An Ode to the Chicken

Farms across SWNY continue the farming tradition with the help of modern science to produce nourishing poultry products for their communities.
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Photo: Carole Topalian

By Amy Barkley, Cornell Cooperative Extension

Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Southwest New York Dairy, Livestock, and Field Crops Program (SWNYDLFC) is committed to helping farmers produce safe, high quality products for their communities by providing research-based support to poultry producers across the region. Nearly 20% of farms in the region raise meat chickens (broilers), and these producers have harnessed modern science to preserve their farming tradition.

It’s the height of chicken BBQ season and local churches, fire departments, organizations, and farms are all sharing in the tradition of slow-roasting half birds over an open charcoal pit, fixed with sides such as rolls, salads, and baked beans. At home, we’re firing up the grill and cooking leg quarters, drumsticks, and breasts, typically marinated or slathered in a rich, sweet sauce. Chicken is a summer staple – but have you ever stopped to think of where your bird comes from?

Back on the farms, farmers are working with great care to produce high quality chicken for us to enjoy. Baby chicks arrive at farms when they are between 24 and 72 hours old. They are placed in warm barns or under heat lamps, where they are provided with fresh water and a balanced feed to meet their nutritional needs. These birds are raised to between 5 and 8 weeks of age, at which point they will weigh between 3.5 and 6 pounds. While the growth rate of these birds is remarkable, it is not done with any hormones or steroids, which have been illegal to use in chicken production since the 1950s. The history behind these chickens’ ability to grow so well is tied to their genetics and a contest called “The Chicken of Tomorrow”.

Cornell Cooperative Extension Livestock and Beginning Farm Specialist, Amy Barkley, shares some of the history of modern chicken farming. The chickens pictured here are prior to and following strong genetic selection that resulted from the “Chicken of Tomorrow” contest. Photo from “Growth, efficiency, and yield of commercial broilers from 1957, 1978, and 2005”, by M.J. Zuidhof et al.

Prior to this contest announcement in 1944, farms producing meat chickens were raising dual-purpose breeds. Dual-purpose breeds are those whose females (hens) are good egg layers and males (roosters) are suitable, but not ideal, meat birds. The meat on these birds was sometimes tough and stringy since the birds foraged on the homestead or farm and were older in age when they made it to the soup pot. Furthermore, there wasn’t a whole lot of meat on one bird. After World War II ended, the United States Department of Agriculture and A&P supermarkets realized the potential to develop a better meat bird and set forth the contest. Contest rules were simple: every farm would raise their own genetic line of meat-producing bird, send the eggs to a centralized location to hatch and rear the offspring, and then the birds would be processed, measured, and taste-tested. State, regional, and national contests ran from 1946 – 1948. The national contest culminated with 2,000 birds from various farms across the country that were evaluated on criteria including skin color, meat texture, overall meatiness, feathering, and the amount of feed needed to produce a pound of chicken. The winning birds of this contest went on to continue improving the genetic lines of meat chickens at a rapid pace, and still serve as the building blocks for the majority of meat bird genetic lines raised around the world to this day.

Cornell Cooperative Extension Livestock and Beginning Farm Specialist, Amy Barkley, shares some of the history of modern chicken farming and what kinds of chickens you can find on SWNY farms.

Demand in recent years has shifted slightly from the traditional white-feathered fast-growing bird to a slower-growing, more traditional bird for reasons related to texture and flavor. A slower-growing chicken will take about 25%-50% longer to mature but has a richer flavor and greater proportion of dark meat. While it’s difficult to find these slower-growing birds in the supermarket, farms across the region have them for sale, in addition to many local farms which also raise the traditional broiler.

Small and mid-sized farms across the state rear two categories of broilers: barn-raised and pasture-raised. Barn-raised birds are reared in a barn with plenty of light, soft bedding, good ventilation, ample feed, and clean water. These farms typically have a larger number of birds for sale and you can sometimes find their chickens at local BBQs. Pasture raised birds are reared in a barn for the first 2-4 weeks from hatch to ensure that they get a good start before continuing their life outdoors. After this time, they are let onto pasture where they are able to forage for bugs and grass. These birds are fed a grain diet as well to make sure that they receive proper nutrition, which they are not able to get from foraging alone. Pastured broilers take longer to mature compared to barn-raised broilers, but may have a slightly richer flavor profile since their diet is more varied. Typically, these flocks are smaller in size than barn-raised flocks. Many producers of slow-growth broilers choose to rear their flocks on pasture.

While there are some differences in how chickens are raised and the breed of chicken raised for the table, remember that behind every bird is a farmer who cares for their craft and is excited to share their wholesome, nutrient-rich chicken and farming story with you. So, as you sit down to your summer feast with family and friends, take a small moment to send an ode to the chicken and the farmer who produced it.

If you would like more information about this topic, please call Amy Barkley at 716-640-0844 or email amb544@cornell.edu. For more information about Cornell Cooperative Extension, contact your county’s Association Executive Director.

SWNYDLFC is a partnership between Cornell University and the CCE Associations of Allegany, Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Erie, and Steuben counties. Their team provides expertise in the areas of Farm Business Management, Field Crops, Dairy Management, and Livestock Management. Contact Team Leader, Katelyn Walley-Stoll, at 716-640-0522 for more information.

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