Advocates: Chicken flap belies true egg industry practices

Teresa Redmond-Ott of Beakon Hill Farm rescued this de-beaked chicken.
Photo courtesy of Teresa Redmond-Ott

When Grant Family Farms in Wellington declared bankruptcy in December and announced that it didn’t have enough feed to keep its chickens alive, it prompted an outpouring of support from surrounding communities. People descended on the farm to adopt hens before they were killed.

But despite what may have looked like an inspiring outcry, local animal advocates are crying fowl. They say this isolated threat of a relatively limited slaughter pales in comparison to the thousands of chickens that are killed in inhumane ways every week because they were born male or exceeded their useful egg production cycle after only a couple of years.

Chickens are killed on a much broader scale in the mainstream egg production industry than they are at Grant Family Farms, and the advocates say there is only one way to stop the practice: by getting consumers to reduce the demand, to stop eating so many eggs.

Lynn Halpern, outreach coordinator for Peaceful Prairie Sanctuary and director of Bleating Hearts Sanctuary, is critical of the way that the story of Grant Farms and its chickens has played out. She says owner Andy Grant made it sound like the chickens were going to die due to lack of feed, when in reality they were doomed soon anyway.

“If he wasn’t killing them now, he’d be killing them in a year or so,” she says, explaining that it is common practice in the egg industry to dispose of hens when they turn 2 years old, because their egg production drops off. Since they are bred for laying eggs, they are lean and their meat is not usually ideal for human consumption, so they are sold to be turned into a variety of products, from pet food to fertilizer.

“This is a normal occurrence that happens all the time,” adds Jewel Johnson, who runs the Rooster Sanctuary at Danzig’s Roost in Bennett. “You have to maintain standard practices to maintain a profit.”

While Halpern acknowledges that some simply consider chickens an agricultural product that is bred for the express purpose of human use, not unlike the planting of trees to create paper, she says the treatment of the hens is inhumane. Plus, she says, if the chickens weren’t killed at age 2, they would likely live eight to 12 years.

Another local animal advocate, Lisa Shapiro, who has a consulting business for vegan food manufacturers, says she has personally witnessed another abhorrent practice: Hatcheries inhumanely killing male chicks because only the females can lay eggs and turn a profit when sold to farmers. Shapiro says she has seen male chicks dumped into trash bins alive. Johnson says “grinding them up alive” is commonplace.

And according to Halpern and Shapiro, that’s to say nothing of the conditions in which most of the hens spend their short lives, crammed into warehouses, debeaked to keep them from pecking each other, piled on heaps of their own excrement. Johnson says that to meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s requirement that organic eggs come from birds provided with “access to the outdoors,” some farmers will cut a small hole in a corner of the warehouse and surround it with a pen, even though very few of the crammedin chickens have a shot at using the exit.

“The industry views them as production units and no more than that,” Johnson says, adding that one of the newer, more humane practices is to gas chickens with carbon dioxide, but the additional cost of that gets passed on to the consumer.

“It’s a great marketing tool, and people are eating it up,” she says.

Unfortunately, they say, there aren’t enough animal sanctuaries — or capacity in them — to adopt all of the chickens that would otherwise be killed, so change has to come from consumers, from decreasing the demand for eggs.

“If people didn’t buy them, they wouldn’t do it,” Halpern says. “They couldn’t do it without you.”

Shapiro adds, “If we did this with puppies, there would be an uproar.”

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Andy Grant says he felt like he was trying to do the right thing when the money for chicken feed ran out: He and “Hen Again” program organizer Teresa Redmond-Ott held a massive adoption event Jan. 18-20.

But thanks in part to a misprinted address in a local paper, many concerned animal lovers apparently went to the wrong location on the farm that weekend and took chickens that weren’t part of Grant’s threatened population, as well as eggs, meat and personal property.

The farm, which ran one of the nation’s largest Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs, was home to some 12,000 chickens, many of which were saved.

When asked about the conflicting reports on how many birds were adopted and how many were killed, Grant now won’t divulge how many hens he had to “cull,” saying he has taken enough of a beating in the press. And he won’t describe the methods he uses to dispose of the chickens, although he acknowledges he hasn’t heard of the carbon dioxide gas approach.

But Grant insists that his approach in general is much more humane than the methods used at large-scale egg production facilities used by corporations.

“I love animals,” he says. “We treat our animals with absolute respect compared to the industry. … I know that the way we treat our animals is stellar, in the top half-percent. If there’s a farmer in Colorado that the animal rights activists should work with, it should be me.”

He says the industrialized model, even for organic eggs, is to let chickens produce for less than two years, 68 to 72 weeks, until their production drops below 80 percent (eight eggs in 10 days).

“They know to the day,” Grant says of the kill date set by large-scale commercial operators.

When that day comes, he confirms, those outfits sell the hens to be ground up for things like dog food and fertilizer.

Grant says he never sells his chickens to be used for those purposes when they outlive their economic viability. In fact, he says, he gets chickens of that age from the commercial operations, to the tune of 20,000 a year, and gives them another four months to produce eggs for him, living out their final days enjoying a better life on his farm. Grant says he never de-beaks his hens and they run free during the day.

“It’s really crushed my heart that people have been so vitriolic to a guy who tries to do it right,” he says, estimating the average chicken’s lifespan at closer to four years. “Holy cow, we’re rescuing birds out of industrial barns and giving them a longer life. … We rescue birds that are going to be ground up at 68 weeks and give them this wonderful Colorado retirement home.”

He does acknowledge that when their time comes, he “processes” them for sale to CSA members as “stewing hens” or sells live chickens to ethnic food markets.

Grant says he is not familiar with hatcheries’ procedures for killing male chicks, but he adds that eggs would probably cost about $17 a dozen if farmers were forced to care for equal numbers of hens and roosters. About 5 percent of the chicks he buys turn out to be roosters, but he keeps them all.

“It keeps the ladies happy,” he says with a laugh, “even though it’s stupid of me to keep an unproductive chicken.”

Grant blames Localization Partners for not providing him the money to buy chicken feed in December. (Localization Partners is a for-profit company launched in August 2011 by Boulder County-based Transition Colorado to help fund local food and farming enterprises, and it raised money last year to keep the farm afloat.)

But Michael Brownlee of Localization Partners says Grant never intended for those chickens to live much longer anyway.

“Andy had told us toward the end of the year that most of that flock was scheduled for termination because they had reached the end of their productive life,” Brownlee says. “We knew those chickens were going to be destroyed or adopted or whatever. But to find ourselves being accused of causing the needless murder of thousands of chickens, that’s just absurd. That’s just drama.”

Brownlee says Localization Partners couldn’t have provided money for the chicken feed because of Chapter 7 bankruptcy rules that freeze all assets.

Grant counters that he was asking for the money before bankruptcy, and that he has been painted as the bad guy.

“I’m not a bloodthirsty, machete-wielding farmer,” he says. “We love these creatures.”

And as for the commercial industry’s killing practices?

“It’s what the American consumer forces farmers to do,” Grant says. “It’s easy to point the finger at farmers.”

He adds that the controversies surrounding his farm have only hurt the small organic farming industry.

“This whole flap that has happened these last couple of weeks, and it’s been in the national media, it’s done more to support industrial agriculture than anything that’s happened in recent history,” he says. “The ones that have won are the industrial corporations. They’re loving this. The heat has switched off of their practices and on to this dumbshit farmer in Colorado. … I’m not the PR and marketing department for Tyson Foods, I’m a farmer.”