Remember that old Farmer Brown ad: ‘They taste so good, ’cause they eat so good’? It turns out that a diet of grubs, grass, grain, fresh air and sunshine makes the tastiest chickens of all.
On 6 March 2010 a group of Slow Fooders visited Spier to learn more about their biodynamic farming methods. In particular, we wanted to know about their egg-laying and broiler chickens – we’d heard they lead happy lives, by chicken standards.
Spier farm manager, Christo, led us out into the pastures to meet the chickens and cows, who live in a fascinating symbiosis on the pastures.
This piece of land was almost destroyed by conventional farming methods, but is now being rehabilitated using biodynamic principles: the cows graze the grass, trampling some of it flat and churning the earth. They leave behind pats, where larvae grow. A few days’ later the chickens are moved onto the same piece of land, where they disperse the pats by scratching for grubs and further fertilise the soil with their own droppings. After a few rounds of this, the srubby pasture starts to look green and lush – it’s revitalised.
Spier’s egg-laying chickens are completely free to run around at will (though Christo has specifically chosen ones that don’t like to range TOO far) and spend their evenings roosting a large coop (decorated by local kids), where they’re free to lay their eggs as and when they feel like it.
They’re also free to indulge in all sorts of poultry peccadillos, including chickens’ absolute favourite past-time: a feather-fluffing dust bath. These chickens will be good layers for up to five years (compared to less than two years for exhausted commercial hens).
The broiler chickens – the one omnivorous humans eat – are moved through the pastures in large cages, partly covered in shade-cloth. While they don’t run free – predators are too much of a danger – they’re still chirpy, as The Littlest Slow Fooder found out when she was introduced.
These broiler chicks come from the same place that commercial chickens are bred, and are ‘saved’ at one day old. “I see the crates of chicks being loaded onto the big trucks, and look at our couple of hundred chicks, and I think ‘this is your lucky day, guys’,” says Christo.
The chicks spend their first three weeks in this roomy shed, before going ‘out to pasture’ for another three weeks. During this time, they grow up to twice as big as conventional chickens – as much as 2.6kgs – eating bugs, seeds, some special feed, and getting strong scratching around in the dirt. Right now, the chickens are slaughtered at a site about 90 minutes away that has the requisite humane approach, but Spier has nearly finished their own slaughterhouse on the farm, which will mean chickens will be far less stressed at the end.
The poem on the wall, by Kahlil Gibran, reads in part:
By the same power that slays you, I to am slain; and I too shall be consumed.
For the law that delivered you into my hand shall deliver me into a mightier hand.
Your blood and my blood is naught but the sap that feeds the tree of heaven.
In the biodynamic tradition of ‘closing the circle’ on a farm, all inedible by-products of the slaughter will go into the Spier organic veggie garden compost heap. It will feed the soil that fed the chickens that fed us.