We are in the process in shifting our growing methods for our chickens. Yes, we are the only USDA Certified flock AND eggs in Middle Tennessee and yes, we rotate the chickens on new pasture twice a week, but I’m wondering if we can’t be more sustainable.
A new method evolved because my son likes to have meat birds for his freezer, so we grew out some Cornish Cross chicks last fall. Those are strange birds. They can’t stand up for long because of their heavy breast, mature in 40 days (the equivalent of a two-year old child weighing 250 pounds), can’t fly, and cannot naturally reproduce (they are a terminal breed). Frankenbirds, I called them. I wonder if we gone too far in specialization of our farm animals.
Another concern I have is the process of buying chicks from hatcheries. If we buy, say, 100 pullets from hatcheries (usually from Iowa or Missouri), that means 200 eggs were hatched (because, on average, at least 50% will be roosters), and the subsequent 100 day-old roosters are placed in a meat grinder. Nobody wants to buy roosters.
First, if we are going to be sustainable in Middle Tennessee, shouldn’t we breed and grow our own chickens? Second, is that not a waste of those roosters? And, third, shouldn’t we allow the chickens to have a productive life on pasture? These concerns led me to a new method of hatching and growing chickens, specifically dual purpose chickens (for both eggs and meat). So, I’m now looking at the Sustainable Poultry Network method (http://www.sustainablepoultrynetwork.com/) for breeding and growing my birds.
I have purchased 100 heritage birds from this Network (Barred Plymouth Rocks, bred to meet American Poultry Association standards) that are now beginning to lay. The best five roosters were kept for breeding, and the other 45 were processed for roasting or stewing (cook them low and slow). They are rich tasting birds because they have been allowed to mature (their hormones kicked in). The 50 or so hens will be used for breeding the next generation starting in January 2014. Additionally, they will still be organic, because I’m using Windy Acres’ USDA organic grain, and they are still pastured on our organic farmland. The breeding operation will hopefully start to hatch out our own Middle Tennessee heritage birds.
The first step in this network was to establish at least one breeder for every four or more growers of these dual-purpose birds in Middle Tennessee (each farmer may grow what APA heritage breed(s) they choose). The breeder will then develop a breeding stock the first year purchased from one of SPN’s national 25 established flocks (which I have done). The birds are chosen for vigor, APA standards, and production qualities (all my birds have been separated into three breeding families). Once the local breeding stock is established and laying eggs, the eggs will be incubated and hatched to be sold to the growers starting in January 2014.
It is initially estimated that each grower will receive at least 250 birds annually for laying hens and/or processed roosters; additionally, the breeder will sell locally to backyard chicken enthusiasts. Once the flock reaches 18-20 weeks, the growers will process the roosters for stewing or roasting and the hens will go into egg production. In sum, from the time one receives the initial chicks to breeders selling their first flock, is one year.
We hope to grow this network as consumer education and demand dictates.
Initial evaluation of this network will be the development of breeders and growers. This will establish a network of farmers breeding and growing more local birds using more natural methods that improve the chickens’ welfare. Measures will include number of breeders, growers, hatch rate (90 percent), and livability rate of chicks hatched grown to maturity (90 percent or 81 mature birds for 100 eggs incubated). Subsequent measures include sales of eggs, meat birds, and backyard chickens to consumers. Once out of the brooding stage, all chickens will be on pasture.
Livestock and poultry are integral to sustainable farms. Pastured poultry provide many benefits, including:
- Chickens can forage for approximately twenty percent of their feed on pasture, reducing the amount of feed brought into a farm;
- Chickens naturally scratch for food and take dust baths that help distribute nutrients into the soil, especially if they follow livestock in a rotational grazing system;
- Pest and insect control is increased as chickens forage on pasture;
- Chicken manure, provided the amount is managed properly, is a valuable source for nitrogen and phosphorous, which are fertilizers for pastures; and,
- Welfare standards are higher for pastured poultry that are allowed to behave naturally, ensure social interaction, comfort, and physical and psychological well-being.
We think breeding and growing our own local, dual-purpose birds is a more sustainable method to provide eggs and meat to Middle Tennessee. It does so because:
- It is more energy efficient by having our own chickens hatched and grown in this area;
- It connects our community with more local products, and;
- It is more humane for the birds that are grown to APA standards, are pastured, allowed to grow slowly, allowed to live a long, productive life, and allowed to reproduce naturally.
Please join us in this endeavor. If you have a farm, consider being a part of this network either as a breeder or as a grower (note: one does not have to be organic to be in this network). If you are a backyard enthusiast, buy your small flock from our network, or spread the word about the benefits of these eggs or meat birds. If you have neither a farm nor want to have a backyard flock, support the network by purchasing your eggs and meat birds from the growers.
I close by explaining our new name, Sustainable Poultry in Motion. Of course, I did this with tongue in cheek. But, these birds, I hope, will be grown with more sustainable methods that are good for our land, our watershed, our health, and are tastier to eat. And, these birds are in motion because they are beneficially rotated on pasture that allows new grass, bugs, and dust baths sites for the birds compared to the damage of the beaten ground of permanent chicken pens. Also we, as a society, are also in motion as we continue our path toward more sustainable lifestyles and farming methods that are more in tune with the rhythms of our natural resources.
Thanks for joining us on this journey.