Bad Choices: Why Chickens (& People) Fail to Make Good Ones


Mark and I try to pasture-base our chickens so they can always have fresh grass to eat. Chickens love grass and egg-eaters get more Omega-3s from grass-fed hens.

Most farmers who pasture-base chickens keep them in mobile coops they drag to a new spot in the pasture every day. That gives grass recovery time between chicken scratch-n-munch sessions because totally free ranging chickens would happily destroy the whole pasture. Birds in these coops look crowded, and not at all free-ranging, but the trade-off is fresh grass with grubs everyday. Maybe they prefer that. Limits to freedom so they can all have more of what keeps them healthy and happy.

Note the yard, which used to be rich pasture, is barren now, except for the grass in the frames.

Note the yard, which used to be rich pasture, is barren now, except for the grass in the frames.

We built grazing frames to pasture our hens, protecting some grass in their yard from being scratched to smithereens. Hens can eat grass growing through the screen, and even stick their heads through the screen to get grubs or worms on the surface. We limit their freedom so they can’t destroy the grass bed itself.

But we wanted more for our chickens and so built two attached yards they would alternate between, so they could have full access to pasture and still free-range.  The first day in their new yard they immediately began decimating it.  We knew this pasture would soon look like their primary yard unless we severely limited their access to it. Which we did.

This is their new yard, which they have access to a couple of times a week, or it would look like the yard in the background within a month.

This is their new yard, which they have access to a couple of times a week, or it would look like the yard in the background within a month.

Why can’t they understand they are destroying the very land that sustains them when they tear it up so badly? This is the grassy, buggy land they look at longingly from their chicken yard, always hoping this day we open wide the gate that leads therein. Yet when they have access to it–they rip it up, fighting to get their “fair share” of the grubs and worms available.

Besides the fact that they are chickens with limited reasoning abilities, one explanation for why they destroy the land that sustains them is because they are omnivores with a great appetite for grubs and worms. While they can live just fine on a vegetarian diet, given a choice they’ll choose meat every time, even if it means destroying their food source, which means soon enough there will be neither grass nor grubs, only barren dirt. I’ve tried reasoning with them. They stare at me in that head-cocked-sideways way chickens do when they are looking you in the eye, and then turn away and proceed to scratch away, destroying the grass to hunt for grubs. They are incapable of thinking about implications for tomorrow, or next year, or ten years from now.

That uncomfortably reminds me of my kind. Since we have more reasoning ability than chickens (mostly), and a greater capacity to look down the road a ways and anticipate the consequences of our choices, you’d think we’d make better ones. But my kind, it turns out, can not always be reasoned with either. Some have even mastered a similar head-cocked-sideways sort of blank stare. We either ignore or doubt the Earth Science that suggests the very land that sustains us can only feed about 5 billion people well if everyone eats the typical American diet (high in meat and lots of globally transported and out of season food). The good news is that the earth can feed about 10 billion people well if we all ate lower on the food chain and more locally–like they do in India.

It’d be like putting grazing frames around our food choices. We could still eat meat, but we’d eat less of it, as it’s available given how much or little is in the frames any given time. And maybe we’d only eat tomatoes in the summer and early fall instead of year around. It’d mean accepting some limits so that everyone could eat healthy.

But alas, neither chickens nor people like to be told how to eat. We can control chickens though, and force the grazing frame/mobile coop/alternating pastures solutions. People have more freedoms, more choices. Partly because we have more brain mass than chickens. We have a hard time letting ourselves see the nearly-but-not-quite invisible links that connect our choices to consequences for others. In fact, if you try to show me something I don’t want to see, I might just get really pissed off, or at least defensively laugh you off.

But we humans with our massive brains can make choices that benefit ourselves while also benefitting others around the world and even future generations. In fact, people of a variety of faith backgrounds and people with no faith background at all believe we have a responsibility to make such choices. I’m inspired every day I see globally beneficial choices made. Which is often enough to give me hope.

So why are conversations about being responsible eaters difficult? We are basically smart and basically good-hearted–so why are smart, good-hearted choices hard to make? How did conversations about being good neighbors and good stewards of earth’s resources become political?

I’d really love to know your thoughts on this as a community of readers–my kind–who can engage such topics because we are not, in fact, chickens, but people.



  • Lisa,

    I’ve been thinking about this more as I am planning how to transform my city yard into a garden for the year. I see this as a multifold issue. First people are removed/ignorant of the food processes. Second, our culture is one of entitlement, we focus on self and “rights” as if they are the only thing that matters. Thirdly the issue is spiritual, a matter of heart, mind, body, and soul.

    I think that a lot of the issue is how far removed people are from real food. We have traded the short term “convenience” of processed and imported foods for the knowledge behind our foods. Cooking is no longer a skill we teach well. These little steps bring our food culture further and further away from sustainability.

    Personally I know I chose easy or cheap over wholesome or sustainable foods more often when I am tired from work. As Paul put it in Romans “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” Something I know I need to work on in the area of food… Surrendering my own will.

