With more than $7 billion in annual sales, it would be easy for Salisbury, MD-based Perdue Farms, a top 10 domestic poultry producer, to focus on business as usual. Instead, the company looks to the future and understands its vision must go beyond simply putting broilers, wings, and chicken breasts in supermarkets and then on consumers’ dinner plates.
In launching its expanded pasture-raised program, Perdue is putting into play a clever piece of technology that benefits consumers, the environment, and, of course, its birds. At its 6th Annual Perdue Farms Animal Care Summit, the company unveiled its solar-powered mobile chicken coops, which it believes will play a key role in its future.
Ryan Perdue, VP, and GM of Perdue’s pasture business explained how the solar-powered mobile chicken coops operate and how they will lead to more sustainable farmland and a healthier product for consumers. Perdue’s commitment to the pasture-raised part of the business was further fueled by its December 2019 purchase of California-based Pasturebird, a firm whose mobile chicken coop took the pasture-raised process to a new level. The acquisition made Perdue the largest producer of pasture-raised chickens in the United States.
While a seemingly subtle distinction, the change in location yields significant benefits. As Perdue explained in an interview with The Spoon in advance of the announcement, a mobile, solar-powered chicken coop houses 6,000 birds which is 75% less than a typical bird house. It is a floorless building, 150 feet by 50 feet in size, and via a solar-powered engine, it moves 50 feet per day.
Perdue says the chickens are offered a new, fresh bounty of grass, insects, flowers, and grains at each new pasture location. While the chickens are not labeled organic, there is a significant increase in the organic matter they eat when presented in a new feeding area each day.
Perdue says that rotating the pasture areas creates a “virtuous cycle” where there is less erosion from rain, and by having the land rest, grass and flowers grow back even more bountiful than before.
While much of the process is automated, farmers will be hands-on overseeing the movement of the mobile coops.
“There are major benefits to the consumer,” Perdue adds. “A pasture-raised bird has less saturated fat, is more nutrient-dense, and higher in Omega-3.”
Perdue Farms is not disclosing how many solar-powered mobile coops it currently deploys or a schedule as to when its poultry-raised product will be widely available on supermarket shelves. Because it is a premium product, pasture-raised chicken commands a higher price; however, Perdue reports, “as the company finalizes price points, Perdue will not sell its pasture-raised chicken at a profit.”
At the time of Perdue’s purchase of Pasturebird, several smaller producers of pasture-raised poultry, primarily sold at farmers’ markets and specialty grocery stores, feared that the deal would put pasture-raised poultry out of the hands of independent farms. Based on Perdue’s acquisition of Coleman Natural Meats in 2011 and Niman Ranch in 2015, the company has grown more than in revenue and product lines.
In an interview with The Counter.org, Lauri Torgerson-White, senior animal welfare specialist with Mercy for Animals, suggests Perdue has learned a lot from companies like Niman Ranch, a pioneer in progressive farming. “Most companies, like Tyson, blow us off. We’ve done multiple investigations of their farms, and they refuse to talk to us,” she says. “But when Perdue learned what was going on, they reached out to talk to us, and since then, we’ve had a really positive relationship with them. Every year they’re doing more to improve the welfare standards on their farms. It’s been a very, very good, cooperative, productive relationship.