Arkansas, Alabama among top three poultry producers

By Jacque Kochak

A few years ago, an urban legend circulated on the Internet, claiming that KFC’s chickens are really genetically manipulated organisms without feathers to be plucked or feet and beaks to be removed. Of course the story has been debunked, but the tale is a testament to how little people know about the origin of their food.

“The population at large is almost fully divorced from animal agriculture and food production. They need to be educated so they’re not shocked when they learn how food is produced,” says Dr. Sarge Bilgili, an Auburn University poultry science professor and a specialist with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. He says his own young daughter was devastated to learn that a chicken had to be killed before the bird ended up fricasseed on her dinner plate.

In the interest of educating eaters, here are 14 facts you probably didn’t know about the poultry industry: companies are more profitable. The individual chicken farmer who eliminates antibiotics without a contracted buyer is taking a big competitive risk. Yet public concerns are high that use of antibiotics in animals has contributed to the rise of antibiotic resistance in human pathogens.

1. Big business. Poultry is big business in both Arkansas and Alabama. Broilers (poultry raised for their meat) are the top agricultural product in both states, in 2017 accounting for $3.8 billion in sales in Arkansas and $3.3 billion in sales in Alabama, according to USDA. Hens that produce eggs are called “layers.” This differentiation started in the 1920s and 1930s, when farmers noticed that some chickens were better for laying eggs while others produced more meat.

2. Tops in the biz. Alabama and Arkansas are two of the top three broiler-producing states in the U.S. (the other top state is Georgia). In both states, the poultry industry is concentrated in the hilly northern counties. The rocky terrain of the Ozarks in Arkansas and the Appalachian foothills in Alabama limited widespread cultivation of cotton or other crops, so poultry production offered a way for hardscrabble farmers to earn a living.

3. Back in the good old days. The normal mortality rate for poultry flocks was around 40 percent in the early 1900s when most poultry was raised in somebody’s backyard, according to a United Egg Producers timeline. Today, according to the National Chicken Council, mortality of broilers is about 3.8 percent. Before the 1920s, there was no broiler industry and people raised chickens mostly for their eggs. The chicken that went in the stewpot was usually a tough old hen no longer laying eggs.

4. Life in the wild. Life in the wild wasn’t actually all that idyllic for chickens. You’ve heard of a “pecking order,” and the term comes from chicken behavior. More dominant, aggressive hens peck at other hens and keep more timid hens from getting to feed. A hen starts pecking and pulling at the feathers of other hens, which sometimes leads to serious injuries and cannibalism. Part of the reason egg-laying chickens are caged is to control this behavior. Broilers, however, do not reach sexual maturity and don’t engage in this kind of aggression because they are too young to have formed a dominance hierarchy.

5. Moving indoors. The advent of specially designed indoor housing (which allows controlled feeding and protects a flock from predators and parasite infestations) was part of the reason chicken mortality dropped dramatically. Another reason was avian medications developed at researchers like those at Auburn and the University of Arkansas. Different species were cross-bred to create faster-growing, fuller-breasted birds, and over the years broiler production evolved into a major industry as consumers started to like the taste of young, specially bred birds.

6. No cages. Animal rights activists often publish photos of chickens crowded into cages, but young meat chickens are not raised in cages. They spend their lives in large, open structures known as grow-out houses. The houses are equipped to deliver feed and water, as well as having ventilation systems and heaters. The house’s dirt floor is covered with bedding material (such as wood chips, rice hulls, peanut shells) called “litter.” Some houses have curtain walls that can be rolled up in good weather to admit sunlight and fresh air. A screen keeps the insects, rodents and wild birds out, because they are vectors to transmit disease from other sources.

7. But flocks are large. According to the National Chicken Council, a typical broiler flocks includes about 20,000 birds, kept in a space that measure 400 feet by 40 feet. The Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST) says that the minimum space that should be allocated for each bird is at least half a square foot, although the typical grow-out house has about eight-tenths of a square foot for each chicken.

