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Letter -- Chickens are outdoor animals by nature

The industrial ag advocates are at it again. Last time, they tried to change the National Organic Program rules to allow the feeding of conventionally grown feed to organic chickens.

They said that organic feed costs too much -- never mind that they would sell the "organic'' chickens at a premium price. This time they are lobbying USDA to change the rules to allow organic chickens to be raised completely indoors, because, well, "the sky is falling.''

The logic of raising chickens indoors is no better than the oxymoron of feeding conventionally grown feed to organic chickens. The Chicken Little lobbyists would have us believe that a chicken's health is threatened by allowing it to go outdoors, that all manner of disease is lurking about outside, waiting to attack chickens and their eggs -- in short, chickens should "take cover, the sky is falling.''

The problem is that the factory farmers are extrapolating from their experience with diseases in crowded chicken confinement operations. As a farmer who has raised chickens outdoors for years, it is clear to me that the factory farmers, speculations are as confused as Chicken Little mistaking an acorn for the sky. Free-range chickens have stronger immune systems and carry more diverse and balanced microfauna in their digestive systems, making them more resistant to disease.

Parallels can be seen in human health. The flu season comes in the winter when the weather forces us to crowd indoors, where the spread of infectious diseases is increased. Also, children who spend a lot of time outdoors are exposed to a wider range of environmental microfauna and grow up to have stronger immune systems. Certainly, we would not confine people inside for life, thinking they would be less healthy if allowed outside.

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Having observed free-range chickens for a long time, it is obvious to me that chickens are outdoor animals by nature. Our chickens only come indoors to roost at night or to crawl into a nest to lay an egg. Otherwise, they spend the whole day outside: scratching about looking for insects, seeds, green plants, and other tasty tidbits -- even though they always have access to feed trays with all the grain they can eat.

When the chickens come in for the night, we close the door to protect them from predators. When we open the door in the morning, the chickens rush out, eager to go about their business of scratching and hunting. If we forget to open the door at the crack of dawn, the chickens aren't happy and they make a racket to let us know.

Our chickens are very healthy and live for many years.

One argument the indoor-chicken lobbyists use is that there are mice and rats outside that could spread germs to chickens. From my experience, in an encounter between a rodent and a chicken, the rodent is the one in grave danger. Believe it or not, a "chicken'' can be ferocious in its natural environment; it is built like a miniature Tyrannosaurus Rex. On several occasions, I have seen a chicken run down a mouse and kill it with a quick peck and a shake.

The mouse had less chance of survival than a human chased by a T. Rex in Jurassic Park.

Unfortunately, lobbyists can be effective at getting the attention of lawmakers. Eleven U.S. congressmen have been won over by the Chicken Little Lobbyists and have signed a letter to the Department of Agriculture opposing the free-range rule for chickens.

Let's hope that USDA will not cave in so easily, but will stand up to this latest onslaught of those who would industrialize organic agriculture.

-- Francis Thicke, Fairfield, Iowa

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