Tuesday, May 27, 2014


I hope you took a look at the Meat Atlas link--it's a fascinating read. If you did, then you learned that global production of poultry meat products was 106.4 million tonnes (that's metric tons or 1000 kg or 2204.6 lbs) in 2013, 34.5% of the global total of animal meat produced. Poultry products are projected to increase to about 126 million tonnes by 2020 and be valued around $1000 per tonne, or $126 billion dollars globally.

That's a lot of chicken nuggets.

At the risk of horrifying you further, I will leave this here:

My advisor is really bad about citing figure sources in class lectures, which really annoys me, so I don't know where this came from. But it depicts a typical broiler chicken in 1957, 1977, and today (which is probably 2002 or so; just guessing). Just as we have genetically selected dogs to have certain body shapes and colors and sizes to please our whims (compare the labrador retreiver and Chinese crested), we have genetically selected broiler chickens to have large, meaty breasts, the part of the bird with the largest market value. As a result, within only 50 years or so, we have created an eating machine: Godzilla, the modern broiler chicken. Three out of four molecules of food that go into the broiler's mouth are converted to muscle.

Back in the 1950s, it often took 10 or 12 weeks for a bird to reach "market weight." Modern broilers reach that now in 6 weeks. They are white because making pigmented feathers wastes energy that could be redirected to muscle tissue--all of the color was selected out of these genetic lines. The same two or three broiler breeds are used worldwide in a sort of poultry monoculture.

Don't think that free range or organic chickens are always better off. There are severe restrictions on the types of feed and supplements that they can receive and most of the free-range broilers destined for market develop severe nutritional deficiencies (most environments are very nutrient poor for foraging chickens, at even small production scales, and you can't supplement their feed with vitamins because those aren't organic) and parasites (can't give drugs either, so forget prophylactic dewormers). No broilers ever receive hormones--chickens don't have the metabolism to use them and it would basically have the opposite effect than that intended--it's a complete myth that chickens receive hormones. Cows, now that's a different story. Even in small production settings, female cows are given multiple hormone shots to force the herd to ovulate at the same time so that the AI servicing can be done on all of the herd in one go.

We selected for chicken Godzilla, generation after generation of broiler chicken, to feed our own insatiable need for nuggets and breast fillets (ironically, I detest both), just as our whimsy led to myriad breeds of dogs. 

Sunday, May 25, 2014

The 2014 Meat Atlas

I encourage you to take a look at the Meat Atlas published by the Heinrich Böll Foundation and the Friends of the Earth. The graphics are amazing but the data they depict are even more incredible.

The authors have an obvious bias to their underlying message, which is fine; they don't try to hide it or pretend their message is something it is not. But they are still able to present a rather clear-eyed review of global meat production and consumption data, a review that the industry itself does not seem able to prepare. They avoid hand-wringing and shrillness. 

It doesn't matter whether you never eat meat or eat it daily. In fact, it doesn't even matter what commodity we are talking about; we are citizens in a global economy, enjoying its many benefits such as cheap energy, food that is available year-round regardless of season, consumer goods that are true black boxes to the majority of users, while ignoring its many problems, such as misuse and pollution of land and water resources and food that is no longer produced locally, creating a chasm-scale disconnect between supplier and consumer. Don't get me started about black boxes.

Take a look at the Meat Atlas. I know that you will learn something new there.

Harry, The Tennis Ball, and A Toenail

Harry and I just got back from the vet. He tore one of the toenails on his right rear foot four days ago. It was the only toenail he has that grows sort of normally. He has an autoimmune disease that affects his nail beds so his toenails don't really grow at all, and I haven't clipped his nails in years. So I don't often think to check on this one sort of normal toenail when I clip the other dogs' nails. And it grew really long. So long that it got caught and tore. Caught in what, you ask? Oh, in the grass while Harry was playing fetch with a tennis ball. 

Yeah, he's a couple months shy of turning 16 years old, his eyes are cloudy and he's partially deaf. But he loves his tennis ball! These cool spring evenings we've had for the past few weeks have been perfect--the dogs can get a lot of exercise without overheating.

The toenail didn't tear completely off. I waited, hoping that it might fall off on its own but it got infected (took care of that with some Neosporin and a bandage) and it was clear that I needed to get it dealt with more decisively. And I figured, better for the vet to be the bad guy than me. 

