The $35 dollar chook: the economics of slow-growing chicken

Credit: Original article can be found here

Slow-growing chickens, like the ones pictured, sell for three times the price of conventional chickens in Australia, says the SPCA’s Arnja Dale.

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Slow-growing chickens, like the ones pictured, sell for three times the price of conventional chickens in Australia, says the SPCA’s Arnja Dale.

Animal welfare concerns are driving calls for the introduction of slow-growing breeds of chicken, but experts say the price of chicken in the supermarket could triple as a result.

New Zealand shoppers typically pay about $12 for a standard free-range bird, but that could increase to $35 for a slow-grown chicken. Slow-growing is claimed to be a more humane method of production.

There are no slow-growing chicken producers in the country, although organic free-range chicken producer Bostock Brothers has previously said it was looking at the option..

Lincoln University agricultural economist Bruce Greig says New Zealand production is driven by demand for cheap food, leading to producers going for greater yields per hectare, animal, dollar, and hour.

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“For example a modern meat chicken is fed to her genetic potential to reach a mature market weight of 3kg in 42 days,” he says.

Because slow-growing breeds can take up to 110 days to reach slaughter weight, they consume a lot more feed and increase other overheads for producers, which affects the retail price.

Interest in slow-growing chickens is slowly emerging, but most New Zealanders are not familiar with the concept, Greig says.

Chicken meat and eggs are considered a cheap source of protein and therefore the most consumed meat worldwide, he says.

Bruce Greig, lecturer in farm management and agribusiness at Lincoln University says consumers would need to be educated and convinced before paying a premium for slow-growing chicken.

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Bruce Greig, lecturer in farm management and agribusiness at Lincoln University says consumers would need to be educated and convinced before paying a premium for slow-growing chicken.

“Farmers wanting to produce slow-growing chicken meat in New Zealand would firstly have to create demand for this niche product, because it is little known, and consumers would need to be educated and convinced.

“Firstly, that it is a superior product and, secondly, that the retail price is therefore justified. Consumers wanting to purchase these products would need to pay a substantial premium,” Greig said.

Recent research from the United States showed production costs were considerably higher, up to 25 per cent, for slow-growing breeds, he said.

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Broilers packed into a shed at five weeks old are a feature of some New Zealand poultry farms. (Video, produced by animal rights charity SAFE, was first published October 18)

But the genetics that have led to fast-growing and cheaper broiler birds have come at a cost for the birds themselves, animal welfare experts say.

Ngaio Beausoleil, Associate Professor at the school of veterinary science, Massey University says because they have been bred to reach a commercial weight in short amount of time they suffer from a range of health problems.

They were predisposed to cardiovascular disease and because of this had high rates of spontaneous death. They also suffered from chronic joint inflammation which made it hard to move around.

“There are many, many studies that show how painful this is to the birds,” she says.

Ngaio Beausoleil, Associate Professor Applied Ethology and Animal Welfare Science, says chickens bred to reach a commercial weight quickly suffer a range of health problems.

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Ngaio Beausoleil, Associate Professor Applied Ethology and Animal Welfare Science, says chickens bred to reach a commercial weight quickly suffer a range of health problems.

But a recent British study has shown how switching to slow-growing chicken would increase animal welfare and meat quality, she says.

It compared the animal welfare, feed conversion efficiency, average daily weight gain and meat quality of slow and fast growing chicken breeds.

”It found that the slow-growing birds had lower mortality and culling for lameness. Most of the indicators for animal welfare status were improved in the slow-growing breed.

“They also had less breast meat, and more leg meat which probably reflects their higher activity. They were found to be more active, spent less time sitting, less time feeding and drinking.

“But what is interesting is that they also had better meat quality scores,” Beausoleil says.

Bromley Park Hatcheries general manager Brent Williams says New Zealand has strict biosecurity laws which make bringing in new genetics a lengthy process.

Hatcheries bring in what are called grandparent eggs, which produce the parent flock, which then produce the broiler chickens.

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Hatcheries bring in what are called grandparent eggs, which produce the parent flock, which then produce the broiler chickens.

Hatching eggs are imported and kept in a quarantine facility administered by the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI). Added to that, New Zealand can only import eggs from Canada, the US, UK, the Netherlands and Australia.

However, producers looking for slow-growing chicken have generally only wanted them in small numbers, he says.

Hatcheries bring in what are called grandparent eggs, which produce the parent flock, which then produce the broiler chickens.

“To get 120 million broilers every female parent will produce about 135 chicks. It’s a pedigree pyramid,” Williams says.

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Bostock Brothers is the only commercial organic chicken farm in New Zealand. Source: Bostocks

In the past Bromley Park has imported the eggs for a slow-growing breed called kabir and crossed it with female cobb chicken.

They were mainly sold to buyers in Papua New Guinea and the Pacific Islands as backyard birds, because they are tougher and hardier than an industrial broiler, he says.

“The reality is that the kabir were a battle to sell. It’s a lot less efficient because you need to grow more grain to feed them. We’re set up for volume,” he says.

Eventually the kabir parent flock was culled, he says.

But SPCA chief scientific officer Arnja Dale says New Zealand is lagging behind the rest of the world when it comes to introducing slow-growing birds.

SPCA chief scientific officer Dr Arnja Dale says New Zealand is lagging far behind other countries with no commercially produced slow-growing chickens.

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SPCA chief scientific officer Dr Arnja Dale says New Zealand is lagging far behind other countries with no commercially produced slow-growing chickens.

In France, for example, it is only possible to buy slow-growing chickens, and in Denmark the major supermarket does not sell fast-growing broilers. Similarly, Britain has many breeds available to growers, she says.

“All around the world they have humane [slow] growers. We are highly unusual that we haven’t been able to get them introduced yet. We advocate for it very strongly,” she says.

Australia recently introduced slow-growing eggs for a local producer. The chickens retail at around three times the price of a conventional chicken, Dale says.

Farmers are slow to move because they are unsure that there is the demand for the chicken in New Zealand.

“It will be niche but when the large growers get on board that will bring the price down.”

Educating the consumer and creating demand for chickens raised humanely is key. Price should not be the sole determinant for introducing them, she says.

“The welfare of the individual birds and their life experience should be what is paramount and what is the point of discussion.”

Greig says organic chicken is double the retail price compared to conventional chicken, mostly because of increased costs of production, especially feed, and the price of slow-growing chicken is likely to be higher again.

Poultry Association executive director Michael Brooks doubts that the large producers like Brinks, Tegel and Inghams are moving to introduce slow-growing breeds because there is no real demand from consumers.

Organic chicken is about double the price of conventional chicken. Slow growing is likely to cost even more, says agricultural economist Bruce Greig.

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Organic chicken is about double the price of conventional chicken. Slow growing is likely to cost even more, says agricultural economist Bruce Greig.

The New Zealand market is too small, he says.

“A niche in the market in Europe, you’ve got a reasonable number [of customers]. A niche in the market here is tiny.”

However, the numbers have not been crunched on the possible shelf price of a slow growing chicken in the New Zealand, Brooks said.

He also questions if there is enough credible animal welfare science to support a shift in production.

But Williams says Bromley Park will bring in slow-growing eggs in the future if producers became more interested but it would take time to quarantine the eggs and breed up a parent flock.

An MPI spokesman says New Zealand has a unique disease-free status, which it is protecting with these measures, but there is no particular barrier to introducing slow-growing breeds if they go through the protocols.

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