Meat chickens

By Louisa Enright | Jun 16, 2010

We own 20 meat chickens. Pete and Rose Thomas are boarding them alongside their half of the flock. Some of what we are learning about meat chickens is worth sharing.

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 copy and cooked some of the recipes. Then I discovered the DVD set of 18 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, the market provides 4- to 5-pound Cornish Cross chickens in six or seven weeks.

But 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."

According to the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, industry, beginning in the 1950s, worked to develop a chicken that was meatier, was broad-breasted, grew rapidly, converted feed efficiently, had limited feathering, which minimized plucking, and 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.

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."

Ussery vowed never again to "coddle such a compromised bird" when he lost 22 who were at slaughter weight in two hours when the temperature spiked. The distressed birds, wrote Ussery, "sat ... in the shade of their pasture shelter, panting desperately, and died -- rather than walk 6 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."

Numerous chicken experts discuss the fact that the flesh of the Cornish Cross chickens is so soft that it dissolves in your mouth without much chewing. Further, the bones of these chickens, because they grow so fast, never develop the density that makes a mineral-rich bone broth.

Efficient feed conversion means that meat chickens can gorge on fattening corn. They are fed, as are industrial layers, 90 percent corn and 10 percent soy. 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 eating less carbohydrate (corn) means a longer growth time, more money for additional feed, and more manure. 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.

To see a list of what chickens eat provides an understanding of how blighted their market-driven diet is. Chickens need ample grass and living plants, especially clover; subterranean flora and fauna; insects; and proteins (fish, meat, milk, worms, and nuts) that raise the omega 3's to equal omega 6's. A grain supplement -- mixed with legumes to balance proteins -- should only be given free choice and should be based on a mixture of five or more grains. 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.

We are feeding commercial organic feed, as we have not yet worked out how else to feed a large flock of organic chickens outside what the 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, 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 takes 12 weeks to grow, forages pasture well, and, reportedly, is loaded with flavor.

Our Silver Cross chickens will take at least 9 weeks to grow to 5 pounds. A Cornish crossed with a Barred Rock, they are a beautiful silver gray with dark, barred body feathers and red combs. Pete and Rose, who ate one last fall, said they definitely taste better than the flavor-challenged standard Cornish Cross.

Our chickens are very lively and have huge, sturdy yellow feet and legs. However, all of them eat like piranhas. 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 the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service said 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 days 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.



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