In this week’s series celebrating 175 years of Farmers Guardian, we look at how chicken went from being a backyard bird to the brink of being the world’s most consumed protein.
Hen sheds were once a common sight on British farms.
Squat wooden cabins with ventilation funnels poking from the roofs, as if poking from the top of a ship, were part of the make-up of a mixed, and much smaller scale, agricultural system.
Whether it was layers or chickens for meat, they served the needs of the local area and a food system drastically different from today.
Go back to the late 1980s and it was pork which was the most consumed meat for people in the developed world.
But not any more. Chicken now rules the roost in terms of being the number one protein source for people across the developed world, with many believing the African Swine Fever epidemic in China will allow it to over take pork.
With almost one billion broiler chicks placed in to UK sheds every year, it is a meat inextricably linked to changing dietary demands and a consumer culture focused on price and affordability more than any other factor.
It has also been at the forefront of genetic and technological change and the vast, climate controlled broiler sheds we see today, with a turn around of about six weeks for their chickens, show how much agriculture has changed, particularly over the last half a century.
Yet chicken husbandry dates back to Roman times and for centuries it existed on a small, backyard scale.
By the 19th century, which is when Farmers Guardian’s forerunner the Preston Guardian was formed in 1844, the main commercial concern in poultry focused on fancy breeds which often adorned the pages of different magazines with their extravagant plumage.
There was some trade for fattening birds for sale to higglers, who were basically pedlars who travelled around the country or locality and bartered in products such as chicken, dairy and game.
And thus it would remain for some time, either as fancy fowl, a marginal concern or something farmers’ wives could sell to add a bit of money to the domestic purse, either via eggs or meat.
By the 1930s, however, attitudes to poultry had started to change. World War I had caused attitudes towards self sufficiency to be reassessed and there started to be a more prevalent desire for the country to look at ways to maximise its own efficiency when it came to food production.
The 1930s would see the first proper use of battery cages for laying hens as farmers became more aware of the need to keep their animals out of their own muck for cleanliness and disease purposes.
The interruption of World War II put the brakes on some development within the sector, but by the time rationing ended in 1953 there was more available feedstuff to start increasing the scale of poultry units in the UK.
But it would be across the Atlantic Ocean where real developments were starting to gather pace in the form of the broiler chicken.
The 1940s had seen the launch of the ’Chicken of Tomorrow’ competition in the USA which aimed, according to newspaper adverts from the time, to produce ’one bird chunky enough for the whole family’ and which had a thinner bone structure and therefore available more meat.
The competition had a significant impact on the future of the poultry industry, with the winning Cornish-New Hampshire crossbreed setting a new standard for meat production within the sector.
It would also reduce rearing times for broiler chickens from 12 weeks to about six weeks and supercharge the industry across America and Europe, with average broilers going from 0.9kg in 1957, to 1.8kg in 1978 and 4.2kg by 2005, while all the while the amount of feed needed to produce 1kg of chicken meat went from 2.5kg of grain per kg, to 1.3kg.
And while the underlying breeding techniques were driving the industry forward on the farming side, the US was also starting to sow the seeds of a consumer revolution as, in 1932, ’Colonel’ Harlen Sanders opened his first chicken shop in Corbin, Kentucky, which morphed in to Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC).
With more than 900 KFC outlets currently open in the UK, plus thousands more independent imitators, it has been part of the process of chicken rising up the consumer agenda as the go-to protein. Interestingly, the UK’s first KFC opened in the same town as FG – Preston – in 1965.
But while the foundations were being laid, what took chicken from a meat which led to 150 million birds being slaughtered in the UK in 1965, to the 1bn bird industry we have today?
One reason was that in the 1980s some within the medical profession began to become worried about the impact saturated fats in pork and beef were having on human health, in particular heart disease. With the belief that white meat was more healthy, the march of chicken received greater impetus.
Carys Bennett and her colleagues from the University of Leicester published a study of broiler production in 2018, with the general assumption that this form of meat, more than any other, is an example of human beings changing agricultural systems to serve specific consumer demands.
Whether it is the genetic transformation the broiler chicken has undergone so that it bears little resemblance to its ancestor, the red jungle fowl; its astonishing rise in terms of production numbers since the 1950s; or the use of modern, climate controlled systems we see today, it has changed more than any other industry.
It is also a clear sign of the changing food retail landscape.
Ms Bennett concludes: "The system of industrial chicken production and its export around the world has facilitated surging chicken-meat consumption.
"Separate broiler breeding units, farms, slaughterhouses, processing plants and marketing are coordinated into one system called vertical integration. First implemented in the southern USA in the 1950s, vertical integration systems now account for 97 per cent of USA broiler production."
So as China’s love of pork wavers due to its battle with ASF, chicken could soon clinch its spot at the top of the meat podium.