This weather lately is “for the birds.” It’s cold, windy, icy. Yuck. Sam became my hero this week when he chipped and melted my skis out of a frozen puddle. Who’d have thought that snowbank would turn into a puddle and then freeze in FEBRUARY? Hopefully we’ll tap maple trees for syrup next week. That’s always a sure sign of spring and a sweet way to end winter.
I started thinking about birds this week, though, and ordering chicks for the spring. I’m not really sure I’m ready for the chickens again, but I am ready for warm sun and green grass. I realized I haven’t written much about pastured poultry and why we do it. I did some writing for Freda Mooncotch and her e-book, Defying Age With Food, and thought I’d share some of what I wrote here.
The double breasted broiler chicken is the centerpiece of our farm. This chicken is a hybrid chicken that became popular in the 1960’s, coinciding with the blossoming of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) and industrial agriculture. Besides being bred for ease of raising in concentrated barns, these birds were bred for their heavy breast. The industrial health system mantra at that time was to eat low fat. Chicken breast was promoted as healthy. Dark meat was vilified. Science knew better than your taste buds. These chickens were bred for the needs of profit driven industrial agriculture and the new science of healthy eating. On our farm these birds are raised to a ripe age of 8-9 weeks old. They enjoy being in mobile pens from about 3 weeks of age to “maturity.” They get fresh grass and a clean bed every 24 hours, in addition to a grain ration. They do not need routine “subtherapeutic” antibiotics or arsenic appetite stimulants. They are healthy and as happy as these birds get. The grass helps to balance the Omega 3 fatty acids with the Omega 6 fatty acids from the grain so that the meat has a healthy balance—this is sometimes seen as a slight pinkness in the white meat. Since they are outside in the sun, pastured birds are reputed to be higher in vitamins D and E. Their meat is firmer since they actually move around. These birds are naturally lazy and the mobile pens force them to walk a little every day. These birds are the main product off our farm for a few reasons:
1) They grow quickly and economically, yielding a lot of meat compared to carcass (bone).
2) People want to eat boneless skinless breast and tenderloins. These two cuts comprise only 25% of a chicken but people will pay the equivalent of a whole bird to obtain these cuts because they are white and have little to no fat.
3) On the whole, few people know how to cut up a whole chicken, even less what to do with all the parts. We want large portions made easy to prepare. This is a practical issue and a training issue. These birds are bred to be easy to cut up and to yield large portions on the pieces.
This is not the bird Grandma or Great Grandma served for dinner. Ours taste close, according to the older folks who like our chicken, since they are raised in a similar fashion. Heritage chickens (such as Barred Rocks, Buff Orpingtons, and other “heavy” laying breeds), however, are hardier and fare much better out on pasture where they have to forage for food. They don’t reach butcher size until at least 24 weeks of age, at least 4 weeks after they reach breeding maturity. They have less meat on their carcass, as a rule, than a broiler at the same weight and have stronger joints that are more difficult to cut. This is important for several reasons:
1) They can consume more grass and utilize what they find to make meat, the diverse diet means a richer mineral profile in the meat.
2) They are mature, resulting in a more developed, better mineralized muscle. This equates to texture, flavor, and health.
3) They have more dark meat. This muscle contains more fat and more mineral nutrition (hence more flavor) than white meat.
4) They are naturally proportioned to an appropriate serving of meat for a meal.
5) They do better with a “slow and low” cooking method. This helps preserve the integrity of the enzymes and protein structure in the meat, making it easy for your body to utilize.
6) Their well mineralized, strong, mature bones make flavorful, rich, healing broth.
With all that in mind, here are some tips for buying chicken:
1) Look for “pasture raised” or ask specifically if the birds were out on grass. “Free range” or “cage free” are sometimes used and only mean the birds weren’t in tiny cages, but don’t mean they had sunshine, grass, and bugs.
2) Organic is good if you can’t shake hands with grower. Better is if you can ask the producer how they feed their chickens, what they do with sick birds, if the birds are in movable pens on pasture or not, how do they handle the waste/manure (do they ship it or compost it and use it), and how do they process their birds. The more a grower does personally and keeps the whole process in a cycle on the farm, the more invested they are in a safe and sustainable product. A face to face relationship is the best guarantee of food safety and accountability.
3) Invest in knowledge: learn to cut up a whole chicken (we have some helpful youtube videos available: Basic Cuts, and Cutting Up a Chicken). Learn to use all the parts. You can learn how to make boneless skinless breast and thighs, chicken sausage, and rich bone broth.
4) Expect to pay more from a reputable farmer making a living farming than from Wal-Mart. Your tax dollars support Wal-Mart’s suppliers. Integrity has a price. You’ll know what you’re getting at the farm or farmer’s market.
5) If you get a chance to purchase a “heritage bird” or a “stewing hen,” try it. The “heritage bird” is most likely a spring rooster and can be cooked in many ways. A “stewing hen” is a laying hen who has reached menopause. Those birds are good for canning or for soup stock. You’ll never have a better broth than that from a stewing hen. It’s worth the time.
Spring is coming. In a couple of weeks we’ll be starting chicks. We hope to see some of you in one of our chicken classes so you can start raising your own.
Just a shameless plug: One of the perks offered at our Indiegogo campaign is a free class of your choice. Two other perks feature free on-line courses. Check it out at: Indiegogo: Anyone Can Farm.