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Getting the best bang for your cluck

How to raise quality meat chickens

By MADELEINE BAERG

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Anyone can raise chickens. They gladly eat most anything, they survive in tight confines or in relative freedom, and they require little long-term commitment, growing to a suitable processing size in mere weeks.
However, raising excellent quality chicken takes a lot more know-how.
Producing the very best quality chicken—meat that tastes wonderful, has firm but not tough texture, looks healthy and appealing, offers the right amount of fat, and is chock-full of nutrients—is both art and science.
Here is a step-by-step guide from hatchling to freezer.

STEP 1: REARING HEALTHY BIRDS
Producing quality meat starts with picking the right birds.
Chickens breeds are broadly classified by use (i.e. meat birds, laying birds, dual purpose birds, and show/specialty birds). However, most of today’s meat birds are actually hybrid animals selectively bred to mature early, convert feed to muscle quickly, and gain extensive breast meat.
While some farmers swear by the taste, size or texture produced by individual breeds, the vast majority of meat birds raised—both by commercial chicken producers and small-scale farmers—are cross breed or hybrid meat birds hatched at large-scale hatcheries. Purchasing hatchery-raised meat birds will reliably result in fast growing birds and quality meat.
If you choose to select breed-specific birds rather than purchasing a hatchery’s bulk, hybrid meat birds, be sure to select a meat-specific breed. And, for best results, make sure you chat with experienced chicken producers in your area to determine which breeds best suit your area’s climate and humidity.
While there is certainly value in raising heritage breeds, those hoping to obtain today’s heavy breasted meat standards are likely to be disappointed. As Lyle Young, owner of Farmhouse Poultry in Cowichan Valley, B.C. explains, “[we] have become accustomed to consuming chicken with lots of breast meat. Heritage birds have ‘razor’ breast, a small amount of breast meat in relation to the rest of the bird, which shows as a pronounced keel or breastbone on the bird. The number of people who are willing to purchase birds with less breast meat is very limited.”
When it comes to meat birds, males and females are relatively interchangeable. Males grow slightly faster, but given the length of time a farmer keeps a typical bird prior to processing, the difference in end product is minimal.

Care and husbandry practices
Healthy chickens require dry bedding and clean air at all times. While kiln-dried shavings are best, any dry ground cover is acceptable. Muddy, excessively soiled, or otherwise wet conditions cause all sorts of health and disease problems. And, because chickens have no insulation when their feathers are wet, wet feathers mean they can’t keep warm, which results in low weight gain, increased health problems, higher incidence of untimely death, and poorer quality meat.
Chickens can be raised under a wide spectrum of conditions, from total confinement indoors in a carefully controlled environment (today’s commercial production facilities), to large, outdoor, free-range environments.
Very tight confinement produces the soft-textured birds that grocery store shoppers are most familiar with. As acclaimed food critic John Gilchrist describes, “to me, quality chicken is a good, naturally-raised bird that has built some muscle. There’s nothing wrong with grocery store chicken, it just doesn’t have a lot of flavour and it has that soft texture. You can tell couch potato chickens – I want one that’s been working out.”
Free-range chickens develop strong muscles, which results in more densely textured meat. Also, true free range allows chickens to consume a wide array of food sources, resulting in a “stronger tasting chicken flavour,” according to Scott Johnston, co-owner and operator of Johnston Farms Ltd, a producer of hatchery eggs in Aldergrove, British Columbia.
On the other hand, the freedom of free range also has drawbacks. Young explains that, “if it’s not managed well, free range can be a terrible model because of mud in the winter and dust in the summer,” both of which are detrimental to the birds’ health.
Experts agree birds that are kept healthy and allowed to exhibit natural behaviours result in the best quality meat in terms of texture, taste, and appearance. According to many, the best method to reliably achieve both health and natural behaviour is pasture raising.
Under the pasture raising method, chicks are raised indoors until they have feathers and then raised to maturity in moveable pens on pasture land. The open bottom design of the pens allows the chickens to act like chickens: scratching, pecking, and eating grass and any available bugs and worms. By moving the pens—generally daily—farmers can keep their birds out of dusty or muddy conditions, keep pests to a minimum, and offer their birds safety in addition to natural light and feeding opportunities.
Pasture raising is Young’s method of choice. As he explains, “pasture raising recognizes the limitations of the chicken in terms of how far they want to move and what they need for comfort, and offers a relatively natural environment.”

