No this is not the name of my new band nor is it the name of a new B-grade horror flick. No this is serious business. This is a story about alternative energy. This is also a story about food production and animal cruelty. Let me explain – no time for that, let me sum up.

I was in session recently with one of my clients and depending on what we will be covering on a given day, I will sometimes let the client listen to the music of their choice as long as it is on the radio. This particular client turned on some rap/r&b station and I caught the last remaining seconds of what appeared to be a promo spot for what I assumed was there morning show. In those seconds I heard the words, “zombie chickens,” mentioned in what sounded like an article they were reading. As soon as the client left my office I Googled that particular search and low and behold, it was in fact the latest poultry related news.

The AP is reporting that, “In this [PETALUMA, Calif.] rich agricultural region of Northern California, ranchers have been turning chickens too old to lay eggs into compost at a rate of a half-million hens a year.

But some chickens not properly euthanized have been seen crawling out of the compost piles, earning them the name “zombie chickens” – and hatching a debate over what else might be done with them and other “spent hens.””

You read that right folks, zombie chickens. Upon reading about this I could not stop laughing and then proceeded to tell everyone at the office, clients included about this story, chicken and zombie noises included. Eventually I composed myself and did some further investigating on the matter. My first thought was that it seemed strange that they would make compost out of old chickens to begin with rather than selling them as food or even animal feed. Apparently there is a good reason for that.

According to World (yes, there is a news site dedicated solely to poultry), “The egg-laying birds have only a pound of usable meat, compared to the 5-pound chickens typically raised for eating. Slaughtering the chickens, even to transport them unprocessed and frozen whole, would likely cost more than composting them, said Petaluma egg farmer Arnie Reibli.”

All right, so it is cheaper and more productive (presumably) to compost the chickens rather than sell them. My second question then was how exactly were theses chickens being killed and yet still able to rise from their graves to the horror of poultry farmers and the amusement of 30-year-old bloggers/radio talk show hosts? Further reading of the original AP story revealed that, “To kill the chickens, farmers suffocate them in sealed boxes filled with carbon dioxide, a practice that has drawn the ire of animal rights groups. Afterward, the hens are layered in mounds of sawdust.” From what I’ve gathered, sometimes the chickens manage to live through this process and, as stated above, crawl out of the compost pile.

Economics plays a role in how these old chickens are disposed of but people have suggested other end-of-life uses for these birds. The AP states that, “A food bank proposed making sausage to feed the poor. A reptile enthusiast suggested using them as food for large exotic pets like pythons and alligators. And an industry group said in the future they could be used as fuel for power plants.”

Now those first two sounded reasonable but the ranchers believe that both of those proposals are too expensive and time consuming thus cutting into their meager profits. World states that, “Californian farmers, however, say that composting is the only affordable option at present…Slaughtering the chickens, even to transport them unprocessed and frozen whole, would likely cost more than composting them, said Petaluma egg farmer Arnie Reibli.”

I figured once it was established that composting chickens and dealing with their stubborn attachment to life was cheaper than any other method of disposal that we were done with this particular story. But then I read the preceding paragraph again which indicated that old chickens could be used as fuel for electric plants.

Chicken fueled electric power plants?

I went back and reread the World article and I was able to learn that, “According to Rich Matteis, head of the Pacific Egg and Poultry Association, spent hens could one day be used as fuel to generate electricity, using a new European technology that can be used to turn dead cows into fuel.”

Dead cows? Electric fuel? Off to Google I went again and you’d be amazed what articles you can unearth with the right combination search items.

USA Today reports that, “Two generators at the Audets’ Blue Spruce Farm feed electricity to the local utility. They run on methane gas derived from cow manure. The farm is part of Cow Power, a program of the local electric company, Central Vermont Public Service. Cow Power gives customers the option to pay higher rates to subsidize farm-generated, poop-powered electricity. The 4-cent premium the farmers are paid helps cover the cost of installing an anaerobic digester that extracts methane from cowpies.

Now, after two years as Cow Power pioneers, the Audets are about to get company. Next month, Mark and Amanda St. Pierre, who run Pleasant Valley Farm a mile from the Canadian border, will become the second dairy farmers in Vermont to sell poop power. Four more Vermont farms are to go online in the next year. In California, six dairy farms have signed up to pump manure-derived methane into the pipelines of Pacific Gas and Electric.

Even proponents say methane digesters will never produce more than a tiny fraction of the energy consumed in the USA, even if all of the nation’s 7,000 large dairy and hog farms installed them. But methane digesters can have a big effect on the economics of a dairy farm, the quality of life of its neighbors and on the pollutants a farm produces.”

As the article states, poop-power is still terribly short of replacing coal-fired plants and the technology to apply it to chickens is years off, as reported on World However, most environmentally minded people who deal with the energy industry say that divorcing ourselves from petrol and coal will take a combination of alternative energies (hydro, wind, solar, methane/feces, etc), not just outright replacing one with the other. Still, I long for the day when we’re at least partially running our electric plants on animal feces or carcasses (because what else would they be good for, really?) rather than finite and environmentally unfriendly hydrocarbons.

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