Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Christmas Break - A Time for Traditions & Rejuvenation

Just like every other teacher in this world, I had a count down going for Christmas Break the moment we came back from Thanksgiving Break. Now, before you judge me I'd just like to say that I really do enjoy my kids, but I enjoy my breaks just as much as they do too! And for me, Christmas Break is more than just a time to be away from students, lesson plans, and grading, it's a time for some of my favorite traditions that surround the Christmas holidays. Although the traditions themselves and the people I share them with have changed a little over the years by time and circumstance, by and large, what goes on each year is the same comforting experience I so look forward to each break. So, I thought it would be fitting for me to take a little time on the last day of 2014 to share with you the two Christmas Break traditions that make me happy beyond belief and rejuvenated for the year to come.

Christmas Eve Dinner

Finished product -
best served
over white rice.
Starting our creole with
roux and the holy trinity
of cajun cooking -
onions, peppers, and celery.
For those of you who don't know, my mom is a native of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. As a result of her cultural upbringing, I get to experience many things only those who are related to crazy Cajuns can even begin to understand. Although many of those "experiences" (if you could call them that) will probably never be shared on this blog, one that I can share centers around the Christmas Eve dinner of shrimp creole my mom always prepares using my Mère's recipe. I can't remember a Christmas Eve spent with my family where we were not eating Shrimp Creole with a green salad and garlic bread as sides. As I've gotten older, I have spent more time in the kitchen with mom helping her get the meal prepared and this past year's Christmas Eve was no different. This year we traveled to Kentucky to have Christmas with my Dad's family at my Mema & Pepa's historic house we lovingly refer to as Mock's Creek. This year's Christmas Eve was one of my favorites since I spent nearly the whole day with just my mom - which I can't even begin to tell you when we did that last. First, we started the day out with massages and then we spent the rest of the afternoon making the shrimp creole - complete with a copy of Mère's recipe with some hand-written notes on it mom has added over the years. It came out delicious as always with plenty of left-overs for us to graze on after our Christmas lunch in the woods. I think one of the reason's I love this tradition so much - besides that it is one of the many examples of how delicious the food from Louisiana really is - is because it allows our family to truly come together as we sit around the table with my dad's family enjoying a meal from my mom's family cookbook.

Christmas Lunch & Gift Exchange
Christmas Lunch at the
Shelter House
Photo Credit: Steve Taylor
As with many families, our family's Christmas gift exchange has evolved over the years as grandchildren grew up and the family expanded. Additionally, with the passing of my Mema two years ago, we decided to change up our gift exchange location and with that, put a different twist on the traditional lunch menu this year. But even with all of that, the original premise of our family's Christmas day this year turned out much like the Christmas days I experienced growing up - in fact, I think this year was one of the best Christmas days I've ever enjoyed. Traditionally, my Mema would would cook a beef rib roast that she would serve with horseradish and various side dishes from her own little repertoire of meals. This year, we decided to spend the day on our timber farm in Kentucky where several years ago my Pepa built a shelter house complete with a stone fireplace. Since it would be difficult to replicate the rib roast and dishes my Mema traditionally cooked in the woods, my dad and Uncle Steve grilled ribeye steaks and we wrapped some potatoes in tin foil and cooked them in the fireplace to serve with the steaks. We also had a green salad and some munchies as appetizers while we waited on our Christmas meal to be served. The shelter house was cozy and warm despite the high for the day only being in the low 40's, which for this Florida girl is just a bit chilly!
Ridge-top view on the Elk Cave
property Christmas Day
After our meal, we all got on the 4-wheelers to check timber stands with Pepa and visit the latest spot where we had just harvested some sassafras and sycamore timber.  Afterwards, we drove back to the shelter house where each family proceeded to fill all the stockings we had hung earlier on the mantle the guys had made out of a sycamore branch the day before. Unlike in years past, we agreed to just do stocking-stuffers this year in the style of Mr. Dog & his Deep Woods friends from the story of "Christmas at the Hollow Tree Inn," which we read each year before exchanging gifts.
Dad reading "Christmas at the
Hollow Tree Inn" before our
stocking gift exchange.
This is a tradition that goes back long before I was born, and each year my Dad and Uncle Steve take turns reading their childhood favorite to the family gathered around. We also always listen to my Pepa as he reads the story of Jesus' birth from the Bible before opening our gifts, which is both humbling and reminding of what Christmas is truly all about. Although this year put a bit of a spin on our Christmas Day, I had the best time modernizing some of our Christmas traditions with my family this year, and I can't wait until next year!

