Americans love poultry. From 28 pounds per person in 1960, we now consume over 93.5 pounds per capita - making poultry the number one protein consumed in the United States. The overall economic impacts of poultry total more than $576 billion and support over 2 million U.S. jobs. On top of this, poultry is the most efficient source of feed-to-nutrition conversion in the world. It takes less feed, water, and land to create a pound of poultry protein than other natural protein sources. Our insatiable appetite for poultry depends on an industrial system, with over 99% of chickens coming from factory farms. These centralized animal feeding operations (CAFOs) have utilized selective breeding to maximize weight gain at the cost of animal welfare, made chicken production financially unsustainable for smaller producers, and produced devastating effects on the environment. However, silvopastoral and pasture-based systems of both broilers (poultry raised for meat) and layers (poultry raised for egg production) blaze a path forward based on the adoption of slower-growing chicken breeds and, when applicable, mobile chicken coops to rotate chickens over pasture.
The CAFO-based industrial poultry system, replicating the key issues of breed selection and processing economics in the cattle industry we have previously discussed in The Regeneration Weekly, is effective at one monomaniacal goal: creating the heaviest chicken in the shortest time frame. It has done so with the following features and negative consequences:
Misaligned Incentives for Producers: Chicken farmers work in a tournament system where people are given a base pay, and then given bonuses on a ranked system based on per pound of chicken delivered. The tournament generates significant uncertainty for farm economics and perpetuates a system driven solely by weight gain.
Breed Selection: Most chickens we consume are one of three breeds that are Cornish Cross - Cobb 500, the Ross 708, or the Ross 308, produced by Cobb-Vantress (owned by Tyson) and Aviagen, respectively - that can effectively convert feed into muscle weight within 6-8 weeks at a weight around 6 pounds. The loss of genetic diversity and the ability of these chickens to rapidly gain weight create an unsustainable system.
Lack of Concern for Animal Welfare: The fixation on increasing weight gain as quickly as possible has led to chickens becoming so large that they can snap their legs and develop an array of medical conditions. Additionally, many industrial chickens are still stored in battery cages that hold 6 to 10 hens in a confined space for their lifetime, though these are illegal in a few states. “Cage-free" and "antibiotic-free" labels are mostly just sleight of hand. “Free-range” poultry designations have a very low threshold and the use of ionophore antibiotics, which are listed as feed additives and are not currently used in human medicine due to concerns about their toxicity, has sharply risen to cover for the lower usage of traditional antibiotics. Ionophores can impact local ecosystems through manure spread, and much research is needed on their corrosive effects.
Environmental Pollution: Furthermore, chicken CAFOs are a major water and air pollutant, as chicken manure runoff leads to contamination of drinking water and industries reliant on clean water, like tourism, across the “broiler belt.” Chicken houses also release ammonia, which settles in the soil and leads to a foul odor in the air.
Industrial Concentration: From 1950 to 2010, the number of chickens produced annually in the US increased by more than 1400 percent, while the number of chicken farms producing them has dropped by 98 percent. The top four US poultry companies controlled 51 percent of the broiler market in 2015, up from 17 percent in 1977. The typical broiler chicken comes from a facility that raises more than 600,000 birds a year. This consolidation has led to all the aforementioned damaging effects occurring on a massive scale.
Pasture-raised poultry presents an alternative path for the poultry industry. For both layer and broiler producers, pasture-raised poultry can lead to better unit economics if they find consumers willing to pay a premium price. We should remember that poultry emerged from jungle fowl, Gallus gallus, and raising them under conditions mimicking their natural habitat is crucial for their welfare, taste, and environmental impacts. They also are monogastric animals, meaning they don’t process feed as cattle and other ruminants do. Slower growing chickens can live healthier lives and consume a more complex diet accustomed to pasture-based diets, including nuts, bugs, grasses, cover crops, and so forth.
The mobile coops, pioneered by Joel Salatin, are particularly effective with laying hens and can work to restore degraded grasslands. Poultry integration into a multi-species system that includes cattle can build organic matter and increase farm profitability. Startups like Ukko Robotics are building automated roving “barns” to scale the mobile coop concept at minimal labor for the smaller family farm. PastureBird, the largest pasture-raised chicken farm in the country (and previously featured in The Regeneration Weekly), rotates mobile, floorless chicken systems on fresh pasture each day, using the principles of regenerative grazing to build soil health and promote animal welfare. They also use slower-growing chickens for their direct-to-consumer products.
However, a focus on a diversity of breeds and slower-growing broilers also provides ample room for opportunity. Cooks Venture has spent the last decade selectively breeding slower growing “heirloom” broilers with outdoor access to silvopastoral systems with woody biomass, deep root systems, and cover cropping. Their pioneer chickens, raised in 60 to 65 days vs. the 42 days of industrial broilers, can range around their farm and live a healthier life with a more diverse diet and functional biology. Using “heritage” poultry on a case-by-case basis allows producers to implement tailored approaches for animals and their ecosystems, especially compared to the major commercialized breeds.
From a sustainability perspective, feed is the most complex part of breeding pasture-raised poultry. While regenerative beef can be raised in a completely closed-loop system, poultry cannot be self-sustaining and always require external feed. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the poultry industry uses most of the world’s feed crops. Though no chicken program is completely “regenerative” in the sense that chickens cannot only live off the land they are grazing, sourcing from regenerative operations and on-farm systems will provide poultry a healthy diet and a better environmental alternative.
The need to scale pasture-raised poultry and make it more affordable will determine the future of the industry. The key remains to unlock consumer demand and to shift the paradigm away from a system that rewards weight gain to one that considers the holistic realities of poultry production. After all, it’s better for the animals, for the farmers, for the environment, and for our own health.
Listen: In preparing for this newsletter, the Pastured Poultry Talk podcast with Mike Badger was an indispensable treasure trove of insights. He brings on guests to talk about a wide range of topics from the devastating effects of COVID-19 on pasture-raised chicken producers or diving deep into the nutritional benefits of pasture-raised chicken. I can’t emphasize enough how valuable this encyclopedia of podcast episodes is to producers looking to jump into the pasture-raised space and to consumers looking for specific nuggets of trustworthy information.
Buy: Cooks Venture is a vertically integrated food, heritage breeding, and agriculture company committed to regenerative agriculture and a truly transparent supply chain for the future. Founded by Matthew Wadiak, the company is built on the well-documented scientific principle that sequestering 1% more carbon into the soil on agricultural lands could mitigate climate change. They breed, raise, and process pasture-raised heirloom chickens in Northwest Arkansas on 800 acres of beautiful, wooden forested farmland in the foothills of the Ozarks. The feed, heirloom breed, and pasture-raised lifestyle lead to healthier chickens and thus healthier food on your table. Learn more at www.cooksventure.com and follow the company on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.
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