The term “factory farm” is one that tends to annoy us as farmers. More than 97 percent of farms are family owned, and livestock can be taken great care of regardless of size or label. As I’ve mentioned before here, a farm shouldn’t be judged by its cover, and a good quality product can be produced sustainably and ethically no matter what the competitors marketing may claim. “Big” doesn’t mean “bad.”
I’ve toured many, many farms of all shapes and sizes and am overall quite impressed with what I see. Although in my area of Iowa we don’t see a lot of chicken farms, there are a few great chicken farmers I know who help answer questions when people ask. One of these farmers is my friend Wes Neilson, who raises 2.5 million organic chickens every year in Washington state. Wes farms with his sister, dad, and two full-time employees. He’s been around chickens since he was 12 years old and has raised well over 50 million birds over his 25 years in the business. In other words, he knows his stuff.
A couple years ago the family sadly lost their farm to a fire. Eight barns and additional buildings were burned to the ground, and he was lucky to get out alive. Very tragically, the birds all died, and it was about $1 million in losses; insurance didn’t cover as much as it should’ve, and it took about 14 months to rebuild. Wes is now a contract grower for Draper Valley Farms organic chicken, which is under the Perdue brand umbrella. They’ve helped him rebuild, they buy his feed and supply his chicks, and despite the fact that he is a very science-based pro-GMO kinda guy, he grows organic because that’s the market this company wants to supply, and he wants to be loyal since they helped him out during tough times.
You may be surprised, there are actually a lot of similarities between conventional and organic chicken. No added hormones or steroids are permitted in poultry at all, and it is quite commonplace these days to raise chickens with no antibiotics, regardless of label. Chickens go to market when they’re about 42 to 49 days old and are vaccinated before they arrive on the farm via crates on a forklift. Modern barns are climate controlled, and although organic chickens must have access to the outdoors, Wes says that only about 2 percent of his birds choose to go outside — and it’s usually by accident. Apparently, they’re much more content sitting around inside and don’t always like the feeling of the wind ruffling their feathers.
Another similarity is space. All meat chickens are raised cage-free, but they tend to huddle together in one area regardless. Conventional chickens require around 0.78 to 0.85 square feet per bird, (depending on the season; there will be more in a barn during winter months to keep them warmer) while organic chicken requires 0.85 square feet per bird, which is really not that different! Wes has 14 barns with 30,000 organic chickens per barn. Even if you put only 6,000 birds in a building they would still all huddle together. Chickens aren’t that bright (sorry, sweet chickens) and the expression “birds of a feather flock together” does hold merit. Chickens feel safe in crowded conditions.
Here is a fun fact about food companies and marketing: They don’t want the organic chickens to grow as big because they change more money per pound and don’t want to “sticker shock” the consumer. You can compare organic chicken to conventional side by side, and the pricing may be equal, however you don’t get as much with organic. And is there a quality and flavor difference? Organic chicken feed is usually imported from China, and experts would say no, if you did a blind taste test. But to each their own, we are lucky to have choices. Flavor and quality come down to genetics, feed, stress level, environment, etc. Farmers can manage chicken health and stress level by changing the temperature of the barns, create different warming zones, adjust the light in the barns. In organic chicken systems, antibiotics are not allowed while conventional farmers can treat chickens with medicine if they get sick. In both systems, however, sickness is not very commonplace — there is about a 3 percent to 5 percent mortality rate which is good, and pretty standard in livestock in general. It won’t ever be perfect.
When asking Wes what he thinks the biggest misconception is out there about chicken farming, he replied, “How humane our industry is. Abuse on farms is not tolerated, and by law we must have animal abuse hotlines posted.” Occasionally there are sensationalized videos out there put on by animal rights groups with a “go vegan” fundraising agenda, but they are not at all an accurate portrayal of what actually happens on farms, and those videos really drive us nuts as farmers. We should never let one bad apple paint the entire industry with a broad, negative brush, and if you ask any farmer, we will all show you and explain how well these animals are cared for. Our profits and livelihood depend on their health and well being.
Wes also talks about how much cleaner barns are now compared to how they were in decades past. Over the years there has been a much higher demand for chicken manure as a natural fertilizer and farmers are able to turn extra profits by selling it. There is a 10-day window in between each flock of delivered chicks from the hatchery, which allows chicken farmers to clean and sanitize the barns while getting rid of manure and old bedding. Conventional chicken manure can still be used on organic cropland as fertilizer.
Regardless of label, it’s thanks to modern barn technology, vaccine innovation, improved cleanliness, genetics and feed efficiency, that today’s modern broiler chickens are raised with minimal risk, in the best living conditions as ever before.
Michelle Miller, the Farm Babe, is an Iowa-based farmer, public speaker and writer, who lives and works with her boyfriend on their farm which consists of row crops, beef cattle, and sheep. She believes education is key in bridging the gap between farmers and consumers.