Taylor Family Christmas 2014
Photo Credit: Steve Taylor

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Thankful to be Teaching

"I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want." Philippians 4:12 (NIV)

As I sat down this morning to read my daily devotional I began to realize how much this scripture rings true in my life - personally and professionally. The last few months have been a bit of whirlwind to say the least. This is the time of the year that my job can really begin to get overwhelming - between the end of the 9 weeks, National FFA Convention, upcoming teams and contests, fundraisers, fair weigh-ins and tag-ins, and the various professional development trips I've had or have coming up in my schedule it becomes easy to focus on the obstacles and challenges I face in my job, not what I have to be thankful for. To complicate matters, Brandon has embarked on a journey of his own as he and a couple of other entrepreneurial spirits have started their own business, along with our continuing efforts with his brother to revitalize the family farm. As a result, my house has never been messier, student assignments (much like laundry and dishes) seem to be the gift that continuously keeps on giving - just as I get one pile graded, I've assigned something else and have twice as much to grade; my yard is looking a bit like the poster child for one of Jeff Foxworthy's "You Might be a Redneck" jokes, my waist line is expanding because when you leave before sunrise and come home after sunset ain't nobody got time for exercise, and of course my TO DO list is getting longer and longer by the minute.

But, I am SO thankful for these things and more! You see, I've had the opportunity over the past few weeks to travel around the state of Florida and the country with some of my favorite Agriculture Educators, and they've really helped me put some things into perspective. As all teachers do when they get together - it's probably one of our favorite past-times - my friends and I have shared both our frustrations with our job as well as the hilarious stories of our students and lessons. As a result of these conversations I realize now more than ever how lucky I am to be teaching a subject I'm passionate about and in a school district that I believe is one of the best in the state. Teaching, especially teaching high school agriculture, is hands-down one of the hardest jobs I have ever worked and I'd argue it is one of the hardest careers one could take on in today's world. Not convinced? Just spend a little extended time around any of your high school-age relatives this holiday season and I think you'll sympathize with our plight. With that said, although I have both a mentally and physically demanding job, it could be made so much more difficult if I worked this job under different circumstances - which is why I am thankful for a number of things:

First, I am thankful for my husband, my family, and my friends that continuously support me. Whenever I need something, they are the first people I reach out to so I can successfully execute whatever is on my plate. They are also the first people I neglect (and I'm ashamed to say so) when my schedule is as over-stuffed as your Thanksgiving turkey. Yet, they are understanding and patient with me as I squeeze them in and around all the lesson planning, FFA events, and SAE trips I have to make - sometimes even joining me as Brandon and I go to pick up a hog to weigh it, clip animals on the weekend, or keep me company at the fair - you know who you are and I can't thank you enough!

Second, I am thankful for the co-teachers I work with in the trenches, day in and day out. I've never worked in a single-teacher program and boy am I thankful for that! With every passing year I am in the classroom I realize more and more that I am only as successful as the program I work in and the people that I work with. I may be a bit biased, but our program is one of the best in the state of Florida and I'd even argue the nation. I believe it is because we each bring something to the table that benefits our students and our community, and we each specialize in contests and events throughout the year which helps to spread the responsibilities and workload out. I know that I can count on those that I work with to fill in for me when something comes up or offer help when I get overwhelmed. I know I can also count on them to offer me words of encouragement or words of honest frankness when I need them the most.

