Whilst consumers are now more aware of the treatment of sows in the pork industry, they rarely hear about, or consider the welfare problems associated with the parent birds (also known as broiler breeders) in the chicken industry.
Michael Sommerlad gained an inside understanding of the life of parent birds while managing ‘broiler breeder’ farms in the Australian chicken industry during the late 90’s. They are all housed and managed intensively: living their entire life inside environmentally controlled sheds, with no natural light, and very high stocking densities – see example below.
Just like their progeny, (i.e. the chickens that end up on our table), broiler breeders are genetically predisposed to grow fast and eat a lot of food. But unlike the chickens that end up on our table, these parent birds must be restrictively fed, so they can effectively reproduce.
In her book ““Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals”, Dr. Temple Grandin describes it this way:
The trouble is that the breeder chickens, the parents of the broilers, have the same stupendous appetites as their chicks. If you let a broiler breeder chicken eat everything she wants, she will become obese, her fertility will decline, and her life will be shortened. These chickens have to be kept on a strict diet just to maintain normal weight. They act miserable, and many of them develop stereotypies. These birds have low welfare no matter what you do. If you let them eat all they want, they have bad welfare and if you don’t let them eat all they want, they also have bad welfare. It’s terrible. The industry is going to have to breed parent stock with smaller appetites. There’s no other way to fix the problem”.
Here is a downloadable document titled Welfare Problems, including Chronic Hunger, in Broiler Breeders.
Unfortunately, if you are purchasing organic or free range chicken, it is likely you are not making any impact on this problem. Like the saying “All roads lead to Rome”, nearly all organic and free range chicken producers in Australia ‘buy-in’ meat chicks produced by the intensive industry: large-scale producers will often ‘buy-in’ fertile eggs and hatch them themselves, small-scale producers go through a re-seller (that is a hatchery that buys fertile eggs from the intensive industry).
Sommerlad chicken is different. Many years of sacrifice and investment in breeding and development means we are in the unique position of being completely independent from the intensive chicken industry. Picture below shows a newly hatched Sommerlad heritage meat chick in the hatchery at Tenterfield.
This is a very positive thing for many reasons, and one of the less known reasons is the opportunity to provide a better life for our breeding birds.
At Sommerlad Poultry we take a traditional approach to managing our breeding birds. We have deliberately established our breeding farm at Tenterfield, in the New England high country, where we experience relatively mild summer temperatures. This means we can manage our parent birds, (as well as our grandparent and great grandparent birds) in open-air housing, with natural ventilation and sunlight, and low stocking densities – see examples below.
Naturally, our small-scale, traditional practices, means our production costs are higher, and Sommerlad farmers pay at least two to three times more for our slow growing heritage meat chicks, compared to the meat chicks produced by the intensive chicken industry. Hopefully this also helps explain why Sommerlad chicken costs more.