Organic Poultry Production Standards
Written by gil
gil provides a timely summary of what Organic means in the context of commercial poultry rearing.
Organic table poultry : what does this mean ?
What do organic farmers do differently from conventional ?
What is and is not acceptable to the Soil Association, the organic
certification body with the strictest standards on poultry keeping for
both meat and eggs ?
Would you eat organic chicken ?
Would you rather buy conventional but free-range ?
Or locally-produced, or from someone you know with a few birds ?
Do you want to rear your own to be absolutely sure of what you're getting ?
Maybe this article will provide some 'food for thought'.
As some of you will know, I was doing a postgrad course in Organic
Farming. This is a revised version of a course assignment, based on a
field visit to an organic farm that rears chickens for meat. The
original purpose of the visit / assignment was to observe, and report
on the production methods used in the poultry enterprise. I have not
identified the farm for reasons of confidentiality. Poultry isn't an
area I'm familiar with. The visit was an eye-opener.
The poultry enterprise is involved in Company X's 'outsourced'
production of organic table poultry, whereby individual farmers
contract with Co. X to undertake the rearing of day-old chicks until
slaughter at 10 weeks, using a basic system developed by Co. X. The
company provides training and an advisory service, and guarantees
finance. The farmer provides land, labour and poultry housing, and buys
feed and other supplies. This is a diversification from Co. X's
existing conventional pig fattening franchise. This farm started
rearing table poultry soon after Co. X's move into the poultry
business. Co. X is a large food supplier, but not a supermarket, and
does not deal exclusively with supermarkets
2. Management of table bird enterprise
2.1 Integration with other farm enterprises
Land use on the farm has varied over the last few years, as the
farmer developed a workable organic rotation. In the last two years,
the farmer has narrowed his activities down to grass (some occupied
rotationally by the poultry enterprise, with the remainder rented out
for grazing conventional sheep) and carrots. Despite the national lack
of grazing available for finishing organic lambs, the farmer does not
want 'the hassle of it'. SA standards advise the use of sheep for sward
management in poultry enterprises, so the sheep do have their uses. SA
Standards 20.1.1 require farmers to manage their organic poultry
activities so they either integrate into the farm as a whole (i.e. as
part of a long crop/livestock rotation), or with other organic farms in
the local area, re manure, rotation and feed.
2.2. Marketing policies
The birds are slaughtered at 10 weeks old [= minimum conversion
period for a traditional or slow-growing strain, from conventional
day-old chick to organic bird, required by SA Standard 20.3.4] at the
organically certified facility in the region, well within the travel
time specified by the SA ([8 ?] hours from the loading of the first
bird on the farm to the unloading of the last at the abattoir). They
were originally sold at a city farmers market, but all production is
now sold to two supermarkets, and marketed by Co. X under a brand name.
The farm is registered organic by the Soil Association (SA)
certification agency (CA), and its poultry is labelled as such, in
order to benefit from the wide consumer recognition of the SA. The
market for organic chicken is expanding rapidly, and Co. X intends to
ramp up its overall production from current levels of 5,000 to 15,000
birds/week. At present, the farm produces 600 chickens a week, all year
round, which is the batch size around which its production facilities
are planned. Co. X is currently trialling batches of 700 birds, which
could be reared using the same amount of space [SA Standards 20.7.3 for
stocking densities in table poultry housing – 10 birds or 21kg
weight/sq.m]. The expected live weight of birds at slaughter is 2.5kg,
possibly rising to 2.7 or 2.9kg in summer : more daylight, ranging
further, more muscle, eating more.
3. Flock management
The breeds used for organic table bird production are not those
used in conventional poultry enterprises (Ross and Cobb). Breeds are
specified by Co. X, which prefers to use coloured birds for organic
production, perhaps because it is then easier to separate organic from
non-organic carcasses, or perhaps because the consumer associates brown
birds with a healthier option (in the way that brown eggs are
incorrectly perceived as more wholesome). Organic table birds tend to
be the slower-growing Continental breeds, such as MasterGris and
Colopak, which have a different conformation (body shape, muscle and
fat distribution) at maturity : 50% smaller in the breast and twice as
heavy in the legs, with a different overall shape, taste and meat
texture. The farmer was previously rearing white-feathered 747s, which
were easier to see and catch in twilight.
3.2. Rearing policy
It is not yet possible to obtain organic day-old chicks in the UK, and
therefore SA standards do not as yet prescribe this, although Co. X
want to move towards this situation. The farmer buys his
conventionally-produced day-old chicks from Co. X, which sources them
mainly from further south, with some from an agricultural college. They
are supplied in batches of 600, divided into trays of 90 chicks. At
present, there is thought to be over-reliance on a single breeding
flock for chicks, and this affects breeding performance, with higher
rates of mortality than desirable (currently 9%, double the rate for
the first year of operations). Hatching or transport problems cause
most deaths, occurring in the first 48 hours after delivery.
