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.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Week 3 and 4: Move Over Dolly Parton!

I suddenly realized last Tuesday that my chickens turned 5 weeks old! So, I've slacked a little on my blogging process - no biggie. But, I'll tell you who hasn't been slacking these past couple of weeks - my chickens. They are huge - literally! I would say that by the end of last week they were at least three pounds and counting. Needless to say they've grown a tremendous amount in just a short period of time, which I attribute to two things: feed and genetics, with the later being the focus of my blog this week.

Compared to the broiler of yesteryear that our great grandparents raised in their backyards, the modern chickens in my own yard are much more efficient. Within today’s poultry industry, growers have the ability to produce birds that weigh about 3 pounds more than those that were produced 30 years ago, and they’re able to do that about one week sooner than they could have back then.

Now, 3 pounds may not sound like a lot to you, so let’s put that into perspective. In the 1930s, broilers were harvested at about 100 days of age, weighing only about 2 ½ pounds. In the 1950s, broilers were harvested after about 75 days of age, weighing only about 3 pounds. Today, we have the ability to harvest broilers that weigh over 6 ½ pounds and they’re only about 6 weeks old! Although there are many factors that can be attributed to this marked increase in efficiency, genetic selection is the primary reason.

In just about every basic biology course offered across the country, students learn about a guy named Gregor Mendel. His work on pea breeding in the 1800s gave rise to what we now refer to as Mendelian genetics. So, you may be asking, “What does pea breeding have to do with the price of tea in China?” or better yet, the ability of the modern chicken to grow so big so fast? Well, everything! You see, over the course of 50 plus years, broiler breeders have used the principles behind Mendelian genetics to breed and select for faster growing, more efficient birds. As a result, the chicken you buy at the grocery store today is both cheaper and meatier than the chicken your mom bought back in, say, 1980.

When producers design their breeding programs around the principles of Mendelian genetics, what they are really doing is selecting for only one or two traits. When breeders place their selection emphasis on just a few rather than a dozen traits, genetic progress can be made very rapidly. Just look at breast size as an example. Since consumers today primarily consume breast meat when they eat chicken, breast size has been a focal point for genetic improvement in recent years. In 1980, breast weight accounted for about 10% of the bird’s total harvested weight. Today, in 2010, breast weight accounts for more than 25% of the total carcass! Just check out the breasts on some of my gals to see what I mean – can someone say move over Dolly Parton???

Seriously though, because broiler breeders narrow in on just a few economically significant traits, like breast size, our poultry industry has made tremendous strides in making our chickens more efficient. As a consumer, what this means is that you can guarantee that whenever you walk into a grocery store there will be lots of chicken available for purchase, and that it will almost always be the cheapest source of protein available in the retail meat case.

But, as beneficial as Mendelian genetics can be, I’d be amiss to not mention that there are some pitfalls. You see when you chase after just one or two traits and place your selection emphasis on those traits alone, you can bring about some unintentional consequences and reduce performance in other traits. So what are those consequences? Well, I’m sure you’ve probably heard about them if you’ve ever listened to a PETA representative or watched the documentary Food Inc. Although the broilers of today are extremely growthy, if you spend any time at all around them during the grow-out period, you’ll quickly realize that they are balancing right on the edge of their physiological limits. Since these broilers have been selected to reach their full genetic potential for growth and muscle development, and not for other traits like feather, organ or structural development, their bodies sometimes lack the ability to keep up with their rapid growth. As birds reach the end of their grow-out period, they spend less time walking around since their feet and legs can’t hold them up for great lengths of time. Additionally, you’ll notice that they don’t really obtain a full set of feathers – both because feather development takes longer than it does to grow-out a bird and because they spend so much time lying down. In worst case scenarios, you’ll actually lose birds either because their organs (especially they heart) can’t keep up with their rapid growth or because they become completely immobile. As bad as this all sounds, it is a fact of life – one that must be taken into consideration when you contemplate how our industry has to keep up with the current and future demands for protein, like chicken.

As a result, broiler producers employ management strategies that slow down growth and reduce the negative impact Mendelian genetics have on broiler health and welfare. Producers can slow growth down primarily by restricting feed intake or by adjusting the dietary nutrient density of the broiler’s diet (mostly through decreased protein intake). One of the first things the Simmons told us when we began was to pull the feed out around dusk. They told us that they would perform better if they were restricted a bit in their feed intake, which makes perfect sense knowing now what I do about broiler selection and growth. As a whole, the industry would be at a benefit to do the same, which is why growers have begun to take similar measures. Remember, food animal producers know the value of keeping their animals healthy and happy – both from an economic standpoint as well as from a consumer perception standpoint.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Week 2: The Electric Chicken

As we wrap up week 2, I am happy to report that all 9 remaining chickens are alive and accounted for! Additionally, Brandon and I built the highlight of the week. It's a little something we fondly refer to as "The Electric Chicken," which is a portable chicken coop outfitted with electrical wire on the frame's exterior to keep predators (including my dog and cat) at bay. Before we built the The Electric Chicken we consulted with The Simmons since they've been backyard chicken farming for a few years now. With their advice, Brandon and I set out to put our construction skills to work.

