We produce beef, pork, lamb and chicken on 80 acres of rotational pastures for sale through our meat CSA, The Rustic Table.
We have been grazing livestock for ten years on this northern Wisconsin farm.
PROJECT DESCRIPTION AND RESULTS
Goals: Pastured poultry producers have been raising the same breed of broiler chicken that the confinement industry has developed for its large scale poultry houses for years because of a lack of alternative breeds available in this country. The Cornish Rock Cross has been bred for generations for rapid growth, a double breast, easy cleaning and other traits important to that production system. While raising these birds on pasture provides a marked improvement in their overall quality of life, pastured poultry producers have become concerned about the risk of heart attack, weak legs, temperature sensitivity and lethargy resulting from such intensive genetic selection. The birds’ bones and internal organs have not been able to keep up with their rapid growth. Alternative breeds of broilers have become available to American producers in recent years raising the question of how they compare with the industry standard.
This project was designed to investigate the performance and behavior of six hybrid breeds of broiler chickens on three farms representing three common pasture production systems: Free Range as promoted by Herman Beck-Chenowith; Day Range, using the pen style developed by Andy Lee; and the enclosed pen model pioneered by Joel Salatin.
In order to determine the breeds’ ability to meet our profitability, sustainability, and quality of life goals we evaluated several criteria: growth rate, feed consumption, carcass yield, mortality rate, activity level, and overall profitability potential.
Breeds: Each farm raised 50 straight run chicks of each of the six breeds for a total of 300 chickens per farm. We included the following breeds in the study: Cornish Rock Cross (Sunnyside Hatchery, Beaver Dam, WI, sunnysidehatchery.com), Freedom Ranger (J.M. Hatchery, New Holland, PA, jmhatchery.com), Moyer’s K-22 (Moyer’s Chicks, Quakertown, PA, moyerschicks.com), Silver Cross aka Kosher King (Noll’s Hatchery, Schaefferstown, PA, 717-949-3560), and Red Ranger and Super Dixie (both from S&G Poultry, Clanton, AL, sandgpoultry.com).
The Freedom Ranger is a hybrid also known as the Hubbard Redbro that is used extensively in Europe’s alternative poultry markets including France’s well-known Label Rouge market. Moyer’s K-22 is a hybrid originating out of a poultry company based in Italy. The Silver Cross is a barred hybrid that has been available for a number of years. The Red Ranger and Super Dixie have been developed from American genetics by a family owned hatchery.
Production Research Method: The chicks arrived in early June, were raised according to each farm’s particular brooding and pasture system and fed the same 18 percent protein organic chicken feed on all three farms. The chickens were butchered on three different dates according to each breed’s growth rate. The groups were housed separately on each farm so that each breed’s feed consumption could be measured. In addition each bird was weighed weekly beginning in week six to track their growth rate, and on butcher day to measure their carcass yield. We also recorded health and mortality and conducted a behavior study, observing their activities in weeks five, eight, and eleven.
Behavior Research Method: We collected behavior data on three days—one day in week 5, one in week 8 and one in week 11. I chose two time slots in the early morning and two in the evening and asked each farm to count the number of chickens in each group doing each of the following: drinking, resting, foraging, and eating at the feeder.
Breed Identification: All three farms had difficulties keeping the red breeds separate from one another. Five of the 200 red broilers switched groups on the Free Range farm; four switched places on the Day Range farm; on the Salatin style farm so many switched pens that I chose to combine the data from all four of those breeds and report them as one red broiler group. In hindsight we should have used leg bands or some other method of identification.
Richard Toebe. Farmer & UW Extension, Rusk County Agriculture and Natural Resources Agent. Build floored shelter. Assist with field day publicity.
Jody Padgham. APPPA Coordinator, P. O. Box 87, Boyd, WI 54726, (888) 662-7772, email@example.com. Assist with APPPA (American Pastured Poultry Producers Association) field day publicity and coordination. Write article about field day and project for APPPA GRIT! newsletter, and MOSES’s Organic Broadcaster.
Mark Kopecky. UW Extension, Price County Agriculture and Natural Resources Agent. Assist with field day publicity. Review and advise on testing methodology.
Kevin Schoessow. UW Extension, Sawyer County Area Agriculture Development Agent. Assist with field day publicity. Review and advise on testing methodology.
Jason Fischbach. UW Extension, Ashland/Bayfield County Area Agriculture Development Agent. Assist with field day publicity. Review and advise on testing methodology.
Bob Brandt. Pri-Ru-Ta RC&D. Assist with field day publicity.
Production: As was expected in a bird bred for production the Cornish Rock Cross grew the fastest, consumed the least feed to reach market weight and had the highest carcass yield of all six breeds on each of the farms. Similar patterns emerged in the data from both the Free Range and Day Range farms. Of the alternative breeds the Freedom Rangers appeared to grow the fastest, eat the least feed and have the highest carcass yield. The K-22s on the other hand repeatedly came in last on both of these farms. They ate the most feed, had the slowest growth rate and the lowest carcass yield across all 6 breeds. The remaining three breeds performed similarly vying for 3rd, 4th, and 5th place in the various tests. See Charts A and E.