Harry has a senior wellness package with the vet that covers a lot of basics like blood work twice a year but I got an add-on for a bit more money: unlimited visits. In theory, that means I could take him to the vet every single day and, except for meds and consumables, it would cost me nothing. When I bought it, I thought, that's ridiculous, the idea of taking Harry to the vet every day. But these weird things come up and that add-on has more than paid for itself.

The vet got out the clippers and with a quick snip the problem was taken care of. Harry is a stoic dog (most fox terriers are tough little buggers) so he didn't even make a sound. Of course it bled like crazy, toenail and head wounds do that. She bandaged him up nicely and sent us on our way.

So my crazy old dog still loves to chase down a tennis ball. And I am perfectly happy to oblige him, even if we must deal with the occasional toenail incident. In fact, I'm sure that after dinner tonight, he'll be pestering me as usual, giving me that look, that head tilt, nudging me with his nose, all to remind me that it's time to go play!

Monday, May 19, 2014

Naughty, Naughty Chickens

The chicks are still sort of cute and yellowish. They get measurably larger each day. I know this because I am doing a daily check on them (and recording my observations on log sheets). In a couple of the pens, some troublemakers decided to hop into their feeders and scratch around. They are in floor pens with deep cedar shaving litter so they have plenty of scratching material. We'd prefer that they not toss their food out since one of our experimental variables is total food consumed per pen. Hard to determine that if they are pitching it all over the place. I ratted the naughty chickens out to my advisor, she laughed, and told me to raise the feeders so they'd really have to reach to get their dinner! What, we are trying to turn them into giraffes, I said. (That's a classic Lamarckian joke right there. How about that, I can be funny in French and in animal nutrition studies.)

In one of those "you can't make this shit up" stories, I ran into that troublesome, Lewis-Black-channeling-prof while I was out at the poultry barns this afternoon. Turns out he also does poultry research--on dietary factors that affect rooster sperm motility. I SWEAR TO YOU THAT THIS IS THE TRUTH! He's got an entire barn filled with the damned things. They screech and crow continuously, and you can hear them a good couple of hundred yards away. I've not dared to peek in there, mainly because he is using the barn located on the most remote corner of the property. I'd have no excuse whatsoever for being there. And DO NOT ask me how he obtains the samples. Jeebus on a cracker.

We chatted for about 15 minutes and he told me that he's decided to change the class up a bit, for the better, I think. He suggested that my comments made a difference. He even made some jokes, some normal type jokes, not screaming, profanity-laden Lewis Black rants, and smiled...and I realized that for the entire 10 weeks I was in his class last term, I had never seen him smile. Good grief.

But now that we've sort of broken the ice, I think I'll approach him about the general topic of poultry research. I've matured my vet school research from looking into specific schools to matters of funding--how will I pay for this expensive folly? Turns out there's money in chickens. There are groups that will pay a lot (most? all?) of your vet school bills in return for a couple of years of service in the poultry hinterlands. I'd like to get some outside opinions on that.

I should mention that my current advisor asked me if I was sure if I wanted to go to vet school as she had a big grant coming in and needed a PhD student...! Forget plastics, the future is in chickens.

I know quite a few of my friends have said, oh, you'd make a great vet, I'd bring my little Fluffy to you! Well, I'm not so sure that I'd be the best clinician. But I'm not in vet school yet, am I? Chickens may get me there, but I may be helping you care for your Fluffy when all is done.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Feeding Trials Begin: Chicken Wrangling and Boss Boots

Chickens are a lot of work. My advisor and I spent three hours this afternoon measuring out feed from the trash cans into equal 25-pound measures (this is the feed that we mixed on Tuesday), distributing it into the feeders located in the new pens (four pens for each experimental diet), then randomly dividing the chicks into groups of ten, weighing them, and placing them in the new pens.

While "random" is ideal, it is hard to achieve. I am very glad nobody had a video camera trained on me while I was trying to catch 10 chicks and put them in a plastic bin then carry them to the scale for weighing. The little buggers are pretty fast at 5 days of age. And they get pretty vocal if you grab them too roughly. Thankfully, they are too small to peck much. Just wait, everyone says, the pecking will come (note to self: purchase leather gloves to be used only in the chicken pens). The random selection task was made all the more difficult because the pens are kept at 80F with those propane heaters--pretty toasty. Turns out the smaller ones are much easier to catch! My first four groups of ten weighed a lot less than the other eight groups, so we had to do some reallocation at the end to even things out. More catching and binning and weighing.

