Monday, October 24, 2016

Free Range Chickens and Bald Eagles - High Cost of Organic Farming

An interesting read in Audubon Magazine about the impact of bald eagles on a free range chicken farm in Georgia.  Each year, this farm has an increasing number of bald eagles overwintering around the farm and feasting on high priced organic chicken.  There are now approximately 75 eagles, eating 3 or 4 chickens per day and costing the farm about $1000/day.  (Don't worry too much for the farm, the taxpayers pick up a good portion of that bill...and many of them don't even eat organic / free range chicken).

In addition to the loss by the eagles, free range farming has higher mortality rates...usually about 18% compared to 4% for conventional chicken farming.  "Even discounting the three or four chickens each eagle takes every day throughout the winter, Coady thinks the farm’s chicken-mortality rate is too high. It’s roughly 15 percent throughout the year, though some weeks it’s higher and some weeks it’s lower. He’d like it to be somewhere around 10 percent—far below the estimated 18 percent mortality rate the USDA expects for free-range chickens (for comparison, it’s 4 percent for confined chickens)." 

 The farmer's solution - "Harris has his own ideal solution, and it has nothing to do with noise-makers or reimbursement programs or tourism. If everyone farmed in the nature-first way he does, he says, eagles wouldn’t concentrate on his farm. Flocks of chickens scattered across the Georgia countryside would naturally cause eagles to disperse into smaller, healthier populations."  I guess I am missing something yes the eagle population would spread out..for now, but what would limit eagle population growth if farms all over became raptor dinner tables?  And with an unchecked eagle population explosion, what else will be on that dinner table....little Sparky and Mr. Tibbs?

Audubon Magazine
An Organic Chicken Farm in Georgia Has Become an Endless Buffet for Bald Eagles
By Susan MatthewsFall 2016

Dozens of the raptors crash White Oak Farms each winter to dine on its fields of pasture-raised poultry. With little recourse, the farmers are racing to adapt. 

In a battle between a Bald Eagle and a chicken, the chicken is definitely the long shot. And yet you can’t help but root for the eagle. It is a magnificent creature, precision-built to do two things that reliably fill humans with awe—fly and kill—and it looks completely at ease doing both. Swooping down, the eagle unfurls its hand-like claws, scoops up a chicken, and sweeps up to a tree, whereupon the larger bird lays the smaller bird on a branch to allow for easy consumption. It’s unclear exactly when the chicken dies, but the eagle’s beak is quite effective at pulling out the other bird’s meat. After a few minutes, all that remains is a clump of feathers and discarded viscera. These gory leavings splatter anything below the tall oaks at White Oak Pastures, a family farm in rural Georgia—including, one morning, Jenni Harris’s SUV.

Jenni’s father, Will Harris, the fourth-generation owner of White Oak Pastures in the tiny town of Bluffton (population: 100), is laughing as he tells me about the gut-drenched vehicle. Jenni was unperturbed, he explains; she simply wiped the bloody goo off the windshield before driving away.

What else could she do? The slaughter here is relentless. White Oak is home to one of the largest pastured chicken flocks in the country; at any given time, 60,000 birds wander the land in accordance with pasture-raised parameters. As the next level beyond free-range, this farm never contains its adult birds indoors, instead allowing them to roam without restraint at all times. This also means that for the Bald Eagles that showed up a few years ago, White Oak is an all-you-can-eat buffet.

When I visited in January, at least 75 Bald Eagles were living on the farm, where they overwinter October to March. At that time, Harris estimated each raptor was killing up to four chickens a day, racking up a total of at least $1,000 in daily losses. Due to the birds’ protected status under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and other federal laws, Harris had few options. He couldn’t kill them. He could try to shoo them, but most methods would be costly and likely to scare the chickens before the eagles.

So for a time the farm tried to live with them. Harris chose to view the sacrifice of some of his principal product in terms that verged on the spiritual. “You’re supposed to give 10 percent to the church and we don’t really do that, but we’re giving 10 percent to nature,” Harris says. Though by this past winter, White Oak probably gave a little more than it could truly afford: Right around the time Harris contacted the National Audubon Society, in December 2015, the eagles had moved from attacking chickens only to taking down turkeys, too. A few weeks later they went after the newborn goats. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a program that reimburses farmers who incur losses from protected wildlife, but to get the money, you must prove the predator caused each death—a complicated endeavor when you’re talking about thousands of chickens.

Of all places for this to happen, White Oak is probably one of the best spots for the eagles to have staked a claim. When he realized the predators were not going anywhere, Harris alerted the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to the birds’ presence and asked for advice on how to handle them—a refreshing change from the “shoot, shovel, and shut up” strategy some farmers might employ, says Jim Ozier, former eagle coordinator for DNR. Of course, this holistic approach toward both farming and animals may explain why the eagles are there in the first place. During the past 20 years Harris has transformed White Oak from an industrial cattle operation into a farm that produces a wide variety of organic, sustainable products. “Everything we’re trying to do, we’re trying to emulate nature,” Harris says, though he quickly admits, “Sometimes it’s imperfect and sometimes it sucks.”


At dawn and dusk throughout the winter, if you pull off the road near a cluster of White Oak’s chicken shacks, you’re guaranteed to see at least a dozen eagles, some perched in trees and some snatching prey below. A human observer might perceive the magnificent raptors’ actions as lazy, but Ozier describes them as “naturally efficient.” After all, they’re maximizing caloric intake and minimizing energy output. It may not be the kind of impressive behavior we’d like to see, but it’s clearly effective.

Six years ago, there were no eagles on the farm. Then Harris brought in the chicken operation. By the next year, a dozen eagles showed up, and the year after that, around 30. This past winter that number more than doubled.

I’m sitting on the trunk of my car one evening watching eagles take their pick of the poultry when Harris pulls up in his Jeep. I ask him whether the eagles drive him crazy. “You bet,” he says. Most of the time he’s pretty good-natured about the birds, joking about their presence, but standing before them he knows he’s watching money swirl down the drain.

There weren’t always so many eagles, because there weren’t always so many chickens. Six years ago, there were no eagles on the farm. Then Harris brought in the chicken operation. By the next year, a dozen eagles showed up, and the year after that, around 30. This past winter that number more than doubled; in one photograph, 78 eagles perch in the towering oaks that border much of the farm. Their postures are both regal and self-assured—it’s almost as if they know how admired and protected they are. “I don’t know how they spread the word,” Harris says. “Must be on their eagle blogs.”

As much as the uninvited guests aggravate Harris, the chickens themselves don’t even seem to notice the huge predators in their midst. A Bald Eagle can land in the middle of dozens of chickens and they’ll continue pecking at the ground as if nothing were there. “Once I even saw a Bald Eagle inside a chicken shack, just picking them off one at a time,” the poultry manager, Daniel Coady, tells me. The chickens didn’t make a peep.
Link to entire story -

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