August 29, 2019

How to Access the Best Chicken

We look at the farming techniques and sustainable practices that are yielding some of the most succulent and quality chicken in South Africa’s food sector. Kim Crowie explores.

There’s nothing like a fillet of chicken breast that is done to perfection – no matter the dish. but Getting it right in the kitchen is not where an incredible chicken meal begins. It starts on the farm at birth, where chicks are reared through sustainable and healthy practices to ensure chefs at the end of the line are getting the most out of a cut of this versatile white meat. Here we speak to the people who are making a difference from the ground up, as well as the food suppliers providing top-of-the-range products to the culinary industry.

Regeneration is the Future

SA Chef was recently part of a tour of Farmer Angus’ grounds at Spier in the Cape Winelands. This personable young man took us on a trip through their exclusively grass-fed, pasture-reared cattle farm and introducing us to their chickens, which lay in Eggmobiles that are moved every day to provide the animals with a balanced and varied, natural diet.

The 126 hectares of rolling green pastures is testament to Angus McIntosh’s dedication to grass and microbe farming. Farmer Angus uses a technique called regenerative agriculture, which values the life of the animals and the land they graze on. This form of artisanal livestock farming offers a protein source that is high in nutrition.

Through a practice called permaculture, they’ve planted 126 hectares of multi-species and 20 000 trees and shrubs into the shelterbelts that surround the cattle pastures. From bright purple flowers on the September Bush that attracts bees, to the deep red crimson clover that fixes atmospheric nitrogen into the soil, all the plants growing here serve to restore balance and regenerate the soil microbes.

By constantly moving his livestock and feeding them only that which is found in his pastures, Angus prevents overgrazing and over-fertilisation. This technique has ensured that his meat contains no trace of gluten, MSG, GMO, nitrites, nitrates, anti-biotics or hormones.

Happy Chicken Equals Happy Food

A young company with big ideas for the future of chicken farming, Happy Lance Farm was started in 2016. The Gauteng-based farm is headed up by Robert Patson, who believes that food is medicine. After watching a documentary called Food Inc, he snuck into a local farm in Haartbeespoort – and to his horror witnessed the inhumane practices for himself. After researching and YouTubing best free-range practices, he travelled to the Phillippines to get hands-on experience in how they use medicinal herbs for feed and natural medication.

“Breeding our own stock and growing your own feed is the only sustainable business plan that will show true profits without compromising the quality,” Robert explains. “The sustainable way provides you with a natural fertilizer, fresh eggs, healthy chicken meat, natural pest control, compost, minimal waste and perfect pets for kids and make great companions for senior society.”

The life of a dual-purpose chicken at Happy Land is between 6 months and 3 years of pure bliss. The breeding stock is used for between 2-3 years before joining their ‘chicken old age home’ where they provide huge table eggs, he explains. Happy Land’s breeding stock is of the highest quality in South Africa – and has the awards and accolades from poultry shows and competitions to prove it.

“We collect the fertile eggs from our breeding stock then place them in our incubators and in 21 days we get beautiful chirping chicks join the Happy Land Farm family. They either get sold at a week old or people pre-order them for me to raise them to a specific age group, mostly at point of lay which is between 18-24 weeks. The free-range broiler chicks are 3 weeks in a heated brooder shelter before enjoying the last 3 weeks free ranging acting out their natural behaviour soaking up the sun, eating insects and having dust baths before getting sold as live birds till we get an abattoir.” Happy Land’s main ingredient in their home-made, all-natural vaccine is a THC + CBD compound found in the cannabis plant.

Robert urges chefs who want the best chicken to get to know their farmers – or at least to check the label. Real free-range chickens only have 8-10% fat content, while commercial chicken can have between 19-29% fat content. Most importantly, however, is that the growing period must be at least 70 days – otherwise that chicken’s definitely been on hormones. He adds that one of the trade-offs with free-range is that the meat might be a bit tougher because they’ve had more exercise time. “But the organic taste of the chicken meat itself is something worth exploring.  It’s very flavourful, also because these chickens eat herbs and not antibiotic-filled feeds.”

Happy Land Farm is one of the only places offering educational experiences for those who want to learn more about breeding and farming chickens. They offer theory and practical expertise from candling eggs on day 18 to moving chicken shelters to fresh pastures. “We know we can’t do this revolution for healthy food by ourselves, and that is why we offer public workshops on poultry farming and free-range related practices,” Robert explains. “We explore all the roles, from waking up early to learning about all the by-products of chickens – you can use everything from the feathers to the feet and nothing goes to waste.”

Read more in Issue 14 of the SA Chef

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