Roast Chicken

Chicken – the expensive white meat?

(The information in the below blog post is our opinion only, based on our experiences and beliefs, which influences our story and journey.)

I hope the title got you thinking, what does she mean by the “expensive” white meat? Isn’t chicken one of the most affordable meats to buy, I mean you can get a whole chicken from Coles for $5.00 /kg. compared to $13/kg for beef mince.

Do you remember when we all used to have roast chicken for Sunday lunch, I wonder if this was a tradition because chicken was expensive and saved for a cherished occasion – such as when we all were home for a family meal?

In 1928, in America, during a presidential election it was advertised that President Hoover would provide the economy for “a chicken in every pot” and “two cars in every garage”, which in those times implied affluence, as chicken wasn’t an everyday meat and we all know cars are expensive.

Chickens eat grain, which must be purchased, unlike grass which tends to be free to grow. Chickens lay eggs, which were more abundant and more valued by the householder than the meat. Back then, you only got to eat chicken when one of your layers got too old or you hatched out some eggs and ate the roosters. Unlike beef, chicken meat just wasn’t as available then as it is now.

Generally, the increase in the availability of chicken would be a good thing, but like most things it all depends on the HOW.

How did we as a civilization find the keys to mass producing chickens for very little? Well they were taken off the paddock/back garden and put into climate-controlled sheds, numbers were massively increased per square meter, big corporations with the buying power purchased the feed & birds and contracted the growing to the farmers.

Many chicken farmers tend to own the land, barn and amenities, while the birds and food are all provided by the company. Farmers are paid per bird that reaches slaughter weight, and not every chick delivered lasts to become a meat chicken ready for processing. A lot of times the large company also owns the slaughter plants and markets the birds themselves. This all adds up to creating a low-cost chicken for our consumption. But just because it looks like a chicken and chirps like a chicken doesn’t mean it is the same as more traditionally raised chicken from 100 years ago. Hugh Fearnley-Whittenstall, an English chef and farmer, has lab tested both conventionally raised and free- range chickens for comparison in nutrients and found that the free-range chickens had less fat and more omega 3 than their conventionally raised counterparts. Personally, I also find they taste better.

I won’t enumerate the health issues barn raised chickens can encounter, suffice to say the industry has a history of overuse of antibiotics paired with a high rate of loss of birds before processing time. The animals never see the sun (which must inhibit the availability of vitamin D in their meat), don’t have good social lives and don’t eat their greens as there aren’t any. If you are interested in the environmental cost, you must factor in the travel from birth to grower house to slaughterhouse and then travel as a food from a central distribution warehouse to the retail shop and then to our kitchens.

Ever since I found out how chicken is farmed conventionally, we have purchased organic chicken, which is very expensive, and ate more red meat than white, to help with spreading the cost. I learnt how to joint a chicken so I could purchase a whole chicken at the lower price. I researched and learnt how to make stock so I could use every last bit of the chicken and none went to waste.

The first time we hand plucked chicken, it was two layer hens that needed to be dispatched due to personality issues and it took us an hour to pluck each bird – we are nowhere close to experts. But all technology is not bad and now we have a mechanical plucker that does the job for us in seconds. After moving out here to the country, (when we would have more time – oh how little I knew!), one thing I wanted to try was raising our own meat birds – to see if we could do it in a way that gave a good product and gave the birds a healthy and enjoyable life – for a chicken.

The American farmer, Joel Salatin of Polyface farms, was a huge inspiration. He has even published a book with all his farm structures in it with building instructions to help people get a head start to raising pasture-based animals for themselves. So, with Joel’s design and Dominic’s know-how, we made a hutch from leftovers and scrap, that could be slid over the grass and hold about 50 meat chickens in it with an automatic waterer and feed trough. Made from metal and plastic pipe it looks a little different from the prototype, but it works great.

We started with sixteen meat chickens as we were not too eager to process a large amount first time. We purchased organic chick grower food from a local feed supplier, country heritage feeds at Pittsworth, whose layer feed we have used for years and found it the best on the market. Then we purchased sixteen day old meat chicks and put them on the deck where we could monitor them easily, with a heater light and food and water. Once they had progressed to almost fully feathered, we moved them on to grass and together we moved them everyday, checking and refreshing their food and water as required. Wonderfully the experiment was a success!

Mobile Chook Pen

There was no stinky smell, the chickens were healthy and grew well, and we didn’t have any loss to predators.
Last year we were able to put away 100kg of chicken in our freezers, and the quality, to us, was even higher than the best organic chicken we have eatenI have found the Bendele brand of organic chicken the best quality, as they have an on farm processing area and the chickens never travel from the farm at Kilkivan, Qld. It can be hard to find – we always bought it from Mandy at Brisbane Organic Meats @ Northy St Markets.. There was no long and grueling travel to the abattoir for the animals, they had a good life and a quick death. This is reflected in the tenderness of the meat and for us it meant that the chickens were given the best opportunity of a happy life.

Some of the meat we kept as whole chickens, about half of it was butchered by yours truly and vacuum packed into bags for freezing. We had chicken breasts, legs, thighs, and wings. I found that cutting the wings into three, the tips saved for stock, the rest could be marinated and then frozen. On defrosting, the marinade highly flavours the meat and they taste great as well as being a homemade convenience food. I cut off any extra meat on the carcass and minced it for rissoles while all the fat and skin was frozen to be rendered down in the slow cooker to make schmaltz, (fat for cooking) with the crunchy bits given to the dog as a treat. The frames are used to make stock, which is frozen till used.

Last year’s foray into growing our own meat chickens has been so successful that we have decided to continue with it. It really does make you appreciate your food when you have waited for it to grow and processed it yourself to provide quality food for you and your family.


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