Third, I am thankful for the school district and administration I work for. The common culprit in many teaching frustration conversations is an un-supportive group of administrators. Like anything in government, teaching and education policy can be dictated as much by politics and the bottom line as anything else. I truly feel that my administration works diligently to shield us from that as much as possible. They listen to our concerns as teachers as it relates to the evaluation system, End of Course Exams, the time demands placed on us, lesson planning requirements, budgets, program needs, travel requirements, and anything else we fret over on a daily basis. I've never really asked for much, but I can't remember a time I was told "no" for a professional development need, travel request, or budget request. I also can't remember a time that I didn't see our Superintendent, School Board members, principal or AP (both from the high school and other schools in the county), and other district employees not come out to support our kids at an event like our banquet, fair, or any other chapter event. I know this doesn't happen at all programs in all areas of our state, and I am thankful for the support we receive.

Lastly, I am thankful for the community I work in and the students I work for. Our community is unique in that it is small and is home to several state-run prisons. As a result, I believe the parents businesses, and members of the community realize how important a well-rounded education truly is to the future success of the youth in the community. Many programs around the state and country are in a constant state of fundraising to generate money for lessons, FFA events, and other things that make an agricultural program (or really any educational program) run smoothly. Although we too find ourselves coming up with ways to creatively generate additional funds for the program, I am always overwhelmed by the generosity of those in our community and thankful for their continued support, year after year. As a result, we can focus on our students, our program, and ways to give back. Additionally, I wouldn't be here if weren't for my students. This year has honestly been one of my best groups of kids, and I couldn't be more thankful for that. I sometimes hear horror stories of disrespect and apathy from other teachers in other parts of the state. It is during these conversations that I remain silently thankful for the kids I work with each day - they are not perfect, but who is in this world?

Like I said, this job is hard - really, really hard. But it could be more difficult and for that I am thankful.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Fill the Boots - National Teach Ag Day!

The word agriculture is one that probably paints, for many, a picture of a dusty field being plowed over with a green tractor by a weather-worn farmer. For me, the word agriculture brings much more than this simplistic picture to mind. Today's agriculture industry in the United States provides more than just the world's safest, most abundant and most affordable food supply, but also provides literally thousands of jobs, numerous technological and medical advances, services, and non-food products to citizens around the globe.

My job as an Agricultural Educator is to both reinforce the traditional image of agriculture, while also recreating the image of agriculture many of my students already have when they walk into my classroom each August. I think it is extremely important to not loose sight of the field when I teach agriculture - food and fiber production are at the heart of this industry. However, many of my students will never be directly involved in food or fiber production - just the consumption of these items. As a result, I feel compelled to equip my students with the working knowledge of how agriculture touches their everyday lives, how their food is produced and why it is produced in such a manner, as well as the opportunities available to them within the industry, both now as a high school student and in their future.

For the past month, I've been trying to do just - and thousands of others around the country share this common goal. However, each year numerous programs around the state of Florida and the U.S. are closed because they cannot find qualified individuals to fill the need in Agriculture Education classrooms. So today, for National Teach Ag Day, I took some time to share my experiences as an Agriculture Education teacher with my students - and as a result I also caught a (somewhat hysterical) glimpse of what they think I do each day. To do this, we took a break from our Leadership unit to play, "Think Like Your Ag Teacher" at the end of class. Using their Chrome books, I had them create a Google Doc where they wrote down their answers to each of my questions before we discussed them, and then they shared their Google Doc with me at the end of class. I promised the student(s) with the most correct answers a little something special when we return from the weekend on Monday. One of my favorite answers was to the last question I asked today - If the Ag Building was on fire, would I rescue the class guinea pig or my external hard drive with all my files after I got all the students out? One student replied, "#SAVETURBO #FIRE!" My thoughts - #Classic.

