If you've been following the market at all these days, you know that it hasn't been all Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) and Taser (NASDAQ:TASR).

In fact, recent clobberings of reasonably valued growers such as SanDisk (NASDAQ:SNDK) and Silicon Laboratories (NASDAQ:SLAB) has me taking a hard look at my own portfolio. I'll admit it; I like trafficking in damaged goods. (These aren't the kinds of traditional value stocks you might find in Philip Durell's Inside Value, where you'll find some solid companies trading at single-digit P/E ratios.) Cheap for high-growth means P/E ratios in the teens or 20s.

But, as Bill Mann pointed out in a recent commentary, you don't know the future, and neither, apparently, do I. That unfortunate reality means that devalued growth stocks -- even those trading at levels that seem to undervalue them in relation to their predicted rate of earnings appreciation -- can still suffer major disappointments. The reasonable investing response, then, is to buy companies -- at least a few -- that are already so cheap that even more bad news can't hurt them to any great degree. Note that we're not interested in utter junk, but companies where the expectations are so low that any outperformance should result in a decent appreciation in the stock's price. Tough to find? Maybe not that tough. For me, the answer was right there in the freezer.

After my own recent trip to the Wall Street woodshed, I figured it was time to load my portfolio with a few low-P/E stocks. Quite frankly, I was getting chicken -- in the psychological sense.

When I looked at that bulk bag of boneless chicken breasts next to my ice cubes and Popsicles, it occurred to me that I should probably think about getting chicken in the stockological sense as well.

Checking your chicken
Chicken is about the most boring industry I can imagine. Worse than cement, maybe. But we've covered some of the players here at the Fool for quite a while. Chicken and other meat companies attracted a bit more attention than they were used to over the past couple years owing to the popularity of the Atkins diet. But while that fad may fade, chicken consumption will endure and, in all likelihood, grow. As many industry watchers point out, Americans having been consuming more and more chicken as they make the switch to a lower-fat, lower-cholesterol diet.

Like other food processing industries, chicken producers -- or "protein producers" as some of these firms call themselves -- generally trade at very low P/E ratios. That's because they're subject to swings in commodity prices. But the beauty of many of these companies is that expectations are so low that they often carry low multiples even if they don't deserve them. Small chick-hawker Sanderson Farms (NASDAQ:SAFM), for instance, grew net income 128% over the past three years. At the same time it was making huge strides in free cash flow.

That's the reason Tom Gardner called it one of his biggest mistakes. Oh, he noticed the quality in the company and made it a pick for Motley Fool Stock Advisor. The trouble is that he advised readers to take a 70% profit after one year, only to see it triple from that point.

Hey, we don't always get them right. But that's no reason to stop trying. A peek at the chicken market these days shows plenty of reasons that contrarian Fools might want to consider a foray into fowl. First, of course, are the warnings from the Wise to avoid the entire sector. In the past few months, several firms have done poorly on their grain-hedging -- Tyson (NYSE:TSN) among them -- and that's led some investors to flee the coop entirely.

So, now that the high price of feed grain seems to be easing, you'd think that people would be piling back into poultry. Not quite. You see, falling feed prices, according to some, inevitably lead to more chicken supply, and that should result in a drop in chicken prices. Except that sometimes the unexpected happens yet again. Whew. This is complex stuff, right? How do you know which way things will go in the future?

Review that second paragraph up there. You cannot, and do not have to, predict the future. Instead, give yourself a break, and try to find the best values in the bargain bin.

A random walk down Fowl Street
Among the usual pullets in the "protein producers" biz are Tyson, Sanderson, Pilgrims Pride (NYSE:PPC), and Industrias Bachoco (NYSE:IBA). A new chick on the block is Gold Kist (NASDAQ:GKIS), a former cooperative integrated chicken company that had its IPO earlier this month. It's actually the third-largest player in the field.

Integrated food producers like these are complex entities, so we won't be able to examine them in detail. But even a brief look at a few key metrics yields some pretty interesting investment ideas.

Barnyard Statistics
PE PE, 5-yr average Price-to-Book P/FCF EV/FCF Net Margin
Tyson 10.7 18.3 1.18 7.1 11 1.9%
Sanderson Farms 6.1 8.3 2.3 7.5 6 10.2%
Pilgrims Pride 19.5 12.3 2.2 6 11.6 1.7%
Industrias Bachoco 8.8 5.2 .61 -- -- -10.3%
Gold Kist 5.1 -- 1.58 -- -- 0.3%
Food Processing Industry Average 18.1 19.3 1.9 23.9 -- 2.6%

The first thing you may want to note is that the P/E ratios on nearly all these stocks are far below the rest of the food processing industry. The industrywide P/E is about 18. Price-to-free cash flow (P/FCF) is much higher for the industry, where it stands at 24. Quick explanation: P/FCF is similar to the more Foolish tool, the enterprise value-to-free cash flow ratio (EV/FCF), but P/FCF doesn't account for cash or debt.

A pair of fliers
That said, the table above shows that there's cheap chicken, and then there's really cheap chicken. Gold Kist looks like the bargain of the bunch on the surface. But it's tough to get a picture of this recent IPO's full financials without a track record to consult. Pro-forma reports from the former co-op make comparisons to the others here a bit of a headache. Still, earnings have been trending up, as has free cash flow. The market cap is only half a billion. As a small, possible gem, Gold Kist is worth watching.

Consulting our patented Foolish Chicken Chart, we see why Pilgrim's Pride seems so expensive. It has clobbered the market and the other chicken producers this year. The trailing P/E ratio is somewhat misleading, as the firm had some slim quarters during the trailing 12 months. But its forward P/E -- based on estimates -- is still 11. That's quite high for the group, especially considering how variable the future can be. While its price-to-FCF ratio is the lowest here, that metric is also a bit misleading as the firm carries a hefty $600 million in long-term debt, which puts its EV-FCF ratio around 11.6. Pilgrim's Pride looks pretty richly valued right now, with little margin of safety.

The mother of all cluckers
Sanderson Farms is clearly the most compelling idea in the bunch. It trades for a rock-bottom P/E that's a discount to its average P/E over the past five years. The price-to-free cash flow number is a bit higher than the peers listed here, but the firm's 10.2% net margins are light years beyond the norm. With an eight-point profitability advantage over its peers, any sales increases will do much more for the bottom line than at any of its competitors.

Moreover, it's got the best balance sheet of the bunch, with much more cash than debt. That means it will be better able to weather any upcoming storms. Finally, consider that the firm is tiny, capitalized at well under a billion dollars. All other things being equal, small firms tend to provide better opportunities for individual investors. That's because they're underwatched by the Street, and giant mutual funds have trouble taking positions in them until they grow. (Indeed, these factors are key to the strategies behind Tom Gardner's market-beating Hidden Gems.)

Bottom line
Even if you're a sucker for growth, you should consider a clucker or two for your portfolio. The cheap, steady performers above can not only provide some ballast during volatile times, but the growth possibilities among the smaller players could also bring in surprisingly spicy returns.

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Seth Jayson wonders why roosters always attack him. At the time of publication, he had shares of SanDisk but no ownership interest in any other firm mentioned. View his stock holdings and Fool profile here. Fool rules are here.