Chicken vs. Beef II: Grudge Match

In a recent post I discussed seeking increased efficiency of production. This led to a long talk with my dad (a good thing). Among the points he wanted to discuss was efficiency of feed conversion of chickens compared to cattle. There are some interesting components to this discussion and some confusing data out there on the Google. If you want to discuss which animal can convert corn most efficiently chickens win compared to cattle. Hands down. If you want to discuss which converts grass most efficiently…well, chickens don’t stand a chance. And that’s important because most of the information you will find includes data on corn poured through feedlot cattle.

If we just narrow the scope to say, “Which animal grows the most pounds of meat per acre?” Well, the answer is chickens. Well, the answer is sort of chickens. Maybe. But it may depend on how you define “per acre” and how much work you want to do to enable that production.

According to Joel Salatin, and from what we have observed, we can sustainably raise 500 broilers per acre per year during the growing season where we live. That’s about the limit of the soil’s ability to metabolize the manure. But that’s not how much ground I need to raise those 500 broilers. I also need half an acre of corn ground, an acre of bean ground and about a third of an acre of oats, along with fish meal, kelp and soft rock phosphate. Let’s just go with 3 acres per 500 chickens resulting in 2,000 pounds of dressed meat or 650-ish pounds per acre. I did similar math for pigs a few years ago. In fact, that post addresses a number of issues I’m going to tackle again today and again tomorrow. ’cause it’s my blog. And I want to. Let me point out, though, that the chickens are not harvesting their own feed in this model.

SO I can sustainably raise 650-ish pounds of chicken on an acre in around 6-8 weeks. Compare that to grass-fed cattle. I need 22-30 months to raise a calf from birth to finished weight. Let’s just say 2 years. In my part of the world (where we grow a state average of 155  bu corn) I can raise one cow per acre. (I think we can push for 1.5 cows per acre but that will take some time.) Also note that the cow is harvesting its own feed. A two year old calf has accounted for one acre for each of two years before bringing me any money and we are really only going to harvest 800 pounds of beef from that carcass. So, really, I’m only raising 400 pounds of beef per acre per year. (Even if you run a stocker operation, that calf has exactly one mother out there in the world somewhere eating grass on an acre of ground (well, unless it’s a twin. Just let that one go.). I’m counting the cow/calf as one animal unit, same as a stocker is one animal unit. Same as 1,200 pounds worth of sheep would be one animal unit.)

Clearly, our winner and still champion…chickens. (Now, I know I’m skipping a lot of analysis and detail here. This is a blog post – a free blog post! – not a book. But play with these ideas for a minute with me and we might both learn something…or at least have a little fun.) To add insult to injury I can sell a pound of whole chicken (dressed right here on the farm) for $3. The neighbors (I use the term “neighbor” loosely here) are selling for $3.40 so I should probably re-evaluate my costs and prices. But compare any chicken price to beef. I have to find customers who are interested in at least 200 pounds of beef all at once, haul the cow to the slaughter plant…garnering somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.50-$2.00 per pound on the hoof. So that’s a gross of $1,800 per acre for chicken vs. a generous gross of $1,400 per acre for beef. But the chicken work was finished in under two months.

Clearly I should raise 60 acres of chicken and ditch the cows altogether. But I did say “gross”. As in before costs. A chicken eats 3 pounds of feed for every pound it gains in weight. Plus there is a big difference in labor needs of chickens and cattle. Now the math gets more difficult. In fact, it may tip the scales decidedly in favor of spending a little time each day moving temporary fencing.

But I don’t have to choose! The two can occupy the same ground (stacking), at different times, and are mutually beneficial. Heck, throw in some trees, ponds and berries and we can really create some diversity! But that’s not the point of today’s story. Not at all. Heck, I can grow cows and corn and chickens on the same ground…over time. Gabe Brown is doing it (well, he doesn’t have broilers…) and his row-crop methods look pretty attractive.

But if you want to live in a world where the sun shines, the rain falls and your animals feed themselves…cows. Maybe you and a horse and a dog keep the herd together and moving from day to day. Maybe you use electric fence for the same purpose. But diesel fuel is not required. What if we measured non-renewable energy units consumed per pound of meat produced?

So I still suggest that cattle are more sustainable than chickens but I admit, I can probably raise more chicken on an acre than I can beef…and in less time. Solar-powered cattle are independent of fuel and grain prices and harvest their own feed. Stacking broilers and cattle together helps lower my all production costs by spreading land costs across additional profit centers while increasing soil fertility and at the same time, helping break parasite cycles among other benefits. Especially since we live right where chicken feed is grown.

So, yes dad, I can probably grow more pounds of chicken per acre than I can pounds of beef but one does not exclude the other. I’ll talk a little bit about specialization and exclusion next time.

4 thoughts on “Chicken vs. Beef II: Grudge Match

  1. I had all kinds of issues publishing this post today. If you were notified of its publication multiple times…well, that was totally my fault. If you followed links to strange and unknown lands…well, that was totally my fault. This was part of a much larger draft that I broke apart into several segments. Nothing broke cleanly. It all sort of shattered on me. Again, totally my fault.

    Sorry about that.

  2. Great article. Everytime I was about to say to myself “what about….?” You covered it. If I had to choose one over the other I’ll go with cattle. I do broiler every year and they are a pain in the rear, ugly, and they just want to die every chance they get. But the one thing they can do that cattle can not is green up a pasture in the same season (cattle can “restore” better though). It’s truly amazing to see it for yourself. But I still choose cattle.

  3. Great post. As Charles above says, I think you hit every single “but” that I wanted to make. I think the fact that you can stack the enterprises is probably a bigger factor than people think. The intangibles of the myriad ways the species contribute to the overall health of the ecosystem, it’s resilience and diversity at levels we don’t really measure – there may be no immediate price tag for that, but it’s a value nonetheless.

    • Thanks to both of you. I am still reviewing numbers in this frankenpost but at some point you just have to hit Publish and move on.

      Like Charles,if I had to choose one…cows. But I don’t have to choose. Better still, I have the option to do chicken work only seasonally…the topic of the next post.

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