Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Industry Gave us "The Bird"

"In the mid-1900's Prince Edward Island farmers were practicing a predominately grassland agriculture, with over 60% of the land in hay or pasture."
 - David Weale  "Pride in Small Places"

We started raising heritage chickens in our backyard in Santa Barbara, California. When we moved to our farm on Prince Edward Island, we were excited to try our hand at raising organic eggs and meat for our farm customers.

Last year I wrote "Free Range Chicken? Pastured Poultry is Better"  a blog post that describes how we began raising chickens on grass here on Prince Edward Island.  Now, over a year later, there's a lot more to the story. So I thought I'd take a seat at the kitchen table before daylight and log in a few of the things we've learned since starting out. If you're a small grower you might find some of the links and information handy.  If you're a consumer, well...keep reading.

And Now - The Rest of the Story

My son Spencer and I walked down the lane onto the pasture early one morning in late summer 2011.  We were on our way to crate up 50 Meat King chickens for processing at a small family owned slaughter facility just 10 minutes away. This was the end point of a project I shared with my son.  The idea was that we'd raise 100 chickens for our customers and he'd make a few dollars to take back to University in the fall.  As I got closer to the mobile pasture pen, a design made famous by Joel Salatin at Polyface Farm, I saw the unmistakable outline of chicken feet in the air. I knew we were in trouble.

We'd lost all the birds to a predator who'd torn open the wire and attacked every last bird. The chickens were left either dead or dying on the ground. Spencer dispatched them to end their pain while I got the tractor and dug a pit for burial. We were wiped out and we were getting a tough lesson. Meanwhile, word of our disaster got around fast and we made the local newspaper. Talk about having your wings clipped.

But that wasn't the story it was the kicker. The story was that we'd been less than delighted with what Meat Kings are. The breeding of this bird made it's shortcomings as a pastured animal obvious. We had birds drop dead, get sick, develop deformed legs and generally be content to dine in filthy feathers without ever leaving the feed trough to browse pasture. This is the bird common wisdom says you must raise for meat. But I'd seen enough to know these animals are not bred to live in nature. You might as well drop a pack of fat Cub Scouts with an unlimited stock of junk food into the jungle. You'd get the same result.

After the famous Dunn Creek Farm chicken massacre of 2011 I had an interesting conversation with a Buddhist monk.  He helped me look at things I hadn't considered. I found my intentions weren't quite level with my values and beliefs. My practice was intended to make money and I wasn't really centered on the living animals in my care. I also wasn't asking any critical questions about where these birds come from, what created them, what their job is on our farm or how we'd make them a life-long part of the sustainable local agriculture we're trying to create. Yes I was looking to make a quick buck. And karma bit me on the grass.  This was our responsibility. What were we going to do about it?

What is a Meat King?

The Meat King (Cornish Cross) is a hybrid of the double breasted Cornish and the White Rock. It was developed for commercial meat growers. The original cross was made in the 1930's and the breed rose to dominance in the 1960's. As of 2012 there are just a handful of companies worldwide that own and control the genetics that produce the breeding stock for the Meat King. Ongoing genetic modifications continue to increase the size and the speed at which these birds are ready for market:

During the last 15 years, the time it takes to get a broiler to a 5.0 lb (2.3 kg) live weight has decreased by more than a week. Birds get to target weights 16.3 per cent sooner than they did in 1992. The industry continues to see another day of improvement every two years. The benefit of better growth rate is improved feed conversion. The sooner birds get to desired market size, the higher the percentage of feed consumed goes to muscle development instead of body maintenance. 
   - Mike Donohue, Feb 2009   

When Joel Salatin wrote "Pastured Poultry Profits" in 1993 he focused on the methods he developed for pasture raising the Meat King, It was clear to him that he couldn't argue with success:

"For feed conversion and quick cash turnaround it is unprecedented.  Consumer acceptance is tremendous and processing is much easier because the hair has been bred off these birds and they do not require singeing after feather picking."    
  - Joel Salatin, "Pastured Poultry Profits"       

As a result of this success the Meat King has become the only broiler chicken you can buy in the grocery store or from any food service.  And the advantages it gives growers make it the only bird they buy. But since "body maintenance" is steadily being bred out...well...other results are coming in.

