When you raise your own chickens from a mixed hatchery order, or as we mostly do, from chicks you hatched yourself, you eventually run into the problem of too many roosters. The ideal ratio is about 1:12 roosters to hens. You could go around doing counts, but that's hardly necessary, if you're hatching and raising your own birds. You'll know when you have too many roosters - the farmyard dissolves into avian chaos.
Every year at some point it happens around our farm. In doing the daily rounds you become aware that the ambiance, the energy about the place, has ceased to be one of balance and peace. And it doesn't take long to pinpoint the reason: everywhere you look there are newly matured roosters in frenzied pursuit of hens, sometimes two or three on one, and more roosters pursuing the pursuers. Crazed cackling fills the air with little respite. The hens are understandably stressed and egg production begins to drop. The roosters are stressed too, with an adversary at every turn. There's no way around it, it's time to "cull" - read: kill - a bunch of roosters.
So we killed roosters this past weekend. Killing things is never particularly pleasant, being the very definition on some level of excess violence, even when done humanely. Yes, you do it in as instantaneous and stress-free a fashion as you can devise, but the end result is nonetheless the termination of life. Which, for us, always leads to much reflection and discussion, before, during, and after.
I think one of the things that would shock most non-farm folks should they begin farming, and on the other hand, one of the most valuable lessons most folks today are not receiving, is the amount of baseline violence that must go on just to sustain life and maintain order. Soldiers like to remind us of this. And if the farm is indeed a little ecosystem symbolic of the larger workings of the living earth, then i'd have to say they are correct, at least in principle. For sooner or later (probably sooner), if you are farming as farming is meant to be done, in a mixed and sustainable fashion, you are going to have to kill something. It may be an old breeder that is suffering, it may be an injured animal, it may be a meat animal, it may be a predator, it may be rodents in the vegetables or the granary. There is going to be killing to do. Sometimes, it becomes a daily ritual. (By the way, please note we aren't trying to dupe you, morally swindle you, to evade accountability with sanitizing terms like "harvest" in this post. Crops are harvested. Animals are killed, slaughtered.)
There are those who argue that this is one of the problems with farming, that it pits man violently against his fellow creatures, against nature, forgetting that life itself pits pretty much all creatures against their fellow creatures at regular junctures, that this is nature, and that in fact what ensues is actually preferable to the sorts of situations that develop when not enough of this sort of baseline violence occurs. Things like disease and starvation and neuroses and psychoses due to overpopulation... and trouble in the henyard.
This time, I chose to use the scoped .22 rifle for the task. My usual technique was to try to walk calmly amongst the birds with a long stick, lashing out swiftly at the right moment to stun the bird and then quickly slitting its throat. I reasoned that this was less stressful than catching them and hanging them up and otherwise terrorizing them. But sooner or later they catch on, and panic ensues. So I further reasoned that if I just strolled about calmly with this accurate little rifle loaded with the lightest and least dangerous rounds available for the task - the .22 "short" - I could "reach out" from a non-invasive distance and deliver the coup-de-grace without producing any panic whatsoever.
This proved to be largely correct in practice. I would aim for the head, and if my aim was true, Andrea would then slip smoothly in with a sharp Bowie and slit the throat to make sure of the outcome. The other birds just seemed curious, or puzzled, although some of the hens went immediately haywire, attacking the rooster in his throes and pecking savagely wherever blood showed. (Maybe these were the ones with a score to settle.) And as anyone who has ever done any amount of killing will tell you, sooner or later things do not go entirely smoothly. This is inevitable. Your job then is to act quickly and decisively to reduce any suffering. This may sound unpleasant, and it certainly is. But we have found there is nothing like accepting this responsibility for arriving at a deeper understanding of our basic contract with life, the breach of which we enter into at immeasurable peril to ourselves and other life forms. We expect it is as true in this case, as in so many others, that we lose far more than we gain by "outsourcing" a vital act.
We killed thirteen roosters in all, gutted them and put them in the freezer for later stewing (they are delicious!) The guts went to the pigs. I was happy for the firearm. Those opposed to firearms might do well to contemplate themselves on a farm, tasked with, let's say, killing something large - beyond a rooster - perhaps a pig or a steer, with something other than a gun. A knife or a spear, perhaps - maybe a club. Your odds of delivering that animal as humane a death as possible have just dropped precipitously.
At any rate, we're glad the task is done. Perhaps we value the peace that has been restored that much more, relative to what was necessary to maintain it.
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