I wrote a movie review on the film, “Super Size Me 2.” While some parts of the movie were truthful, some chicken farmers helped me debunk a lot of over-dramatization and hyperbole that also occurred in it.
The larger-scale poultry producers I spoke to raise chickens for some of the “big chicken” companies like Pilgrim’s Pride and Perdue. Although 98 percent of farms in the U.S. are family farms, one may refer to these larger-scale farms as “factory farms” or CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations).
The more I learn about CAFOs, the more I am impressed with what actually goes on within them. Decades’ worth of research has occurred to ensure animals are given the best possible care. Thanks to constant improvements in poultry housing, ventilation, data and climate control, and biosecurity, a vast majority of chickens are raised with “no antibiotics ever.” Growth hormones or steroids are also never used in poultry. When you see that on a label, it’s purely meaningless marketing.
Environmental stewardship recipients Jackie Lohr and her husband raise around 1.2 million chickens each year for Pilgrim’s Pride. This equals 190,000 chickens across five chicken houses (some of which are double deck). They do 6.5 flocks per year in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, only a couple of hours from Washington, D.C. They take pride in their farm and do some tours, mostly for school groups.
Chicken farms raise different sized birds for different reasons. The Lohr family raises four-pound birds, while other farms might grow them to six or eight pounds. Different grocers and companies want different sizes to appease the end user, and uniformity is very important (namely as it related restaurants or direct-to-consumer grocery customers).
In this region, Jackie explained they are very fortunate to have four different integrators to choose from, which is another word for the company that they contract with. Other parts of the country are not so fortunate — they may only be able to contract grow for one company, meaning they don’t have a choice. In this example, Pilgrim’s Pride supplies chickens and the feed, while the farmer supplies the houses, electric, water, and utilities.
This is standard for a majority of U.S. chicken farms. The chickens arrive on the farm healthy and vaccinated, and the farmers are paid by the pound via a “tournament system.” This creates a competitive environment where farmers are ranked among their peers to have the best rate of gain. In my opinion, I would really thrive in a system like this because I’m a competitive person who would always try to be No. 1. The farmers I spoke to see advantages and disadvantages, with the biggest disadvantage being that they don’t want to share their “secrets” with the other five or so growers they’re competing against. So while they like being No. 1, it doesn’t always foster continuous improvement or information sharing among peers.
While there will always be people in every industry who are negative and complain, the farmers I spoke to find the program to be pretty fair.
The tournament system for growers has a formula consisting of three main factors:
- Number of pounds of feed used
- Number of chicks
- Amount of medicine used, if any
It really boils down to daily rate of gain, and farmers can be rewarded with bonuses for a job well done.
What abut other factors? There are sometimes things that happen out of the farmers control. Weather when chicks are delivered (a really hot day?), quality of chicks (did the pullets come from an older or younger breeding stock?), did something happen in the hatchery, were some of the chicks sick? These situations are not that commonplace and can really be luck of the draw. If something happens, though, where they were somehow shipped a bad batch of chicks, the company takes responsibility for the mistake and the farmer is still paid. This is another “insurance type” protection benefit that happens when farmers contract with these big companies.
What about money? Do these corporations truly care about their farmers, and is it a profitable business? It’s true that chicken farmers, like pretty much any farmer, do take on a fair amount of debt. It can cost the farmer millions of dollars in construction costs to get going, but they explain that these houses can typically be paid off in around 15 years. Despite the fact that farmers only make around 20 to 40 cents on average per bird, it’s still a profitable endeavor, and you get out what you put in. It’s really just like any other business: You have to do a good job maintaining your equipment and upkeep on the buildings.
Feeding everyone is a big job and requires small and large farms, and, fortunately, farmers and researchers are always looking for ways to do things better. As one example, recently Perdue put windows in to a lot of their farmers’ chicken houses at no cost to the farmer. They found letting natural sunlight in to the houses was better for the birds and the farmers’ happiness. Remember, farming is a business. The better chickens are cared for, the more profitable they are. Happy = healthy, and healthy, nutritious, affordable, delicious quality protein is what everyone in the business strives for.
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.