The Chicken Story

Our understanding of chicken nutrition now exceeds that for any other domestic animal—even for humans.

The first person on the peninsula to raise chickens expressly for the market rather than simply sell what exceeded domestic needs was Mrs. Wilmer Steele. She ordered 500 chicks in 1923 and sold the 387 that survived to two pounds for sixty-two cents a pound, live weight.

This produced a very handsome profit indeed. In today’s money (that is, after allowing for inflation), Mrs. Steele received about five dollars a pound, wholesale, for her chickens. Not surprisingly, word of these profits spread fast. In 1925 the state of Delaware produced fifty thousand chickens for market and just the next year topped one million. By 1934 the peninsula was putting out seven million broilers a year, and production continued to soar as costs per bird declined steadily and demand rose accordingly.

Chickens in such numbers could neither be fed in the traditional way, with table scraps and leftovers from other livestock, nor hunt and peck on their own. So hundreds of companies began to produce special feeds for broilers. And the science of chicken nutrition began its explosive elaboration as they competed for customers by offering a superior product. Because chickens mature quickly and few ethical constraints have been applied to experimentation, our understanding of chicken nutrition now exceeds our grasp of that for any other domestic animal and even for humans.

IN THIS NEW FIELD, ONE OF THE FIRST DEVELOPMENTS to have a major impact on the market price of the finished product was the introduction of vitamin D, without which calcium cannot be metabolized and rickets develops. But like all other animals, including humans, chickens need sunlight in order to synthesize vitamin D on their own.

Raising broiler chickens outdoors exposed them to the uncertainties of the weather, predators, and disease. But the adding of cod-liver oil (and later the purified vitamin itself) to chicken feed allowed chickens to be raised in large, roofed sheds where temperature, diet, and lighting could be controlled for maximum weight gain.

The results of this ever-deepening knowledge of chicken nutrition were quick in coming. The great food writer Clementine Paddleford marveled as early as 1943 that “ten years ago it took 6 ½ pounds of feed to produce one pound of broiler meat. Today four pounds of feed will do the same job.” Fifty years later it requires only about one and three-quarter pounds of feed to produce a pound of meat, a conversion ratio that would have seemed, at the turn of the century, close to that seen in the biblical miracle of the loaves and the fishes.

WITH THE FEED COMPANIES HAV- ing more and more direct interest in the farmers’ success, the feed salesmen began to provide advice, not only on what and how to feed chickens but how to care for them as well. It was not a long step from feed mills providing credit and advice to feed mills contracting with farmers to raise birds that belonged to the feed mills, in exchange for a guaranteed price per pound. The separate links in the chain were beginning to join together in what economists call vertical integration.

One fundamental split, however, occurred at this time: the separation of egg farming from chicken farming. The first commercial broilers were mostly surplus Leghorns, actually bred for their egg production. Leghorns lay white eggs in great quantity but, precisely because of that fact, do not put on weight well. The Boston market, unlike the rest of the country, preferred brown eggs, and these came from heavier breeds, many with such New England-inspired names such as Rhode Island Red, New Hampshire, and Plymouth Rock.

New England hatcheries began shipping crosses of the heavy breeds, which gain weight much more rapidly than do Leghorns, to the burgeoning broiler farms on the Delmarva Peninsula and soon to other areas of the country as well. And hatcheries began breeding new crosses from heavy stock specially for rapid weight gain.

They also continued to breed champion egg layers from Leghorns and other so-called Mediterranean breeds. Again, the increase in production has been staggering. At the turn of the century, thirty eggs a year was the norm. A champion might produce fifty. By the 1930s a hen laying a hundred eggs a year was a candidate for a ribbon at the county fair. Today a hen that doesn’t lay two hundred and fifty is a candidate for the cat-food factory.