Tag Archives: free range

Where did that supermarket chicken come from?

2 Nov

Ever wonder where that supermarket chicken came from? As in, how it was raised? The answer may surprise you.

In the US (and many other countries), meat chicken production is vertically integrated; all production steps are handled by different subsidiary firms owned by one company. 

What this means is that the majority of commercial broiler chickens are produced by only three  companies: Cobb-Vantress, Aviagen, and Hubbard. Each sells a variety of different branded crosses in the form of chicks, which are distributed worldwide via their own specialized fleet of environmentally controlled chick trucks or by commercial airline carriers. 

Courtesy Tim Daniels, poultrykeeper.com

Courtesy Tim Daniels, poultrykeeper.com

Each company owns breeder farms that produce hatching eggs, a hatchery where chicks are born, a broiler grow-out facility where they’re raised, a feed mill to produce the chicks’ food, a processing plant where they’re slaughtered, a rendering plant and a distribution system that delivers products to store warehouses or individual stores.

With this degree of control, you’d guess right in assuming that the elements of a commercial meat chicken don’t just happen, but are carefully designed. Each company produces millions of pedigreed chickens a year. As the birds are grown, they are assessed for “best traits”; only the top three percent are kept for use as pedigree breeders.

In general, poultry breeders select for growth rate, feed efficiency, health and disease resistance, feather development, carcass confirmation, and meat characteristics. Modern poultry breeders work with molecular biological (genetic) markers associated with economic and consumer-important traits. But no genetic splicing, modification, or cloning takes place. In other words, there’s no such thing as a GMO chicken. All strains are developed through genetic selection and crossbreeding.

The birds are raised in what are called free-run systems. They live in barns that vary in size according to the size of the flock. The chickens are not de-beaked (a practice that relates to egg production), or caged. Instead, they roam around on a floor covered with wood shavings or straw (termed a deep-litter system). Water and feed are always available, there’s good airflow, and the temperature is carefully controlled, ’cause chickens don’t like being too cold or too hot. Space per bird is determined by the size of the bird being grown and ranges from about half a square foot per bird for small birds to 1 square foot or more for large birds. The chickens are free to roam throughout the litter floor house, take a dust bath, and find a comfortable spot. Nest boxes or perches are not needed for broilers. 

Their lives aren’t long. Birds are slaughtered when they reach the appropriate size for the product being produced. This ranges from about 28 days for “Cornish” chickens (2.2 pounds) to about 62 days for the largest broilers used for deboning (8 pounds) Broilers between these weight ranges are used for eight-piece cuts, portion-controlled operations, or for sale as roasters. 

As soon as the chickens are slaughtered, they’re chilled to take the carcass from its live temperature to the proper “meat temperature” of about 32°F (0°C). Chilling is done either via a cold-water bath or an air-chilling procedure. Most chickens in the United States are water-chilled—placed into a vat of ice water. In air chilling, carcasses are blown upon with cold air as they travel slowly along a track, a process that takes longer than water chilling. Many people prefer air-chilled chicken, claiming that the taste is better or that the chicken loses less water during the cooking process. You’ll have judge for yourself.

Generally, chicken is shipped from the slaughtering facility to its various destinations (restaurants, supermarket distribution centers, et cetera), on the same day it’s slaughtered. As for the recommended time to consumption, this, too, like everything in meat and life, varies.  

So – you ask – are there any other options?  Sure there are.  You can buy your chickens from an individual farmer, in which case it is very unlikely to be a commercially developed and distributed bird.  Instead, the chicken will be one of several meat breeds commonly used for small operations.

Or you might decide to raise your own birds by purchasing eggs or chicks from a hatchery that deals directly with individuals and small farmers, like the Murray McMurray Hatchery in Iowa.

POULTRY. Free Range? or Free Run?

8 Sep
Yes, this is a free-range chicken.

Yes, this is a free-range chicken.

Yes, there is a difference.

First, free range. You’ll be interested to learn that this label can only be used for poultry. There is NO SUCH THING (well, officially) as a free range steer. But if you change “free” to “open”, you get open range and yes, there are open range cattle. Open range is the cattle-raising system mainly practiced in the west of the US and Canada, where animals roam free across vast rangelands.

Back to birds. According to the regulations of both the US and Canada, free range is a term referring to a bird that has “access” to the outdoors. As in, can get outside. This may only be for five minutes a day. I suppose if the farmer opened the chicken coop hatch to give the birds a glimpse of the yard, they’d qualify as free-range chickens.

On to free-run. This is the term used for the way conventional chickens are raised, living in barns that vary in size according to the size of the flock. The chickens roam freely inside the facility on a floor covered with wood shavings or straw (termed a deep-litter system). Water and feed are available and the temperature is controlled, ’cause chickens don’t like being too cold or too hot. Space per bird is determined by the size of the bird being grown and ranges from about half a square foot per bird for small birds to 1 square foot or more for large birds.