Surprisingly, The Electric Chicken was much easier to build than I had imagined, and much cheaper as well since we had most of the scrap lumber and other supplies lying around. To start, we used 2 x 4's to make a 9 x 9 frame, complete with angled ends that would make it easier to pull around our yard. Brandon and I then bent two cow panels over the frame and secured the ends with fence staples. Once we stapled the panels to the frame, we braced the structure and closed up the open ends of the coop with chicken wire. Then we built a door so we could have access to the inside of the coop to change the chickens' feed and water each day. Lastly, we covered the panels with a tarp to give the chickens protection from the elements, primarily the sun and rain. All-in-all, I think we did a great job and my custom artwork really polished it off nice if I do say so myself!

According to The Simmons, The Electric Chicken is designed to hold somewhere around 50 chickens - much more than the 9 chickens I acquired a little more than two weeks ago. Looking at The Electric Chicken and the space available for approximately 50 broilers, I would say that what we have scooting around our yard doesn't offer much more space per bird than
a large-scale, conventional grower house. Typically, broilers are given a little less than 1 square foot per bird in modern broiler houses; however, most growers today determine stocking density by bird weight per unit area rather than amount of area per bird. This method has a few advantages, mostly that it allows the companies to keep stocking density and housing environment standards consistent despite differences growers may have in target end weights of their chickens they are contractually growing out.

Now, you may be asking yourself why there would be such differences in end weights when the poultry industry is known for its cookie cutter-like uniformity in broilers. Well, it happens and quite often - so here's a reason why. Many times birds that are purchased by companies like KFC or Popeyes are actually harvested sooner (say 5 weeks of age) than those that are sold in a retail store (say 6 or 7 weeks of age). This is because chicken outlets like KFC purchase their chicken by the pound, but sell their c
hicken by the piece, unlike grocery stores that buy and sell their chicken by the pound. Consequently, it is in KFC's, or any other chicken outlet's, best interest to purchase smaller birds since they will ultimately pay less for them. Hence, why growers may have differences in target end weights among broiler houses. But, back to the housing discussion.

Both within the industry and among animal rights circles, stocking density is a highly debated topic. We've all seen videos of grower houses that seem over-crowded, which raise welfare and animal health concerns among the viewing public. But, what we don't see or hear is the "why" behind these housing practices. Despite whatever stocking density a grower uses, be it less than 1 square foot per bird or 10 pounds of bird per square foot, producers and researchers have found that environmental conditions of the house play just as much of a role in chicken performance as does the amount of space those chickens receive. High broiler performance can be achieved in high stocking densities as long as there is adequate ventilation, temperature and humidity control, as well as feeder and waterer space. In today's modern broiler house, all of these factors are highly controlled, which allows for the stocking densities we see at most commercial facilities.

Additionally, when I toured the facility in Live Oak a couple weeks ago, one of the things the manager told me was that as producers improve and updat
e their facilities, they get paid more. This helps cover the producer's additional input cost as well as provides producers with an incentive to remain current with the latest housing designs. Most importantly, it allows the company to keep birds in conditions that will facilitate excellent health and rapid growth, despite high stocking densities.

Furthermore, most consumers don't realize that when you see these images of broiler houses you are usually seeing the conditions in the last week or so of production. The number of broilers placed in a house at a day of age is determined by the broilers' estimated harvest size or end weight. Although these birds do rapidly gain weight and reach their target end weights within a matter of weeks, it isn't until they are at the end of their grow-out period that the house reaches its specified stocking density.

Lastly, as with any business, operators are not going to make decisions that negatively effect the bottom line. The agriculture industry, and the poultry industry more specifically, will not adopt production practices that negatively effect the welfare of their animals. When animals are abused or kept in conditions that are stressful or harmful, they perform poorly - end of story. If stocking densities or other housing conditions that poultry were kept in - be it cages or coops - were inhumane or inhospitable, chickens would not grow and would stay sick at rates that would shut the industry down from economic losses. Chickens that have the ability to roam freely without the protection of some type of house would inevitably be eaten by predators or die from exposure to the elements just as they did years ago when most of our grandparents and great-grandparents were subsistence farmers raising chickens to feed their families.

And with that I'll get off of my soap box for the day, and go move The Electric Chicken to a new spot in the yard!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Week 1: Acquisition

So, I guess the first question is how did I get shacked up with 10 broiler (meat-type) chicks? Well, on Tuesday, June 29 John Michael and I traveled to Live Oak to a broiler hatchery and harvesting facility. We were there for a couple of reasons, but primarily to pick up some broiler chicks and fertilized eggs for our poultry lab section we would be coordinating that week. In this particular lab, students in the class would have the opportunity to see chicken embryos at various stages of development, candle eggs and grade them, incubate and hatch out the fertilized eggs as well as feather sex the day-old chicks we picked up that morning.

