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.