What my chickens teach me about being efficient

I was introduced to keeping chickens about ten years ago by my friend Joe, a farmer whose ethos and approach has shaped my approach to poultry keeping. Joe is one never to miss a trick or maximise output. As a kid he grew up on a farm where his father taught him to shoot rabbits.  His dad would scold him if he shot when there weren’t at least two rabbits lined up in front of each other, so he could dispatch two with one bullet!  Joe’s dad grew up in tough times and efficiency was everything.

My own three hens and cockerel have a very good existence, free ranging and producing wonderful rich eggs which taste beautiful. The chickens live in a run on an unused (fallow) part of the vegetable bed. And each weekend I move the run to a new patch of the veg bed.



Each year typically my hens produces chicks who once fully grown may end up on the dinner table. Readers may find this somewhat distasteful but my hens have a better existence than commercially kept birds.

Hugh Fernley Whittingstall has demonstrated in his documentaries differences in chicken keeping environments of commercial birds.


My chicken keeping is also a good example of efficiency; the hens scratch up the soil, eat the weeds, grass and bugs, which means I can avoid weeding and even digging beds in the autumn.   The hens naturally fertilise the soil as they roam. Bug eating not only subsidises their feed and reduces costs but reduces the impact of bugs on the plants in the summer growing season.

The taste of these slow raised, free range chickens is sublime. I try and use as much of the bird as possible. Well-seasoned gizzards are slow roasted and liver and heart flash fried in butter. The carcass remnant from roasting is made into stock or soup, removed fat made into bird feed and even the bones often end up on the fire to produce potash which is spread on the vegetable bed.

Four years after the higher University fees were introduced efficiency and efficient processes are becoming more key to Universities as solving problems with cash injections is less attractive.

In their 7th annual report of Higher Education Mike Boxall from PA consulting suggested that with shrinking undergraduate numbers and continued changing policy the future is for Universities that focus on international, work based learning and distance learning.  This requires an ability to be nimble and efficient.  The authors also reported that that 46% of the University VC’s questioned (NB this was a third of UK VC’s) expect Universities to fail. The report states there will be “inevitable” institutional failures in an increasingly hostile world. Therefore, it is key for Universities to become less bureaucratic and more efficient.

I appreciate how the phrase “efficiency” has become a euphemism for redundancy although a correct definition is “being able to accomplish something with the least waste of time and effort; accomplishment of or ability to accomplish a job with a minimum expenditure of time and effort.” This is something that would make all our lives easier.


A beautiful demonstration of efficiency in the 1990 Heineken advert showing how cooperation improves efficiency, makes life easier and improve outputs.


Cash rich businesses can always solve problems by throwing money at a problem. Therefore, the addressing of efficiency is not commonplace in a cash rich businesses.   However, if we want to maximise outputs we should focus not on spending money but instead on using our resource wisely.  For me a key thing is to create space and time for my academics in everything we do. We rarely ask an academic to do less, and typically ask them to do more. Unless we are always questioning how we do things we are creating or maintaining an inefficient environment.

For example, how many of us send numerous chasing emails to colleagues when something hasn’t been done on time? How many of us have to deal with student complaints that suck hours out of a working day? There are many examples in how we go about day-to-day work that creates further work for ourselves; academics when setting assessments on a module, typically go through the details and marking criteria in class and then are subsequently inundated with emails and requests for tutorials from students who were absent from the class or want confirmation of what is required. And typically students will always ask the same questions! How much less onerous and more efficient would it be if we audio recorded the in class session, posted it on the VLE along with discussion thread that allowed the students to answer each other’s questions on the assignments. And in doing so remove the need for numerous emails in our inbox.

Embedding efficiency or creating space and time in working lives requires a behaviour change. For my friend Joe it has been embedded in his psyche by his father since he was a small boy. For us academics we have to create a culture and environment where we question what we do and always look the most efficient and effective route. But as psychologist friends (and yes I still have some after moving Faculty) tell me the best time to embed behaviour change is when there is a change already happening in our lives or a natural point of reflection, such as an away day. Efficiency is something we all should consider – not just as part of our quality processes but as part of day to day life.  We can always make things more efficient.

I read back this blog and think maybe I should put wheels on the chicken coup to make moving it easier. There is always an efficiency to be made….

4 thoughts on “What my chickens teach me about being efficient

  1. Efficiency, efficiency, efficiency. The best line is the last. There is always a way to be even more efficient (and the best thing is to ask others as, in my experience, other people often spot ways we could be more efficient – and often long before we do – but are invariably too busy, polite, or timid to actually let us know). So we should ask! Reading this piece reminded me that I have a favourite efficiency story. Businessman Bill Cullen had a grandmother with a fruit and veg stall in Dublin. The deliveries arrived at the stall in wooden boxes. When they were emptied, family members were tasked to take the boxes to Croke Park sports stadium on a Sunday afternoon. The boxes were hired out, for a fee, to those standing in the back row of a stand who were not tall enough to see past people in front of them. Standing on the boxes allowed them to enjoy the football or hurling match. Then Cullen family members would be tasked to break up the boxes and sell them on to people as kindling for the fire. Cullen also shared, in an interview, his granny’s motto: ‘Sleeping is the nearest thing to dying that you will ever do on this planet, so make sure to never do too much of it’. That woman would like our six S.U. Graduate Attributes.

    • Aiden, I Love the story of Bill Cullen. So what the best way to get feedback on improving efficiency and how things work? Do we just ask for ideas or is it about a culture change. Regardless I should probably bring this up at my next away day in January

  2. Having never kept chickens I have to ask, do they all work as a team or do they “do their own thing”? You get where I’m coming from? I put a recorded assessment briefs onto blackboard for all my.modules. Keeps the emails at bay. But despite encouraging others to do it there are very few of us doing it. Should it be a required addition to the paper brief on BB?

    • Interestingly chickens tend to do there own thing in there own way but it’s quite similar to each other. They come out the coop togeather, lay eggs in the same next, scratch around together and go to roost at the same time. So they are individuals with their own personality, but broadly they all do the same thing in the same away. I like this consistency but with underlying freedom 🙂

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