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The True Cost of Local Food Production: A Chicken's Eye View

Posted in Ranch Report

Article originally published in Edible Aspen's Spring 2014 Issue.

When I began producing livestock several years ago, I assumed that raising chicken on the farm would be less expensive than buying it at the grocery store. I set out to prove that free- range, pasture-raised, hormone- and chemical-free, ultra- nutritious organic chicken can compete economically with the massive-scale production of an industrial chicken complex. Years later, after raising thousands of birds, I’ve realized that I was wrong. Simply put, pasture-raised chicken cannot compete on price alone with store-bought industrial chicken.

But what about other factors? Besides cost, what else should you think about when choosing your bird? Let’s take a look. Why is industrially raised chicken so cheap?

First, the largest chicken producers in the United States take advantage of their size and distribution, spreading fixed costs over a larger number of units (birds). The industry is also vertically integrated, controlling all aspects of production from hatching, feed mixing and growing, to transport, processing, packaging, marketing and distribution. That saves them money every step of the way.

The most common breed of meat chicken in the U.S. is called the Cornish Cross, and it’s bred and selected for fast growth and excellent feed conversion (the ability to turn a unit of feed into a unit of meat protein). In the industrial system, it takes only six weeks for these birds to grow to market weight.

During that time, the chickens eat cheap food, typically a blend of GMO (genetically modified organism)-laden processed corn and soybeans derived from the production of human foods like soybean oil or high-fructose corn syrup. By the time these grains reach chickens, most of their nutrition has been extracted.

Industrial chickens typically live in enclosed, cramped cageswith 24-hour lighting for the entirety of their short lives. As you can imagine, several thousand chickens warehoused in a small building quickly build up waste. Before long these animals are living, breathing and eating in an ammoniated pile of manure and dust, where diseases are likely to thrive.

The Benefits of Slower Production
The way that we raise our chickens at Rock Bottom Ranch is dramatically different than the industrial model. The Poulet Rouge breed that we raise takes around 11 weeks to get to market weight, nearly twice the time a Cornish Cross takes to mature. Our birds take their time to graze and develop rich, complex flavors, while Cornish Crosses often grow so quickly they can barely stand and yield a fairly bland, tasteless meat.

We raise our chickens on pasture rather than cheap grain, giving them access to grass, bugs and ample space to explore. Although we occasionally lose one or two chickens to predators, we almost never lose a chicken to disease or poor health. (The average industrial chicken producer, on the other hand, includes a daily ration of antibiotics in their animals’ feed to treat the health problems that develop in an enclosed environment). Rock Bottom Ranch chickens are Animal Welfare Approved through a third party certification system, ensuring that they’re humanely raised without hormones, chemicals or antibiotics.

The aphorism “You are what you eat” is true even for chickens. When our chickens get grain, it’s nutritious grain, sourced from a local family in Montrose, Colorado. The feed includes a mix of non-GMO whole grains combined in a way that provides maximum nutrition for our animals. The non-GMO whole soybeans, for example, are roasted prior to blending to release essential oils and make digestion easier.

These improvements make our chicken actually taste ... well, like chicken! It’s a far cry from the mass-produced store- bought kind. There’s also a nutritional difference: A pasture- raised animal gets vitamin D from the sun and more healthy omega-3 fatty acids from their daily foraging.

The Bottom Line
Sustainably harvested, healthy, nutritious chicken grown ethically on the land costs more than its industrial counterpart. There are ways we could reduce those costs, like increasing the number of animals we raise and forming cooperatives with neighbors to reduce transportation-related expenses. Since transport to and from the processing facility is such a major part of our costs, we could also do our best to encourage the establishment of more USDA-inspected processing facilities near the Roaring Fork Valley.

Another way to drive costs down would be to dispense with the driving altogether by harvesting our own chickens on the farm. The downside to this model is that it limits our marketing options, permitting only on-farm sales and precluding sales at farmers’ markets or in grocery stores.

In the end, you simply get what you pay for: Pasture- raised birds result in less impact to wild lands, no pollution of our waterways, an economic ripple effect that improves farmer quality of life and a chicken that is healthier and more delicious to eat.

Rock Bottom Ranch will have its first pasture-raised chicken harvest of 2014 in early June. To sign up for the waiting list, email Jason Smith, Rock Bottom Ranch director, at jsmith@ aspennature.org or call 970.927.6760.

~ Jason Smith, Rock Bottom Ranch Director