Feed
Providing animals with a healthy, comprehensive diet is a necessary element of the meat production process, and greatly influences the flavour of the meat. Commercially raised birds in the West are fed primarily wheat, resulting in a mild flavoured end product. On the other side of the country, commercially raised birds in the East receive substantially more corn, resulting in “yellower meat and more fat,” according to Johnston.
While commercial rations fulfill all of a chicken’s dietary requirements, they do not result in particularly full-flavoured meat if used exclusively. Chickens that are able to eat bugs, worms and grass in addition to commercial rations develop deeper coloured and more richly flavoured meat.
Young believes grass is a vital component of high quality meat. He explains that “the grass and soil substrate offers chickens all kinds of micronutrients that they’re not going to get from rations … [and] the chlorophyll in grass has a positive influence on meat.” Further, he says, eating grass—which is lower in calories than commercial rations—“displaces some of the rations the chickens would otherwise eat. This likely means they grow slower, which means they have time to grow with more flavour.

Processing age
Optimal processing age is fodder for many debates among farmers. Many people remember raising birds to 12 or more weeks, so still think that a slightly older bird is a better bird. However, today’s meat varieties have been bred to be processed at a very specific age.
Commercial chicken producers process their birds at 5-6 weeks. Johnston recommends that smaller scale producers may want to grow them for a few days longer, but shouldn’t exceed between 7 and 9 weeks.
Young concurs: “Because of the work that’s been done in developing rations and breeding birds, the industry has reduced considerably the time it takes to raise a chicken. Commercial birds are genetically similar and are bred for very fast growth. If you do raise them much beyond the age [designed] for that genetic typing, it’s really not good for the bird. Older birds suffer a lot of damage [including] broken legs, damaged wings and legs, breast blisters (from lying down too much), and heart attacks. We are better off as producers to pay attention to what is right for the health of the bird than to push the physiology beyond what is good for the bird.”

STEP 2: HANDLING & TRANSPORTING
So, you’ve spent a little less than two months raising your chickens under the best conditions you can manage in order to create excellent quality meat. Don’t ruin your hard work at the last minute by handling and transporting your birds incorrectly, resulting in damaged and bruised meat.
Most chicken farmers today depend on processing plants to transform live birds into oven-ready carcasses. If you plan to go this route, proper handling en route to the plant is key.
Chickens are night blind, so should always be caught in the dark to reduce running, flapping, crowding, and the associated likelihoods of injury.
Further, carefully consider your transportation arrangements. Chickens need to be transported in very well ventilated and under-crowded cages. The cages need to be low enough to force the birds to squat, as they will climb on and suffocate each other if they are able to, when stressed.
Panting chickens are over-hot chickens, which results in stressed birds, lower quality flesh, higher likelihood of damage, and greatly increased chance of pre-processing death. Stressed birds can also result in discoloured and tough meat.
Young explains that “people really underestimate what is a humane way to transport the birds. Unfortunately, most people figure ‘I’ve raised them for 8 or 9 weeks, my job is done.’ Then they huck them into any old container. It happens way too often that some of the birds are DOA when they get to [the processing plant].”

STEP 3: PROCESSING
All birds that are to be sold in Canada need to be processed in a federally or provincially approved plant. In addition, many farmers who grow birds for their own consumption find it easier to process through a processing plant.
Differing processes used in commercial plants may produce slightly different results. While most plants use a water chill process, a few specialty plants offer an air chilling system. Birds that are water cooled can absorb up to 4% of their body weight in water, which can result in a soggier bird that cooks with less crispy skin. Furthermore, according to Young (who operates a specialized European Air Chill system), bleach needs to be added to the water in water cooled systems to kill pathogens, resulting in whiter meat and less flavour.
As he explains, “many consumers choose air chilled poultry over the usual water chilled birds, as the superior flavour from not having to use bleach or extra water in the processing makes for a better quality eating experience.”
Should you wish to process your own birds for your own consumption, research exactly how best to humanely dispatch your birds and safely handle the meat. Speed, full bleeding, appropriate cleaning, and quick cooling are fundamental elements of creating quality meat.
Size, muscle growth, as well as nutrient and fat content, and much of the flavour are determined prior to slaughter. However, toughness is influenced largely just before, during, and just after processing. If you choose to process your birds yourself, keep several important factors in mind that can help or hinder your final meat product:
Birds need to be calm prior to processing. Pre-slaughter struggling and stress will result in tough meat. Scalding the birds immediately after slaughter is necessary to help release the feathers. However, doing so in too hot water or for too long can also cause meat to become tough (and can even start to cook it prematurely!).
Aging the bird post slaughter is a fundamental stage that many inexperienced farmers forget. Birds need to be hung for between 6 and 24 hours so that the natural rigor mortis process (tightening and then relaxing of the muscles) can occur. If deboning happens prior to the full rigor mortis, the muscles will contract off the bone, resulting in tough meat.
Advocates of agriculture and good eating like Young stress the importance of “attention to detail in getting your chicken ‘right’ from the farm to the fork, in order to provide the grower, processor, consumer—and of course the chicken—with the best possible experience through all stages and steps required to put wonderful chicken on our dinner plates.”