If your interested in learning what I've been doing in each of my classes this past month just check out the pages for each of my subjects. This weekend, I'll be uploading the lessons for each of my units along with an outline and the resources I use for each of my preps. It's a work in progress, so bear with me as I work all of that into my schedule!

Until then - do you know someone who can be tagged to Teach Ag???

Monday, August 25, 2014

Focusing on the Positive - The Teaching Experiment

As I sat in one of the last pre-planning meetings of the 2014 school year, I quickly became overwhelmed with all the things teachers get overwhelmed with that no one really understands unless you're, well, a teacher. With all of the legislative changes, End of Course exams, learning scales, learning goals, essential questions, formal and informal evaluations, differentiated instruction, universal design, faculty meetings, and individual professional development plans - not to mention the lesson planning for four preps, the school farm with the newly erected greenhouse, and the packed-to-the-max FFA calendar - it was becoming easy to forget why one would even start teaching in the first place. 

So, while I sat in this meeting feeling my blood pressure rise, wanting nothing more than to tell my principal to hold the phone and bring in the marching band to pep me up, that he revived me simply by passing out an index card. The directions: write one goal for yourself for the school year and pass it back. My first thought, "Whelp, he's going to read these, so I better make this good!" But, as I sat there thinking about the year ahead of me and what I should write, I decided my goal would be to focus on the positives in my career and to remember why I became a teacher - not to set a goal that at the end of the day means nothing to those I serve - my students. Because, at the end of the day, if I keep my students in mind and do right by them each day, then the rest will fall into place.

Why I Do What I Do
My 2014 Seniors
As the school year gears up yet again, I have decided to fire my blog back up in an effort to help me reach my goal and remain positive throughout this crazy, hectic year. I also hope that this blog can be used by other teachers as they strive to find ways to not only survive, but also teach agricultural concepts within their own classrooms. And lastly, I hope this blogging experiment will give my friends, family, and strangers alike a new perspective on what an Agricultural Education program can look like in today's public education system. 

Monday, July 25, 2011

Week 8 - The Dancing Chicken

So the time had come to harvest our birds - in just a matter of a few weeks my little chicks were big chickens destined for the freezer and my plate! Now, you could certainly say I was in for one heck of a learning experience. Although I've led a few poultry dissections in my Intro to Animal Science course, I had yet to harvest and fabricate out a chicken for my own consumption. I had a lot to learn and The Simmons were just the folks to teach us.

Early on Saturday morning we loaded up our harvest-ready chickens (thankfully they were clueless) and drove down the dirt road a bit. The Simmons have been harvesting chickens for a while now, providing backyard broilers for their family plus friends and customers willing to pay a premium for poultry raised and harvested in such a manner. As a result, they had the perfect little set-up for harvesting my little flock: a covered shed with an over-sized stainless steel sink, hoses, fabricating tools, a killing cone, a large pot and propane tank for scalding, and the Bell of the Ball - the chicken plucker - or what I like to call the "Dancing Chicken."

Once we got there Brandon and I decided who would do which task in an attempt to streamline the process and make it as efficient as possible. We decided that Brandon would exsanguinate (bleed out), scald, and pluck while I would be left in charge of eviscerating, initial fabrication, and placing each bird in the cooler to chill. Although we only had a handful of birds, it took us a couple of hours to harvest. Since then, we definitely have perfected the art of harvesting broilers and we can now do about 4 times as many birds in that same time frame.

Either way, we still can't even come close to what the large processing facilities can accomplish in a couple of hours. Hundreds of birds can be processed in just a short period of time due to the technological advances on the harvesting floor and the complete uniformity of broilers within the industry today. Since every bird has the same genetics, broilers are nearly cookie cutter replicates of one another. This allows processors to develop and install high-tech machinery that essentially harvests the broilers for them. Unlike the beef industry that relies on manual labor for harvesting processes, broilers are rarely ever touched by a human laborer during the harvesting and fabrication process.