While at the facility, we had the opportunity to tour the hatchery before we picked up our cargo. It was absolutely fascinating! The first thing that surprised me was the size of the hatchery building, which wasn't nearly as big as I had imagined it would be since this facility is one of the few large-scale poultry facilities left in Florida. The facility we visited sources poultry for companies like Publix, Sam's Club, and Costco located within Florida, which requires them to hatch out over 1 million broiler birds each week! Despite this scale of production, the building itself was not what one would consider to be enormous nor did it have a plethora of employees working there. Such a situation is characteristic of many large-scale facilities in the poultry industry because, as a whole, the industry is highly integrated and produces an extremely uniform product. Combine that with the fact that handling a product as small as eggs and day-old chicks doesn't require a lot of infrastructure and wha-la! A facility smaller than I had imagined!

As we got out of the car and went to enter the building we walked through a sanitizing mat that works to keep out any contaminants someone might carry into the building on the bottom of their shoes. We then visited with the hatchery manager for a few minutes, and then moved into the break room where we were given one-size-fits-all biosecurity coveralls and shoe condoms - I looked DEAD SEXY if I do say so myself - just check me out! These suites are just one of the many precautions such a facility would take to keep foreign materials or diseases at bay, especially since the little fellas we would be visiting were so young and therefore extremely susceptible to pathogens.

One of the othe
r ways the facility worked to protect the embryos and day-old chicks were through vaccinations. Each chick is given two vaccines while at the hatchery - a respiratory vaccine while it's still an embryo in the egg and a coccidiostat on the day that they hatch, before they are sent to the grower houses. For birds that qualify for natural programs like Publix's Greenwise brand, this is all the health product those chicks will ever receive throughout their lifetime.

Watching the embryo vaccinations was utterly amazing - the fact that an engineer can design a machine that will vaccinate 100 plus eggs at a time without damaging the developi
ng embryo or cracking the shell is mind boggling to me. In addition, this same machine scanned each egg and recorded which eggs were fertilized and which were not fertilized. This allowed the hatchery to conserve valuable vaccine as well as keep a running record of how well each breeder's flock was producing. Such information becomes valuable to the company as they track each chick from hatch to harvest, collecting production information like hatch rates and feed conversion ratios, which directly impact their bottom line and help them make future breeding decisions.

Once the birds have hatched, they are taken out of the incubator, sexed, and prepared for shipment to a local grower. These growers are contracted to raise these day-old broilers for appr
oximately the next 6 weeks before harvest. Prior to shipment, the birds are given their coccidiostat vaccination, which is actually died red and sprayed onto them. Since this vaccine needs to be ingested, the red dye works to encourage neighboring chicks to nibble the vaccine off of the other chicks. It also made the yellow chicks a lovely shade of pink!

At the conclusion of the tour, we thanked the manager, packed up our recently hatched broilers and their unhatched counterparts for the drive back to Gainesville. Which leads me to answering the question as to why I now have ten of these broilers at my house in Newberry. Well, you see, at the conclusion of the lab on Wednesday we needed someone to take these fellas. With no students stepping up to the plate, and approval from the hubby, I took my newly acquired broilers home in a cardboard box. Armed with a light for heat, newspaper for make-shift bedding, a little feed and water, and a craving for chicken and rice, I drove home with ten biddies in my backseat.

Once home, I borrowed a brooder from my mother-inlaw and set-up the chicks in our shop by the house. I'm amazed at how fast these guys are growing, and their ability to eat, poop, and then pass-out before waking up to start the cycle all over again.....hmmmm
, sounds a lot like what some of my friends are about to get themselves into in about 9 months or so.

At the conclusion of this week, I removed the heat
lamp since they should have started gaining the ability to regulate their own body temperature, plus it's July in Florida. They've also started to put on white feathers at the tips of their wings and tail. Unfortunately, as with any agricultural endeavor, we had a casualty at the end of this week - so we are coming into week 2 with only 9 remaining chicks. So with the advice from our neighbors and fellow backyard broiler growers, the Simmons, hopefully we can get these remaining birds through the next 6-8 weeks - who's hungry for some fried chicken???


That's right - you heard it! Brandon and I - well mostly me - have ventured into the realm of growing backyard broilers. Why might you ask? Well, when the opportunity presented itself about a week ago I figured, "Why not?"

You see, I've grown up around the agriculture industry my entire life. As a result, I've pursued a career and graduate education learning about and teaching others about the how and why of their food production system in America. I spent the past few semesters and this summer assisting with the Introduction to Animal Science course at UF, where I've taught several lessons and labs related to the food animal industries I am most familiar with - beef, pork, and meats to be more specific. But, I've also spent quite a bit of time learning about the industries I'm not nearly as familiar with - such as the poultry industry. Call me a nerd, but I've really enjoyed learning about this industry - it's helped me better understand where my bag of frozen chicken breasts and dozen eggs I buy every month from Publix come from. But more importantly, it has given me some perspective on why the conventional broiler and layer industries do what they do so that I can be a more well-rounded and informed educator.

So with that, I thought I would take this opportunity to blog about both sides of the agriculture industry - large-scale, conventional production and backyard, small farms - using the information I have gathered over my lifetime and the experiences I have had raising food animals on my small family farm and now at my own home with my husband. I hope this can be a learning experience for any who come across this blog as well as any of my family and friends who can't kill all their time on Facebook.