Life’s hard for a farmer when the cold comes. And for us mini-farmers too. With the ground solid as concrete and the grass stiff and grey, I am painfully aware how dull life has suddenly become for my chickens. There they huddle on the barren ground, unable to scratch or forage. I crack the ice on their water-can and scatter their corn in the hope that they will peck around for it, warming up their bodies in the process. But somehow they are too depressed to care. Their pea-brains are telling them just to sit still and conserve energy. Like their wild cousins, they are programmed to put all their effort into simple survival and with, any luck, they will make it through this horrid dark time and into a warm new year.

But that’s not how I see it. My human (almost entirely urbanised) brain reckons that life should go on as actively as possible, even in a cold spell. And because I am human, I can’t help projecting my prejudices onto my pets. What I would want, were I living outdoors in this weather, would be a warming bowl of gruel. Ergo so must my chickens.

Each morning, coming downstairs well before the sun is up (and before my light-sensitive fowl realise the day has begun), my very first job is to cook for them. Piled in a large plastic bag by the back door are bread crusts from the local sandwich shop (donated tender-heartedly ‘for the birds’). These get torn up and added to yesterday’s leftovers – pasta and cabbage and apple cores – yum. For roughage (and probably the best nutrition) I pour in a cup of mixed corn. And over the top goes half a pint of milk.

And it’s milk that this post is about.

My rationale for keeping chickens rather than any of the cornucopia of pets available to me is that they are useful. I try not to indulge my very British inclination to spoil them with fancy stuff – and yes, there’s plenty of opportunity to get consumer-crazy, even over chooks – they could be on a diet of meal-worms (£11 for a small bag) and organic feed pellets (containing expensive soya meal from Italy rather than the rainforest-destroying cheap stuff). But no – these chickens of mine are out there in the garden to convert our leftovers into eggs.

My only concession when the temperature goes down is to warm up their food on my cheaply coal/petrol-powered electric stove and to sacrifice half a pint milk from my children’s breakfast (because actually it costs next-to-nothing and therefore might as well be leftovers).

Except that it’s a bit of a mess – this cheap milk business. All very well thinking the chooks are getting good winter fayre in this way, but at what cost? UK milk is not in a good state at all. Neither is it nutritious nor sustainable. And to add insult to injury, we are currently unable to produce all that we need, and instead import it from countries with even lower welfare standards than our own.  Why’s that? Cos of the supermarkets, mainly. Interesting article about the current crisis in Farmers Guardian (don’t forget to read the comments) –‘bang-heads-together’-over-milk-crisis/35921.article

Here’s my personal irony: I pride myself on being aware of the human suffering that goes into producing Peruvian asparagus (that stuff you buy between May and March) and Costa-Rican pineapples. I steer clear. Even in winter, I am feeding my children on home-grown salad, potatoes, onions, carrots and parsnips… My happy (cheap) chickens are part of my food-awareness – a defiance of the world-wide egg industry which, despite the endeavors of Jamie and Hugh and the RSPCA, still manages to destroy rainforest at a gob-smacking rate and gives its birds lives that are miserable and short.

So what am I doing feeding them milk from miserable, soya-fed, short-lived cows with even more miserable owners?