Raising Broilers in an Animal Welfare Approved Way
Animal Welfare Approved is one of the most strict humane certification labels in the USA. We decided to be certified through them for our farm because the rules and regulations of how chickens should be treated and raised most closely matched our own belief system. When you see an Animal Welfare Approved label in the store, you know you can truly trust that the animals involved in the production of that product were treated properly.
So what are the rules for raising chickens in the Animal Welfare Approved way? Well, the rules are basically giving the chickens the life that naturally pops into your mind when you think of a wonderful and happy chicken farm – the image you see on the cartons and packaging of so many of the animal products being sold in the grocery store, with chickens meandering about in a grassy pasture. Sadly though, unless the product is labeled as Animal Welfare Approved, the chickens were probably being raised in a terrible factory style production manner.
We raised a group of 25 Broiler or Meat Chickens last summer at our farm, employing the tenets of Animal Welfare Approved. We were very happy with the results and are looking forward to raising them again this year.
Animal Welfare Approved does not allow for the super fast growing White Cornish Cross. They can sometimes grow so fast and uneven that it leads to leg and heart problems. The Red Broilers and Black Broilers grow a bit slower, but it is a more natural growth and makes for tastier and more nutrient-dense meat. Colored Broilers also camouflage better and are less likely to attract hawks. When given the space and opportunity to forage, we found that Broilers will indeed get the necessary exercise and were perfectly capable of staying healthy and vibrant.
When we raised our broilers, we purposely fed them in a way that kept growth even and slow. Fast growth to a large size was not our priority. We fed certified organic, non-GMO feed and supplemented the ration with 50% garden scraps including weeds, brassica flowers, bolted lettuce, prunings, herb trimmings, etc. When the birds were put into a secure hutch at night, they were only fed the garden scraps until they were let out into the field in the morning.
In general Broiler Chickens are less active and less apt to fly than Layer Chickens, so they can be easily confined by an electric poultry net fence or even a regular wire fence. However because they are less active, they are more vulnerable to predators, so you must put a lot of effort into protecting them. We raised them within the fencing of our vegetable garden, but kept them confined (using a 3 foot high poultry netting) to the areas of the garden that were ‘resting’ or cover cropped so the birds couldn’t destroy the vegetable plants. The double fencing kept them safe and gave them the space to roam freely, which is one of the primary rules of Animal Welfare Approved. The 25 birds had about 500 square feet of space that was rotated regularly – our garden is set up with 3 foot wide, 50 foot long rows, so our Broilers took up about 3 rows plus pathways. We used a small EZ up tent to provide them with shade and/or rain protection.
At nighttime, the fencing isn’t enough to keep them safe from predators, so they were moved into a large rabbit hutch with a wire bottom over the compost pile each night. The calm temperament of the Broilers made this task actually quite easy. It is important to provide them with plenty of space in the nighttime quarters – at least 8 inches of roost per bird is required by Animal Welfare Approved. We would leave them with a bunch of garden-greens and scraps at nighttime so they would start their morning filling up on greens.
Our birds took about 14 weeks and weighed in at about 3-4 pounds. This may seem small compared to the giant over-stuffer-roasters in the supermarket, but there was such a difference in the level of quality. Just knowing that they were raised with respect and that the birds led happy fulfilling lives was worth it. However, they were also amazingly delicious and much more nutrient dense than regular supermarket chickens. The meat was snappy, flavorful, and darker and the bones made absolutely wonderful broth that has really helped us get through flu season!