Thursday, February 11, 2010

Sustainable Poultry

Cows have calves on the farm, Ewes have lambs on the farm, so why don’t most Chickens and Turkeys have chicks and poults on the farm?

The definition of “sustainable agriculture” is varied and has changed dramatically over the years to often include profitability motives.  However, for our purposes here, let’s start with the definition of sustainable agriculture from the Alliance of Sustainability: “A sustainable agriculture is ecologically sound, economically viable, socially just and humane.”  This is a simple definition and hard to find a major fault.  From here we will investigate the world of sustainable poultry.

In the 1950’s, poultry that our grandmother’s served for Sunday dinner where indeed sustainable birds.  They roamed the farm, forage for bugs and insects, scratched and turned the earth.  When the sun and moon were just right, in the early spring, they would get that frisky feeling and barnyard courtship would ensue yielding fertile eggs that hens would nest upon to yield a new crop of Sunday dinners some three weeks later.

But as economics of mass-production tended to take hold in agriculture, confinement feeding of cattle, lambs, hogs and chickens became the norm.  The race to create the biggest, fastest growing bird began.  Genetic engineering began in earnest and not only did large poultry houses and hatcheries enter the race, they also entered the game of “genetic ownership”.

Movies like the Oscar nominated movie “Food, Inc.”  and “Fresh – The Movie” documented the ills of Monsanto’s ownership of modern corn, but little has been spoken of Hubbard’s long time ownership of the genetics of today’s commercial poultry.  Taking a tour of the Hubbard website ( is much like touring the show room of a BMW dealer.  You can purchase the Hubbard Flex F-15, or if you wish to “produce the maximum saleable meat of any broiler breeder available on the market today” you should choose the Hubbard Yield, or perhaps the JV suits your fancy as it “produces a broiler which is ideal for the markets looking for the lowest carcass cost.” 

The genetics of commercial birds, throughout the US, are all owned by Hubbard.  Because the birds have been genetically manipulated, through selective breeding, to become such a high-order hybrid, they can not be replicated by a farmer nor can the birds be bred to produce commercially viable offspring, if they can physically mate at all.

Some would say that “sustainable” requires that the agricultural system, in this case, a chicken, must be able to complete an entire life-cycle.  Meaning, the animal must be able to forage for feed, grow healthy and strong, become of some commercial value (as a meat bird in this case), have sex, pro-create, and nurture off-spring to begin the cycle again.  That is what we expect of our pastures, of our cattle, of our sheep – why doesn’t America expect that from their poultry.  Is it because we have hidden the “agriculture” of poultry in large houses behind security gates in the name of “bio-security”?

If you as a chef, or a farmer, went online to start your very own meat chicken operation, you would likely buy chicks from a hatchery like Stromberg or McMurry.  The commercial birds, all come from Hubbard genetics – much like Monsanto corn.  The chicks would be hatched and boxed up at a day of age without food or water and shipped to you via the US Mail.  Yes, live animals would be shipped to you via the US Mail.  The hatcheries, depending on the number you order would add a few extra to accommodate any “losses in shipment”.  This is just one place that the Alliance for Sustainability’s definition that includes “socially just and humane” comes to play.

The Animal Welfare Approved label ( is the only major farm animal welfare certification body that prohibits mailing live animals in the US Mail.  Why?  Is this not just common sense and humanity?

Animal Welfare Approved is also the only major farm animal welfare organization that has specifications and requirements for slow growth rates to counter the genetic manipulation of commercial poultry that has created the gross “Franken-birds” as depicted in the movie “Food, Inc”.  Only one major animal welfare organization has specifications to ensure that birds genetically designed to grow so fast that their legs can not support themselves or that their internal organs will fail prior to reaching 12 weeks of age.

Because of a growing number of chefs, farmers, labels, and consumers demanding more humane birds that grow slower, Hubbard has developed a product for that as well.  You can purchase the “JA 57 or P6N Parent Stock Female” depending on your color preference.  However, these females are intended for slow growth standards of 81 days to slaughter.  But Hubbard has a product for any standard.

“Since the creation of several quality programmes, such as the European Marketing Terms or the strategy of poultry companies to invest in strong brand names produced under strict stipulations, Hubbard has developed products for this type of market which can be defined as "differentiated growth". 

Hubbard offers a genetic response to these markets requiring broilers with a liveweight of 1560 to 2300 g at a minimum age of 48 to 56 days respecting the defined quality stipulations.

You set a standard and Hubbard will engineer the bird for you.  You will not be able to breed it to get commercial grade off-spring, and you will have to go back to Hubbard for next year’s inventory, but they will have a “model” for you.

Some poultry producers and large truck grocers, have created new marketing labels to shield you, the Chef, and the public from the reality of poultry production in the US.  One example is US Food Service and Ashley Farms in North Carolina.  “The Farmer and The Chef” recently wrote about Ashley Farms ( claim that their chicken is “Better than Free Range” (  And why? Because “they are completely protected, safe from the dangers of the outdoors”.  That’s right.  Ashley Farms and US Food Services believes that “all-natural” poultry is best brought to your table that has never stepped foot outside its “climate-controlled building” so that your chicken is “safe from the dangers of the outdoors”.  Now what is “natural” about that, and what is sustainable, or shall we say “ecologically sound” about that.

So the question for the Chef who is careful to select “sustainable salmon” or “sustainable seafood”, what about the chicken you use appears “sustainable” to you?  You would likely not work with beef that genetically could not reproduce, or lamb that gets so fat so fast that their legs break, or the “JA 57” model of hog. 

There is an alternative; sustainable, delicious, Heritage Poultry.  We will introduce you to America’s poultry in an upcoming installment.

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