This past year, slowgrowing broilers have made a remarkably quick ascent in the Dutch poultry industry. As from 2016, all the major supermarkets have started replacing conventional poultry meat with the slow-growing variety. Currently, an estimated one-third of all poultry meat in The Netherlands comes from slow-growing strains like the Hubbard JA78.
And to the surprise of many in the industry, broiler farmers are transferring along. Even though this means that instead of 20 to 22 broilers per square metre (and sometimes even more), they can only have 17 chicks per square metre. In weight, this means 38 kg/m2, in contrast to the regular 42 kilo.
Farmers have to place ‘enrichment materials’ in the barn; one bale of straw per 1 000 broilers, so the chickens have something to play with. Besides, farmers have to offer a natural day and night scheme, with a minimum of six hours of consecutive darkness per night. Some retailers even demand that the broilers have daylight, which means replacing some roof panels with see-through-panels. The slow-growing broilers are also more active and lively.
The Dutch poultry integrations seek to ensure that the farmers get the same income they had with conventional broilers. According to Plukon, one of the leading integrations, most farmers do succeed, or nearly, in earning the same money.
But even if they earn a little less, no one is turning back to regular broilers. Why? Because of the joy, the satisfaction they get from working with these chicks. Less broilers per square metre means that it’s easier to walk through the barn towards the end of the cycle, easier to check upon the flock. And the slower growing chicks don’t need all their energy to grow, so they’re less susceptible to diseases. Average growth is limited to 50 grams per day (conventional: 60 to 65 gr/ day); which also means that that cheaper feed can be used, with less proteins. But most beneficial, to both farmers and broilers: less dead animals. Among regular broilers 3 to 3,5 percent mortality is common. With the slow growing counterparts, the mortality rate is below 2 percent. Having to pick up only 2 or 3 dead ones a day makes everyone happier.
Some people in the industry are irritated by the fact that the local animal welfare group Wakker Dier - which has been campaigning for years with terrier-like tenacity against the ‘plofhoender’ - seems to be dictating what retail chains should put on the shelves. And Wakker Dier is not quite satisfied yet, because the slower growing broilers’ life span is extended by just a meagre seven days. They take 49 days to reach the required 2,2 kg; conventional broilers take 41 tot 42 days.
But hey – the chicken gets a better quality of life, with more space, less disease and bales of straw to jump on and to scratch the litter around. For the broiler growers it means less labour - one less cycle per annum, cheaper feed, less use of medicines, less effort to walk through the barn and only a few dead ones per day. For more or less the same income. So I think the slow growing broiler is here to stay. So far, we’re the only country in North-western Europe where this transition process is taking place. Neighbouring countries are far more (low) cost-driven. But this development is beneficial not only for the broilers, but for the farmers as well. So I guess more countries will follow suit.¡