When it comes to what's called broiler chickens, the ones that are processed into food, every day counts.
In just five-ish weeks, they hatch from eggs, grow and find their way to our dinner plates. That brief time period is fascinating from a nutrition perspective, because a bird must grow up incredibly fast and stay extremely healthy to be ready for marketing in about 32 days.
Some find the time frame troubling, because these are such young animals, and getting younger all the time.
Indeed, the time to market has dropped about a half-day a year for the past 15 years. But our global appetite for meat is increasing, and when we demand more, faster and economical production from farmers, they try to respond with a healthy, developed animal, in fewer days.
A whole industry has grown up around keeping these birds healthy.
They live in close quarters, so disease must be rigidly controlled at the same time fast growth is encouraged and supported. To that end, the animals get an aerosol mist vaccination when they leave the hatchery, and later, they get antibiotics to fight infections. These large-molecule antibiotics live in the birds' intestines to kill bacteria and never enter the animals' bloodstream. So, they don't get into the meat.
The birds' growth spurt is particularly crucial in the first four- to seven days, a period called the pre-starter cycle, when they switch from being sustained by the yolk in the egg, to eating corn and soybeans on their own.
But corn and soybeans contain complex proteins that sometimes cause indigestion in the young birds. They're made more digestible by adding enzymes and other ingredients to the birds' feed.
Finely tuned feed enhancements — ones consumers and chickens alike find palatable and acceptable — represent a new direction for the industry. Think of it a bit like a sports drink instead of water, or nutrient-enhanced cereals, or omega-3 eggs. It comes down to enhancing performance, of your muscles, your immune system or your cardiovascular system.
Same thing with chickens. They get supplements to keep them healthy and make them grow faster. But there's still a lot that can be done to optimize the amount of energy the animals can extract from their feed.
Some people think chickens are fed hormones. They're not. In Canada, chickens haven't been fed hormones since the 1950s. Producers say part of that reason is because the supply and price for chicken in Canada is set by the government, high enough so producers can make a living and use the safest measures possible to get their chickens through the barn.
As chickens' trek from egg to table gets shorter, farmers are relying on nutritionists, feed specialists and veterinarians to help keep the animals properly fed and problem free.
That serves up a major role for research. At the University of Guelph, professors Steve Leeson and Trevor Smith are among the scientists looking at the connection between animal health and optimized growth in poultry. They and others took part in an industry-led seminar last week in Aberfoyle, to raise matters such as the birds' brief maturity window, and antibiotic-free production.
For me, it was an opportunity to revisit Leeson's thought-provoking delivery earlier this spring to a global audience of several hundred farmers and industry representatives at Alltech's annual feed symposium in Kentucky.
He talked about the precision approach (once called animal husbandry) needed to keep the birds in top form, and urged farmers to consider what he calls "the lost art of brooding management."
That means keeping an exceedingly watchful eye on the flock as it develops, and tweaking feed or management techniques when needed.
I think consumers appreciate knowing farmers are paying attention to their animals, and how they're being treated. I also think farmers should be aware of consumers' concerns about animal production.
That kind of dialogue promotes understanding — and hopefully trust.