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!

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