There are several advantages to this: reductions in labor cost, reductions in laborer fatigue, reductions in human error that could result in welfare violations and mistakes in fabrication standards, increases in product uniformity, as well as increases in sanitation and cleanliness since you have fewer laborers interacting with the carcasses. There are also disadvantages to such a system; primarily if you have birds that don't "fit" the processing equipment.

Some would also argue that because so many birds are processed in a such a short period in the same area, food safety and animal welfare could become a concern. However, there are strict standards in place to prevent such consequences, and every broiler harvested and sold for human consumption in the U.S. must be inspected by the USDA Food Safety Inspection Service and in accordance with the Poultry Products Inspection Act. So any broiler you purchase at the store was harvested in a manner that complies with this Act and passed inspection as deemed by the USDA Inspector present at the time of harvesting.

This is not necessarily true with poultry purchased at local farmer's markets or from local processors harvesting backyard broilers. These farmers and processors are either exempt from USDA inspection because they harvest fewer than 1000 broilers per year or simply by-pass the law and label the broiler as "Pet Food Only" - with the latter occurring in most cases. In our case because we were harvesting our birds for our own personal consumption, this is considered a "Custom Harvest" and we were exempt from inspection as well.

Either way, I firmly believe that consumers should have choices in the products available for them to eat. I also firmly believe that conventionally raised poultry is healthy and safe for anyone to eat, and that "backyard" production can be as well if it is done correctly. However, consumers take a risk when they purchase meat from someone that is not under inspection. With that, inspection is not fool-proof and there are risks associated with conventionally-raised poultry as well. Remember, agriculture is not, nor will it ever be sterile! Proper food handling and thorough cooking is the only way to ensure a safe and pleasurable eating experience whether you purchase your chicken breast from Publix or a local backyard farmer.

Below are some pictures of the harvest with captions to explain. Additionally, I attached a video of the "Dancing Chicken" for you to view.

Brandon placing the broiler in the killing cone. This cone is designed to restrain the broiler during exsanguination, which is the process of blood letting. In large scale facilities broilers are insensible to pain before this process occurs. Birds are rendered unconscious by applying an electrical current or subjecting the birds to gas. This is an essential process whenever harvesting an animal for consumption.

After the bird was bled out, we shackled the broiler by their legs to dip in the scalding
vat (the big pot with water heated to approximately 150 degrees F via a propane heater). The hot water loosens the feathers and allows for easy feather removal during the plucking process. You know the bird is ready for plucking when the tail feathers can be easily pulled out with your hand. Anyone who has harvested poultry knows scalding is an art; over-scalding can cook the chicken and tear the skin while under-scalding makes feather removal almost impossible.
This is the "Dancing Chicken." This plucker was constructed by Mr. Simmons and boy is it nice! The plucker has a plate on the bottom that spins and is powered by a small motor. Additionally, the plucker has a set of rubber fingers attached to both the barrel portion and the bottom plate. As the plate spins, the bird is turned in the barrel and moves against the fingers. These fingers work to gently beat the feathers off of the bird since they were loosened by scalding. Large facilities have large versions of these pluckers that resemble drums, which several birds can be plucked in at one time. This process does not bruise the meat because the bird was previously and thoroughly bled - no blood in the body means no bruising!

One of the first steps in the fabrication process is to remove the feet, head, and neck. These items, although not usually consumed by the average person in the U.S., are still utilized. The heads and necks can be used for by-products or cooked down in stocks. The feet are shipped to Asia were they are consumed in large amounts - can you say YUM! Remember, all animals harvested for meat are utilized to the fullest extent.

Once the heads and feet are removed, evisceration can begin. The crop is pulled away from the skin, which is located near the neck and top of the breast. An opening is made near the back of the bird, under the breast to expose the viscera (stomach, intestines, etc.) and pluck (heart, lungs). Care must be taken not to puncture any of the viscera and contaminate your knife or carcass with the contents of the GI tract (which may contain salmonella or other food-born pathogens). By gently pulling the viscera through the opening, everything can be removed in one fell swoop. Finally, to completely remove GI tract and vent intact, the bird should be bunged. Again, some of the viscera and pluck can be kept and consumed as specialty by-product items - like the liver, gizzard (pictured - muscular stomach that grinds food since chickens don't have teeth), and heart.

