Column: Autumn holidays

It’s the autumn holidays in Belgium. The children are at home and doing all kinds of chores on the farm. Besides chickens we also have some sheep and 3 cattle as a hobby. So right now, we are mucking stables, tidying up and painting. Due to the corona crisis, the children got an extra week of holiday. The timing is nice, since we are expecting our lambs to be born. As I walk inside, I can hear squeaks above me. Another toom of geese flying over. I used to love them when I went on vacation with our family. Ducks, geese, swans. Now, I hate the sound of their squaking. Especially above our stables. And especially in months with an “r”. It’s only a matter of time before the first birds with bird flu are found. And there is always a first case, a warning. The chickens will go in lockdown then.

Lockdown, the word of 2020. Because “keeping them in” is so 2019. Just like parties and going on vacation. Working is all that is left, these days. Our children sometimes ask us if there aren’t days where we don’t have to work. As for me, what worries me is the health of the family members who work with us at the farm. Imagine this virus hitting our farm. What if we all get ill? Will we get the work done then? My parents belong to the at-risk group and the grandparents are also quite old.

However, our chances of surviving coronavirus are bigger than our chickens’ chances of surviving bird flu. That’s why we’re on edge. Decontamination mats, boots and nothing going in or out the stables. What’s also very important to me is our pest controller. Pests don’t change footwear. And as long as the wild birds continue to fly over, there is a potential danger to any chicken farm.  As a chicken farmer, your biggest fear is that your stables go quiet. I can’t imagine life without cackling chickens, busy mornings and lots and lots of eggs.

People sometimes say that intensive livestock farming is to blame for viruses, pandemics and zoonosis. I’m not gonna deny the danger. Still, I think we keep chickens in a very well controlled and coordinated way. I even dare to say that because of the intensive way of keeping chickens, there is less contact between (different) people and animals and therefore the chance of a zoonosis is actually reduced.

It’s so important to stay home now. We need to protect ourselves from infected people and avoid spreading the virus by avoiding contact with and transport of viruses. If we could also stop airborne propagation now, our problem might be solved. Because bird flu remains a disease coming from wild water birds. That is just the harsh truth. Just like corona came from wild animals. Intensive people farming could stand to learn something from how things are done in poultry farming.

Hopefully we can get back to normal soon. I dont’ know if it will be a “normal” of the past, or a new normal. As long as we can be close to each other again in good and bad days.


Mariëlle Schalk (32), her husband Wim, her brother Ron, her mother Greet and her father Christ run the laying hen company “‘t Kakelhof” in Meer (Belgium),  near the Dutch border, with the help of external employees. They have 5 stables, with a total of 220.000 laying hens. The farm also has an extensive vending machine shop, with eggs from its own hens, supplemented with products from colleagues in the neighbourhood. Mariëlle is committed to positive and sustainable agriculture.

Author: Antoon

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