by Darren J. Doherty
2016 marked 40 years since Earl Butz (1909-2008) resigned as USA Secretary of Agriculture, however his vision for ‘getting big or getting out’ and ‘planting fence row to fence row’ has continued unabated — as have the terms of trade decline for producers and the decreased lifespan and increased weight of the commercial broiler chicken.
Last year during one of the #REX‘s I put forward the possibility of returning to natural breeding programs for smaller-scale poultry production — this was in response to our concerns around what we call the #DirtyLittleSecrets of the poultry game — especially as relates to ‘remote’ breeding and all that goes on there. It also relates to the ongoing issue that a number of our poultry-producing clients (and network) have around the sustainability of their enterprises — and more immediately their resilience against disease, feed company & breeder seedstock supply plus ever-increasing public awareness and the questions raised as a result.
What’s the cause and effect here? The cause goes back to chickens being really great feed converters as compared to domesticated ungulates + that chicken tastes really good — hence their historically being seen as ‘special’. The special thing is really that chickens are omnivores and so whilst they are more efficient as food quantity converters that feed has a higher quality requirement to that of herbivores. What’s also special is the volume of cheap fossil energy that is embodied in these organisms. Especially where anhydrous ammonia and urea are used to fertilise the crops that feed the organisms. If it takes around 1000m3 of natural gas to produce 711kg of ammonia then the average US corn crop uses the equivalent of between 2000 and 5000 x 9kg bottles of natural gas per hectare per crop!
Sources: Stratco.com & Bayer.com
“…the purpose of the city is to keep people out of the country…” pers.comm, Bill Mollison (1995)
In the post-Butz era the only omnivore that has not increased in its production volume in the agricultural landscape is Homo sapiens — whilst Sus scrofa (pig) and Gallus gallus (chicken) have both increased in there production exponentially. The big question is how long can chicken (and pork) remain cheap. As human populations increase how much longer can the production from arable landscapes be diverted through omnivorous livestock (and grain-fed herbivores) and not directly to humans?
These are all very heady questions and for people in the world for whom chicken (and pork) is an affordable meat there is an energetic inevitability to these questions effecting the price.
So what does this have to do with the chicken production strategy we’re investigating here? Right now we have producers who have discussed with us many of the aforementioned concerns around their operational sustainability and resilience. We’re looking to trial a strategy that is modelled after what we do with most other livestock. As we would with a boar, bull or ram, we’d have the roosters joined with the hens. The roosters are removed and the hens brood their eggs. The unsexed chicks are raised with the hens and the cockerels are sexed and removed for selection as broilers or as breeding stock. The naturally slower growing pullets remain the hens until they too are selected either as replacements or to be broilers too.
Source: Regrarians® Ltd.
My supposition is that this system would increase the foraging efficiency of the flock considerably as any animal that is naturally raised by its mother is going to be a more voracious forager than an orphan with a feeder as its primary option. Its also likely to be more resilient. Pit a week old chick raised in this way versus a week old orphan with its only guide a flock of other orphans in a field full of forages and its pretty clear which one would survive better — actually survive…
The kind of work we’re looking to trial with the chicken (and ducks for that matter) can’t be done without paying attention to the environment that they are raised in as well. Therein lays another challenge for the omnivore — how to raise a commercially viable flock or sounder and decrease the volume of feed coming from outside the property whilst maintaining condition, breeding and growth rates. Some are using waste streams to varying effect and this is great if it works, but its often transporting water as much as the feed itself. We’re looking at establishing a range of perennial trees, shrubs and herbaceous forages, including self-seeding annuals. The species are going to have to be broad and the timing of delivery is going to have to be wide. The yields of chicken (and ducks and pigs) is going to be lower, the price per unit will be higher, the quality probably higher, the life length longer, the quality of life higher and the energy invested per unit will be lower. Integration in with other livestock, particularly herbivores in a ‘leader-follower’ regime of planned grazing, would be necessary and this would provide a number of passive and active yields — as many people already experience when following the increasingly popular ‘Polyface Farm’ methods espoused by the Salatin family.
People like Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin (Main Street Project) and Richard Perkins (Ridgedale Permaculture) are doing some great work with increasing the volume of forages produced on-site. Michael Sommerlad is also doing excellent work at the breeding end with his ‘Sommerlad’ breed of chicken. However, in my opinion and experience, they all share a weak link when we look at the true cause of why chickens and ducks are poor foragers and that comes with their not being raised naturally as many other livestock are.
What I’m proposing here is that work of people like Johann Zeitsman being done with cattle adaptability and performance be adapted to other livestock — and in this case chickens and ducks. If an animal ultimately needs to be propped up by distant breeding facilities, lamps, natural gas, fields of other farmers far away, feed hauling, vaccines, and other amendments then what kind of resilience are we building — furthermore what kind of animals are we producing. Are we honestly happy to produce commercial chicken breeds that have a very sketchy backstory and genetic progression? Scratch the rather tragic trajectory of the commercial broiler breeds a little and its certainly not in keeping with the ‘beyond organic’ and regenerative narratives that many so-labelled producers project.
Source: The Wall Street Journal
Where is the work on regionally-adapted chicken (and other livestock and horticultural crops for that matter)? Certainly in the herbivore space there’s been a bit of work but most breeds have origins whose names are not the same as where they are now. That’s a big project and many would argue (and quite correctly) that the hard work’s been done and now its a matter of selecting for positive traits as opposed to mutations.
At first glance what we’re proposing is not going to replace the current model in terms of volume — it has no ambition to do so — it would be an energetic nonsense to even contemplate doing so. Will the labour units per animal produced go up? Absolutely. Would the cost go up per animal produced? Absolutely. Would the energy embedded in each animal increase? Probably. Would these ratios of input:output stabilise over time? Most likely.
Innovation be it social, ecological or financial can be very expensive — accordingly this kind of work is not going to suit the contexts of many who are reading this — that’s what Holistic Management® ‘Testing Decisions’ are there for. However without the innovators and the practices they project, test, fail and succeed at we’ll never know. And with that a few of us will see how we go and let you all know…