Not Your Grocer’s Chicken

The first batch of broiler chickens came back from the processor this week, merely eight weeks after they arrived at Elmwood Stock Farm via the post office. Rearing chickens for meat is a seasonal operation for us, since they live most of their lives outdoors and are not well outfitted to handle cold, wet springs. The large-volume poultry farmers keep their birds confined in controlled-climate barns, so they can start new batches every six weeks or so, year-round. There is great debate between producers utilizing these two vastly differing systems as to which is better for the birds: indoors versus outdoors. There are also considerations for the environment, and us, the people who consume the meat to fortify our bodies.

As you read this story, you’ll see Future Story Notes that are whole stories unto themselves, noted in this discussion for us to return to in the future.

Layers vs. Broilers

As always, we start with basic biology, since I’m guessing very few of you have held a chicken since the first time you did, when … It fluttered. … You screamed.… You both ran away from each other. … And then you both turned around and stared at one another. (Future Story Note: turkey and geese handling.)

Anyway, there are two basic types of chickens farmers keep in this country, those for meat and those for eggs. Egg layers grow for 20 weeks before they lay their first egg. They are hearty, aggressive insectivores and herbivores scratching through the fields. They return us an egg every day, or 80-something percent of days, anyway. (Future Story Note: egg-laying hens.) ”Layers” as it were, call Elmwood Stock Farm home for one or two years, before neighbors stop in to buy them to feed their families because “spent hens” are the type of chicken they grew up eating in their home countries.

The type of chicken we consume for meat stay in a warm, physically secure brooding barn for a couple of weeks as chicks, before they get their permanent feathers. Then they move out to pasture for another six or seven weeks. We move their protective shelters by hand twice a day, every day, running batches throughout the warm weather season. (Future Story Note: chicken tractors.) “Broilers,” as they are called, are more laid back than layers. They chill out in the shade, explore the field hoping to run up on something tasty, and gain a lot of weight fast, as they have been bred to do. Suffice it to say, layers and broilers are both chickens, similar in that butternut squash and zucchini are both squash.

Pasture-Raised vs. Confinement

In this country, farmers and scientists teamed up years ago and figured out how to convert grain into chicken meat very-very efficiently. To be clear, we are the beneficiaries of this work, as the chicks we raise here have the hand-me-down genetics that sophisticated, fully integrated, corporate-behemoth chicken producers use. (Theirs are proprietary, of course.) They somehow have birds ready for processing in alarmingly short periods of time in their confined, environmentally controlled houses with fancy feeding systems. 

We watch our birds move out into the morning sun, then all decide to find some shade later in the day. Elmwood has a zero-death-tolerance policy. If something kills a chicken in the field, we figure out how to prevent that and don’t let it happen again. This is where some of the expense of raising birds on pasture comes into play. (Future Story Note: protecting pastured poultry.)

Our man-hour per pound of bird is astronomical compared to those of confined-farming operations. We can also talk about the differences in organic feed versus genetically engineered grains, both for the environment and for the birds, as we debate whether the birds are better off spending their lives inside or out. (Future Story Notes: organic feed and the environment; organic feed and the chickens.)

The industrial confinement market is cheap chicken for the masses. Corporate conglomerates of cheap chicken find themselves in quite a pickle these days, having encouraged society to eat lots of cheap chicken. Now, millions of birds have nowhere to be processed because of plant slowdowns and shutdowns, right at a time when people are anxious about having enough food. (Future Story Note: the fragility of the industrial meat system.)

Chicken in Kentucky

We would not be able to offer you chicken, at all, were it not for the mobile processing unit story. (Future Story Note: MPUs.) A bunch of do-gooders—of which I might have been a part—raised broilers at the Kentucky State University research farm in the late 90’s to demonstrate the system so small-scale farmers could adopt it and regular people could taste the results. Come to find out, in the eyes of the US Department of Agriculture and state health officials, there was no place to legally process chickens for consumption in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. When we heard Wendell Berry say, “A farmer ought to be able to sell a chicken to their neighbor,” the bunch of do-gooders designed and fully licensed the Mobile Processing Unit. It took two years to go through the process of design, build and approval, but the unit is still in use today.

An outgrowth of this modified gooseneck trailer is that entrepreneur farmers who wanted to expand this pastured-poultry model built concrete structures with USDA inspectors to sell chickens across state lines. Today, Kentucky has half-a-dozen USDA-approved broiler butchers—the envy of all our neighboring states. We pay our processor more than $4 per bird to handle our chickens with care, considering all we have gone through to get it there. Is it worth it?

As of this writing, our first batch of broiler chicken for the year has been available on our online store for only a few days, and we’re nearly out. Not to worry: CSA members’ shares have already been set aside. We have young broiler chicks in the brooder barn and slightly older broilers out in the pastures. More batches of chicks are scheduled to arrive as the season progresses, and our processor is already secured to ensure chicken is available to us and to you.

There’s a lot that goes into getting healthy and tasty chicken into your hands, directly from us, but we like the way we raise ‘em.  I look forward to telling more stories about it all, as you can see from all those Future Story Notes. —Mac Stone

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