Articles about Breeding Poultry
This article was previously published in Acres U.S.A. magazine, the Voice of Eco-Agriculture.
America’s Lost Poultry Genome
Is Standard Bred Poultry Agriculture’s Best Hope?
by Allie Hymas
“The only way to solve those physiological problems is to raise animals at a normal rate, so the industry is going to have to come back to these heritage breeds to get new genetic stock.”
—Andrew deCoriolis, Farm Forward
“We actually had researchers at Kentucky State de-bone a pastured, organic Cornish and one of my Barred Rocks and there was the same amount of meat on my chicken as there was on the industrial chicken when you took all the meat off the bone.”
— Frank Reese, Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch
America’s Lost Poultry Genome
Is Standard Bred Poultry Agriculture’s Best Hope?
by Allie Hymas
Imagine a 6-week-old Cornish Cross chicken crowded in a 1,000-square-foot, dark aluminum cavern with 35,000 of her peers. The chicken rests her wide, top-heavy body on short legs that are several inches smaller than her Cornish ancestors from England. She cannot get up for more than a few minutes because her breast has reached its peak growth: now a whopping 18 percent of her body weight.
At 5 weeks old, her tiny heart stopped growing, and it now struggles to circulate blood through her ever-expanding, monolithic breast. The hormones telling her when her stomach is full have been selected out of her DNA, and she hobbles through the flock, picking listlessly at anything she can eat. Her suffering is compounded by the poor air quality created by the residue of her flock’s insatiable hunger and thirst.
Now imagine the same chicken had been purchased by an organic, pasture-based farm. No longer plagued by ammonia in the air, her organs perform better in the open spaces where she can move, free of restriction. But as the six-week mark quickly approaches, the morbid reality of this chicken’s genes set in. Despite her pastoral setting, she cannot escape the genetic traits she was bred for: the massive growth weighs down her skeleton and strains her organs until she suffers from low stamina, difficulty moving, shortness of breath and finally, collapse.
She can never breed, never independently feed herself, and eventually, if she is not processed around six weeks old, she will die of congestive heart failure just as surely as if she was living in that aluminum cavern.
For years, management has been the focal point of the sustainable food movement: pasture-based farming, organic soy-free feeds and the elimination of antibiotics and growth hormones to produce market weights. Farmers across America put these qualities of their operations front and center to differentiate their products from the industrial agricultural model. While these practices are ideal, they can’t directly rectify agriculture’s core problem: the eroding stability of production animal genetics.
Fourth-generation turkey breeder and poultry expert, Frank Reese of Good Shepherd Farm in Kansas, has been telling industrial and independent farmers alike that the critical flaws in the poultry industry can only be solved by reintroducing the historic genetics of standard bred poultry. Reese has teamed up with animal welfare organization Farm Forward to create the Good Shepherd Poultry Institute, an educational organization bringing American farmers, chefs, food suppliers and consumers back to the roots of heritage poultry production.
“Nothing I do is new,” said Reese. “It’s very old, but it’s the way all poultry farming was until 50 years ago.”
In the 1950s a new kind of poultry forever altered the way animals in America were raised. Researchers at Cornell developed a new hybrid to give Americans more of what they wanted: tender, white, mild-tasting breast meat. A growing divide between the farms and supermarkets provided a veil behind which industrial agriculture could continue to manipulate the genetics of their production breeds to deliver on consumers’ ever-demanding expectations, all while hiding the more macabre results these demands created in the birds themselves.
As a master breeder and active American Poultry Association judge, Reese has observed the rise of industrial hybrids firsthand. “They were developed through multiple health mutations. The OS line of broiler chicken, the obese strain, was developed back in the ’50s when they identified the OS line as a [genome containing] an autoimmune hypothyroidism. Chickens that developed this disease grew very quickly and developed a thick layer of adipose tissue, which allowed them to have a lot of fat. The large breast and short legs are a form of dwarfism — they actually selected for a deformity.”
We might recognize these hybridized varieties of poultry today as the unmistakable Cornish Cross, the Broad Breasted Bronze turkey, or the egg-machine Leghorn. To Reese, hybrids like the Cornish Cross represent how far the industrial model has departed from the genetic traits that have sustained both poultry and humans for thousands of years. “They’re no more Cornish than they are Poodle.”
Farm Forward’s head of the Good Shepherd Poultry Institute project, Andrew deCoriolis points out that the sovereignty of hybridized poultry genetics is about more than just production: it allows just a few companies to maintain a monopoly.