Q&A with an expert
Have questions about how best to feed your chickens? We did, so we chatted with animal nutritionist, Shawn Fairbairn of New Life Feeds, the Western Canadian feed division of Parrish & Heimbecker, Limited.

Q: Some people are tempted to reduce feed costs by offering their own grains (usually in addition to commercial feeds).? Is this a good thing to do??

?A: It all depends on the goal. Commercially, the goal is raising quality birds the most profitable way possible. Some smaller growers find if they just feed their birds corn, they like the colour of the carcass.
Nutritionally, whenever someone buys a bag of feed, it’s designed to do a certain thing. Diluting the ration more than what it’s designed for becomes wasteful and starts impacting quality. If the diet is unbalanced, the birds compensate by shifting to producing more fat and slowing down their growth. Producers can end up with small carcassed, fatty birds.
If you buy commercial feed and start offering scraps, the feed dilution means you decrease the amount of calcium and phosphorus and vitamin D, [which birds need] for healthy bones. If the diet is really unbalanced, the birds can develop bone problems.

Q: Are specialty rations such as organic or all vegetable better or worse for the health of the birds or quality of the resulting meat?

A: There are many different ways to make chicken feed; there’s no one right way. All feed systems, whether they are organic or all vegetable, can be well balanced or very poorly balanced.
The Government of Canada has clear requirements regarding nutrient levels and labeling of animal feeds. Feed on store shelves is assured quality, has guaranteed ingredients, and provides for all nutritional needs.
Farmers need to be aware of the feeding directions. If you buy feed that is designed to be mixed with your own, on-farm grains, the designer of those rations expects you to follow the mixing directions. I know of producers who have gotten into real trouble by trying to cheapen the mix by not following the directions.

Q: Do different feeds change the resulting meat?

A: All-vegetable diets or specific feed formulas can change the nutrient content of the meat. For example: by feeding specific ingredients, you can greatly increase the amount of Omega 3 fatty acids in the meat.

Q: Is giving preventative antibiotics in feed bad?

A: Giving or not giving antibiotics comes down to goals again. You can raise poultry that is safe for humans with and without antibiotics. You can also raise poultry humanely with and without antibiotics.
The advantage to antibiotics is you can produce more meat more economically. You can also potentially enhance the welfare of the bird by avoiding illnesses. There is certainly more potential of problems without antibiotics.
In North America, we are still fairly new to raising poultry without antibiotics. Your husbandry skills need to be top notch to put out the same amount of chicken meat [as you could if you were using antibiotics].

Q: What are the feed conversion ratios (ie: the expected feed input costs versus meat growth) for commercial birds raised in different methods?

A: Feed conversion is an extremely complicated subject. We can send feed with the exact same formula to ten different farms – all of whom are raising chicks from the same hatchery – and still end up with drastically different feed conversions. It’s very difficult to give estimates for feed conversion because so many different factors affect the ratio. Some of the big factors are temperature and humidity during grow-out, the availability of water, the lighting program [24 hours of light versus specific dark time], and the type of bird, to name a few.
Producers can get standard growth charts for their strain, but the actual feed conversion is extremely dependent on management strategies. [Some] standard growth charts are available on the internet, or I’d suggest farmers contact the hatchery where they’re buying their chicks.

Q: Does it cost more, per lb, to raise birds outside (maybe because they move around more)????

A: Feed is roughly 60-70% of the cost of producing chicken meat, so feed conversion can certainly affect total cost of production.
Infrastructure costs are much higher for an indoor operation. It costs approximately $30 – $35 / sq foot to create a commercial barn, whereas the input costs to throw together an outdoor coop are pretty low.
But the birds get far better feed conversion when they are raised in an enclosed, environmentally controlled barn. Outdoors, if the chickens aren’t warm enough, they use a lot of their food energy to keep warm.