Once the bird has been eviscerated, you need to wash the carcass to remove any debris that may have gotten on it and to clean the inside of the carcass of any material that may remain inside of it. In large scale facilities, carcasses are placed in a water bath that contains chlorine to help reduce the spread of food-born pathogens.

Lastly, the carcasses are placed in a cooler to chill the birds as the muscle converts to meat. We left the birds in the water bath overnight; in large scale facilities carcasses are also kept in the chiller for several hours. Afterwards, carcasses are fabricated into component parts and retail cuts, packaged and shipped to the grocery.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Week 7 - Harvest Time! Da-nah-nah-nah!

Needless to say I've been gone.......a long time! However, I'm determined to maintain a blog to some degree and I definitely want to continue documenting my experiences in poultry production. Although I have been a bit absent from the blog sphere, a lot has happened at the residence of the Electric Chicken and I'm going to pick up right where I left off - Week 7: Harvest Time! The first batch of chickens we raised were ready for harvest at approximately 7 weeks of age! Now, for a girl who has been raising beef cattle all her life this seemed EXTREMELY fast. Why might you ask? Well, it's quite simple - beef cattle take a tremendously longer period of time to reach their point of harvest compared to broilers. The typical beef animal is somewhere around18 months of age at harvest, depending upon several factors - breed, genetics, nutrition, health, and management to name a few. Eighteen months! Now compare that to my fine-feathered friends that were ready in a fraction of that time - talk about that re-occurring theme of efficiency!

This time to harvest difference is one of the concepts I discuss in detail with my students when I cover vertical integration and its application in the various food animal industries. This vast difference in time to harvest impacts our food choices and prices whether you as a consumer realize it or not.

So let's think about it all for a minute:
Vertical integration is an economic term used to describe how an industry is controlled within the marketplace. Industries that are vertically integrated are basically managed by just a few large companies. These companies own all the segments or stages of production. Despite your beliefs, this integration ultimately streamlines the production of our food, which results in more efficient production and lower costs that can be passed on to the consumer. Vertical integration can accomplish all of this because you only have one entity making all of the management decisions - simplifying production and creating uniformity in end-products.

Now, there are aspects to every industry that make it either a good candidate for vertical integration or a not-so-good candidate. Some of these aspects include capitol required, risk, geographic concentration, and time to market. The poultry and swine industries are vertically integrated industries unlike the beef industry for these reasons and more.

Poultry companies can vertically integrate because, for one, chickens are smaller animals that can be easily confined to grower houses. Just a few grower houses on one contracting farm can house thousands of broilers that will be ready to harvest at a specified time. This allows companies to geographically concentrate broiler production in just a small area - hatcheries, grower houses, and harvesting facilities can be located within miles of each other. This reduces transport costs and production losses (shrink, stress, and death loss) associated with long hauls between production stages.

Now compare that to beef cattle production: cattle are grazers by design and as such require vast amounts of land to produce hamburgers and steaks that make it to your dinner plate. In order to produce enough calves to supply just one of the major harvesting plants in our country, Ted Turner, the world's largest land owner, wouldn't even have enough land!

As a result, the beef industry is made up of hundreds of thousands of cow-calf producers spread throughout every state in the country. Although other segments of the industry may be geographically centered, like the feedlot segment, cow-calf producers (who raise the calves that are ultimately harvested) are geographically widespread. Together, they produce enough cattle to keep our stocker, feedlot, and harvesting facilities operating on an annual basis. Unfortunately, they do so in all types of environments, with all types and breeds of cattle, under all types of management. This diversity in production and lack of integrated ownership (because what company can own more land than Ted Turner???) results in vast differences in beef that you see at the grocery store and experience as a consumer.