“The food movement gets upset about GMO corn and think Monsanto is this terrible company, but Monsanto actually only owns 25 percent of the corn produced in the world, while roughly 75 percent of all chickens raised in the world every year come from one of three genetics companies. And that’s not a small number, it’s 20 billion animals every year.”
Bred into a Corner
In 2008 the USDA Agricultural Research Magazine critiqued today’s broilers as “too fat,” warning that the OS genetics could pose future problems, but in the following years the average chicken has only increased by a whole pound to an average live weight of 6.25 pounds in 2017, according to the USDA’s Broiler Market News Report. These high yields have not come without a cost.
In addition to the typical maladies that accompany the overcrowded, overmedicated environments industrial poultry endure; a host of new problems associated with rapid-growth genetics are emerging. In 2013, Veterinary Pathology published a peer-reviewed study identifying the rapid-growth gene as the leading cause of widespread instances of tissue necrosis in industrial birds. These diseases are known as Woody Breast and Green Muscle Syndrome, both the result of a weak cardiovascular system’s incapacity to keep up with the breast tissue’s growth rate. When slaughterhouses open up birds to find the calcified, bulging dead tissue of Woody Breast or the slimy, pale-green rot of Green Muscle Syndrome they can only discard the meat as a sunk cost.
“The only way to solve those physiological problems is to raise animals at a normal rate, so the industry is going to have to come back to these heritage breeds to get new genetic stock. They have a very small gene pool left,” said deCoriolis. “Up until the 1970s the industry kept lots of heritage breed animals, in part for their breeding stock, and it’s only been in the last 40 years that they’ve abandoned them entirely. Only now is the industry starting to come to people like Frank for help because they’ve bred themselves into corners.”
Pasture-based Systems Not Enough
Reese warns that idyllic pasture-based models can be unsuitable for industrial poultry breeds. “You have to meet the needs of the animal’s genetics. If you’re going to buy hybridized industrial turkeys you have to recognize the genetic needs of that animal. That animal has been genetically designed to grow 200 to 300 percent faster than a normal turkey, and if you ignore the genetic demands of that growth and place it outside on a pasture it’s going to be worse for that animal. It’s like asking a 5-year-old child who weighs 300 pounds to go outside, play and have a good time.”
Even poultry designed for pasture can carry the pitfalls of hybridized breeds. Reese is skeptical of the slow-growth, free-range broiler chicken.
“Those are all OS chickens. Fast-growth broiler chickens can get to 6 pounds live weight in 42 days, while the Freedom Ranger can get to that weight in 62 days. That’s only 20 days more. For me to get my chickens to that weight, it takes seven months. Freedom Rangers suffer from all the same skeletal, cardiovascular and muscular diseases [as the Cornish Cross.] To me, it would be more humane to raise the regular rapid-growing Cornish, because they don’t have to suffer as long.”
Ultimately, poultry that comes from industrial sources are what Reese calls a “dead-end animal” and cannot facilitate the kind of change the poultry industry needs.
“If we’re going to rebuild the poultry industry, it can’t be based on the industrial chicken that we have today,” said DeCoriolis. “It has to be based on an animal that is genetically capable of living a healthy life, expressing its natural behaviors and doing that in a setting that’s best for the environment. That’s why standard bred poultry, colloquially known as heritage poultry, is so critical: these are the only birds we have left that are not raised in the factory farm model.”
The best way to tell whether a bird possess the historic genetics and ideal qualities of the standard breeds is to purchase poultry from a flock certified by the American Poultry Association. Formed in 1873, the APA is the oldest and most widely respected institution maintaining the time-honored standards of healthy, productive and well-conformed poultry and issues the American Standard of Perfection. The APA flock certification program inexpensively allows farmers to label their products with the APA seal that indicates the birds’ vetted lineage.
Better Genes, Better Profitability
By raising and breeding strong, healthy genetics standard bred poultry farmers can eliminate the costs associated with industrial production, such as purchasing weak poults from a hatchery every year, losing 15-50 percent of the flock due to illness or lack of viability, expensive medication or medicated feed, and finicky temperature and feeding infrastructure to keep large flocks of unhealthy birds alive.
With the costs of grain increasing and diseases like avian influenza threatening flocks, the strength and versatility of standard bred poultry has never been more valuable. Reese believes that although the initial price of breeding stock will be higher than industrial breeds, farmers will eventually see returns on their investment with more resilient genetics.
