Although it sounds esoteric, the feed conversion rate is at the heart of raising a sustainable chicken. Also known as the feed to meat ratio, this number is simply the pounds of feed given to a chicken divided by the weight of the cleaned carcass.
The sad truth is that the feed conversion rate for chickens raised by nearly all backyard hobbyists is two, three, or even four times as high as the ratio for industrial chickens. Yes, you do end up with a higher quality chicken that lived a happier life if you raise it yourself, but that
chicken will not only take more money out of your pocket than buying one from the store would, your homegrown chicken will also have a larger environmental footprint. In my mind, that’s unsustainable.
Let’s look at some feed to meat conversion ratios:
- 2 : 1 — what the industry claims they get for factory farmed Cornish Cross.
(Hard to tell if this is true. My other numbers come from extension service websites or my own experience, both of which I trust more.)
- 3.5 : 1 — what you can expect to get from pastured Cornish Cross in optimum weather.
- 5.2 : 1 — Freedom Rangers on pasture, again optimal conditions. (Other “slow” broiler breeds are in the same ball park.)
- 6.2 : 1 — Our Dark Cornish at 12 weeks last year.
You’ll notice that pastured chickens actually eat more feed to reach a certain weight than they would have eaten if they were confined. (Side by side experiments have confirmed this.) Although we think of
pastured chickens as getting a lot of their nutrition from wild food,
chickens can’t digest much grass, so what you’re really counting is how many bugs your birds found. It seems to take broilers more energy to find bugs than they get from eating those bugs, thus the lower feed conversion rate on pasture.
Although these numbers seem very disheartening, I hope they don’t make you turn to supermarket chickens. As I’ll explain in a later post, I think that homesteaders can grow heritage chickens at nearly the same feed conversion rate that you’d get from Cornish Cross on pasture (and maybe even better) if we’re willing to think outside the box.
My argument with your article is simple. The unsustainable aspect of the entire article is that the health care problems related with store bought chickens is the heart of the matter. Chickens that are allowed to free range through the day with a treat thrown at them when needed is in the end far more sustainable than the doctor bills that come with the crap we outlaw here regarding pesticides and poisons, use on mega farms outside the U.S. and then ship the food to the unknowing consumers. That process is not exclusive to chickens as you well know. You seem, maybe not, but seem to beat the drum of the big lobbyists that are trying to legislate consumers from growing their own food. My point that I want to make in closing is that our grandparents “prepared”. They canned, dried, and now the art of putting away food, growing a small garden, should be part of every single persons livelihood. Couple that with an address to what consumers throw away at restaurants and you now have no food shortage.
The food conversion rate is a small part of a big picture. You must look at the sustanability of the food being pesented. Is GMO soy as sustainable as mosquitoes? I think not. GMO has been shown to decreas the biodiversity and firtility of the area they are in. Do crops take gass to plant, harvets, prosses, ship? Yes. Do bugs?….Farm raised chicken that take up a higher conversion fate are still more sustainable, wouldnt you say?
PS i just sent a copy but this one has correct email
I always enjoy stumbling across your articles, this time it relates to feed conversion rates as we just buthcered our first set of Cornish Cross. In your various feed conversation ratios do you know if it’s live weight or dressed? A small scale pork producer recently said they would use live weight. I’m trying to determine if I should use the carcass weight or include the weight of everything that is edible.
Jeannette — All of our numbers are dressed weight, but I could see including other edible parts (like the neck and feet) in that we tend to leave out. Good question!