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............."