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Tipping Points 10: Meat Chickens

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Tipping Points 10

June 9, 2010

 

Meat Chickens

 I am helping raise fifty pastured meat chickens with Pete and Rose Thomas of the Vegetable Shed on Route 173 in Lincolnville.  I am mostly a bystander at this stage.  I paid for our twenty chicks when they arrived, am paying for half of the feed as Pete and Rose are doing all the work, paid for half of some of the start-up equipment, and go admire how healthy and beautiful the chickens are about once a week.  I will help slaughter them later this month.

We got twenty pastured chickens in a Community Shared Agriculture arrangement last fall, and we would have done so again.  But, as Pete and Rose helped us acquire and manage our layers, it emerged that they wanted to raise some Silver Cross meat chickens.  They agreed to let us be partners, and we’re all learning a lot as we go along.

After watching the movie JULIE AND JULIA, where Julie Powell cooks all 536 recipes in Volume One of Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” (1961) in one year and blogs about the experience, I pulled out my Volume One—nearly 50 years old now and one of the cookbooks I brought with me when we culled books and moved to Maine.  I made the master leek and potato soup recipe.  Delicious!  Next, as I’ve never been a strong baker, I challenged myself with the cake section.  I was amazed at how many eggs and how little flour and sugar the French one-layer cakes contained.  And, real butter cream icing is velvet on the tongue; has an intense, satisfying flavor; and is smooth all the way down.  Yummo!

Then, I discovered the DVD set of eighteen of the early Julia Child television shows, made throughout the 1960s.  One of these shows is “How To Roast A Chicken.”  Julia lines up six chickens to compare their sizes and purposes:  a broiler, a fryer, a roaster, a capon (castrated rooster), a stewing fowl, and an “old lady” hen fit only for soup.  The broiler Julia shows weighs 1 ½ to 2 ½ pounds and is 2 to 3 months old.  The roasting chicken is 4 to 7 pounds and is 5 ½ to 9 months old.

Nowadays, we are raising 4 to 5-pound Cornish Cross chickens in six or seven weeks.

And, they are tasteless.  In her memoir MY LIFE IN FRANCE, Julia sums up the problem she encounters in 1955 when she begins to experiment with chicken cookery:  “The American poultry industry had made it possible to grow a fine-looking fryer in record time and sell it at a reasonable price, but no one mentioned that the result usually tasted like the stuffing inside of a teddy bear” (213).

According to the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (NCAT), beginning in the 1950s, industry worked to develop a chicken that was meatier, was broad-breasted, grew rapidly, converted feed efficiently, had limited feathering which minimized plucking, and which had “other traits considered desirable for rearing very large numbers of birds in confinement.”  Uniformity dictates this model.  If all the birds are the same size, processing equipment can be designed for maximum technical efficiency (http://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/poultry_genetics.html).

In April 2009, Harvey Ussery, in “Backyard Poultry Magazine,” noted that the development of the Cornish Cross has “pushed muscle tissue growth to extremes, at the expense of balanced growth of all other systems—resulting in failed tendons and crippled legs, compromised immune systems, heart failure, and other problems.”  This chicken is given antibiotics and arsenic to “force still faster growth.”  And, since they are raised in “filthy, high-stress conditions,” antibiotics are required from “day one to slaughter” (“Sunday Dinner Chicken:  Alternatives to the Cornish Cross,” Apr/May 2009, “Backyard Poultry Magazine,” www.themodernhomestead.us/article/Cornish+Cross+Alternatives.html.).

Ussery vowed never again to “coddle such a compromised bird” when he lost twenty-two in two hours during a temperature spike.  The distressed birds, wrote Ussery, were at slaughter weight.  And, they “sat…in the shade of their pasture shelter, panting desperately, and died—rather than walk six feet for a drink of water outside the shelter.”  Meanwhile, his group of “young New Hampshires, the same age as the Cornish Cross to the day, [were] scooting about the pasture like little waterbugs, crossing their entire electronetted area when they needed a drink of water.”

Steve Hode of the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group, who raises chickens in Windsor, Maine, says the flesh of the Cornish Cross chickens is so soft that it dissolves in your mouth without much chewing.  Further, Hode noted, the bones of these chickens, because they grow so fast, never develop the density that makes for mineral-rich bone broths.

The efficient feed conversion factor means that meat chickens are fed, as are industrial layers, 90 percent corn and 10 percent soy.  Feeds, even organic feeds, contain the synthetic protein methionine and an array of chemicals and waste-product oils.  Changing to 70 percent corn and 30 percent soy solves the protein problem, but affects production costs as less carbohydrate (corn) means a longer growth time, more money for additional feed, and more manure (“There’s a synthetic in my organic chicken,” Rodale Institute, 1 April 2005, http://newfarm.rodaleinstitute.org/columns/org_news/2005/0405/methionine.shtml).  A 70/30 mixture does not solve the problem of making omnivore chickens vegetarians, which affects the omega 3 to 6 ratio of the meat.