“That’s the great thing about standard bred poultry; there are many different breeds and characteristics to choose from,” he said. “Over the past 200-300 years the standard bred varieties have adapted to their unique environment: some can take high humidity, while some prefer arid climates; some do better for high altitudes. You won’t find [industrial] poultry farms in Indiana or Illinois anymore; they’re all in the south because those industrial broilers can’t stand the cold temperatures.” Reese’s turkeys can handle the frozen Midwest winters. “They’ve been here in Kansas for over 60 years, so they’re very acclimated to this environment. They can go play in the snow in 10 degrees.”
Some costs are related to standard bred animals’ slow growth, greater consumption of feed and need for space, but the largest portion of the cost disparity between factory farmed animals and standard bred is the cost of processing and distribution for smaller operations.
“The factory farm industry has pushed out the independent slaughterhouses and made incredible infrastructure bottlenecks that make it very hard for independent farmers and ranchers to raise and kill animals and get them to market — regardless of whether the animal is heritage,” said deCoriolis.
According to deCoriolis, farmers will start to see these costs go down as more independent farms and distribution services enter the market and collaborate to create more infrastructure. Until then, independent producers need to charge higher prices reflecting the quality of standard bred meat.
The Market is Ready
While standard bred poultry will never be as cheap as industrial poultry, that’s not stopping a growing market of conscious consumers from purchasing food that is demonstrably more ethical and environmentally responsible. DeCoriolis has been on the front line of this cultural change as part of Farm Forward’s consumer education initiatives.
“We’ve found in 10 years of having this conversation with the public, virtually universal agreement that we shouldn’t be raising animals in the ways that we are raising them today,” he said.
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals estimates that 75 percent of consumers care more about animal welfare and conscious consumption than they did five years ago, and the results are starting to grab the attention of larger corporations too.
“Major companies like Whole Foods, Subway and even Burger King have committed that by 2024 they are going to serve only products that come from slower growing chickens,” said deCoriolis.
Some farmers have had negative experiences trying to sell heritage breeds to customers who didn’t understand why the birds appear smaller and have less white meat. Reese encourages farmers to provide their customers with recipes from cookbooks written before 1950. The meat of a bird able to fly, run, jump and roost will be more oxygenated and close-textured, therefore needing to be cooked for longer at a lower temperature.
The task of selling standard bred poultry profitably lies in educating consumers about the value of their product over industrial options. Fortunately, the taste and nutrition of standard bred poultry speaks for itself.
“We’ve been able to prove that our chickens are nutritionally far superior, said Reese.” It has much higher protein, much lower fat and six times the amount of trace minerals.” Birds from the Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch have entered countless nationally recognized food-tasting competitions — all scoring high marks for flavor, texture and aroma. Reese’s Barred Rock chickens have never been defeated.
“We actually had researchers at Kentucky State de-bone a pastured, organic Cornish and one of my Barred Rocks and there was the same amount of meat on my chicken as there was on the industrial chicken when you took all the meat off the bone. The omega-3 was significantly higher, in fact Dr. Elizabeth Elton thinks that we could put ‘heart healthy’ on our chicken because our chickens have perfect lipid profiles.”
Partnering with Good Shepherd
At its core, the collaboration between Reese and Farm Forward in the Good Shepherd Poultry Institute is about bringing generations of master breedership forward into the future. Already the institute is collaborating with the American Poultry Association to certify standard bred flocks and teach young farmers the nuances of raising and selecting the highest quality birds.
“The biggest barrier we have to seeing standard bred poultry taking a large part of the market is that we have very few breeders left that are producing quality animals,” said Reese. After passing years of turkey management wisdom to Reese, legendary turkey breeder Norman Kardosh made his poultry protégée promise to keep their beautiful birds from perishing off the face of the Earth. Reese’s mission is to see more competent farmers who can walk into a flock of 3,000 birds and pick out the top 100.
This year the Good Shepherd Poultry Institute will begin fundraising for a center that will host farmers, chefs and food service providers to engage in an immersive educational experience to impart the practical methodology and historic wisdom of raising standard breeds. “
While we still have a few masters around, we need to have them to the institute and give seminars; we need to tape them and have a permanent record of the people who still remember when we depended on these birds to make a living,” said Reese. “We need to see poultry through their eyes again.”
For more information or to become a supporter of the Good Shepherd Poultry Institute, visit goodshepherdpoultryinstitute.org.