To her credit, my advisor made me do all the hard work. She presented me with a written protocol for the afternoon so all I had to do was check off each step. She recorded all of the data but I was the one hauling all the feed and buckets and chicks around. That's as it should be. It's her grant money and her name will go on the publication(s) but it's my thesis research. If I didn't contribute at the front end, I can certainly do my share here in the execution.

The chicks were exhausted by all the excitement, and after taste-testing their new diets and getting a sip of water, most of them took a nap. I have to check on them daily so hopefully tomorrow they will be more perky.

As I have said before, I rarely plug specific products but I must put in a thumbs-up for the boots I wear in the chicken barns: Dr. Martens Work 2295 Rigger that I bought from zappos.com nearly 10 years ago (you'll have to look them up yourself; zappos doesn't play well with the product links). No laces to trip or snag, decent padding around the ankles, steel-toed, nice leather, and chemical-resistant soles. I originally bought them to be safety compliant when I visited drilling sites. They are stylish, super easy to pull on (and pry off), fit pretty true to size, and aren't too heavy (given that there is a collar of solid steel over your toes). I think it's funny that boots that protected me from injury on an oil rig also protect me from injury and contamination in the poultry barn.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Chicks Are Here!

So I hope you were expecting photos of my chicken experiments. If you've been following CircusK9 for any time at all, you should have assumed, rightly so, that I would be taking photos and blogging about it.

Today we mixed the "starter" diets. Commercially raised broiler chickens are fed diets that change with time; this is done in an attempt to address the changing metabolic activity of the birds as they age. But very few research feeding trials do this. So one of the variables that my thesis experiments will attempt to reproduce is realistic commercial-type diets that change with the age of the birds. The chickens will get the starter diet from day 5 to day 21, then a "grower" or maintenance diet for day 22 to 42. A broiler chicken will eat on average 0.1 lbs of feed per day (that's a very gross average but you get the idea). So we mixed up 100 lbs each of our three experiment diets (control, flax, and flax plus enzyme).

The facilities for mixing up the diets were pretty crude but we made everything work.

Mixing 100 pounds of grain and related bits can't be done by hand. We used a small electric cement mixer! All the pouring and weighing was rather dusty work.

Once that was done, we inspected the pens and installed the newly hatched chicks in two pens with some commercial "chick crumble" designed for them. They will eat that for four days while they adjust to their new surroundings (temperature, light, etc.). Their guts also need to mature a bit before we give them the diets with the flax seed.

I'm putting half of the chicks on the trays of crumbles. The thing hanging in the upper left corner of this photo and the middle of the photo below is a propane heater. The room was really warm, around 80F. The chicks are too small to use the standard metal feeder to my left; their necks aren't long enough yet. They will start using it in another couple of days.

For the first four days, all the chicks will be in the same room. They have free access to food and water.

The chicks hadn't yet been exposed to solid food so we had to place them by hand on trays containing the crumbles. Even though they were no more than 30 hours or so old, most either started to eat or went to one of the water stations; after that, they began to run around. There is actually a scientific word for this, precocial, which describes young animals which are capable of moving around and eating and drinking right after birth/hatch. Humans are not precocial.

Of course the chicks are relatively cute little yellowish fuzz balls at this stage. That will change.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Ah, Spring!

Sure, there are dogs that will flop down anywhere. But given the choice, mine always choose the padded spots!

Here's another pic showing some of the fruits of my labor.

Jetez un oeil à ce site!

I recently stumbled across a blog written by a French veterinarian. He writes short fictional pieces about his interactions with clients and their pets but he also posts details on new regulations for the handling of horses to be slaughtered (for meat) and political demonstrations by French vets and vet techs (vétérinaires en colère!) protesting laws restricting their ability to use antibiotics to treat their patients. This is related to EU laws restricting the use of prophylactic antibiotics on production animals (I could write an entire post on that topic alone but will restrain myself today).

I was quite excited to find the blog for a couple of reasons. Particularly in his fictional pieces, his language and tone are conversational. Compare that to the stiff French used by Le Monde. I try to read one or two articles a week from their site. When you combine the formal language with a grim news story, it can be a real slog (although this morning there is an article on the front page about the growing small-scale pot cultivation business in France; at least not so grim). The French vet uses the verb "tweeter" (pronounced "tweet-ay"), meaning "to tweet" as in post on Twitter; the sun would have to burn out before the venerable Le Monde stooped to using that...even though that is how regular people talk. So I'm finding it easier to read the vet blog without referring so often to my dictionaries. I can read his pieces out loud to practice phrasing, the natural pauses that you make when you speak. Reading Le Monde articles makes me sound like a robot.

