Sometimes talking about sustainable farming means you have to talk about the hard stuff. The real stuff. The stuff that makes people look at you weird or think you’re a horrible person. One of those things is the process of a type of “natural selection”. And not in the evolution type of theory.
It’s the big “C” word that we don’t like to say, but that is absolutely necessary on the homestead, and that word is “cull”.
We can talk about herbs and natural preventatives all we want, all day long. And while I am a huge advocate of them, I understand that, in a sustainable farming set-up, I must cull if I want the best livestock I’ve ever had. It’s not just for my own sanity, it’s the necessary responsibility of a good farmer or homesteader.
Most often, he doesn’t have to worm his animals due to the rotation of pasture and the method of allowing chickens to clean up the mess once the cows rotate. But if we want to get real here, we also know that if an animal is susceptible to getting worms—or any illness for that matter—then they aren’t worth keeping in a sustainable homesteading or farming lifestyle. And thus, the method of selecting or “holding back” the hearty livestock, and culling the rest. You then breed the hearty livestock that is not susceptible to issues, and you get a better group of livestock with each generation of selecting and holding back.
Let me just remind you that we’re talking about sustainable farming here, not just having a few chickens in the backyard. You’re perfectly fine purchasing a few chicks from the store every year if you’re just using egg layers. But in a sustainable farming business or practice, the game changes, drastically.
What Does “Cull” Mean?
We hear the word “cull” in the homesteading community, and we immediately think “kill”, but that’s just not true. Culling is the process of “getting rid of” something. By your own choice, that can mean to kill or process, reaping the benefits of meat for your family. Or it could mean to sell or give away. When you see people selling livestock at auctions or farm sales, this is an act of “culling” your extras or non-desirable livestock. It doesn’t mean the stock is bad, it just means you don’t need it, or it’s of no further use to you in your breeding program.
Your Stock’s Offspring is Stronger
Here’s an example—a few months ago my flock had mites. This is a first for us, we’ve never had them before in all the years of chicken keeping and using herbal preventatives. Our flock consists of several hatchery birds that we had purchased previously that summer (White Leghorns, to be exact). The remainder of the flock consists of about four birds that we hatched from our own previous stock, years ago.
As I inspected each chicken that was in my flock, I noticed that the bulk of the mites were on the leghorns, while there were very few on the chickens we had hatched in previous years. In fact, two of the chickens we hatched most recently from our own stock didn’t have mites at all.
This was not coincidental, and my experience in genetics and breeding allowed me to realize this. This was the act of breeding livestock that had been hearty and not susceptible to parasites.
Another example—one year I purchase chicks from the farm store after I had hatched chicks of my own stock from the day before. They all housed together. Several of the hatchery chicks died, none of the chicks we hatched from our own stock died. As they grew, we found the hatchery juvenile chicks to be more susceptible to becoming egg-bound, not foraging as much as the chicks we hatched, and other issues that could arise.
Whether it’s a chick or a cow, these things continue to remain in genetics, and it’s why many sustainable farmers choose not to bring outside livestock onto their property unless they absolutely have to for better genetic lineage.
Culling is Good Animal Husbandry
I can remember the first time I mentioned culling in a local chicken group—I got mobbed. For starters, they didn’t realize that in the farming world, culling doesn’t just mean to “kill” (see above). And secondly, we apparently live in a generation where everything should live for 1,000 years on a farm whether it’s useful or not. And while I get that (and I have many of those myself!), when push comes to shove, sometimes you have to do nature a favor and cull.
If you aren’t actively breeding your livestock, this doesn’t pertain to you. But if you are actively breeding your livestock, then it is your responsibility to not breed whatever animals you can throw together.
In order to maintain a sustainable environment, to keep good and healthy livestock, and to be a good livestock keeper, you must cull out the livestock that isn’t beneficial to your breeding program. Otherwise, you’ll run into genetic issues, animals that are more susceptible to diseases and parasites, or worse. Let’s not forget that eventually, you’re going to want to sell some of that offspring. Are you going to start putting out bad stock into the breeding pool for others?
Consider this before and after breeding before things get “worse”.
While we don’t like to talk about it, all of us that are on the road to sustainability know that it’s necessary. As you begin to breed and plan out your breeding programs, you’ll come to enjoy the process of connecting with your livestock and pulling out the desirable traits that you wish to see. It’s an incredible experience to be able to tailor your livestock herds and flocks to what you need on your own homestead.
So whether you’re breeding for sustainability, conformation, egg color and production, meat production, foraging ability, or just pretty livestock—consider all of these things before your next breeding adventure. And you just may like what nature has in store for you next time around!
As a wannabe sustainable farmer, I appreciate the information in this post. The idea of culling is a tough one for me but I know it’s for the best. It’s nice to read honest material such as this, as my family is in the saving/planning stage for our farm. It helps me have a realistic view of the whole process.
I’m so happy it was helpful for you!
Abby Butterfield says
This is a great article! We are on our fourth year of raising chickens, and no matter how much space we give our chickens we have problems with feather picking. We are at a loss feeling like all the money spent on non gmo feed, free ranging on two acres and a large coop with plenty of nesting boxes doesn’t even matter. I keep feeling like we should start over with a whole new set of chicks but it just isn’t cost effective. My only other alternative is to cull the culprits we believe to be doing the feather picking, although we have had a problem with each flock we have for some reason. We have resorted again to using peepers, tried the no pick solution etc. Just posted on Craigslist to see if some can be removed but so far no interest as we are in a rural area. Do you have any experience with chickens pulling out each other’s feathers??
Goodness, Abby! That sounds frustrating! So sorry you are dealing with this. Do you have a rooster with each flock? If so, that could the culprit. It might not be feather picking at all, it could be rooster tread or other issues.
This is a great article, and reminds me that I not only want the best layer (easy on the hens with good production) and meat, I also should be looking at survival and overall health and function. Thank you!
Diana Landsness says
I too have a problem with feather plucking. I’ve seen it both inside my chop and while free range. But I also have a very horny and aggressive rooster who is tearing up the hens combs and feathers on their backs. He has gotten very aggressive toward me and my husband although he had learned not to attach the 2 dogs. They taught him (named the rooster Cock) that they can bite back. I think he got so mean because of last winter it got so cold that while I made the mistake of letting them out of their coop thinking they would be fine and not monitoring the weather until it was too late. I found them all huddled outside the coup and his waddles frozen solid. He ended up with severe frost bite on his Comb and feet. I’m still fighting with one sore on his thumb toe that I have had to cut out 3 times now and currently have willapa up again. We immediately brought him inside after putting the hens up. We keeper him wrapped in a towel on our lap and used our hands to help warm his waddles until they thawed out. He went through hell while healing and ended up losing both waddles to gangrene. If interested in seeing, I did take pictures. I even tried saving them with antibiotics. But as for the plucking by a few of my other hens. One more so than the others and three largest. I think that the 6 weeks when Cock was in our house healing she took over the coop as boss and is still very bossy with towards the other hens even with Cock out there. He’s had to put her in her place a few times. I want to get rid of Cock because of the aggressiveness towards us and the 12 hens he has. But my husband just loves him even though he attacks him when he gets close to the coop and lets them out. I used the hot potato method the shorten his spurs because he has punctured my legs 5 times with them. All I was doing was filling there food and water. Yes they free range but only on 1/2 acre of the 1.5 acres. What would you suggest. I am handicapped and have trouble at times of getting out to lock them up before dark. Try to because we caught a possum and have seen a fox walking down the street a few times. We made a raised coop but still need to make a pen. We have only had chickens for a year and a half. Newbies.