According to the Lion’s Grip web site, what chickens prefer to eat is much more diverse.  Too see this list is to understand how blighted a diet of 90 percent corn, 10 percent soy, and a bunch of chemicals is.  Chickens need ample grass and living plants, especially clover; subterranean flora and fauna; insects; and protein that raises the omega 3 content of flesh and eggs so that it is equal to the omega 6 content, like fish, meat, milk worms, and nuts.  A grain supplement should only be given free choice and should be based on a mixture of five or more grains.  Legumes should be offered with grain to balance grain proteins.  Salt should come from free-choice kelp, and calcium from oyster shells or grass-fed bone.  Oils, like the highly processed, already rancid waste products from industry, should never be added to chicken feed   (www.lionsgrip.com/chickensidealfeed.html).

We are feeding our chickens commercial organic feed, as we have not yet worked out how else to feed a large flock of organic chickens outside what the so-called free market has standardized.  We do not like giving the chickens soy, synthetic chemicals, and waste products from industry.  But we have not yet located local grain mixtures and protein sources that are economically feasible and not too time consuming to organize.

Four major transnational companies supply 80 to 90 percent of the chicks to the worldwide commercial meat chicken industry, some in the form of hatching eggs sold to independent hatcheries.  Alternatives to the Cornish Crosses are limited, but some of these companies are now offering a slower growing Cornish Cross, like our Silver Crosses, which are slaughtered closer to their sexual maturity.  And, and at least one of these companies, Hubbard, a French company, is offering a chicken sold under the Red Label system in France that is most commonly known here as a Freedom Ranger.  This chicken, apparently, takes twelve weeks to grow, forages pasture well, and is loaded with flavor.

Our Silver Cross chickens come from Henry Noll in Pennsylvania.   While still a Cornish Cross, they are slower growing and will take at least 9 weeks to grow to 5 pounds.  Crossed with a Barred Rock, they are a beautiful silver grey with barred feathers and red combs.  Pete and Rose, who ate one last fall, say they definitely taste better than the flavor-challenged standard Cornish Cross.

Our chickens are very lively and have huge yellow feet and legs.  You can tell which ones are roosters now, and they are, suddenly, looking quite heavy.  However, all of them eat like piranhas.  It’s eerie to watch them eat.  And they are eating us out of house and home.  They will eat the grass and clover in their large, movable pen only if grain is withheld.

So, for fall and the future, we are looking to the Freedom Ranger chicken.  Ussery describes the meat as being “incomparably better.”  And NCAT says the “meat is flavorful and firm, but not tough.”  Freedom Rangers are also good layers.

Do not ask us to sell our meat chickens to you.  We cannot.  The food Nazis at the Quality Assurance and Regulation Division of the Maine Department of Agriculture, in the name of food safety and without any evidence of problems, will likely be successful in revoking the 1,000-bird poultry exemption for small farmers.  Now, any farmer who wants to sell even one chicken must build his/her own, very expensive processing facility, which would only be used a few weeks a  year.  Additionally, equipment may not be shared between farmers.

Here’s exactly how government helps the big and uniform get bigger and more uniform.  Here’s how small, local, and diverse gets driven out of the market.  Here’s how tasteless chickens are created.

3 Responses

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  1. if they won’t let you sell chickens, don’t sell them. Is it the essence of your mission to raise animals, or to be retailers? If the former, then raise animals owned by your wannabe-meat-buyers, under contract. The customer is engaging you to do the agriculture work. You never own the animal at any stage. Each animal is (somehow – tatoo, sharpie, however) marked with a serial number, so you know which chicken belongs to who. If the chicken happens to die before processing – it’s the owning-customer’s loss, not yours. this last bit must be true, otherwise, the courts would (quite properly) say that your scheme is a sham.

    Al

    June 11, 2010 at 3:25 am

  2. I was just rereading your article on meat birds (June 2010) We have raised many of them over the years but not in the last few. Mostly we did rock cornish crosses and I thought you might be interested in our experience. We never kept them confined in front of the commercial food. They free ranged in a huge pasture with our laying hens. They took twice as long to get roaster size, but they never had the health problems associated with this industrial breed, except that they eventually would get to the point where their bodies were getting too heavy for them to run around. But they were usually in the freezer before that. We thought the eating quality was far superior to commercial chicken, which we have not eaten in many years.

    I’d love to know if you ever figured out how to feed the meat birds, and what you thought of the silver crosses.

    Carole Whelan
    Birds n Bees Farm
    Hope, Maine

    Carole Whelan

    January 15, 2011 at 10:28 am

    • Thanks for commenting. We kept the birds at Rose and Pete’s (La Dolce Vita farm, Lincolnville, Maine). Pete build a LARGE pen which got moved every day–sometimes twice a day as they got older–so they had access to fresh grass. We fed them organic commercial feed, which we were not happy doing, but we could not figure out a reasonable substitute economically. (I feed my small flock raw milk, kitchen leftovers, some hamburger, greens (in the winter), and a mixture of whole grains and seeds, which is their least favorite thing of the above.) They ate like they were starving all day. It was pretty scary and expensive. Rose doesn’t know how to raise a sick chicken, so ours were terrifically healthy. We slaughtered at 12 weeks, ourselves, and kept head and feet intact. (Head and feet and carcass bones make the most amazing stock.) The meat has terrific texture and more flavor than commercial, but we still think we can do better. Rose is ordering 75 Freedom Rangers (the French red label chicken) this weekend. I will let Rose know what you’re saying about total pasturing. The FRs are supposed to be good foragers.

      louisaenright

      January 15, 2011 at 12:12 pm


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