be able to stand up straight and 303 square inches to be able to spread and flap her wings.”
Raising birds in cramped conditions can result in overcrowding, diseases, high death rates, and observable unhappiness. Therefore, although caging is an efficient system, it reduces productivity with time.
I have also learnt that I can still focus on the welfare of animals without running the risk of reducing my profits or passing the extra cost to the consumer.
For a fact, studies have shown that chickens are sociable and intelligent with the ability to solve problems and, unlike young children, they can grasp the permanence of objects (they understand that objects taken from view continue to exist).
Now, this may be a hard sell in our growing nyama choma culture, where demand for chicken is also growing faster, and farming is turning out to be a profitable venture.
Vegetarians and animal-welfare organisations continue to insist that meat and egg consumption are not necessary for our health and that people concerned about animals and ethics should give strong consideration to going vegetarian and vegans.
I cannot conclude that those farmers who raise their poultry under “unnatural” conditions are inhumane or selfish, mainly driven by a pure profit motive.
For me, I struggle to ensure that the welfare of my chickens is at its best.
To summarise, just as I don’t starve myself, I ensure my chickens don’t by providing adequate feeds always.
When it comes to diseases, any slight change in a bird’s behaviour is taken seriously, and addressed accordingly with the help of the vet. This ensures the bird does not suffer or spread the disease.
Most farmers violate animal rights during transportation. Ensure there is enough space in the cage to avoid over-crowding even if the chickens are going to be slaughtered, which should be done with a sharp knife to avoid distress.
Lastly, inside the poultry houses, change the sawdust regularly and ensure it is always dry.