Food Politics: Too Many Cocks In the Chicken Coop

There’s an uncomfortable issue when it comes to livestock that many people prefer to avoid, because it’s an issue without an easy resolution. Particularly in the case of people interested in microlivestock and backyard farming, which are supposed to be fun, humane ways of getting in touch with farming and raising your own food, it’s an issue they’d prefer not to think about. Bluntly put, when you breed animals or allow them to breed on their own, about 50% of the resulting offspring will be male, and dudes, by and large, aren’t very useful.

No offense, guys.

Obviously you need some males around because you need them for more breeding, but you can’t have 50% of your flock, herd, etc. be male, because males don’t produce milk or eggs, and one of them goes kind of a long way when it comes to breeding. A single buck can be bred to rather a lot of does in a single season, for example. And males tend to be more aggressive, which means that as soon as you have more than one, you’re having to balance the need to keep everyone safe, and that requires dividing everyone up and trying to control the environment, or neutering—and the only thing more useless than extra dudes is extra neutered dudes.

I’m not trying to harsh on the males of the species, I promise. I’m just talking facts when it comes to livestock management, where people typically end up with an excess of males at the end of the breeding season, and most of them are slaughtered for meat (which is actually a very useful thing indeed!). Because you can’t keep them all around, although you might choose to selectively keep one or two for future breeding purposes if they come from good lines (remember my discussion about how rural people view animals differently?) and they might be useful. They could potentially be sold to people looking for breeding stock if you can’t use them yourself.

And in some cases you might sell neutered animals for companions or pets. For example, goats really don’t like living alone, and thus, if you are selling a lady goat to someone who is getting started with goats, you might send a wether along for the ride to keep her company. But in the end, no matter how many creative and nonfatal uses you come up with, at least some of those males are going to end up going under the axe, the knife, or the shotgun. It’s a simple fact of life, and not always a pleasant one, but there it is. For people accustomed to handling livestock, this is an issue that you just deal with when it comes up; and maybe in some years you hope for a surplus of girls because you want to expand the herd and you hate having to slaughter, but if you don’t, so be it.

There are some who argue that slaughter introduces a note of cruelty to keeping livestock, and I respect where they are coming from, although I disagree. Performed quickly and humanely by someone who is respectful and properly trained, slaughter can be clean, with a minimum of trauma and stress for everyone involved, particularly the animal. If you want to keep livestock at all, or you want to eat animal products, even if you stick to dairy and eggs, slaughter is going to be a part of your life, whether you do it personally, outsource it, or sell animals to someone else. Even if you don’t personally breed your animals, sidestepping the slaughter issue, you have to get new animals from somewhere, and you got your animals from somewhere in the first place, and, guess what, excess males and subsequent slaughter are going to be involved.

In commercial agriculture, this slaughter can be brutal and horrific; male chicks, for example, are gassed en-masse within days of hatching and then discarded, some of them still alive and struggling. Similar abuses can be seen in other aspects of the agriculture industry. Male cows, sheep, and goats may be castrated, allowed to mature, and then slaughtered for meat, squeezing some use out of them. Small farms tend to breed on a smaller scale and handle their livestock with more care and respect; they might choose, for example, to raise chicks to maturity and then slaughter them for meat, if that’s feasible. Likewise, the castrate/slaughter option is chosen for other livestock. Most of the paths do eventually lead to death if you’re a dude, though.

This is how it’s been for centuries. Careful breeding is what allowed us to develop useful domestic animals, and responsible management of herds and flocks kept them genetically diverse, valuable, and healthy. Males (and some females) are inevitably slaughtered as part of this process, and females in general are more valuable because it takes longer to carry a pregnancy and produce the next generation that it does to pump and dump. Not facing this issue when it comes to talking about humane farm management and microlivestock is not going to make it go away, and people need to be confronting it when they’re talking about urban farming and management of livestock in urban and suburban areas.

Many of these regions specifically have a ban on raising animals for meat or slaughtering livestock, which has its origins in racism, since classically it was poor people of colour who raised animals for exactly that purpose. These bans, however, make it hard for people to manage microlivestock responsibly because they either need to slaughter illegally, transport (and traumatise) animals when the time comes, or allow a herd to get unmanageable. Slaughter is part of the natural cycle of keeping animals for food, and if you don’t like it, well, then, you probably shouldn’t be eating animal products of any kind.

But as a vegan farmer and consumer, you might want to think about the best sources for fertiliser, because soil does better when it’s managed with animals. Animals are intimately tied into farming and the success of farm crops, and that’s not something you’re going to easily avoid either. ‘Cruelty free’ doesn’t mean the elimination of animals from the process, but the elimination of abuse from the food chain.