I knew this already; I grew up on a farm. I’ve seen Food, Inc. and read The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I know the difference between raising egg layers, dual-purpose chickens, and raising meat chickens. I’d spoken to others who raised meat chickens.
This May, a local feed store gave my friend 35 meat chicks since they were starting to feather out and were no longer cute and sellable. Knowing her children would revolt if she told them they were raising meat chickens, she called me. I kept 10 and redistributed the others to farming friends.
The experience was more educational than I expected.
Lesson #1: Free-Roaming Meat Chickens are a Myth
Until 3 weeks old, the chicks flapped their wings and climbed the ladder. They roosted a foot from the ground. At 4 weeks they were land-bound. At 5 weeks, they lay down beside the dish to eat. At 6 weeks, they no longer explored the coop. By slaughter at 8 weeks, they pushed their heavy bodies off the ground, waddled three steps out of fresh excrement, and lay back down in more fresh excrement.
My birds would not explore their run, no matter how brightly the sun shone. If I placed them in idyllic fields of flowers, they would still walk three steps before lying back down. A friend had a similar experience. “They just laid there,” he said. “I put them on green grass. No matter what I did, I couldn’t get them to move around.”
When raising meat chickens commercially, “free range” means the barn has access to the outside. No regulations exist regarding how large the run is, or how often the chickens go outside. And in truth, barns with “free range” access can be more humane than idyllic fields. Barns provide shelter. In open spaces, predators could trot right up and grab the helpless chickens. So you can forget everything you thought you knew about how to raise free range chickens when raising meat chickens.
Lesson #2: Gender is Almost Irrelevant When Raising Meat Chickens
Despite internet misinformation, no chickens are genetically modified; nor are they raised with hormones. Cornish X Rocks are hybrid chickens, originally offspring of Cornish and Plymouth Rock. Selective breeding for raising meat chickens has produced birds that reach five pounds within 8 to 10 weeks, with breast meat up to 2-inches thick. Allowing them to breed will not produce the same quality offspring. Also, these chickens are too big to breed when they reach sexual maturity.
When we butchered at 8 weeks, the chickens still chirped like babies, though they weighed more than most of my laying hens. The cockerels developed larger red wattles but were still unable to crow, and though the pullets dressed out at five pounds and the cockerels at six, I noticed no other differences.
Some hatcheries offer sexed Cornish X Rocks, primarily because gender can determine finished results. Males do mature faster; females dress out with a fine smooth finish. This is one of the few breeds where pullet chicks are less expensive than cockerels. But we did not experience enough differences to influence future purchases.
Lesson #3: Raising Meat Chickens Humanely and Organically is Easy
As my birds grew in an open-air environment, I had no infection. They lay in their own excrement but I easily moved them to clean the coop. None got sick. None got injured.
When raising meat chickens, the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology states that space requirements for broilers is “one-half square foot per bird.” That means I could have used my 50-square-foot mini-coop and shoved 90 more chickens into it. Less work, more meat. More contamination. Some commercial operations distribute low doses of antibiotics into daily food to avoid infection and disease caused by overcrowding when raising meat chickens.
So how do organic farms manage it? In addition to using organic chicken feed, they don’t pack the chickens in so tightly when raising meat chickens. Diseases like infectious bronchitis may travel on the wind, but farmers medicate as necessary and remove those birds from the “organic” group.
And what about the “humane” part? You see, that term is relative. What one person sees as “humane” can be negotiable to another. Obvious cruelty includes inadequate veterinary care, inadequate food and water, or frequent injury to the chickens. But if a chicken won’t move out of a two-square-foot area, is it inhumane to only give it the space it’ll use? Is it inhumane to enclose them if open fields leave them vulnerable?
Lesson #4: Raising Meat Chickens Is All About Priorities
In those few weeks of raising meat chickens, we purchased two 50-lb bags of feed, at $16 per bag. The chickens averaged five pounds dressed out. If we’d purchased the chicks at $2 apiece, the meat value would be $1.04/lb. And if we’d used organic feed, we would have organic chicken at $2.10/lb.
This year, whole chicken averaged $1.50/lb in the United States.
But what’s the cost of convenience? According to a study from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median hourly wage for October 2014 was $24.17. My husband and I spent about 10 minutes butchering each chicken. That added $4.03 per chicken.
With the cost of chicks, feed, and slaughtering time, each bird was valued at $9.23 apiece … about $1.84 per pound. Organic chicken would have been $14.53, or $2.91 per pound. And that doesn’t include time spent caring for the chickens prior to slaughter.
By slaughtering on the weekends, without taking time away from our day jobs, we negated the $4.03 per chicken at the cost of missing a few episodes of The Walking Dead. But raising 100 chickens in the mini-coop, or even in our larger chicken run, would be ridiculous in our urban environment. And what about the poor neighbors? Meat chickens stink much worse than laying hens. The cacophony would carry blocks away until Animal Control came knocking on our door. Backyard poultry enthusiasts operate with one shared concern: happy lives for our birds. I don’t believe half-a-square-foot per bird is a good life, even if the chickens don’t know any better.
So What Can You Do?
Hybrid meat chickens are here to stay. Consumers want 2-inch-thick breast meat that melts in their mouths. Farmers want maximum profit per bird. Animal welfare groups want humane conditions, but many factors are negotiable if the basic needs are tended. We can picket the CAFOs all we want, but commerce usually wins.
One alternative: Stop eating chicken. If you’re against what our meat chickens have become, you’ll probably have to avoid all commercially prepared chicken products. The profit margin is just too high to use anything but meat hybrids.
Another alternative: Eat heritage chicken breeds. Also called dual-purpose chickens, these egg-laying birds have heavy bodies. They’re our Rhode Island Reds and Orpingtons. Just like heritage turkeys, they breed naturally, roost, and even fly short distances. The disadvantages: Meat is darker and tougher (but has more flavor.) Breasts are ½- to 1-inch thick, not 2 inches. It takes 6 to 8 months to reach slaughter weight, rather than two months. Feed-to-meat conversion is much lower, and farmers need more space per bird. Also, heritage chicken can be hard to find in supermarkets. Look behind the meat counter at Whole Foods, for birds with sharp breastbones and lean flanks. Or find a local farmer. Or raise them yourself.
For us, the priorities line up. We intend to do this next year, purchasing 10 to 15 chicks every six weeks. Two weeks in the brooder, then six in the mini-coop, aging out into the freezer just in time for the next batch. By avoiding overcrowding and unsanitary conditions, we can raise antibiotic-free or organic chicken for less than supermarket averages, and can teach our children exactly where their food comes from. We face reality, and act on it. It’s what we’ve chosen.
For someone else, it may be different. Everyone has to make peace with their own food, whether that means eating hybrids, heritage breeds, or avoiding meat altogether.
Originally published in 2014 and regularly vetted for accuracy.