5 things to think about when buying chicken

UPDATED MAY 2019

We wanted to share what we've learned about chickens so that you can navigate the claims being made by farmers, restaurants and grocery stores.  While we talk solely about chickens, most of this applies to all other meat.

A year ago, we knew just about as much as the next person about how to raise chickens.  What we did know was how to eat them, and so when we decided to raise chickens we knew exactly how we wanted them to taste.  So we spent a lot of time just learning everything we could about farming chickens with the goal of raising birds that you could roast them just by themselves.

Proud to say we succeeded.  Our birds are full of texture and flavour (and you can reserve yours here) and are now beloved as the REAL HAPPY chickens that they are. 

Here are 5 things that influence the quality of chicken meat:

  1. Breed
  2. Feed & Medications
  3. Environment
  4. Age
  5. Processing

And lastly, we talk about price.

feeding chickens

Breed

Almost every chicken we eat is a standard meat bird called the Cornish cross.  Our particular variety is the White Rock Cornish cross.  Meat birds are different than egg-layers, and we could only find three varieties of meat birds in Canada.  The White Rock, the Nova Free Ranger (in Nova Scotia) and one out of BC.  While others exist, and there are also 'dual purpose' breeds (egg-layers and meat birds) our challenge is that with a special license, through the Artisanal Chicken program, to raise as many as 3,000 chickens this year we had to find a hatchery that could supply us with 3,000 chicks.

White Rock Cornish cross it was, from an excellent hatchery that delivers to our local co-op.  In 2019, we are raising some heritage varieties that will take twice as long to grow.

It's possible to find heritage birds from small farms that raise under 300 birds a year.  It's challenging though because they are only allowed to sell these birds from their farm gate and can not bring them to market.

Questions to ask:  what breed is this?  why did you chose this breed?

Age

Your typical store-bought chicken has been raised to 6-7 weeks of age, it's a young adult chicken.  We raise ours to 7-8 weeks of age.  The reason most chicken operations go to 6 weeks is that these birds grow so quickly, that they are at risk of heart attacks and broken legs.  BUT, our birds are running around outside during daylight and sleep during night-time.  They are not confined to a barn floor with carefully managed lighting schedule that has been designed to fatten them up (birds eat when there's light).  They can handle the extra two weeks, and in that two weeks the meat changes flavour!!

At 7-8 weeks, our birds are a big and beautiful 4.5 to 5.5lbs.
Questions to ask:  how many weeks do you raise your birds? would you ever raise them longer if I wanted a larger bird?

Environment

Which brings us to environment.  Free-range is a term that most of think we know.  We imagine chickens running around freely with lots of room.  The reality is that in Ontario, free-range means you can have 45,000-55,000 chickens per acre.   Compare that to 400 birds per acre in Europe or 600 per acre in Australia.  Oh, and in Ontario, that 'acre' might be entirely indoors.

So farmers, like us, have moved to using 'pasture-raised' to describe our chickens that get to run around outside, on dirt.  Where they can eat grass & insects and have lots of space.  Part of the thinking for pasture-raised is also the beneficial effect of the birds on soil as part of a rotational grazing strategy.  Sadly, pastured is also a term and farming method that is being co-opted by industrial farming as big operations put their barns on wheels.

Oh, and our chicken density for this year is 650 birds per acre.  Next year when we rebuild some fences, we'll be at least 400 per acre and hopefully 250 per acre (which is the standard for organic free-range in the UK and for the prestigious 'La Belle Rouge' label in France).
Questions to ask:  how many birds per acre do you have? do you raise them indoors or outdoors? what is your lighting plan?

Feed & Medications

Even though these birds are out on pasture, they need grains.  There are not enough nutrients in grass for them to properly grow (just like we couldn't survive on a diet of lettuce).

As a farmer I have three choices for feed (a) conventional, (b) non-genetically modified and (c) organic.  Conventional means a mixture of genetically modified grains that have been grown using synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.  Non-GM means that all of the grains in the feed are not genetically modified and that they are grown with synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.  Certified organic means that the farmer and the feed mill have been inspected and that the non-GM grains are free from synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.

Non-GM feed is a little less than 50% more than conventional.
Certified organic feed is 2.5x more expensive than conventional.

In 2019, we made the decision to switch to non-GM feed (from certified organic).  It allows our chicken to be affordable for people wanting quality birds.

On a related note, our feed is non-medicated and we do not medicate our birds.
No chickens in Canada are raised with hormones.  When you see that claim, it's a straight-up marketing tactic intended to sell you on something this is normal.  If you like these sort of claims, we also sell stones that keep tigers away.

Questions to ask:  what do you feed your birds?

Processing

We're proud to have our birds processed a family-owned, federally inspected facility that is a short drive from our farm.  They do exceptional work because they know how much care that farmers like us put into our birds and it's important that the entire process, from us catching and transporting the chickens to the birds being killed, is as stress-free as possible.  Important for humane reasons and meat quality.

It's here that the processed birds are air-chilled, not water-chilled.  Most of the chicken we see in stores has been water-chilled, and some even let you know that 'these chickens were water-chilled and have absorbed an acceptable level of water'.   5-15% of store-bough chicken is acceptable h20. Yes, we're paying for water.  Which is also why store-bought chicken is horrible after freezing.  That water freezes and breaks down the tissue.

Not ours.  Air-chilled.   So even after you thaw a frozen bird, you get a bird that is full of flavour and texture.
Questions to ask:  where are your birds processed?  is that a family-owned processor? are they air-chilled or water-chilled?

Price

Ok, price has nothing to do with taste.  But since each of the things I mention does affect price, let's talk about it by looking at the prices for whole chicken from a local grocery store (I won't name it, but it's one of the big ones).

 Type of Chicken Price Per Pound # of Pounds Total Cost
Conventional $3.49 3.5 $12.22
Air-chilled, conventional $4.09 3.5 $14.32
Organic $6.04 3.5 $21.13
Pastured, non-GM feed $5.25 4 $22.00

Kendal Hills Game Farm
pasture-raised, non-GM
air-chilled

$5.00

~5 (roaster)

$~$25.00


Questions to ask:  Are taste & texture important to me?  Is organic important to me?  Is supporting small, family farms and processors important to me?

As always...happy to answer any of your questions and to talk more about the history and politics of our food system.