Thursday, October 10, 2013

The chicken run

Does Minister Davies know something many small poultry producers don’t?

Not more than 20 meters from my idyllic rented farm house nestled between the slopes of the Langeberg Mountains and the Breede River is a forlorn abandoned chicken run.

It’s a nostalgic shrine to fruitless attempts at self-sufficiency -- that deep and irrational urge that tugs at one’s conscience in troubled times – when politicking can stymy one of the world’s biggest national budgets; when a debt laden populace loses faith in its means of exchange; when poo is thrown in protest and when violent political springs are sprung.

That chicken run played no small measure in my decision to become an urban refugee. I had comforting visions of roosters heralding the dawn and copious feasts of eggs and drumsticks harvested from scores of fowls running freely in the considerable expanse around the renovated “opstal”. The potential abundance could be shared with friends and neighbours in exchange for cabbages and corn, offsetting potential protein overload.

What followed was a long and sorry struggle. First we discovered that our locally acquired motley clutch refused to seek refuge in the badly fenced run, let alone the decades old zinc chicken house. Attempts to get them to lay eggs in nests fashioned from plastic crates were fruitless. They chose rather to hide their passion fruit under thorn bushes and stinging nettles in the surrounding hectares and sleep in trees to show us that contrary to popular belief they can be quite accomplished fliers. Catching them for the table was beyond any geriatric capability.

Then came the day that one of our pet Jack-Russells proudly dragged in a headless carcase, followed soon by another, and then another. Disbelieving that nature could be so wasteful, we concluded that it was our two spoilt Jackies who had lost the art of hunting for food, emulating humans in killing for sport. Our decision to let them go was supported by their over-zealous appreciation of freedom to disappear for days and form packs with other dogs in terrorising everything that moved in the area.

We had little time to mourn their departure, before we found another carcase in the same headless, blood-drained state – and then more until our clutch of fifty or so was reduced by half. The Draculas were none other than fat otters from the Breede River, already overfed on guinea fowl. So like humans, our fowls were imprisoned in the name of freedom. Free range became semi-free behind a fenced 500 square meters of fertile bug and foliage carrying land. The house itself was cleaned and renovated but retained its original reed and bamboo fixtures which clearly had served its previous inhabitants well.

Then they all got sick. We thought they were overwhelmed by the loss of their freedom and were going through the four stages of grief. But then one died and soon all were gone apart from the wily old rooster. It took a local to inform us that they died of anaemia caused by blood sucking lice. The tiny creatures were dormant for years in fixtures we preserved in a misguided salute to bygone days.

At the grave of our dear departed feathered friends, we resolved to “do things properly”. The fence was replaced with costly professionally installed 1.8-m high heavy gauge jackal wire and the “hok” stripped, refitted, debugged and repainted with bitumen that’s the nemesis of any creepy crawly.

Without costly machinery, slaughtering would be a hurdle, so I studied various means of killing, de-feathering, and dressing to prepare them not only for the pot, but perhaps sell to the local mom-and-pop stores. The best, clean and bloodless method, Google informed me, was to stick a steel knitting needle in the beak and shove it into the miniscule brain. But one clearly mellows with age, to the point where one is repulsed by the killing even of sworn enemies such as spiders and snakes. The decision on slaughtering was postponed – indefinitely it turned out.

Our run was restocked with a mixture of 3 month old layers and broilers purchased and transported from Malmesbury and each costing as much as a dressed fowl in the supermarket.

Then we again found a headless carcase, and the carnage resumed. Those fences may have kept out otters, but not local musk cats and mongooses that burrowed under the fence and found other forms of entry. The run was fortified with below surface chicken wire.

And then came the hawks. They would swoop in and claw at our precious poultry before realising that not even their splendid wings could lift their prey, leaving a dead bird behind. We planted a long pole in the centre and suspended nylon cord from it to the fence, attaching blank cd’s at various intervals to blind their superlative vision. It did not deter their entry, only their exit, leaving us with a terrible conundrum of dead fowls and trapped predators. We covered the larger gaps with fish net and the hawks gave up. So did the otters: mongooses, musk-cats, ferret cats, meerkats, stray dogs, and the occasional wine-fortified human.

What finally killed the venture was economic. Having denuded their semi-free range of all goggas, creepy crawlies, and foliage, our expensive clutch had to be fed from locally bought crushed mealies, the price of which doubled to R60 for 10kg in less than a year. The ROI simply did not warrant the venture, including its rustic value of outside moving wall-paper and a nostalgic crowing at dawn.

So when Trade Minister Davies asks “If we can’t produce chickens in South Africa then what can we produce?” I am deeply mortified and have to hang my head in shame. My attempts were clearly unsustainably amateur. Perhaps I should try again after giving him a call. Perhaps too, he can pass on that something he clearly knows that many small, cottage producers might not, adding advice on combatting infectious diseases such as bird flu; quick, clean, inexpensive and precision slaughtering and dressing; avoiding health risks and coping with rising feed costs.

But one part of his question I can answer -- what we can produce.

Those things that we are good at; that we can competitively excel at. Those things where we can create more productive jobs; that will earn us the income to afford cheaper imported poultry that is the primary source of protein for the vast majority of South Africans and that do not burden beleaguered consumers with tariffs that only fill government coffers and protect domestic inefficiencies.

If we cannot compete in a race, we should not run in it but rather enter those where we can, and not handicap runners in the former. Of course it is not that simple in the dog-eats-dog world of international trade, rife with tit-for-tat protectionism. But the underlying principle is sound. We have to learn that we should always act in the interests first of the customer not the producer; the buyer, not the seller.

The world has had enough of commercial xenophobia and protecting the interests of a relatively small group at the expense of the consumer.

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