    • I love hearing about people transforming city yards into gardens! Good for you!
      And yes, this is a multifold issue. Poverty and time are two barriers that keep people from considering food justice choices. But a lot of us aren’t in poverty even if our budgets are tight–and growing our own food and joining community gardens is one way anyone can participate more actively in eating compassionately and more healthy. More people are becoming aware of food processes, too. A good effort and response in helping the invisible processes become more visible has swept the world, which I find very inspiring. And with so many on-line recipes and how-to sources at our finger-tips, engaging these tasks becomes more feasible. And finally, entitlement is what I see in chickens as well–another similarity. They’ll steal a worm from another hen’s mouth when they can get away with it, which is often enough to keep them chasing the hen who might have the best strawberry, worm, or leaf in her mouth. It’s entertaining, yet rather sad and convicting if I let it be. Might equals right in their world. Yes, yes, yes–this is a matter of heart, mind, body and soul.
      Thank you for taking time to weigh in. I wish you well in your gardening endeavor this summer!

  • I had a thoughtful comment from someone who replied privately by email. I summarize and respond here.
    The writer accepted the statistic about how many people the earth could sustain well (5 billion vs 10 billion), but thought my argument was simplistic and said controlling population by educating women globally was a more critical factor. Educated women have fewer children. So education is a more hopeful solution than trying to compel people to eat differently.

    My response: Yes, population is a huge part of the conversation–and I address that in other writing. But getting people to think about changing eating habits–which extends to other habits of living–is significant, too. We all eat 3 meals plus/day which adds up to a lot of commerce, transportation, and the possibility for choosing well or less well. I find local food movements, fair trade for global foods, and just international trade policies some of the most hopeful movements out there.

    Education does help women in a variety of ways, and decreasing population is one. But education does not equal access to jobs (I’ve visited educated women in South America and Africa who still have no jobs), nor does it address the global-political trade laws that keep the global south from being able to compete fairly in the global market. I join those suspicious of “economic growth for all” as a sustainable way forward. Consider China. As it’s middle class has grown and become more educated they have become a consumer society–consuming a diet more like ours–high in meat and imported foods. They drive more cars, use more lumber, more everything–like us. But they are bigger and when they catch up per capita to the US they will require more oil for their lifestyle than the world produces.

    There is no single answer–we have to address global problems with multiple solutions. Perhaps the hardest part is staying open to challenging assumptions that way progress was defined in the 20th century will work in the 21st century.

  • I think people don’t have the time, energy, and money to eat as responsibly as we’d like for one.

    Another problem, I think, is education. I don’t think most people realize that we even have a problem. They are so uninformed about everything that is outside their immediate sphere.

    I also find I wrestle with the fear of whether or not some locally raised foods are safe. It’s rather irrational, I know, but sometimes I look at the people who are selling their wares and wonder if their products are safe to eat.

    OH, and if you live in a state like IL, there are regulations out the wazoo that are interfering with local farmer’s markets and such. Last year, it was difficult for them, and this year, it may be impossible thanks to the state regulations put in place in order to “enhance food safety”.

    BTW… love your site. I’ve learned SO MUCH. Thank you. 🙂

    • Thank you for your thoughts, Anita. And yes–I agree that people don’t have the time, energy and education to eat responsibly, and sometimes money. At least if one had the time and energy but not money, one could grow and cook/bake/make more of their own food.

      And yes–most people don’t realize we have a problem. Here’s one example: I just read a blog post by a woman criticizing organic foods and who thinks GMO foods are safe because the governmental agencies overlooking food safety don’t see a problem with them. But when we eat eggs and chicken fed with GMO corn and soy (all chickens are unless they are fed non-GMO or organic feed) we are eating food with the Round-Up gene spliced into it. Round-Up is the poison we put on weeds to kill them. I’m not personally keen on eating that myself. Round-up containers are pretty clear that you shouldn’t accidentally drink the stuff–or inhale it, or get it on your skin. But there are lots of problems with GMOs and that’s just one example of what most of us don’t know. What we don’t know can get to feeling overwhelming.

      And yes–just because food is sold in a Farmer’s Market it doesn’t mean the hands that picked the crops were washed after they last went to the bathroom! But you aren’t guaranteed that for food sold in supermarkets either. We just think there must be more regulations around grocery store food!

      And then yes–regulations themselves can be barriers to people directly accessing farm-grown food!

      BUt onward we go in hope because much good abounds in the food industry! I’m inspired by all the good news–the community gardens, backyard gardens, shared information and spaces and for communities that develop around blogs!

  • Hi Lisa I know this blog is a few years old but hopefully you are still answering questions. I too live in the NW, outside Seattle. Are you doing anything different this year with the weather being so dry? All of my grass is pretty much brown and dormant so all the chickens have is some dandelion greens and they are going through those pretty quickly. I have been buying and hanging other types of greens for them but it’s not near what they would normally get from the yard. And as far as worms and grubbs, again, not alot of those around due to dry conditions.

    • Hi Tami,
      The green our hens get this time of year (every year) are from the garden. Since we have a small CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm, every Monday and Thursday they get loads of cabbage leaves, lettuce, kohlrabi leaves, windfall apples, big zucchini, etc. We also feed them the purslane we weed out the beds, and certain other weeds. So their diet is very diverse, if not full of grass in the summer! I’d call our hens free-range/garden fed more so than pasture raised since they are really only on grass a few months of the year. (From late fall to early spring they are in the fields nibbling on the residuals.) I recommend you fed your hens most any kitchen scraps, but especially leafy vegetables.

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