Hybrid to Heritage: Raising Meat Chickens
By Kate St. Cyr
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.
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.
The Cornish Cross also produces a large breast size so highly sought-after and that people have become accustomed to. Generally, the average butchering age is between 8 and 10 weeks, with a dress weight ranging from 5 to 8 pounds or more. The weight and average age at butchering can vary greatly depending on protein content in feed, whether free-ranging is an option, and the amount of space the birds have to move.
The breed’s quick growth rate goes hand in hand with their ability to do well in confinement, adding to their popularity. The birds have been bred for efficiency, so they’re more sedentary and do not make the best foragers. For someone who doesn’t have the room to let their chickens forage, or who is wanting to raise their own meat in the shortest time possible, the Cornish is an obvious choice.
If you can produce the largest broiler with the most white meat in the shortest amount of time, why would you want any other breed? But, the Cornish is bred to gain so much weight so quickly, they are prone to multiple system failures. Simply put, they put on weight too quickly, and it comes at the expense of their other organs and body systems. This results in high mortality rates due to leg and heart failure. They’re also not very hardy, so if temperatures get too hot or too cold, fatality rate is even higher. Special accommodations will need to be made to keep them comfortable. Compared to other chickens, Cornish appear unnatural with disproportionately large breasts resulting in wide-set legs and sparse feathering, making them easier to pluck. They also don’t display typical chicken behaviors such as dust bathing, roosting, and they’re minimal foragers. For someone who doesn’t have issue with these qualities, the Cornish may be the ideal choice for efficiency. However, more people are beginning to steer clear of the Cornish in search of healthier hybrids that still provide an efficient feed conversion ratio.
With people beginning to shift away from raising animals in confinement, another hybrid that is gaining popularity is the Rangers, as they are generally referred to. This includes breeds such as Red Rangers, Freedom Rangers, and Rainbow Rangers. While they all vary slightly in color, growth rate, and processing age, all are popular for those looking to raise pastured or free-range broilers. All of the Rangers have a slower growth rate than the Cornish Rock, but grow considerably faster than heritage breeds while still maintaining many of the natural qualities that are becoming increasingly more desirable.
Rangers are instinctual foragers, and their natural diet of grass, seeds, and bugs supplements a high-protein commercial feed diet, which can help offset feed costs while producing more nutritional and flavorful meat. A more active lifestyle does, however, lead to a slower growth rate, averaging anywhere from 9 to 13 weeks until ready for processing, depending on the breed. In addition to foraging, the various Rangers display other natural chicken behaviors such as roosting, scratching, and dust bathing.
Because the Rangers fully feather out, they are a hardier breed that is able to withstand the elements. They also do not fall victim to the same health issues as the Cornish, as they haven’t been as selectively bred for quickest growth possible, which allows growth to be proportional to their bodies. Because of this, they aren’t predisposed to system failures. Because they have not been bred like the Cornish, they also do not grow to the same size or proportion. Dressed weight can vary greatly depending on the same factors concerning feed and space that affect the Cornish, with an average between 4 and 7 pounds plus. However, because they are a healthier breed, they can be kept well past the typical processing age if a larger dressed size is desired without the high mortality rate that is seen in the Cornish.
Although they may not produce the same quantity of meat in the same amount of time as the Cornish, Rangers are generally accepted as producing more nutrient-dense and flavorful meat than the Cornish.
For those looking to steer clear of hybrids that have been specifically tailored for meat production, heritage breeds, including dual purpose breeds, are the alternative. Heritage breeds mate naturally, are slow-growing, and have longer life expectancy, as opposed to the hybrids, which are often bred through artificial insemination, grow quickly, and have a shorter life expectancy.
Before the Cornish Cross and Rangers came along, favored breeds such as the Rhode Island Red, Buckeye, Delaware, and Jersey Giant were raised for meat. All of these heritage breeds are dual purpose, meaning they are not only good layers, but are also large-bodied and great for meat production. This allowed farmers to have hardy, sustainable layers with the option of harvesting the chicken after its egg production had dropped, or even as a younger fryer bird.
Heritage breeds are resurging in popularity, and small-scale farmers and homesteaders are taking it upon themselves to preserve the breeds that were raised for meat before hybrids were developed. If raising heritage breeds for meat is of interest, it is important to know that the chicks should come from a reputable breeder, as they select to preserve the breed standards as opposed to commercial hatcheries, which will select for growth and production qualities.
Because they are not specifically bred for meat, they have a considerably longer growth rate than hybrids, ranging anywhere from 4 to 8 months. Dressed weight can drastically vary depending on the age they’re processed as well as the breed. This slow growth is the main deterrent for people looking to raise meat chickens, as well as the stigma that any bird raised past 2 months equates to tough meat. Typically, any chicken processed after 6 months of age is too tough to fry or grill, and must be slow cooked in order to achieve tender meat. However, the bird does not have to reach full-size to be processed if a smaller dressed size isn’t an issue.
Because heritage breeds are slower growing, they do not have the same high protein and caloric requirements as hybrids. When given enough space to utilize their excellent foraging abilities, they can cost less to raise to maturity than a Cornish Cross or Ranger, even with a growth period two to three times as long. With this slow growth comes a flavor that cannot be beat by specialized hybrids. Because of their longer growth and foraging abilities, it allows time for their diet to fully incorporate into the flavor of the meat.
There are pros and cons to raising hybrids or heritage breeds depending on qualities most important to the grower and consumer. Each breed has its own unique qualities, giving you plenty of options to choose from. Whatever the choice, you can’t go wrong with the taste or satisfaction of your own homegrown and home-processed chicken.
Differences among heritage breeds
Let’s face it. There are some differences among heritage breeds, including growth rate and weight. For meat production breeds, the live weights at maturity include:
Process for meat: 8 to 9 months
Weight: 7 to 9 pounds
Rhode Island Red
Process for meat: 6 to 7 months
Weight: 5 1⁄2 to 7 1⁄2 pounds
Process for meat: 6 to 7 months
Weight: 5 1⁄2 to 8 pounds
Process for meat: 6 to 7 months
Weight: 5 1⁄2 to 7 1⁄2 pounds
Kate St.Cyr lives on a small farm in Phillipston, Massachusetts. She and her husband are rejuvenating the neglected land on their 1700s farm. Kate raises dairy goats, pigs, meat chickens, laying hens, turkeys, geese, and ducks. She uses her livestock to help restore the land back to viable pasture. She keeps vegetable and fruit gardens, and enjoys canning and cooking. In her spare time, she’s a freelance writer and photographer. Read her blog The Modern Day Settler at www.TheModernDaySettler.com.
Read this editor’s letter about her new chickens and their lively personalities.
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