Even in 1993 it was clear to Joel Salatin that there were some real problems. He took a practical approach.  He writes, "Bred up to perform at a totally unnatural gain rate, this bird is prone to all sorts of diseases and structural deformities."  Something we observed ourselves.  His answer was to produce his own very specialized high energy feeds and add several commercially produced supplements. But could we really do this and call it organic? When does breeding make pasturing impossible if not irrelevant?

"Twenty years ago, the industry grew a chicken to a 4.3 lb/1.95 kg live weight at processing. By 2007, the average live weight at processing increased by 37 per cent to 5.9 lb/2.7 kg as more and more chickens were used for further processing using big birds."
   - Mike Donohue, Feb 2009

Consumer expectations are being inflated as fast as the chickens themselves are bred up. There is no end in sight. And every year pasture farmers see birds less willing or able to benefit from grazing.

"I think it's unfortunate that we have created a chicken that is so far removed from a normal chicken's ability to forage and fend for itself in the barnyard.  There ought to be some middle ground.  But the fact is that we are dealing with a chicken that was bred to eat high-calorie, low vitamin and mineral feed without fresh air and sunlight, on antibiotics and hormones.  We can do many things to make this bird worth eating, but there is a limit to what we can do."
   - Joel Salatin, "Pastured Poultry Profits" 1993 

Bringing Expectations Back to Earth.  

"Them birds are some small!"
Lorne McDonald was behind the counter at L&C Poultry.  He'd slaughtered my chickens that morning and  I had come to pick up the Delaware roosters we had culled at 13 weeks from our flock. He looked kind of sorry for me as he handed over my little birds in their loose bags.  Below them on the shelf were rows of Meat Kings looking like over-stuffed pillows, the plastic poly bags stretched tight over their fat carcasses.  I felt kind of deflated too.  Who would want to pay top dollar for my little birds? They averaged between 2.5 and 2.75 pounds.  Well, nothing to do but try one for supper.  The proof will be in the tasting.        

I decided to cut one up, bread it and fry it in a pan.  We have a pretty good library of old cookbooks.  I got one from the 1940's and looked up a recipe for fried chicken.  "Take about two and a half pounds of chicken" it said.  And that's when the light dawned.  My Grandmother never had an 8 pound chicken.  What I've got here is a normal fryer.

The fat was creamy yellow not white just as eggs from pastured hens are bright orange compared to the pale grey/yellow egg yolks in the store. The meat had a fine texture, not grainy or mealy. And the flavor was superb.  This was Grandmother's Kansas farm, after-church, Sunday supper, fried chicken.  And yes, I licked my fingers.

I had been prepared to be disappointed by this little rooster. But my expectations were all wrong. And here is where the bottom line rests.  Modern hybrid chicken genetics, factory growers and processors needed less than 50 years to change what we think chicken is. And the idea that this is what consumers demand isn't quite equal to the facts.  Processors are doing the demanding because a higher carcass weight makes higher profit for them.  We aren't making chicken fingers, popcorn chicken or McNuggets for our customers. We're interested in producing a whole chicken raised in nature that satisfies you at your table.    

Industry Gave us "The Bird".  We Need To Breed For Pasture.

There is a clear consensus among small farmers who direct market to consumers that we need a breeding effort to produce chickens that are better suited to our farms and our customers.  Phrases like "structural failure", "disease prone", "taste challenged" and "fragile" pop up across the internet. But perhaps this summary written by Harvey Ussery sums it up best:

We in the pastured poultry movement have turned our rhetorical guns on the Tyson’s and the Frank Perdue’s of the broiler industry. We have blasted the waste, the pollution, the lack of sustainability, the inhumanity, and the contamination of both our groundwater and our food supply that flow from a debased production system. Striving for a model which both protects natural and agricultural resources and offers our customers poultry fit to eat, we have rejected all that—all, that is, except the very heart of the industry’s flawed system: the Cornish Cross chicken.
   - Harvey Ussery, "The Cornish Cross: What is Wrong With This Picture" 

Susan and I decided we couldn't grow Cornish Cross chickens again. "They're pathetic. I just feel sorry for them." she said.  If we are what we eat then the Meat King is surely the emblem of animal based junk food.
We re-considered what we wanted and revised our plans. Not on the basis of what's available, but on the basis of what needs to be accomplished.  Crazy as it sounds, we've decided that our goals can't rest entirely on cash for meat value or on the unrealistic expectations of consumers who no longer know what chicken tastes like. And we think we are in the perfect position to work with other small farms, our customers and the local culinary community to find some answers and make changes that take all of us in the right direction to healthier food, better farming and more humane relationships with our animals.