But another reason I'm glad I found the blog is that it gives me a chance to learn some French science words. To be completely fair, my instructor is not a scientist. She has us watch movies and read fictional excerpts and poetry, and she talks a lot about French culture, but if I want to make a comment in a class discussion from the perspective of a scientist, I struggle to find the words. Even little things like numerical quantities are not commonly part of our reading.

And the internet being the multi-tentacled octopus-thing that it is, the many links on the French vet blog will open up even more sites with new perspectives and new words.

(The title of this post is a phrase that translates directly as "throw an eye at this site" but translates idiomatically as "take a look at this site".)

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Striving for Mediocrity

I recently learned that that several of the pre-vet students who applied to Oregon State University's vet school took their GRE exam last summer without any preparation at all. They were laughing and joking about how they didn't buy any workbooks and they didn't take any practice exams (there are two of these available for free on the GRE website). This isn't a new behavior for them, to be honest. Most of this group have taken required courses more than once because they failed the first time. I've been in several classes with them and noticed that they also seem to have problems coming to class on a regular basis.

The GRE is a four-hour-long, general knowledge exam. It is divided into several sections (math, reading, essay, etc.). It is required by nearly every vet school that I've spent any time investigating, even the ones outside the US such as Edinburgh and Guelph (in Ontario, Canada). Vet schools base their admitting decisions on a complicated set of criteria. Although I hear and read over and over again that a successful vet school applicant distinguishes herself from the pack through her letters of reference and personal statements, there is no doubt that schools use GPA and GRE score as a threshold discriminator, weeding out truly unsuitable candidates quickly so they can spend more time evaluating the more prospective ones. But I will admit that many schools seem to set that threshold relatively low.

Still, wouldn't you want your vet school application to reflect you doing your very best in all of the elements that are considered? Even if the bar is set low, wouldn't it help to distinguish your application if you demonstrated proficiency above and beyond that?

I've taken the GRE before. In fact, it was so many years ago that it was a written exam (it's entirely computerized now) and I was also required to take a second "subject matter" exam (in geology; it was only three hours long, not four). They don't use the subject matter exams anymore. I also took the LSAT around 10 years ago during a brief period when I was considering law school. I earned very high scores for both tests (and received invitations from relevant schools to join their programs). And that was not because I'm a genius but because I put in weeks of hard work preparing for them (the LSAT in particular had some fiendish "logic" problems).

There is a rather unpleasant girl in my French class who provides us with another example. I find her unpleasant in part because she only bathes and washes her hair once a week. Unless she is living in a cardboard box under a bridge (I know she is not), there is no excuse for being so slovenly. But mainly I find her unpleasant because I heard her tell her friend that since the homework only counts for 10% of our grade, she just needed to do half of it, and since attendance counts for another 10%, she didn't need to come to class every day. She also said that she can ignore one of the writing assignments because that will only be a few percent off too. She's not shooting for an A, although her comprehension of French is good enough that she could get that grade. No, she is aiming her sights on just passing with a minimum input of effort and time.

This striving for mediocrity is inexplicable to me. Even more of a mystery, all of the people involved seem somehow proud of their behavior, acting like they have gotten away with something or pulled the wool over the eyes of the system. They act like they have achieved something when it seems to me they have in fact lost a lot more in self respect and opportunities to learn.

Saturday, May 03, 2014

Chick Countdown

One hundred and twenty one-day-old chicks will be arriving at the poultry facility in 10 days. It's the real deal, doing some science on chickens.

I'm furiously trying to get a handle on the literature--my bibliography contains about 60 papers now; I've read about a third of them. I've also begun a first draft of my thesis--it's actually a term paper for my poultry nutrition class but I chose to write about the same topic as my thesis project. Why make extra work?

Speaking of extra work, in the last two weeks, I have distributed just shy of four thousand lbs of bark mulch around my house. FOUR THOUSAND pounds. That's a lot of shoveling and wheelbarrowing and spreading. Plus the flowerbeds had to be prepared in advance. Mulch doesn't work if you just toss it on top of existing weed jungles. Thank god for ibuprofen. I figured a small investment in bark and some of my time will save me from having to water so much this summer--I expect to save money since water is a lot more expensive than bark, at least in these parts. Plus I don't want to be that house on the cul-de-sac. You know the one: unmowed lawn, gutters falling down, weeds that could swallow small children. It may be a rental but that doesn't mean it has to look like shit.