3.3. Batch size
The chickens are reared in cohort batches of 600, first in
containers (like very large incubators, not as awful as it sounds) and
then in the open field. SA standards [Section 20.7.11] prohibit the
keeping of table birds in batches of more than 500 in a single poultry
house without special dispensation, and absolutely prohibit batch sizes
of more than 1000. So this farm has obtained a dispensation from the
SA, on the grounds that its rearing methods are particularly scrupulous
in all respects other than batch size, and especially with regard to
animal health and welfare. Since the natural size of social group for
poultry is apparently between 30 and 50, it is clear that even organic
chickens kept under the Co. X system are unlikely to exhibit the
natural behaviours of their species. In particular, outdoor ranging is
vastly reduced at such high numbers. I thought the chickens looked
quite close together, but when you think about conventional factory
farming with 35,000 broilers crammed in a shed, these huts are not so
The birds are kept in arks in the open field, in 30m2 parks surrounded
by 18" high electric fencing, which keeps most of them in, most of the
time. Each park has a couple of wooden pallets for the birds to shelter
and play with, to encourage them to range outdoors. This is close to
the SA's minimum requirement for poultry production, which would prefer
that chickens had natural cover, such as vegetation and trees, and also
access to outside dust baths and drinkers. In fact, the farmer is
currently trying to lobby the SA to get existing standards regarding
grazing space reduced, to make it easier to find birds in a smaller
area in the long summer grass. During the visit, in January 2006, many
of the chickens were in their arks, which was not surprising, since it
was pretty bleak out, and the grass was very short. It would be
interesting to see how many of them go out in summer, and what their
social patterns are.
Chicks are fed starter pellet feed from days 1 to day 21 or 24 (eating
approximately 1kg per head over 21 days, and delivering a 3:1 feed
conversion rate); then moved on to a compound organic pellet feed for
finishers. This is supplied at a rate of 75kg/day per ark of 600 birds,
rising to 125kg/day for older chickens. Feed pellets are heat-treated
to kill off moulds that could cause respiratory infections. The pellets
are bought by Co. X from a supplier in Yorkshire, and the farmer buys
them through a producer group with (in theory) more buying power than
an individual farmer would have. The chickens also receive
home-produced feed made from organic wheat in order to save feed and
Also note that they are being fed mostly concentrated,
processed/pelleted feed, with the odd potato chucked in. The only
greenstuff they get is what's in the field outdoors. I'd recommend
summer chickens, since they will have had a more varied diet.
3.6. Health and welfare
When keeping birds in such close proximity, health and cleanliness are
priorities, as infections can spread quickly. Chicks are given live
vaccine in their drinking water at 7 days against illnesses such as
bronchitis. Continental poultry breeds tend to be less subject to the
health problems of conventional Ross/Cobb varieties, such as leg
collapse and heart attacks as they approach slaughter weight. Leg
problems experienced in organic rearing are usually due to congenital
malformation. There are occasional feather-pecking issues, but these
often arise from a mineral deficiency in the breed flock, and can
sometimes be minimised by providing the birds with potatoes.
Feather-pecking was ascribed by the farmer to a mineral deficiency in
the breeding flock from which the chicks had been produced, given that
there are very few Mastergris / Colopak large-scale breeders, and they
all breed from a restricted gene pool.
The birds fight naturally, and some bald patches are expected.
Wing-clipping is not practised, although the birds do not range far
anyway. The chick containers are predator-proof against rats and foxes,
and are easy to clean. Occasional fox problems in the open field are
dealt with by shooting, and by shutting all birds in at night, although
the farmer is trialling leaving chickens out at night in good weather.
3.7. Housing arrangements
Organic standards require table poultry to have outdoor access for
2/3 of their lives. On this farm, birds range outdoors for just under
70%. For the first 3 weeks of their lives, chicks are kept in 'brooding
containers' made out of specially-adapted, lit, heated, insulated and
easy-to-clean industrial containers, with drinkers and tube-type
feeders running the length of the walls. Water tanks are sited on top
of the containers, and pressure-washed in summer to prevent algae
build-up. During the first three weeks, chicks experience successively
lower temperatures (starting at 31C and reducing to 19C by the end of
week 3) as they feather up, grow larger, and approach the time when
they will be let outdoors into whatever season obtains. They are also
introduced to increased darkness to simulate natural diurnal cycles.
This gradual acclimatisation reduces stress and mortality rates when
they first go outside. A generator provides power for heat and light,
and each container is connected to an alarm system linked to several
different individuals' mobile phones, should heat or power fail. At
about 21-24 days old, the chicks are moved to arks in the field with
daylight hours access to the outdoors, and their container is
pressure-washed. Their field ark is kept at 10-15C for the first week.
The 7 arks (one per batch/week) are wooden and unfloored, can open on
one or both sides, and are moved to fresh ground after each batch of
birds. Each ark has 2 drinking lines and 6 feed stations. Clean straw
is provided weekly, and there is constant air movement. Both the
containers and the arks looked very clean.
If you're concerned about how much time your [supermarket /
branded] organic chicken will have spent running around outdoors, only
buy it when there has been plenty of daylight in the previous couple of
months, when it might have found more to forage on in the long grass,
and may have built up more muscle from ranging.
Just because a supermarket / branded chicken is 'organic' means it
may well have been produced under a farming system just as planned and
deliberate as any industrial process.
The SA are continually revising their standards. I find it
worrying that individual farmers can effectively lobby the SA to relax
standards. I also find it reassuring that the SA is responsive to
producer feedback about whether its standards can be sensibly applied
in practice (in general, not in the specific case of poultry).
Stocking density : even under SA regs, table chickens can go up to
batches of 1000 with special dispensation. Perhaps they keep each other
warm ? It must be freezing halfway up a hill in NE Scotland in January.
In order to be certified as organic, chickens have to be allowed to range, so an organic chicken is free-range by default.
Soil Association standards do not allow GM products in foodstuffs, so organic will also (for now) be GM-free.
Personally, I didn't eat poultry produced on a large commercial scale
before this visit (though I was considering organic trad breeds from
small-scale producers with flock/cohort sizes of less than 50 birds),
but it hasn't changed my mind : I still wouldn't. Come the summer, I
might think about it.
If you'd like to comment on this article or any of the issues raised in it, why not start a thread on the Downsizer 'Poultry and Livestock' forum ?
Useful link :
Soil Association : www.soilassociation.org