In this article, we cover some of the negative environmental impacts of industrial agriculture, and why small homesteads are much better for the planet. You’ll also learn about other environmental benefits of backyard chickens and ways to maximize them for your flock.
There are many reasons that people start keeping chickens in their backyard, from wanting to bypass an increasingly unreliable supply chain to the simple joy of keeping and raising animals.
One that is often overlooked, though, is the many environmental benefits of raising chickens in your backyard or on a small homestead, rather than getting your eggs and meat from the hugely wasteful juggernaut that is industrial agriculture.
While there are many reasons that raising chickens on your own is good for the planet, in this article we’ll break down a few of the most impactful, as well as discussing ways you can maximize your flock’s positive environmental impact.
The Waste of Industrial Agriculture
We don’t have the time or the space in this article to document all of the many problems with large-scale industrial agriculture, from how their over-reliance on antibiotics has made once-minor illnesses potentially deadly to how their focus on breeding high-producing hybrids has left many unique and beautiful chicken breeds on the verge of extinction. Instead, this article will focus on the tremendous waste of the industry and its negative environmental impacts.
The most dramatic waste produced by the industry is the birds themselves. Obviously, rooster chicks have no use to the egg industry and are usually killed as soon as they can be sexed.
Hens also present a major problem, though, as they have much longer lifespans than they do “careers” as productive egg-layers. A hen might live for 10 years, but she will only lay at a pace considered profitable for a year or two. After that, a few of these “spent” hens will be rescued and rehomed, but most are destined for an ignominious and early end, and it’s not even as a chicken nugget.
A spent laying hen is too old and gamey to be considered for most human foods, and – more importantly for the companies – processing them into human-grade meat is expensive. Instead, many spent hens are processed into pet food or rendered into what can most palatably be called byproducts.
As unpleasant at that sounds, it is at least a use, as opposed to the birds who are gassed with CO2 and then dumped at a landfill, another common method of getting rid of spent hens. It’s hard to track exactly how many hens end up where, as most industrial farms know that killing hundreds of thousands of young hens is a bad PR move and don’t like to talk about it, but it’s safe to say millions of hens are used up and wasted by the industry every year.
Another source of waste in the industry is the eggs, which can be rejected for minor cosmetic flaws that don’t at all effect their palatability or nutritional value. Fragile eggs are also easily damaged in the rough processes of large-scale processing, packaging, and shipping.
When you have a backyard flock, you can know that every egg is being valued and used, just like all of your hens. Purchasing a flock is a big step away from an industry that wastes hundreds of thousands or even millions of both every day.
Shipping, Storage, and Transport
Carbon emissions from shipping are probably one of the more visible environmental impacts of the food we eat, as Eat Local campaigns and the rise of self-identified “localvores” has made this former afterthought into a genuine topic of discussion.
While it’s true that shipping emissions are generally a very small portion of the carbon footprint of an individual food item (as opposed to the carbon cost of actually producing the item), they aren’t negligible, and sourcing your food as locally as possible is a viable way to reduce your environmental impact. Luckily, it doesn’t get much more local than your own backyard!
It doesn’t get much more local than your own backyard
Eating your own eggs also reduces emissions from refrigeration in transport trucks and grocery stores, especially in the United States, where commercial eggs are pasteurized and require more refrigeration. You also save the emissions and waste from packaging the eggs in cardboard or plastic cartons.
Chemical Use and Eco-Friendly Gardening
When combined with a vegetable garden, the environmental impacts of keeping chickens become even more positive. This is mainly because hens can replace two of the most damaging chemicals used in both home and especially industrial food production: pesticides and chemical fertilizers. If your garden is carefully managed, you can even use your birds as a stand-in for potentially toxic chemical weedkillers.
Chicken poop is rich in nitrogen, which means it makes an excellent fertilizer for many different kinds of plants. (Some plants can be damaged or stunted by an overabundance of nitrogen, though, so research anything you plant in your garden and consider using alternative fertilizers for some plants.)
Although you should always be aware of the plants and animals around your garden, runoff from chicken fertilizer is much less toxic to woods and waterways than the chemical alternatives.
Similarly, chickens will be more than happy to eat the bugs and weeds that plague your garden, eliminating the need for more toxic chemical pesticides and weedkillers. Just be aware that chickens will eat beneficial insects as well as pests and planted crops as well as weeds, so they should probably be supervised and managed while in your garden.
Reducing Your Impact
By keeping their own chickens instead of paying into the industrial agriculture system, backyard chicken keepers are already doing a lot to mitigate their carbon footprint and help the planet. However, no system is perfect, and there’s always more that keepers can do to cut down on the impact of their individual flocks.
One of the easiest ways to make your flock more eco-friendly is to make sure you have the most energy-efficient coop possible. This will reduce the amount of electricity (and money!) needed to keep your birds comfortable and safe.
Another way to reduce your flock’s environmental impact is to recycle and reuse as many materials as possible in building and outfitting their coop and run. Old CDs and DVDs can become effective predator deterrents; old furniture can easily be repurposed as parts of a coop. Recycling is great, but getting as much use as possible out of an item before you recycle it is even better.
Additionally, a flock can help you cut down on your own food waste, as chickens have strong stomachs that can easily digest overripe vegetables and even rotten fish that humans would otherwise have to throw away.
Even as popular culture becomes more and more environmentally conscious, it can feel harder to know what are and aren’t environmentally sound choices, which articles are sound science and which are just clickbait and noise.
Fortunately, if you choose to keep a flock of backyard hens, you can know that you are making a choice that’s great for your health, your happiness, the birds you’re raising, and the planet at large.