Hybrid to Heritage: Raising Meat Chickens

Find the right bird for your table with this guide to meat chicken breeds.

| November/December 2017

In recent years, small-scale farmers and homesteaders are turning to heritage breeds and slower-growing hybrids as an alternative to the industrialized Cornish Rock (or Cornish Cross) for meat production. When most people think of a whole dressed chicken, a vision of the Cornish Rock comes to mind, the hybrid found in every supermarket meat case across America. It is a large bird whose meat is pale and tender, with plump breasts and prominent thighs and drumsticks.

Thanks to A&P Groceries’ “Chicken of Tomorrow” contest series in the 1940s, this has become the standard breed for commercial poultry farms nationwide. Their rapid growth rate with emphasis on white meat and an ability to do well in confinement allows large poultry operations to economically produce high volume in a short amount of time.

Before this, there were no meat-specific breeds. Either a layer past its prime was processed, or for the small farmer, heritage breeds were raised. Or as a byproduct of egg production, cockerels were hatched and then later butchered. In all cases, it was a slow turnaround. Chicken was considered a luxury, unlike today. This sparked the three-year-long nationwide search for the “chicken of tomorrow,” and was the genesis of the modern broiler industry.

With the modern homesteading movement, more people are rolling up their sleeves and getting back to the land in search of a more self-sufficient lifestyle. Part of this includes raising animals for food, and meat chickens are a great place to start. They require the least amount of work and investment in comparison to beef and pork production. There are various breeds available, both hybrid and heritage, each with their own pros and cons depending on personal preference.

Hybrid breeds

Cornish Rock

The modern Cornish Rock is almost unrecognizable to its predecessor developed over a half-century ago, and it’s a breed uniquely its own. The original winner of A&P’s contest was a cross between Dark Cornish and White Plymouth Rock breeds. Over the years, the hybrid has been fine-tuned with careful selective breeding that produces a heavier bird in half the time. What took 16 weeks back then now can take less than eight weeks, while still yielding a larger broiler than any other chicken. This is due to excellent growth rate and efficient feed conversion ratio, allowing maximum weight gain in minimal time.

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