Choosing A Heritage Breed

There are many good sources of information about heritage breeds and I encourage you do to some study before you choose. I've included some recommended culinary-based choices below.  Before we chose, I called several poultry breeders, talked to local farmers, looked at hatchery selections and found what looked best for us. We were looking for birds that would thrive on pasture, provide meat and eggs and carry over through the dark, cold winter months in Canada with a minimum of fuss. We ordered Delaware and Buff Orpington chicks from Performance Poultry in Ontario to begin our hands on learning about these two dual purpose "heavy" breeds.  They arrived strong and healthy and we brooded them up to be ready for pasture.

When the day came to move them to the grass we used our pre-built Salatin style pasture pen and shortly after that we bumped into reality. These birds were too active to stay in a pasture pen. Every time we took off a roof panel to feed and water, they scattered and we had to call in our Australian shepherd dogs to hold them until we could catch them. A pasture pen that would have contained 100 sedentary  Meat Kings was inadequate to a healthy, active flock of 70 heritage birds.

We were building a mobile coop on wheels for the laying hens.  So with Susans urging I sped up construction and we put about 50 birds in it and put the whole rig onto the pasture using a mobile electric fence to keep everyone safe.  We began moving the coop every 3 days, then went to 2 days to give better pasture to these active grazers and foragers. Essentially we had found Andy Lee's Day Range concept.  It worked brilliantly. All is well for now.  But we know that in order for us to use heritage chicken on the farm the challenge in the long run will be learning how to breed, grow and sell heritage chicken on its own merits at a reasonable return.   

Exploring the Margins, Finding the Benefits AND Being Sustainable  

We know that the economics of small flock heritage chickens are not the same as large commercial growing or even small flock production of hybrids.  We're still working out the numbers, but we found ourselves looking at some unexpected benefits that help us stay rational about what we're doing and where we're going. The thing is, pasture raised birds, whether they are heritage-bred or Meat Kings, come out smaller when they are grass fed.  There is less meat to sell. But there are benefits to growers and consumers not to mention the birds themselves and the pasture we farm.

Organic fertility is a key issue on an organic farm. For example I've been concerned about continuing to harvest hay as we build up our soils and pasture elsewhere on the farm.  In other fields we grow green manure and cover crop, we make compost and spread it in our row crop fields.  I had the idea of ordering in a ton of pelletized organic chicken manure to feed the field.  That didn't work.  Turns out I'm too small to hold the attention of a fertilizer salesman.

Adam King (ADK Farms on facebook) is a young conventional farmer who started farming by cutting hay for neighbors in our area.  Adam helped me find the older, small scale farm tools I needed to make my own hay. And so after haying this summer I asked his opinion about managing our hay field. "John, I wonder.  Could you put your chickens out on that field?"

Duh, right?

When we moved our chickens and our sheep onto the hay field we were solving several problems and helping to balance  accounts.  Organic feed is expensive, but we were getting eggs, developing sustainable mixed production and converting all of the above into fertility valued at hundreds of dollars (if you can get it!}. And the animals were doing most of the work of "manufacturing" and "application".

Information about the multiplier effects of heritage animals on pasture make things look even better. Working on this post I came across Gundaroo Tiller, an organic garden farm supply company in New South Wales, Australia, which posted, "Changing the Way We Think About Poultry" on it's website.  Joyce Wilkie and Michael Plane talk about the many benefits of this system, including  "stacking" the pasture with herbivores (such as our sheep and horses) first.  Allowing them to graze the grass down to about 4 inches.

"Chickens are then moved onto the grass which is at optimal height for them. They clean up any parasite eggs and pulverise the herbivore manure which, when combined with chicken droppings, is the ideal pasture fertiliser. To use that dreadful modern phrase a "win-win situation"." 
   - Gundaroo Tiller

Vertical Stacking is like doubling the size of your pasture.  And it's ideally suited to heritage breed animals.
New tools like flexible electric fence make it possible to create rational grazing almost anywhere. Now we need the right animals for that job.

Genetic diversity allows us to have more than one answer to finding the right breed for the right purpose and there are now many growers working with heritage breeds. There are new hybrids being tried and there will be new standards set for pastured chicken flocks. For now there is no single alternative. Which means that small farmers around the world are working on breeding up the chickens that work for them. Some believe that we can recover and improve the qualities that made heritage breeds commercial favorites years ago. And many people have come to the conclusion that a one size fits all solution designed by industrial producers (who own the genetics) is not the answer. We've already seen the pinnacle of industrial breeding and it can't stand on its own two legs.

