Why I think a stocking density (birds per square foot) of between 1.5 and 3.0 sq ft per bird is hogwash.
Here is the original content in my email newsletter that sparked this article:
Several times this week I’ve been asked a variation of this question: “How many birds can I fit in my coop?” So when I received a copy of Backyard Poultry magazine, I was curious to see what their article would have to say.
Floor space per bird is a debated topic these days, and the answer depends on who you ask. An adult hen should have a least one and a half square feet of space according to Penn State Extension Service. The Merck Veterinary Manual suggests a whopping three feet squared per hen.
Absolute hogwash1. Take a 2 pieces of notebook paper – that is about 1.5 sq. ft. Imagine having that little space to live in, so you’d be stepping in manure all the time. And twice that is not much better.
Here is how I answer the question.
Are you going to keep them in the coop all the time, or will they be outside during the day? If they have access to a large (20 sq ft per bird or larger) run during the day, then 3.0 sq. ft. is fine for a SLEEPING area. If they are going to be in the coop all the time, then I want 10 sq. ft. per bird, and I plan to move or clean the coop weekly. My small Delaware flock – 1 rooster and 3 hens – are housed in a 10×10 coop (100 sq. ft.). I move it once a week. When I have 10 birds in there it feels on the edge of being crowded. And that’s how I determine how many birds to fit in an area – by how it feels. If it looks crowded, then it is crowded. According to the standards quoted above, I could be raising 66 adult hens in that 10×10 coop – no sane person would ever do that. Or if I follow the Merck Veterinary Manual – I could be raising 33 adult birds – no humane person would do that.
1Hogwash is a technical term meaning ‘Worthless, false or ridiculous speech or writing; nonsense…
After writing the above, I begin to think more about the whole article — the article titled “Chicken Math” by Jeremy Chartier. Mr. Chartier has written many articles for Countryside Network and appears to be well respected by that publisher. (Countryside Network publishes Backyard Poultry).
The lead in to the article reads “If you’re looking to start a flock that may even (gasp) turn a profit for a small farm….” “Profit” is an interesting word. In economics, it can be defined as the Total Income minus expenditures. So to “turn a profit,” we would raise income or lower expenditures. For big businesses, labor is a large expenditure. So most try to limit labor costs. Infrastructure is also an expenditure. So to fit the maximum number of birds in the smallest space makes “profit” sense. But is it really the best perspective, particularly for a magazine whose very title emphasizes “Backyard”?
The domesticated animal, such as poultry, places some requirements on the homesteader or the backyarder. In exchange for concentrating calories derived from grass, trees, bugs – domestic livestock require air, water and access to food. Basically, they require care.
Care is a very interesting concept. The word “care” comes from the old English “be anxious, feel concern or interest.” This “feeling” that creates care contrasts starkly with the word “rational”, which means “of or belonging to reason, reasonable,” which comes from the word “ratio” – “reckoning, numbering, calculation, with respect to business affairs. In Mathematics – the relationship between two numbers.”
When we reduce anything down to just the relationship between two numbers, we lose the wholeness that is life. This is like studying a flower by plucking it and pulling out the petals – that is a rational way to try to understand flowers – but it does not express care. And it destroys the flower in the process.
When rational thought is applied to food production, the two numbers that are often put in ratio are profits and costs. Then we get systems like CAFOs – concentrated animal feeding operations. CAFOs are perfectly rational. Maximum profit, with minimum expense. But no one who has ever seen one would ever say that a CAFO expresses any care. This is the type of perspective that 1.5 to 3 sq. ft. per bird housing recommendations come from – a care-less perspective.
I come from a very rational, analytical background. I have an advanced degree in Computer Science. I spent over 12 years working for the National Laboratories, including 2 years in nuclear bomb design. In my work, and really this is the fruit of all rational thinking, problems were solved by analysis. Analysis works to find solutions by reducing each problem into smaller problems until we get to a problem small enough to think we have it solved. The assumption and illusion are that if we solve all the small problems then somehow we will have solved the larger problems as a result. The problem with breaking things into ever smaller parts is that it creates fragmentation and destroys wholeness. For those seeking greater wholeness in life, in order for the whole to be larger than the sum of the parts, there must be meaningful relationships between the parts. Reducing things through analysis implies destroying the relationships between the parts.
We can look at an earthworm apart from the soil, and surmise that it has no value to the garden. We can look at the soil apart from the worm and see that it is lacking fertility. We can dissect the worm to see how it works, but we will only really begin to learn when we observe the relationship between the worm and the soil and the castings that the worm produces. Similarly, we can only really begin to “know” the chicken and its needs and function when we see it in relationship to the coop, the land, the garden and to ourselves. Because meaning is found through relationships, and analysis breaks relationships between things, it is a myth to think that we can come to know anything meaningful through analysis. Relationships occur at the point of needs. Where there are no needs, there is little opportunity for relationships to occur. It is entirely rational to think that needs are something to be avoided, but this is another illustration of the fallacy of rationalism. It is through our needs that we come into deep relationships with others and discover the ultimate meaning of our lives.
Look at your birds as a backyard CAFO operation. Then figure out how to handle the flies, the manure, the stench, the disease and soon you will realize that your backyard was not meant to be a mini-CAFO.
Skip the hogwash, express some care, and give the birds more room.