Ethical Farming: Pondering the Super Chicken

Not surprisingly, Lohmann's super chicken, which has been on the market for two months now, has suffered dismal sales. Only three farms in Austria have ordered the young hens. Even organic farmers are reluctant to buy the new birds. While those farmers allow their chickens more movement and give them different feed than conventional farmers, they rely on the same high-performance hybrids. Indeed, millions of male chicks are also killed for the production of organic eggs.

High-Tech Alternatives

Meanwhile, researchers are exploring another possible high-tech solution to the chick problem: a way that allows the birds' sex to be recognized while still in the egg. Male animals could then be sorted out before they hatch, which would circumvent the animal-protection debate and cut costs at hatcheries. For the past eight years, the University of Leipzig in eastern Germany has been researching a method based on hormone analysis of the fertilized egg. Researchers at the University of Leuven in Belgium are also testing a technique that involves scanning the eggs. But both systems are not yet reliable, and they will probably be too expensive.

Such a process would allow Lohmann and other producers to continue with the profitable hybrid breeding they have been doing for years -- though even that strategy has its own shortcomings, because hybrid animals are susceptible to diseases. The high laying performance also means the hens rapidly use up the calcium stores in their bones. After only a little over a year, they are -- just like their brothers before them -- disposed of as animal fodder or, at best, stewing hens.

Back to the Basics

This has prompted some organic farmers to go another route -- by returning to traditional methods of chicken farming. Two years ago, the organic food association Naturland launched a pilot project which relies on an old French breed, the Bresse chicken, instead of intensively bred hybrids. One of the participating growers is Lutz Ulms, who has an organic farm on the outskirts of the small town of Sonnewalde, about 100 kilometers (62 miles) south of Berlin. He bought 500 male and 500 female chicks, bred the next generations himself, and let the egg-laying hens live longer than one year.

His organic food customers are delighted with the project, says Ulms. But, for him, it hasn't paid off. "It's a hard way to earn a living," he admits. When he wanted to have the young hens vaccinated, he had difficulties finding a vet. "It's not worthwhile for farm animal vets to drive out to our place. Small animal vets don't know anything about raising poultry," he says. He also had to pay extra at the slaughterhouse because he deals in such small quantities.

Even the chickens turned out to be more unpredictable than expected. Many of them injured themselves or died as a result of feather pecking. Others tried to brood their eggs rather than lay new ones. Ulm's birds ultimately laid between 160 and 170 eggs each year. Four eggs sold for €2.40 ($3.25) in natural food stores (in comparison, 6 organic eggs sell for €1.55 at Aldi Nord, the German discount food chain).

But Preisinger's dual-purpose chickens aren't much of a money-making venture either. Although they are diligently laying their eggs in the barn in Kitzingen, their eggs are much smaller than expected. "For weeks now, they have only been large enough for weight class S," complains the geneticist (S being the smallest weight class for eggs). In the store on the experimental farm, 30 eggs from the super birds go for just one euro. But just like the chickens, the eggs aren't selling.

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