Growing meat and eggs with heritage chickens includes the potential of growing breed stock. Livestock growers of every kind use sales of breeding and breed stock as part of their revenue stream. Chicken farmers have been shut out by corporate-owned genetics and one dominant hybrid.  But if growers create demand for birds that perform best on pasture, we can also grow breeding stock, much as "open software" if you like, to sell to other farmers, backyard growers and hobbyists.  We can get back to growing for life and a long road ahead instead of  settling for a fast buck and an annual dead end followed by a re-up from the factory.

To re-cap:

On Farm Benefits of Raising Heritage-Breed chickens on Pasture:

 * Pure bred chickens can allow us to naturally breed and maintain our own flocks of layers and meat birds.
 * Heritage birds are active foragers who are better at supplementing simple grain ration with pasture feeding.
 * Birds who are naturally sound also have better immune systems and are better suited to live outdoors.
 * Chickens who aren't bred to eat a grain only diet, don't need special supplements.
 * These birds actively scratch on the pasture surface, aerating turf and mixing in valuable fertility.
 * Using mobile coops with screen floors directly applies chicken manure across the pasture.
 * Converting organic feed into organic fertility helps increase the value of expensive feed.
 * Consumers want high quality, humanely raised food direct from their farmer.
 * Culinary professionals are calling on us to produce high quality local food to feature in their restaurants.
 * We aren't raising chickens for death and profit.  We're raising them to sustain life on our farm.

So - why not do the same thing with a Cornish Cross?  Well, you can with some extra effort.  We did.  But we think now is the time to put our effort in another direction starting on a small scale.  Others are moving in the same direction and there are some who advise caution.  Including Harvey Ussery:

We must of course keep Andy Lee’s warning in mind: That the wing-walker makes sure of the new hand-hold before letting go the old! Certainly those who have worked so hard putting into place a model which works for them should not abandon any element of the system—including its foundation, the Cornish Cross—without due care, experiment, and thought. In the long run, however, we must adopt the goal of producing a better bird. Let Perdue and Tyson have the Cornish Cross—we can do much better than that!

Marketing A Heritage Chicken...With All The Fixin's       

The successful sales side of creating a better product comes down to creating and meeting a higher expectation. And that really happens at the table. These birds ARE different. And we think the quality will win the sceptics. But because they are different, they require a more traditional approach in the kitchen.  I started by looking at some of the old cookbooks I have.  Recipes that pre-date the ubiquitous broiler are very useful.  And I found this great post by Mary Lou Shaw online from Mother Earth News called,  Cooking Heritage-Breed Chickens. What Mary Lou finds is an important way forward that also identifies specific heritage breeds and their use.

Broilers: Sources differ for the exact age and weights, but that’s probably because heritage breeds vary in size. In general, a broiler is less than two-and-a-half pounds and up to 13 weeks of age. Their meat can be cooked other ways, but because it can be cooked hot and fast and still be tender, they’ve earned the name “broiler.” The Silver Laced Wyandotte breed has the reputation of being excellent for broiling. 

Fryers: These birds are about 13 to 20 weeks of age and weigh about 2½ pounds. The meat is still tender and is beginning to get some fat, but using high heat and fat for cooking is best. Voila—fried chicken! Take care that you choose the right cooking oil for high heats. Refined safflower, sesame or sunflower oils are best. As to the breed of heritage bird that’s best for frying? Orpingtons and Barred Rocks lead the list. 

Roasters: This should be my specialty, but there are many options for how to successfully roast a bird. These birds are about three-and-a-half pounds and are five to 10 months old. At this age, the meat has developed wonderful flavor, but has lost tenderness because the muscles are developed and firm. Rather than brining the meat, it can be cooked in moist heat at 325 degrees for 25 minutes per pound. If roasted dry, they need basting. I can confirm that cooking them breast-side-down works well. A clay cooker or crock pot also does a good job, and rubbing oil all over the bird before cooking helps. The Black Jersey Giants make good roasters. 

Stewers: “Stewers” may not be a word, but there’s a category for the older-than-roasters that require stewing. These may be the hens that are too old for egg-laying that we don’t want to feed all winter. It also includes the cockerels that weren’t yet culled. What these older birds require is an even-longer cooking time, and “coq au vin” recipes abound for this category. In the winter, these birds can be found in our well-seasoned cast-iron pot on the wood burner, making the house smell like there’s a real cook present, and promising us a wonderful meal of tender chicken with vegetables from the root cellar. 

