Selecting a Flavorful Christmas Bird

Tips on finding the perfect turkey, goose or chicken for your holiday festivities.
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If you're planning a Christmas dinner of roast turkey, goose or chicken, source the best-quality meat possible for your meal. The freshness and flavor of an organic or free-range bird just can't be beaten.

Poultry Farming Facts

Since the advent of industry farming and breeding technology in the twentieth century, commercial poultry farmers have been able to produce bigger birds in a restricted environment in a shorter space of time. The impact of these intensive farming methods has meant that the amount of cheap meat now available has increased dramatically. Recently, however, the trend in farming has begun to shift back towards smaller-scale poultry farmers using traditional, more holistic ways of rearing their flocks to provide good-quality, flavorful birds.

Organic and Free-Range

These birds are kept in smaller groups than conventional poultry, housed in spaces large enough for free movement and access to open pastures and water. As a result, the birds lead longer, happier and less stressful lives. The smaller groups establish a natural pecking order that helps to allay the aggression and attacks that often occur between confined birds. Also, these birds are fed a nutritious, balanced diet.

Organic turkeys may be smaller than their commercial counterparts but, because they live longer, the meat has more flavor. Geese are grazing birds; and the better the grass, the better the end re-sult. The geese are fed a cereal-based diet until they are about 12 weeks old, and then again once the nutrients in grass decrease in wintertime. Sometimes, the only difference between organic and free-range birds is the type of feed used. Organic feed can be costly for a smallholder, as can the organic certification.

The Provenance of Poultry

Knowing who you are buying your food from will make all the difference to the quality of your meat. It's worth finding a reliable local supplier and asking them how the birds have been reared and killed and what type of feed has been used. If you can visit the farm to make your order, you may even be able to see the birds in their environment. Small-scale producers are passionate about their food and work hard to make sure their produce tastes as good as it can on your plate. So your carefully chosen bird will result in a fabulously tasty meal.

Understanding Product Labels

If you choose to shop for chicken or other poultry in a supermarket, it's important to check the various labels and understand what they mean in order to make sure that you buy well-reared poultry:

  • Standard
    Up to 10,000 turkeys and 50,000 chickens at a time are kept in windowless, airless sheds, which is about 11 chickens per square foot, or the equivalent of each bird living in a space the size of an letter-sized sheet of paper. Lighting is kept dim to discourage bird activity and the sheds are dark for only one hour in every five to encourage the birds to keep eating. There are no perches or toys to distract the birds from eating, and they are fed a high-protein cereal diet so that they quickly put on weight. The average age of these chickens at slaughter is 37 to 40 days.
  • Barn-Reared 
    These birds are reared in sheds, but at lower stocking densities (for chickens, it is the equivalent size of 1.25 sheets of letter-sized paper per bird). Lighting is varied to simulate night and day: six hours of darkness at night allows the birds to rest properly. Perches, straw bales, and toys en-courage birds to peck and be active. The birds are corn-fed, so they grow more slowly, have lower mortality rates and are less likely to suffer leg and hip problems, hock burn, and foot pad burn. The average age of these chickens at slaughter is 50 days.
  • Free-range 
    Smaller stocks of birds are housed in sheds and have free access to the outdoors during daylight. These birds have a more varied diet: cereal feed, plus grass, seeds and clover. Due to their out-door life, the birds have fewer leg and hip injuries and good muscle development. The average age of these chickens at slaughter is 56 days.
  • Organic
    Small flocks of up to 1,000 birds roam outdoors during the day on land planted with vegetation, and at night in small huts that are occasionally moved around to let the land rest. The birds have a longer, healthier outdoor life with a natural diet of organic cereal feed, grass, seeds and clover. The average age of these chickens at slaughter is 81 days.

Poultry Farming Facts

300 million turkeys are bred for slaughter in the US annually, mostly in dark, cramped conditions. The highest demand for turkey is in the holiday season.

Forty years ago, it took 84 days for a broiler chicken to reach market weight; now, it can take as little as 37 days to achieve the same weight.

Broiler chickens typically have a splayed gait and pronounced waddle - a result of leg and hip injuries caused by their accelerated development. They also suffer obesity and heart disease from such rapid weight gain, and hock, breast and foot-pad burn from constantly sitting in soiled litter.

Some commercially reared giant turkeys can be reared to weigh almost 88 pounds in just 30 weeks. By comparison, an adult organic turkey will only weigh about 10-11 pounds at the same age.

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