This land conundrum isn't the only reason why vertical integration works in the poultry industry and not in the beef industry. Time to market plays a large role in this too! When we consider the biological production cycle, we find it takes significantly less time to raise a chicken than it does a cow. This has a host of implications. First, poultry are ready in far less time (6 or so weeks verses 18 or so months!). Less time to harvest generally means lower costs because you are using resources for a shorter period. Look at feed as an example: even if broilers ate the same amount of feed as steers (which they don't), you are feeding them for far less time, reducing your cost of production and thus the price you pay for meat at the grocery store - think about how much more expensive beef is than chicken!

In addition, companies can have greater turn-arounds within a production year. With a shorter time to market, Tyson can contract several batches of broilers with just one grower each year. Although Tyson doesn't contract with cow-calf producers in the beef industry, they would have to wait at least another 18 months before they could get another steer from the same cow-calf producer.

More importantly, shorter production cycles result in rapid genetic change and quicker responses to consumer demand. Poultry mature faster, allowing producers to harvest broilers at younger ages than swine and beef. This results in shorter generation intervals, making response to genetic changes in the industry faster. All of this helps a producer or company improve their product and respond to consumer demand. In the case of the broiler industry, companies like Tyson and JBS-Pilgrim's Pride can grow chickens rapidly while making genetic progress that meet consumer needs almost as fast as consumers change their minds.

The beef industry can't come close to doing that! Because of the length of production cycles and time to market in the beef industry, by the time producers figure out what consumers are demanding, make genetic decisions in response to those demands, wait 9 months for a cow to have a calf, raise that calf to harvest at 18 months of age, fabricate out the carcass and have consumers purchase the beef and eat it - guess what - they've already changed their mind and moved on to the next fad! Frustrating, huh?

For any company evaluating the risk of vertical integration, the beef industry is sure to make them run for their lives! But for companies in the poultry industry, vertical integration makes sense. This is why you see only a handful of companies in the industry, making decisions and providing you with consistent products that you demand, in a timely fashion and for a fraction of the cost of other meat, like beef.

As week 7 approached, I was finally able to grasp how time to market facilitates vertical integration in the poultry industry. With only 7 weeks into my backyard broiler experiment, the time had arrived to schedule the harvest with The Simmons. Tune in next week..........For now, I'll be channeling a little MC Hammer, "Harvest Time! Da nah nah nah, nah nah, nah nah nah nah............."

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Week 5 and 6 - FEED ME SEYMOUR!!!

The last few weeks of my backyard chicken experiment could be summed up in just three words…….”FEED ME SEYMOUR!!!” Weeks 5 and 6 seemed straight out of the Little Shop of Horrors – with the chickens being nine versions of Audrey II and me playing the part of the nerdy florist shop assistant, Seymour. It never ceased to amaze both Brandon and I just how much those nine birds consumed each day – it was like they were bottomless pits! Which brings us to my next blog topic, feeds and feeding of the modern broiler.

Previously, we discussed genetic selection and how the poultry industry has used it to make our chickens grow more efficiently and in a manner that produces more saleable retail product. What I didn’t mention in the last post was how genetic selection has also helped our industry increase our broiler’s feed efficiency, making the cost of raising your most recent chicken dinner significantly less expensive than say it was twenty, ten or, even, five years ago.

So what exactly is feed efficiency? Well, it’s basically a mathematical equation that determines how much feed is required to add (in the case of broilers) one pound of body weight. Over the years, we’ve been able to significantly reduce the amount of feed that goes into producing one pound of chicken – and arguably many more resources. Back in the 1930s when we it took us 100 days to produce a chicken that weighed just over 2 ½ pounds, we had feed conversion ratios of 4.3 : 1 and greater. So, when you do the math, it basically took our great grandparents over 12 pounds of feed to produce one, 2 ½ pound chicken in their backyard! That's a lot of feed, especially when you think about how feed costs are probably the single greatest factor impacting a food animal producer's bottom line.