By varying our cooking techniques and breed of chicken, we can enjoy nutritious and diverse meals all year. Heritage birds from your local farmer or your own backyard will provide you with meat that is more nutritional, tasty and economic than supermarket chicken. It’s a treat to sit together at the dinner table enjoying such fantastic food. 

Read more:

Simply put, linking our product to people who love food and enjoy cooking is crucial. And we plan to introduce samples to those in the local culinary community to get their feedback.

Marketing Benefits to Consumers

* The flavor and texture of organically pasture raised and processed birds is superior.
* The nutrional and therefore health value is significantly higher.
* This is heritage chicken for traditional cooking. "Like grandma used to make" is literally true.
* No pesticide, animal based supplements, antibiotics, hormones, or performance enhancing drugs.
* Waste is naturally recycled into fertility.
* Buying Heritage-Breed chicken keeps your local food supply healthy and growing.

Making it to the Grass

David Weale is a historian of the Province of PEI, Canada.  He has collected the oral history of islanders who lived in a time that seems so far away. He wrote about the small mixed livestock and crop farmers of PEI before 1960:

"...they represented a long tradition of rural intelligence and aptitude, which promoted feelings of competency, even mastery; and was the source of both identity and pride. They might not have had a very wide experience, but on their small parcels most farm folks knew exactly what needed to be done, and how to do it.  They were in charge."
  - David Weale   "Pride in Small Places"

We hope to be in charge again when it comes to choosing how we go forward. And we can work together on the basic principle that breeding sustainable, heritage-breed livestock is the proven alternative to factory farming.  Barely organic mono-culture animals are failing even committed stockmen and women. The answer to this nagging problem may lie right in front of us. We are working to find the answers in a job that has been left up to us. The proof that it can work exists in many small places.  

Delaware Chickens - PEI, 1945  David Weale, "Pride in Small Places"

"...whenever I hear people say clean food is expensive, I tell them it’s actually the cheapest food you can buy. That always gets their attention. Then I explain that, with our food, all of the costs are figured into the price. Society is not bearing the cost of water pollution, of antibiotic resistance, of food-borne illnesses, of crop subsidies, of subsidized oil and water—of all the hidden costs to the environment and the taxpayer that make cheap food seem cheap. No thinking person will tell you they don’t care about all that. I tell them the choice is simple: You can buy honestly priced food or you can buy irresponsibly priced food."
 - Joel Salatin, Polyface Farm 


Anonymous said...

icanThis was a very informative article to us "newcomers" that want to learn about heritage animals/crops as they balance. I'm considering Heritage Rhode Island reds for eggs mostly. I could never deal with slaughtering. What do you have to say about this bred on PEI? Thanks LDM

John Quimby said...

Hi L -
We grew Rhode Island Reds and got a very good run of chicks from our local seed and feed. They arrived as day olds, brooded and grew well and moved to pasture grazing and rotation. They began laying around 6 months which happened to be winter. Production was very good, like clockwork - a benefit of good breeding. Also, they were very hardy and healthy and natural foragers which means they really did well feeding on pasture. The only negative is that none of them went broody,(willing to sit a nest and hatch eggs naturally) a trait we're selecting for in a breeding flock.

While I'm sure you can find this trait if you look for it, my understanding is that broodiness is deliberately bred out of commercial flocks because broody hens stop laying.

Talk to your local breeders, tell them what you're looking for and start with animals that get you closest to where you want to go.

Anonymous said...

Greeting from Nova Scotia...Annapolis Valley. Great article and informative as well. My experience with the meat king is different from your. We got 20 meat kings June 2013 (our first time with any farm animal.) Everyone told us that they will starve to death if left to pasture. Well, they all survived and thrive(one was lost to a turkey buzzer). They have free range of our farm. We gave then kitchen scrap in the mornings, but they were left to pasture and forage free all day...they even went to visit our neigbours two blocks away. They were our little atheletes.

I have two issue with the meat kings. (1)We process 14 (average weight was 3.9 pounds) in October and the meat is very tough...tougher than a stewing hen and quite tasteless.(2) No eggs so far from the remaining 6 and we did not find any in the processed ones.

The only reason I'm looking for a new breed of chicken for next year is the poor taste of my lovely meat kings. I've fallen hard for them.