8. Tyson and vertical integration. In 1943, an Arkansas poultry farmer named John Tyson had a role in another significant industry innovation. At that time, poultry farmers operated pretty much on their own, with hatcheries producing chicks and feedmills producing poultry feed. Tyson took the first steps toward “vertical integration” when he started raising his own chicks and producing his own feed. By the 1960s, some 90 percent of broilers came from fully integrated operations, with the poultry producer controlling virtually every aspect of production, from hatchery to retail sales of broilers. By the way, Tyson’s company is now known as Tyson Foods, the world’s second largest second largest processor and marketer of chicken, beef, and pork.

9. Contract farmers. Today, most U.S. broiler production is under contract with a broiler processor. The grower normally supplies the poultry house with all the necessary heating, cooling, feeding, and watering systems. The grower also supplies the labor needed in growing the birds. The broiler processor supplies the chicks, feed, and veterinary medicines. Farmers have always operated with a slim profit margin, and this arrangement gives them a stable market. The benefit to consumers is that vertical integration results in lower prices and a better supply. Processors often add value by taking raw chicken and deboning it, marinating it, cutting it into pieces, pressing it into patties, rolling it into nuggets, breading it, battering it, or cooking it and freezing it.

10. Antibiotics. Although change can be slow, the poultry industry does respond to consumers, who more and more say they want “green,” “organic,” and “humane.” The industry is especially responsive to desires of large buyers like fast-food giant McDonald’s. When McDonald’s and other fast food chains wanted antibiotic-free poultry, they got antibiotic-free poultry. McDonald’s, in turn, was responding to consumer concerns about the use of antibiotics as a growth-promotant in agricultural animals. Low levels of antibiotics in feed modify the gut environment to utilize nutrients more efficiently, so animals grow more quickly and poultry companies are more profitable. The individual chicken farmer who eliminates antibiotics without a contracted buyer is taking a big competitive risk. Yet public concerns are high that use of antibiotics in animals has contributed to the rise of antibiotic resistance in human pathogens.

11. Free range. Another example of the poultry industry’s sensitivity to niche markets is the growth of farms that provide “free-range” poultry, raised with access to the outdoors. Typically, free-range birds stay inside at night for protection from the elements and predators. Free-range chicken meat costs quite a bit more than the standard chicken on sale at the grocery store. This is because the husbandry system is labor intensive, and feed intake is usually greater—especially in cold wintry months—because the environment is less controlled. That’s an acceptable trade-off for consumers concerned about laying hens closely confined in pens, however.

12. Organic. Just so you will know, the feed of “organic” poultry does not contain most conventional pesticides, fungicides, herbicides or commercial fertilizers. The feed is vegetarian and must be USDA-certified as “organic.” This label does not mean chickens are not caged. Be very wary of anybody advertising “hormone-free” poultry. It is illegal to use any kind of hormones in U.S. poultry production, and such a label is misleading because it implies other poultry products may contain hormones.

13. Challenges. Auburn and the University of Arkansas boast two of the few remaining poultry science departments in the country, and scientists at both schools have been responsible for numerous advances benefiting the industry. Likewise, they will help poultry farmers and processors solve some of the challenges of the future. One of the industry’s biggest challenges is controlling the incidence of Salmonella, a common foodborne pathogen. Another challenge is solving the environmental concerns caused by poultry-waste runoff and disposal of litter, as well as controlling the ammonia fumes that can damage chickens’ lungs in big poultry houses. Researchers are also addressing consumer concerns about animal welfare.

14. Ever-increasing consumption. In 1992, chicken surpassed beef as American’s most-consumed meat, and in 2018 it is estimated the average American will eat more than 90 pounds of chicken per capita. Poultry consumption has increased dramatically since 1965, when Americans ate almost 30 pounds per capita. This is partly because consumers perceive chicken as a healthy alternative and partly because the cost is attractive as a result of supply increasing so dramatically in the last hundred years. This is despite the fact that most people no longer live on farms and raise their own chickens (although recently backyard chicken flocks are increasing in popularity). A final challenge to the industry is to find ways to keep the cost of chicken affordable while addressing consumer concerns. Research at both the University of Arkansas and the University of Alabama will help.