I’ve been reading about chickens. A bit. The birds in the photo are a commercial breed; the kind of chicken you get when you go to the supermarket or butcher and buy one. They’re very closely related to every other single bird available commercially in the country – regardless of brand. They’re the same species (but a different variety, or breed) as the chickens I have laying (well, moulting thanks to the season) in the hen house. Difference is, these ones are bred as the thoroughbred of meat birds. They fatten quickly (they can quadruple in weight in the first week). They have fat breasts, short legs, and they really don’t have a great deal of instinct left in them.
Even more interestingly, they have to be fed a superfood diet in their first few days and weeks or they simply cark it; curl up their tiny yellow toes and keel over. These birds are fed, as one breeder calls it, rocket fuel, and they have hardly any of the resistance you’d expect of a normal chicken. They also go from the egg to the pot in about 35 days.
According to the Australian Chicken Meat Federation, a shed 150 metres long and 15 metres wide can house 40,000 of the birds. That’s right, an area less than a quarter hectare in size can house 40,000 birds. When they talk about intensive farming, this is what they mean. The stocking rates seem astronomical and it takes some breaking down to really get the gist of what that many birds in a certain space would look like. My old pig paddocks and barnyard could house about 30,000 birds, where I, until a little cull of numbers earlier today, had 18. Admittedly, my chooks didn’t bother with much of the space, so commercially it would be considered wasted, but the numbers are staggering. Imagine a bird in every .06 of a metre squared. Or, the other way around, 16 birds per square metre. That’s 28-40kg of bird per metre squared, the actual rate determined by ventilation. I’m trying, but I simply can’t get my head around these numbers. I think I’ve made a mistake with my calculations – measure out a square metre at home and imagine 16 chickens on it – but the ACMF’s website quotes the 28-40kg of bird per metre, and 16 birds that dress out to be no.18s in the freezer section of Woolies would easily weigh less than 40kg.
Five-hundred-and-twelve million chickens, or thereabouts, are bred, mostly in systems like this, to die each year and be eaten by Australians. According to one report I read, the aim is to breed meat that is bland and tender. Animal tofu, really. What I’m interested in, however, is flavour, and I’m fascinated to find out if the commercial breed of birds we’re raising, which have been given space to scratch, grass ("green pick") to peck at, and whose growth rate we’ve slowed substantially by having them in the dark when the sun goes down, and feeding them mixed grain rather than rocket fuel. What I’m interested in is if these birds, genetically bred to grow at super speed and be bland and tender, whether they will taste like much if given a more varied diet and allowed to grow out slower.
We have the luxury of raising our own birds, and our meat is built up to a standard, not down to a price. Modern chicken is certainly a cheap commodity, which puts it within the everyday budget of most of the population. But I do wonder about the way these birds are raised intensively. One day, I’ll write a bit more about that side of things. But, for now, I’m pleased that we’ve managed to raise our few successfully, and more than a little interested in the way the slow raised, truly free-ranging birds will taste.