Chicken is supposed to be a cheap meat. Why are pastured birds so pricey?
Cheap chicken is one of the great myths of our modern industrialized food system. Chicken is very expensive to produce. Grocery store chicken only looks cheap because you’ve already paid for it in your tax bill. Through the farm bill, US taxpayers pay approximately $20 billion per year in direct payments to farmers, over one third of which goes for the production of feed grain. Much of this subsidy is paid out to vertically-integrated industrialized meat production companies, who, as a result, are able to grain-feed their livestock for less than the price of growing it. Small-scale farmers are generally not in a position to vertically integrate and therefore cannot gain the same advantage from these grain subsidies. Furthermore, pasture-raised poultry is extremely labor-intensive compared to raising ruminants, like cattle and sheep. On the farm we can visit the cattle once per day to make sure things are going all right, check the automatic waterers to make sure they are working. Once every few days, we open a gate to allow them to amble into the next pasture. At processing time, one adept butcher in a well-equipped facility can handle the slaughter, and after the dry aging period, he or she can process the animal and turn out about 600-800 pounds of saleable meat with one day’s work. By contrast, pasture-raised chickens must be fed and watered three times per day. Depending on the shelter, they must be moved to new pasture once per day or once every three days, and the move requires lifting a heavy portable shelter. Chicken was not historically a cheap meat. In fact, cookbook writers of yesteryear were presented with the culinary challenge of writing recipes for veal, which was the cheap meat at the time, to get it to taste like the costly chicken. Cheap chicken is a relatively new and unrealistic phenomenon.