Tuesday, April 27, 2010
Chicken for dinner?
I happened to be in a feed store on April Fool's Day, and if you've ever been in a feed store in spring, you know that they often have chicks, ducklings, and turkey poults for sale. I've always ignored these little birds, because we've bought large quantities of baby birds directly from hatcheries. I don't know what inspired me that day, but I decided to buy eight of the Cornish cross chicks.
Cornish cross are the hybrid chickens that are sold in supermarkets, and they're the number one chicken raised for meat by small farmers, including Joel Salatin, who is one of the gurus of the better-than-organic food movement. We have never raised them, because they're prone to all sorts of medical and orthopedic problems. Besides that, one of the reasons we moved out here was to raise heritage animals. Like heritage turkeys, heritage chickens can mate naturally and fly, and they are extremely healthy. They have almost zero mortality or orthopedic problems.
But "everyone" tells us we should raise the CC hybrids. The Amish who process our chickens for us have told us more than once that we should be growing the Cornish crosses, because they get so much bigger than our heritage chickens. Other farmers talk to us like we're clueless, and they're going to enlighten us -- don't you know how big CC chickens get? Maybe I decided to do my little experiment with the CC because I was just tired of not having my own experience to share. You can't believe everything you read, right? So, maybe I should give the little mutants a chance and see if they are as great as "everyone" says.
My son met me in the driveway as I was getting out of the car. I had called from the feed store and asked him to get a brooder ready. "Cool!" he said as he looked at the little box I was holding. "So, we'll have chicken in three or four months?"
"No, we'll have chicken in six weeks," I said. He looked at me silently as if thinking that I were joking.
"Are they organic?" he asked.
"Well, we'll raise them that way, but they're the mutant chicks that grow really fast," I explained.
A flurry of questions came from him and later from my daughter, who asked incredulously, "You're not going to eat them, are you?"
"Well, I don't think that eating eight of them is going to kill us. They'll be our junk food for the year." I laughed. She didn't see the joke.
"I can't believe you're going to eat them." She sounded genuinely disappointed.
When I posted the news on the Antiquity Oaks Facebook page, someone said that I should get eight heritage birds to compare them side by side. What a great idea! So, the next day I went back to the feed store and bought eight barred rocks. I also bought a separate bag of feed, so we could keep track of the food intake of the two breeds individually.
The first thing I learned is that you do have to restrict their feed intake. One of the eight mutant chicks died at a week of age. They already weighed 50% more than the heritage chickens at that point. Although the feed store gave us no information on raising them, I knew that many of the hatcheries advise you to provide feed for only 12 out of every 24 hours. (This photo shows the chicks at two weeks of age.)
"I can't believe we're putting babies on a diet!" I told my son, who is in charge of taking care of the meat animals on the farm. "Every night you have to remove their feed, and then put it back in there every morning. I guess it's true that they will eat themselves to death if you let them have access to feed 24 hours a day."
It's been four weeks since they hatched, and the difference is amazing. All eight of the barred rock chicks are still healthy and active. The mutant chicks are half naked because their feathers can't keep up with their body growth. They just sit and eat. They remind me of the stereotypical overweight American sitting in front of the television, mindlessly eating and drinking beer. One of them looks like his back end is going to explode. It's ascite, a common disease in these birds, which leads to heart failure. Basically, he has developed hypertension from all the eating. From what I've read, it sounds like he's going to die prematurely.
Now I'm starting to ask myself -- do I want to eat these birds? They're genetically predisposed to eat constantly and develop hypertension and heart disease. Of course, the industry didn't want to develop a sick bird. They wanted to create one that gained weight really fast, so they could make money faster. The disease is a side effect of growth that outstrips anything nature ever intended. I understand why the Animal Welfare Approved program does not approve farms that raise the mutants. The act of raising these birds -- regardless of what you do -- is not humane.
I feel like Michael Pollan after he grew the genetically-modified potatoes in his garden when writing Botany of Desire. He could never bring himself to eat them, knowing that they contained their own pesticide. He had actually watched a potato beetle die after taking a bite out of a leaf. Yet he also knew that he had been eating GM potatoes, because like all GM food, they are not labeled in stores or restaurants.
These are the chickens that 99% of America eats. They are the only chicken sold in stores and restaurants. What happens to your body if you are eating an animal that is genetically predisposed to over-eating, obesity, hypertension, and heart disease? Since we haven't eaten commercially-grown meat in 21 years, it is not something that I worry about for myself, but it is a question that I have about everyone else who is eating this meat. And since almost everyone is eating this meat, it is a question that no one can answer.
Will we eat these chickens in two weeks? I really don't know. But I do know that I will not be raising them again, and I also know what I'll say next time someone asks me why I don't raise them.