Mortality: Mortality rates did not follow the pattern seen in the production or profitability charts. Cornish and K-22s suffered the greatest losses on the Free Range farm at 14% while the Silver Crosses, Red Rangers and Super Dixies lost less than 5% of their numbers over the course of the study. Mortality on the Day Range farm was affected by flooding in the chicken pastures. Each group was affected differently depending on just how much water happened to be flowing through each pen. When these flood losses are discounted the Freedom Rangers experienced the highest mortality rates at 18% with Cornish, K-22s and Red Rangers at 12% while the Silver Cross and Super Dixies remained below 5%. Mortality was a consistent 6% across all data groups on the Salatin style farm. See Chart B.
Other non-fatal health issues were low overall. The Free Range farm had one Red Ranger with a deformed leg (2%) and one Freedom Ranger with a distended crop (2%). The Day Range farm had 2 deformed legs: 1 Red Ranger (2%) and 1 Super Dixie (2%). Five birds on the Salatin style farm had deformed legs: all of them Cornish Rock Crosses (10%). See Chart C.
Profitability Potential: I compared the cost of the feed and the chicks for each group to the total pounds of dressed weight each group produced. These are the numbers I will use to decide which breeds to raise in the coming years. On the Free Range farm the Cornish Rock did have a considerably lower feed and chick cost at $1.28 per pound of dressed weight despite the higher mortality rate. The Freedom Rangers cost an additional $.44 at $1.72/lb. Silver Cross and Red Ranger cost about $.50 more per pound than the Cornish at $1.77-$1.78/lb. The Super Dixie came to $2.05/lb and the K-22s brought up the rear with an input cost of $2.42/lb.
The input costs were more closely clustered on the Day Range farm when I discounted the effects of the flood. The Cornish Rocks’ costs came to $1.44 with the Freedom Rangers and Silver Crosses fairly close behind at $1.61 and $1.71 respectively, and the S&G hybrids at $1.82/lb (Super Dixie) and $1.90/lb (Red Ranger). The K-22 brought up the rear again on the Day Range farm with an input cost of $2.14/lb. On the Salatin style farm the Cornish cost $1.49, the Silver Cross $2.18 and the red broiler group $2.54 per pound of dressed weight. I did not include labor or overhead costs in these figures. See Chart D.
Behavior: It is difficult to draw any conclusions from the behavior information we collected. We found it very difficult to accurately count the chickens at each activity. Sometimes they were simply moving around too much and sometimes they were too close together to easily count. I disregarded data if the number of chickens counted varied by more than 3 birds from the actual number of chickens in that group.
Although I chose times when the birds were most likely to be active by monitoring their behavior within 30 minutes of sunrise and 45 minutes of sunset, the weather still impacted the birds’ activity level. If the sun was out the birds were likely to be resting. Other than the first morning time slot the majority of the birds in all breeds were observed resting. Given the difficulties we had collecting the data and the variability within each group from one time period to the next I don’t feel we have enough information to begin to compare the behavior of one of these breeds to another. See Chart F.
Although the Cornish Rock Cross did have the lowest input costs across all three farms and may be seen as a clear choice for profitability, after raising these birds another year I am still unhappy with the breed’s other characteristics. Their mortality rates, lethargy, and limited genetic diversity make them an unappealing option despite their low cost of production.
Sustainability and the quality of the animals’ lives are important aspects of our farms’ goals. The alternative breeds appear to be a better match for these goals. I plan to continue raising alternative breeds of broilers instead using the data collected in this grant project to choose between the available alternatives. Given the numbers obtained on our farm (Free Range) I will likely raise a combination of Freedom Ranger, Silver Cross, and Red Ranger in the coming years. As I continue to observe their performance and health I will refine my choice to reflect the breed most suited to our farm.
We hosted three field days during the project, one on each farm. Forty attended the Free Range field day hosted by APPPA, twenty attended the Day Range field day, and ten attended the field day at the Salatin style farm.
Jody Padgham, APPPA coordinator and MOSES (Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service) employee, contributed an article about the field day and our data as of August in the APPPA GRIT! newsletter and Organic Broadcaster.
Two of the farms presented data collected during the project at the 2010 National Small Farm Trade Show & Conference Farmer Forum to the over 100 people in attendance. Follow up information was sent to ten of the people at that conference in addition to ten others who had learned of the project and requested information.
Kim Cassano, the project leader, wrote an article after completion of the project to be published in the APPPA GRIT! newsletter and other publications.
This grant allowed me to devote the time needed to answering a question that is important to my farm business. I had raised alternative breeds of broilers in previous years but had only vague impressions about which of the breeds were more suitable and no information about the relative cost of raising each breed. The funding provided by this grant allowed a more thorough investigation into each breed and concrete numbers upon which to base my future decisions.
Earlier notification of the grant award would have been helpful. We were not notified until late April. This made it difficult to secure the chicks we needed for the study and resulted in a delay of the project timeline because hatcheries had already sold out of chicks for the earlier dates. We also had to replace one of the farms involved in the project in part because of their need to move ahead with other projects that came up in lieu of our grant award reducing the time they could devote to the grant project.