Insect Based Poultry Feed: A Primer

Lets drop all political correctness and objectivity here for a brief moment and imagine if a chicken were your typical suburban coffee enthusiast.   I mean this chicken quite literally needs coffee to survive and grow.   It walks into a local café and asks for an extra large café mocha with soy milk.  Except our feathered friend drops its proverbial beak when it realizes that this mocha is almost *80%* soy milk with very little of its vital coffee component present.  Appalled, it proceeds to its local co-op grocer for its fix whilst adjusting the wide-rimmed plastic framed glasses in fury at the audacity of the cafe’s nerve for making the additive the feature star of its drink.   Welcome to the status quo of what we feed our broiler hens everyday.

“Ugh Vanilla Soy…What is this?  Desperate Housewives?”

– An Icebreaker –
For those who couldn’t read between the metaphorical lines, chickens in a modern industrial farm tend to eat an awful lot of corn/soy and not much else. It constitutes almost 85% of their feed!.  The reason for this is that your farmer is under an immense amount of pressure to make sure that our growing population is fed, and that those $7 roasted Costco chickens are available for purchase at any given day in the week. The magical figure used as a barometer for production is typically the farmer’s yield.

What is Yield?  The USDA boils it down to weight in pounds.   If you’re a farmer, you’ll typically want your chickens to be at 6lbs, after a 5 week “grow-out” period, before slaughter.  Now 6lbs in 5 weeks doesn’t seem like much, but lets consider that these chickens are essentially reaching full size in 1/49th of their average lifespan (7-8 years).  Even the most avid body builder would blush at those sweet gains, bro.  So how exactly is this accomplished?

Pictured: Guy who can’t eat as much as a chicken

– Nutrition (or lackthereof) –
Obesity is an epidemic in the United States for a very good reason. The most commonly available foods are really not all that great for us.  Some food scientists a couple of years back figured out that anything could be tasty with the right blend of fat, sugar, and salt.   Cue the long line of food products that have a lot of those three ingredients – not to mention carbs – without any of the minerals and amino acids (protein) we need to actually feel full and well nourished. These sorts of foods are cheap to produce and yielding high levels of energy (they are carbs after all).  The result is an appalling 35.7% of the adult (20 years or older) population in the US being clinically obese.

This is a general comparison to the tactic used to rear broiler hens en mass.  Stuff them with a bunch of *filler carbs that doesn’t really make them feel full* with some vitamin pills mixed in and let them eat to their heart’s content.   Unsurprisingly, they get really big, really quickly due to this feed mix having a decent Feed Conversion Ratio.  It’s basically a measure of how many units of meat is yielded (see? a magic word) off of a broiler hen per unit of feed it consumes.  For example, every unit of sour milk I consume produces 3-4 units of ungodly flatulence.  In the realm of broiler hens, 2.0 is considered a very acceptable number, but with the power of economics, science, and debatably black magic, the US has been singing along to a tune of 1.89 lb of feed per 1lb of chicken meat gained in 2014. So we’re awfully good at raising chickens for consumption, and we can do it quickly and at a huge scale.  So what should be the issue here?

The USDA intern who made this should be shot for such a weak pun

– Sustainability –
……Well the title sort of stole my thunder, but yes.  That’s the basic gist of it.  Now going into the basketcase that is the corn/soy vs environment argument is absolute lunacy.  The long story short is that both sides of the figurative grapevine have science on both of their sides, and both are listening to each other.  Anti-Corn/Soy says that these cash crops are a drain on water or soil nutrition. The agricultural industry then fires back with drought resistant crops along with the science (mostly absurd levels of funding) to prove that it works.  Anti-Corn/Soy fires back with accusations of harmful pesticide use, while the agricultural industry hires toxicologists to validate their safety, and both sides blame each other for bias in their studies.   But how can you blame all of the stakeholders for their hot-potato treatment of this issue.  This isn’t petty change, but rather a 100 billion dollar industry for those two crops alone.  Heck, we as a nation produce half of the world’s soybeans annually.   Ultimately though, what cuts through both of these factions is the consumption of our sweet sweet American Corn/Soy (I dub thee, Sorn).  The USDA has noted that our stock of Sorn has been trending downwards since the 1980s (when we bothered to start recording this information down).  So what does that mean for the farmers, and more importantly, our hipster-coffee chugging chicken mascot at the beginning of this post? Higher prices.

Bringing you to pound town

You see, all that science and engineering of insecticide, and drought resistant seeds are great and all, but they aren’t completely immune to ecological economics.  Quite frankly, I spoke with mother nature recently and she couldn’t give less of a damn if she didn’t put out more water this year or any upcoming years.    She was in fact really busy trying to get Greenpeace to stop being terrorists on her behalf.  And now that we’re producing more broiler hens than ever before, this definitely raises some very literal eyebrows on farmers not loaded with good old Monsanto Money.  Especially considering that according to our 2012 agricultural census, there are less principal farmers, (not laborers, farmers) and they’re making less money – but at least more of them have internet because heaven forbid a single US citizen go a day without adorable cat videos!  Let’s go ahead and couple that with a study by the congressional research service (albeit in 2011) singling out the fact that feed costs are trending higher, and you can now see how the direction of this issue is only slightly more morbid than the movie “Requiem for a Dream”.  Seriously, that’s such a depressing movie, sheesh.  Which finally brings me to:

Veganism!  Insects! –
Let’s face it, despite what your vegetable touting, green smoothie consuming, vegan stereotype friend may do and say; the world will still eat meat.  And while it does, there needs to be an alternative to lean on when our current method of producing chicken meat begins to show its age.   Hmmmm if we ignored the spoiler in the title of this paragraph for a second, I wonder what alternative we could feed chickens that can satisfy the Feed Conversion Ratio, can be produced at a scalable rate, and could ease the industry’s dependency on soy/corn based feeds….

If you guessed my response was insects, you’re in possession of an aptitude for reading the title of blog posts, and you deserve a hearty pat on the back.   However, I do understand that we as a culture have the attention span of puppy at Petco (I swear they didn’t pay me to name drop them….I wish they did though), so this will have to wait till later.

*mic drop*


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