Sunday, January 11, 2009

Seasonal chickens

Year-round chicken is a relatively new invention. 60 years or more ago you'd see chicken, but mostly as a seasonal meat in the summer and fall.

Seasonal Chicken
This seasonal pattern was due to how the hens produce eggs. In the spring and early summer a heritage breed hen lays best. These excess spring eggs were retained by the farms and hatched, producing next years laying hens, and about an equal number of roosters. The roosters and surplus hens would be sold when they'd grown big enough to eat, and the cycle would begin again.

Year 'round chicken
You can get chicken year-round today because chickens are typically raised in huge barns that are temperature controlled and managed very efficiently. Well, efficiently in terms of cost, but the experience of the animal isn't particularly enriched.

Got a call today...
This post is inspired by a call I received today asking if I sold chickens, and during the course of the conversation she explained that she just couldn't eat the factory chickens any more, and had made that transition for ethical reasons. I completely understood what she was saying -- that's why I started my farm, and why I raise the type of chickens I do.

The chickens I raise for laying hens, and to eat
I raise both Cornish cross chickens (the type of chicken you're used to seeing in the grocery store) and heritage breed chickens. I hatch eggs from my own breeding flocks of chickens and turkeys, and I purchase day-old chickens from a variety of hatcheries. I purchase chicks from time to time to increase the genetic diversity of my flocks or from customer demand.

I raise both heritage and Cornish cross because I get asked for both. Both are treated identically and both go out on pasture, on grass and get fed a non-medicated feed to make sure that there's no antibiotics or other drugs.

Cornish cross
These chickens are basically bred to be eating machines. They convert the least amount of feed into the most meat, and in terms of efficiency they cannot be beaten. The cross breeding of Cornish chickens and white rock chickens has produced a chick that takes 8 weeks to mature, from hatch to slaughter. In terms of husbandry they're actually more work to produce than heritage breeds. The basic issue is that if you give them all the food they want they'll eat themselves to death. So you end up having to carefully restrict their food intake every day towards the end of their time here so that you don't lose too many. Since they're butchered so young you don't see the foot and leg problems, but they're there if you keep them longer than a couple of months. Since these chickens are so centered on food you have to move their pens to make sure that they eat as much grass and forage as possible. Otherwise these are the chickens that you'll find asleep in the food dish, waiting for the next food delivery. They are actually pretty friendly, goofy birds.

Heritage breeds
I've been raising batches of black australorp roosters as my primary meat bird, mostly because asian customers are reluctant to purchase white birds -- they'd much prefer red or black -- and because the mexican customers don't want a bird that looks like the "safeway" birds -- they want a bird that is longer and narrower than the birds you see in safeway. As far as husbandry, I'll raise a batch of a couple of hundred and keep them in mobile pens on grass. They do pretty well; and don't eat themselves to death, so they're easier to care for, for me, at least. I fill their feeder and check the waterer and walk away for a day or two. The drawback to these birds is that they take longer to mature -- instead of 8 weeks, we're talking 18-20 weeks. And the shape of the body puts off some Americans because most everyone now believes that a chicken should be shaped like a Cornish cross. It's very similar to the situation that you run across when you try to convince people that white eggs can be just as natural as brown eggs. The consumer has been taught that organic eggs are brown, and that's that.

Taste differences
You can raise a Cornish cross to taste about the same as a safeway bird by duplicating the environment they're typically raised in. Get yourself a small box, stuff a couple of chickens in there, and feed them a soybean meal until they're big enough to eat. No exercise, no variation in diet, and in close contact to their own manure.

When I raise a Cornish cross it lives its first weeks under heat lamps and on sawdust, and then goes out to a mobile pen on grass. The pen is moved every day or two, and the bird is given the opportunity to eat grass and bugs and scratch the ground and do all the things that birds like to do. It's also exposed to the weather -- they see sunshine and rain, and can chose where they spend their time. Most choose to roam around their pen and enjoy hunting for chicken treats. Nothing more fun to watch than a couple of birds fighting over a grasshopper.

Even though the pastured bird and the safeway bird are the same breed, and in some cases might even have come from the same breeding flock, my experience has been that the pastured birds have less fat, better color and a meat taste and texture that's superior. But if you're curious, try this experiment: Cook a safeway bird and a pastured Cornish cross in the same oven for the same time, and do a taste test. Once you've had a pastured bird you realize what you've been missing. What was there once.

Heritage bird taste
The heritage birds are much older -- nearly 3 times the age of Cornish crosses -- and have spent that time foraging and eating and so on. so their meat is firmer, and has a deeper taste than the pastured Cornish cross. For the younger roosters and hens they cannot be beaten as a pan-fried or roasted bird. Fried heritage chicken is a real treat. My favorite recipe for the slightly older birds is Coq Au Vin, a traditional french recipe developed to eat the older roosters that are a little tougher than a young, tender bird.

Bird cost
Here's the hard part. I'm interested in making good, natural food available for a price that makes it accessible for most people. We've all seen great food that is priced so that few people can enjoy it. But on the other hand, I need to make a fair profit so that I'll be around next year, and the year after, to produce more birds. For the Cornish cross birds, oven ready (that is, plucked, head and entrails removed) I charge $3/lb. For the heritage birds, that take so much longer to produce, I charge $4/lb.

Lower cost birds
But if you're interested in a lower cost bird, I'll sell birds live at the farm gate for $18 for a rooster, or $22 for a laying hen. If you're not sure what to do, I offer classes two or three times a year on how to process your own chickens or turkeys.

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