Saturday, May 7, 2011

Why does feeding a chicken have to be so complex?

Chickens roosting in the barn for the night

   Last year we recommended Organic Valley to you all as a relatively better choice for milk by supermarket standards. We figured any company that big wouldn't maintain much integrity very many years, but we didn't foresee having to issue a retraction so soon. We know there are still a lot of good farmers supplying Organic Valley, but a recent comment by the CEO, George Siemon was enough to spoil any endorsement we could make for the brand. The CEO's comment actually had nothing at all to do with dairy; his comment was made in defense of using synthetic methionine in organic broiler feed -- apparently eggs are sold under the same brand name: “I don’t understand what the big deal is. There are tons of synthetics in your life; now we are saying none in animals?” You see, a diet of strictly grains and oilseed meals (i.e. corn and soy) is so unnatural for chickens that they're unable to get all the essential amino acids they need, and because a natural diet is so incompatible with modern, large-scale ways of keeping chickens, the people that write the rules for the USDA organic program made an exception for synthetic methionine in poultry feed, so that modern, large-scale farms could continue to supply "organic" consumers with poultry products.
   There would be several ways to avoid the need for synthetic methionine in poultry feed, but the solutions all get in the way of industrially defined efficiency. One solution would be to supply chickens with fresh, green feeds. Another solution would be to let chickens scratch up things like earthworms and grubs. Another solution would be to simply raise chickens that grow at a more natural rate and don't run into nutrient deficiencies as readily as the modern hybrids bred for intensive factory farming. Another solution would be to give chickens the kind of surpluses (like dairy byproducts) that small farms generally find themselves with. All of these things happen as a matter of course on a farm like ours, and any one of them would likely be a solution to the USDA organic methionine problem. Unfortunately, all of these solutions are too far removed from the reality of “USDA organic” practice, so the people in charge simply wrote the rules defining “organic” to accommodate industrialized farming methods by allowing synthetic amino acids in poultry feed. Now, maybe synthetic methionine isn't as harmful or risky as many of the other synthetics used in agriculture -- we don't know and for our sake we don't need to know -- but the kind of farming made possible by synthetic methionine, thousands of chickens crowded into buildings never eating anything fresh, fed by Midwestern mega-farms, is certainly harmful, and it's a far cry from what organic ought to mean.
   We found the following mystery ingredients in one blend of USDA organic feed (which we're sure is more natural than what's fed to the flocks supplying supermarkets, whose feed ingredients we've never seen disclosed) -- keep in mind this is a USDA certified organic feed:
Sodium Silico Aluminate, Dicalcium Phosphate, Yeast Culture, Vitamin A Supplement, Vitamin D3 Supplement, Vitamin E Supplement, Choline Chloride, Menadione Nicotinamide Bisulfite Complex, D-Calcium Pantothenic Acid, Niacin Supplement, Riboflavin Supplement, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride, Thiamine Hydrochloride, Vitamin B12 Supplement, Biotin, Folic Acid, Manganese Sulfate, Ferrous Sulfate, Calcium Iodate, Zinc Sulfate, Copper Sulfate, Sodium Selenite, Dried fermentation product of Enterococcus faecium, Dried fermentation product of Bacillus coagulans...
   Some of these ingredients have more natural sounding names than others, but surely none of them was fed to poultry 200 years ago. Where do all these things come from and at what ecological costs? Would you know how to grow or mine or synthesize any of these things? Why does feeding a chicken have to be so complex? For comparison, we don't feed anything to our chickens that farmers didn't feed 200 years ago. According to the season and what we can grow ourselves or buy directly from neighbors (besides surpluses from our own farm like garden extras or surplus dairy from our animals) we simply supplement free range forage with barley or wheat or heirloom (non-GMO) corn. It really doesn't seem to us that normal chicken feed ought to require sophisticated modern science. For us eating organic doesn't mean eating processed foods with long lists of ingredients that came from who-knows-where and were produced who-knows-how; why should eating organic be defined so differently when it comes to feeding animals?
   USDA organic is a huge improvement over conventional -- don't get us wrong, it gets a LOT worse -- but it still leaves a lot to be desired, and as a system it's nothing we find hope in.


Sustainable Eats said...

I love this - I'm wondering how you process your excess dairy for the chickens? Are you clabboring it first? I've been trying to find a way to get my excess whey into them but they just don't seem to drink it like water. I guess I'll have to soak their grains in it overnight or something. I also have a huge compost area underneath the rabbitry which has been colonized with red wigglers. I cover up 2/3 of the area at a time to protect them and let the chickens have the other 1/3. So far this winter the color of the yolks is still shocking orange so I'm sure it's working.

Eric & Melissa Brown said...

Now that we have hogs we almost always feed our surplus dairy to the hogs instead of the chickens, and they seem to benefit from it more than the chickens that seem to already be getting enough grubs and whatever else just from foraging in the woods and around the barnyard, etc. When we have fed dairy to the chickens, though, we never did anything special. Mostly we've just given them liquid skim milk (and also whey), and they've drunk at least as much of that as they'd otherwise drink water.