Whether it is butter chicken, spicy hot wings, creamy chicken salad or a slow roasted whole chicken with all of the fixings, your family is going to enjoy the old fashioned quality of TK Ranch Soy-Free Chickens.
It takes almost twice as long to raise a free-run chicken for our program than conventionally raised birds. We raise our chickens in smaller flocks where they enjoy at least twice the space an organically raised bird is given. This extra space allows them the freedom to move and socialize more naturally.
Taking extra time to grow our birds allows them to develop a wonderful flavour. Many of our customers say that our chicken brings back memories of home and visiting Grandma on the family farm. So take this opportunity to reconnect with the past and savour our delicious free-run chickens.
The Challenges of Chicken Production
I have been raising meat chickens for almost 30 years and I’ve learned a thing or two about what works and what doesn’t. Unfortunately, nothing is as simple or easy as it seems. Consumer demand for chicken has skyrocketed the last few decades and this has prompted industry to develop breeds and systems to simplify and speed up the finishing process. Meat chickens with large breasts have all but replaced the dual purpose breeds my pioneer ancestors raised. Back then the females became layers and the males became dinner, but this is no longer the case. Maximizing production is the goal of most people in agriculture because it is so expensive to feed livestock, and this includes chicken. Today most chickens are raised in free-range environments and they are 5 weeks (38 days) old when processed. The term free-range is loosely defined and most commonly means cage-free, although some free-range chickens are raised outside. Stocking rates inside free-range barns vary from 18 chickens per square meter for conventionally raised birds to 10 birds per square meter for organic birds. Organic producers raising poultry inside barns do have to provide their birds with access to an outdoor pen, but only when weather permits. Even when these birds have free access to the outdoors, most stay inside because these breeds prefer a temperature controlled environment close to feed and water. Chickens, like people, are omnivores and require grain and protein to grow properly. Animal by-products are commonly used for protein, but consumer demand for “all-vegetable” feed has many chicken producers using soy instead. Organic producers cannot feed animal by-products so most rely on organic soy as their protein source. Corn is often used to make chicken more yellow because people perceive this means the birds were more healthy (in egg production corn is used to make yolks yellow too). In conventional chicken production, where birds are concentrated (0.5 square foot per bird), antibiotics are routinely given (in the water) to prevent illness in flocks.
Some producers raise chickens outside in Alberta during the warm summer months, but the word free-range is also loosely defined under these production models. Most pastured poultry are raised using moveable Joel Salatin style chicken tractors (cages) that are 12X12 feet in size and stocked with 100 to 140 birds each. Some producers move their birds once a day onto fresh pasture and some twice, but due to the concentration of birds in these pens the grass doesn’t last long and is usually grazed off within an hour. Like virtually all poultry, pastured chickens rely on the grain ration they are provided with. Unfortunately some producers market their pastured poultry as “grass-fed” which is misleading because they are in fact also fed grain. So is pastured poultry more ethical than raising chickens inside a barn? On the surface it might appear that being outside is better, but in reality it’s not that simple. We raised pastured poultry on TK Ranch for many years and came to the conclusion that it was not that animal friendly for several reasons. To begin with, meat chickens have very short lives — most are slaughtered between 5 and 8 weeks of age. Chicks have to be brooded in a warm building for three to four weeks before they are fully-feathered and able to withstand cooler nights outside. Once put into pens on pasture they face significant risks from predators and severe weather. Our first year we lost 20% of our birds to badgers, foxes, skunks, weasels, and coyotes digging under the pens. In a severe thunderstorm we lost 200 birds to wind even though we had staked down the pens. A friend of ours lost 1200 birds in 40 minutes when the temperature spiked to 37C without a wind. Even though her birds were supplied with shade they couldn’t escape from the heat and perished. Another friend lost 300 birds due to extended cold wet weather. After many years of trying to make pastured poultry work we stopped raising meat chickens altogether. We decided that for the significant effort and expense it took to raise chickens we could no longer risk predator or weather losses to put them on pasture in small pens for two or three weeks of their lives. It didn’t make sense or cents – especially in our cold northern climate.
After many requests from our customers to add chicken back to our product offering, we thought long and hard about the best way forward. We decided to take a middle of the road approach that would address our predator and weather concerns without compromising animal welfare. Raising small flocks of meat chickens in uncrowded low density housing seemed like the most balanced approach, especially since we offer chicken year round and live in a cold climate. Since we did not have a chicken barn on TK Ranch, we decided that partnering with another farm who could properly raise birds for our program would be a good option. After two years of interviewing potential partners, we chose a very progressive Hutterite Colony located close to TK Ranch. They agreed to raise small flocks of 2500 birds for us every 10 weeks in low density housing, they target 4 birds per square meter when the birds are fully mature. They custom mill all feed to our stringent specifications and do not include soy, antibiotics or animal by-products as part of the ration. They add essential oils, vitamins and minerals to the mix to boost bird immune function naturally. This colony is very invested in raising poultry for TK Ranch and works extremely hard to meet our stringent animal welfare and quality protocols. In a world where chicken production is not black and white, they are doing an exceptional job for us.