Living with Livestock, Part Two: The Maternal Instincts of Chickens and Pigs

Ever heard of a guard goose? If you’re one of those aspiring farmers who wants to keep a few chickens in the backyard, you might want to investigate. As I learned at my second of a series of four livestock workshops at the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus, geese make great chicken protectors. They’ll fend off overly inquisitive opossums and raccoons and even attack coyotes that get too close to the coop! So if you can persuade your neighbors to overlook the inevitable honking, a goose might be a good investment. Plus, geese are apparently gaining popularity as Christmas dinner main courses.

This session focused on pigs and poultry, and particularly on the pros and cons of different breeds for the budding farmer. “Mothering ability” is one of the most important factors to consider when choosing a breed, especially for pigs. Sows that are good mothers are less likely to sit on their young. When sows can weigh 700 pounds to a piglet’s 10, the accidental plop down on the ground can be fatal! Different breeds of chicken also vary in motherliness, with the Silkie breed at the most maternal end of the spectrum. The Silkies are such good moms, in fact, that according to Peat Willcutt, a farmer who presented the poultry portion of the evening, Hmong mothers, to enhance their maternal instincts, eat chicken soup made exclusively from Silkies for the first month after their babies are born.

 Since many farmers keep chickens primarily for their eggs, Peat talked about eggs quite a bit too. Some interesting tidbits in the “did you know?” category:

  • Most eggs you buy at the grocery store are a few weeks old already. Eggs must be at least two weeks old to have leaked enough air through their shells that they will peel cleanly after being hard-boiled, so the industry makes sure not to sell them before then.
  • In many European countries eggs are sold unrefrigerated, like we sell apples. Eggs don’t have to be refrigerated to keep a long shelf life unless you wash them, which removes the protective membrane from the outside of the shell.
  • Salmonella resides on the outside, not on the inside, of an egg. So if you wash the egg, salmonella bacteria can then penetrate the unprotected shell.

After we looked at lots of pretty pictures of pig and chicken breeds, we got to look at lots of ugly ones of animals infected with “zoonotic” diseases, which are diseases that animals can pass to humans. The U of M’s stance on raw milk became clear as several presenters discussed the way that one swish of a cow’s tail can fling E. coli right into the milk. We also discussed the importance of biosecurity, which basically entails preventing infectious agents from getting onto a farm. (I got a first-hand taste of biosecurity measures at a Kadejan chicken farm in Villard, Minnesota, recently, as we made sure to enter the barn of day-old chicks before the barn of fully-grown animals, so that we wouldn’t pass any sickness from the older bunch to the vulnerable chicks.)

Next week, part three will focus on sheep and goats. I'll be back to let you know the best ways to care for these cloven-hoofed beasts, whether you want them for their milk or their meat.


Angelique Chao is a freelance writer in Minneapolis who contemplates the ethical implications of our food choices. She thought she’d left philosophizing for good when she finished her dissertation and joined the business world; but after several years of corporate life, her natural disposition reasserted itself; she’s now a full-time writer and researcher. When she’s not out touring farms and processing facilities, you’ll likely find her at one laptop-friendly spot or another -- a library, a coffee shop, or home. She blogs at From Animal to Meat. Her last post for Simple, Good and Tasty was Living with Livestock: Part One: Food In, Poop (or is it Compost?) Out.