By Peter Lyle DeHaan , PhD
In my office is an evocative black and white aerial photo of my grandfather’s chicken farm, circa 1960. Grandpa and Dad ran the farm, along with a revolving assortment of hired help. The farm consisted of five barns, in two interconnected groups. Together they accommodated 15,000 hens.
Four buildings housed “layers,” with eggs being the farm’s principle product. Each building was staged, with the hens’ age being staggered by four months. When egg production for a building would taper off, those hens would be sold, ending up in cans of condensed chicken-noodle soup. (The ratio of cans per chicken intrigues me to this day.) The fifth building was the “pullet” house; think of it as the nursery.
The farm had a predictable seasonal cycle to it. The hens from the oldest building would be sent to market, the vacated coop cleaned, disinfected, and refurbished. Then the maturing hens from the pullet house would move in. Then the pullet house would be similarly prepped. (A window of opportunity existed, between the disinfect and repopulate stage, when I was permitted to roller skate in that building.)
It was exciting for me when the hatchlings were delivered. They would arrive unassumingly, transported in cardboard cartoons, with 100 per, and delivered via station wagon. The shrill cacophony of their combined chirping was surely deafening to the driver; even in the open space of their new abode, their peeping was overwhelming. I took great joy in my small role of liberator, watching their cute, yellow, fluffy bodies scurry in all directions, from the gently upturned box.
The farm also had a daily rhythm. Aside from the feeding, cleaning, and ongoing maintenance, there was the gathering and processing of the eggs. Each hen house was an open space (there were no caged chickens), with condo-like rows of open nests. How most hens knew to lay their eggs in the nests and not on the floor remains a mystery to me.
As a pre-schooler, I would sometimes get to go with Dad to gather eggs; it was great fun – for the first few minutes. I quickly learned to avoid nests with hens in them; they would peck the back of your hand. Even the jersey gloves with cut-off fingers that Dad wore seemed to be inadequate protection. I resorted to gathering eggs from empty nests, in the lower rows that I could reach. Once I needed to rest and sat on a little stool. Only it wasn’t a stool; it was a basket of eggs. I broke half of them before I could extricate myself. I was mortified. Dad patiently cleaned me off; I think Grandpa laughed.
The baskets of eggs were put on carts, which hung from an elevated rail. The rail system snaked through the barns, terminating at the farmhouse, where the eggs were brought to the basement for processing. Once cleaned, the eggs were put in the “candling” machine, where each was individually checked by shining a light through it. The machine sorted the eggs by size. The extra-large, large, medium, and small sizes were sold; the “pee-wee” and “jumbo” eggs made it to the family table. (One morning, I ate three pee-wee eggs; another morning, a jumbo fed three of us.)
Unfortunately, due to health issues for Dad and a sudden desire by Grandpa to retire, the farm was shut down and the hens sold. The next day, as I took my usual shortcut to school though the back of the farm, I spotted a wayward hen who had escaped deportation. My cousin Steve and I tried in vain to catch her. I knew we needed expert help and ran to get Grandpa. Although skeptical of my tale, he immediately went to help; alas, neither chicken nor Steve could be found. Grandpa suggested I get to school and I later learned that Steve had caught the skittish hen and at a loss of what to do, put her in the cab of the Grandpa’s old dump truck.
“Can I keep it?” I plied Mom and Dad. Dad couldn’t say no. My hen garnered me a private supply of eggs, producing one every 27 hours. (The exact laying cycle varies with breed, age, diet, environment, and season.) This was a bit short of my hope for an egg a day, so I considered a second hen. That would be more eggs than I needed, so I would share with my family. Why stop at two, my young mind reasoned. Six hens would produce enough for everyone, with some left over. A dozen hens would mean eggs to sell. How far could it grow? Soon my elementary-school entrepreneurialism envisioned me helping feed and support my family.
I’m not sure if I shared any of this vision with Dad, but when I asked for a second hen, it was soon granted. Dad, picked a strong, robust hen; she was a fine specimen and I was ecstatic. Unfortunately, my two hens didn’t get along, with the new one dominating and attacking the original. Even with a larger pen, the abuse continued, production dropped, and soon my cherished pet was dead, killed by her associate and ostensibly by my desire for more. That day, my dream died, too.
But this isn’t a story about chickens; it’s really about people. It’s not a commentary on greed or rant against capitalism, but rather a call for balance and pragmatism:
Bigger is Not Always Better
Sometimes less is more; enough said.
Increased Scope Produces Increase Challenges
I was a successful farmer of one chicken. I wrongly assumed that if I could raise one, two would not be a problem, after all, it’s a scalable concept. I never dreamed that I would have “labor” issues to deal with—it never came up in a one chicken operation!
All too often, business people expand their operation without considering the ramifications. They forget that with a bigger operation will require more support and add new and unforeseen challenges. This often occurs when a successful, one location business, opens up a second site. Suddenly neither is doing well. It might be they have the wrong management style, maybe the owners became distracted, or perhaps the requisite infrastructure was lacking.
Value What You Have
I took my hen for granted. When a better one came along, I jumped at the opportunity.
I’ve done the same with employees; maybe you have too. You have people whose work may not be stellar, but who have been steady, faithful, and dependable for years. Then a bright-eyed, eager-to-please applicant arrives and the next thing you know, the new employee has chased the proven one away. It’s only then when you realize that the newer model wasn’t the solution you thought; you long for the “good ole” days with your trusty assistant, before things got messed up with a new hire and your longing for something better.
We live in a society that is seldom satiated and always lusts for more. It’s not bad to have dreams and set goals; in fact, it’s good to do so and is detrimental to lack aspirations. However, when the push for more becomes the focus, the best parts of life begin to obscure, going unnoticed and unrealized.
The first step is to truly distinguish between needs and wants. So many things that we think we need are in reality not necessary and merely a nice extra. In the big picture, how important is a bigger house, a newer car, a grander vacation, or more “toys?” Will they bring joy and satisfaction or just make you more tired, with added pressures? Ask yourself, “When was the last time that I actually wore out an article of clothing, as opposed to merely getting bored with it or it becoming too tight? This is starting to get at the crux of the issue. Being content with what we have is a good place to strive for; learning to be content with less is even better—and still leaves us ahead of the majority of people on the planet.
Don’t get so busy counting your chickens that you miss out on what you have.