Today, growers are able produce chickens that weigh over 6 ½ pounds with feed conversion ratios of at least 1.7 : 1! Now, let’s do the math together on this one. If it takes 1.7 pounds of feed to add 1 pound of body weight, and the chickens today weigh about 6.6 pounds at harvest; then 1.7 multiplied by 6.6 gives us a total of 11.22 pounds of feed consumed for the entire 6 weeks a bird is grown out. That means we’re able to grow out a bird that weighs nearly 2 ½ times that of the birds of the 1930s with almost one pound less feed! Or looking at it another way, if we hadn’t selected for feed efficiency and wanted to grow out a chicken in the 1930s so it weighed as much as a chicken today would, we would have to feed it 28 pounds of feed! That’s amazing!

Such an improvement in both breast size and feed conversion has massive implications for the way that we feed our world’s growing population. As more and more developing countries gain a foothold economically, their consumption of meat will increase. Accordingly, the agriculture industry will need to find more ways to increase its production efficiency so that the world’s protein supply is both affordable and less draining on our environmental resources.

Whenever we have the ability to produce more pounds of meat with fewer pounds of feed, everyone wins. More meat means more mouths we can feed, while less feed means reduced costs of production and lower prices at the consumer level. Additionally, less feed means we don’t need to produce as much feed per animal than previously done in the past. Less feed produced per animal can mean less environmental impact for the amount of product produced and the number of mouths fed. This is tremendously important, especially as debates rage on about how agriculture plays a role in global warming and politicians attempt to create policies that will further regulate how our industry operates to feed a growing population.

Many recent figures that discuss the environmental impact of the agriculture industry simply show an increase in the use of fossil fuels and other inputs like fertilizer. Such increases are a direct result of a growing demand for food and fiber as the consumer population grows. Furthermore, these figures are simply a distortion of the true impact today’s agriculture industry has on the environment. Yes, we have increased our gross consumption of fuel and output of waste compared to 100 years ago, but we have also greatly increased our output of product.

What we find when we look at these figures on a production output basis is that we have significantly reduced the true figures over the last 100 plus years. If you were to put these figures on a, say, per pound of breast meat produced measure, then what you would see is that we've made great strides within the industry to reduce our fossil fuel and fertilizer consumption, while increasing the amount of safe, affordable food we have available for our country's consumers. Technically, when you look at our use of the available resource base, we are much better at conserving that finite supply than we were years ago.

I don't have exact figures for the poultry industry, but using an article published by Dr. J.L.Capper and colleagues entitled, "Demystifying the Environmental Sustainability of Food Production," I think you can get the picture. One of the key points Dr. Capper and colleagues makes in their article is that in many reports you'll find conventional agriculture operations generate more waste or utilize more inputs on a per acre or per animal basis than operations of the past or those that operate on a "low-input" production model, like many of the popular organic and natural systems advertised in stores today. What they, and many others in the industry, argue is that this isn't a fair illustration of what we're doing in conventional agriculture largely because there is a distinct difference in productivity between higher input, conventional systems and the lower-input, organic-based systems. Using a figure from Dr. Capper's article you can see just how much progress our industry has made in reducing inputs and waste - just note, this figure specifically represents the dairy industry; however, the same point could be made for the poultry, swine, or beef industries.

At the end of the day, whether you believe in eating meat as a safe and reliable protein source or not, you have to realize that the agriculture industry as a whole has made great strides in increasing our production efficiencies. Whether its breast size or feed efficiency, producers have and will continue to utilize genetic selection as a means to improve our industry and its impact on our environment's resource base. Although I have few, if any, qualms about natural and organic production systems, the truth of the matter is that it isn't the sole answer to everything that is wrong with agriculture today. What is one of the answers is improved efficiency.

One last note, if you have the interest and time, please feel free to go to the link below and read Dr. Capper's complete article. I think it's worth a gander....Demystifying the Environmental Sustainability of Food Production.