On a rural property outside Springville, four chickens are living their best life this summer.
They were almost part of a mass culling of birds from a farm near Fort Dodge.
The farmer, who wished to remain anonymous, reached out to animal rescue groups when he was faced with a tough decision; due to financial difficulties related to the coronavirus, he needed to reduce the size of his flock of egg-laying hens by more than 100,000 birds.
A California organization, Animal Place, answered the call. A donor paid to fly chartered planes from California to Iowa, and a group of volunteers went one morning in mid-May to take as many chickens as they could.
Alison Stone, who runs Hercules’ Haven farm rescue near Springville, went to help along with her daughter Issy and Hercules’ Haven animal coordinator Sarah Krambeck.
“It was impressive,” Stone said of the rescue effort. “We stayed at a hotel and got up at 3 a.m. to get to the farm at 4 a.m.”
The Stones and other volunteers spent hours pulling out chickens, putting them into crates that could be flown back to California. A few farm sanctuaries in Iowa also took in a handful of birds; Hercules’ Haven took four.
Stone said she wishes she could help more animals, but her organization is pretty much at capacity.
She and her husband started the nonprofit in Cedar Rapids 2017 and moved to a property with 40 acres in Springville in 2019. Even with the space they gained from that move, they can only feed and care for so many animals with just their family and a small group of volunteers. In addition to a flock of chickens, they have pigs, sheep, goats and horses.
Stone said the farmer told her it was costing him more to feed to chickens than he was making selling their eggs.
The Fort Dodge farmer is not alone in making the decision to cull his animals during the pandemic. When schools closed and demand from restaurants and commercial kitchens dropped, many producers were not able to quickly pivot to selling to grocery stores, with different supply chains and packaging requirements.
In addition, closures at meat packing plants made it harder for some farmers to find places to process their animals.
The Iowa Department of Agriculture was concerned enough about the number of pigs that were euthanized to offer financial assistance to hog farmers to cover the costs under certain circumstances.
Stone said as they drove up, they could smell the pit where chickens had been disposed of.
With the rescue only able to save 1,000 chickens, that left tens of thousands more that couldn’t be saved.
“The smell, as we were driving in — it was pitch black, and I kept thinking, we’ve got to be close, I can smell it. Nothing can prepare you to smell that stench of death and feces,” she said.
She said inside, some living birds were in cages with dead birds. Many were missing feathers and had overgrown toenails.
“It was probably the most horrific place I’ve ever been in or could have imagined. It was really awful,” Stone said.
The whole process took about six hours, and then they were ready to send the hens off to California.
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The hens that went back to Hercules’ Haven are doing well, Stone said. They had never walked on grass or had room to roam, she said.
“I think they’re learning how to be a chicken. I hung a treat bar in their stall, and they just left it. My chickens love that, but they didn’t know what to do with it,” she said. “They’re very skittish, they’re just trying to adjust. I saw them spread their wings for the first time. That was pretty epic for me. I imagine they’ve never had the chance to spread their wings.”
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