Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Heritage or Meat Bird Cross?

So far raising chickens seems very easy except for the initial layer of dust that coated everything when I had them as baby chicks in the house. All you do is let them out in the morning, they eat grass and poop all over, and then you shut the door after they put themselves back in at night. You give them fresh water daily and once or twice a week make sure their food container is full and the poop isn't accumulating in the coop. Easiest pets ever.

So why not get more?

I've been toying with the idea of raising some birds for the table. 'Meat birds' in the chicken world. I'm a selective vegetarian meaning I usually do not eat meat unless I know for a fact that it was raised humanely; this generally means I never eat meat because for some reason 'raised humanely' is hard to find and when you do it's expensive as hell. However, there are certain times of the year that I miss it. I miss the bbq'd chicken on the fourth of July over the fire and I miss that beautiful bird coming out of the oven on Thanksgiving or Christmas Day. If I could just raise a few birds with love and care to cover these holiday meals, I'd be satisfied.

I'm in my beginning stages of research right now on exactly what kind of birds I should raise and whether or not I will start breeding them so I can raise and sell my own chicks. I've discovered there are two distinct categories: meat birds (cornish x's) and heritage or 'true-breed' birds.

A meat bird is a special bird bred specifically for its quick growth and large size. This is a very economical bird; it is ready for butcher within 6 weeks while many heritage birds can take up to 6 months or more.
This is the most remarkable meat producing bird we have ever seen. Special matings produce chicks with broad breasts, big thighs, white plumage, and yellow skin. The rapid growth of these chicks is fantastic and the feed efficiency remarkable.
Murray McMurray Hatchery
Standard fast growing meat bird known as the Cornish Cross X
Meat birds are commonly referred to as a Cornish X because the parents and grandparents generally come from a selective cross between a standard Cornish and Plymouth Rock. The parents are so specially selected for their size and growth rate that they would likely be unrecognizable as the breeds most backyard chicken farmers would know. From this cross, only first line chicks can be hatched; you cannot breed a Cornish X with a Cornish X and expect the same results, therefore it is not possible to hatch and raise these birds on your own.
Modern broilers are typically a third generation offspring (an F2 hybrid). The broiler's four grandparents come from four different strains, two of which produce the male parent line and two of which provide the female parent line, which are in turn mated to provide the broilers. The double cross protects the developer's unique genetics as strains cannot be reproduced from the broiler offspring. In 2003, approximately 42 billion broilers were produced, 80% of which were produced by four companies: Aviagen, Cobb-Vantress, Hubbard Farms, and Hybro making them arguably, the most popular chicken to raise.
This chicken cross is not only used in commercial/industrial farming, but also by most backyard meat bird producers. It is still considered and all natural bird, it is not genetically modified and it can be raised organically. There are several known health problems with this hybrid bird; due to its large size and fast growth rate even if you did want to breed this bird, it is not always possible or successful. It is not uncommon for a Cornish Cross to actually break its own legs due to its phenomenal growth rate and suffer leg problems in general. It is very prone to heart failure and it's clear the digestive track has a hard time keeping up with its food consumption. A Cornish Cross does not have the instinct and ability to forage and free range as well as the heritage birds, and in combination with its exceptional growth rate it tends not to be as deeply flavored as the true breeds.

The second category of birds is the heritage or 'true breed' bird. The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy defines this as:
A Heritage Egg can only be produced by an American Poultry Association Standard breed. A Heritage Chicken is hatched from a Heritage egg sired by an American Poultry Association Standard breed established prior to the mid-20th century, is slow growing, naturally mated with a long productive outdoor life.
There are a few heritage birds that are popular as a table bird, however, most heritage breeds that are used for meat production are actually referred to as 'dual purpose' birds because they will also lay eggs regularly which is necessary if you want to breed your own stock.

Some of the larger true breeds used for meat production include the Jersey Giant, Buckeye, Java, New Hampshire Red, Delaware, Wyandotte, Rock (White, Plymouth, Buff), Dorking, Orpington and Cornish. Each has their own advantages and disadvantages and each farmer has their own preference. The Jersey Giant can reach an outstanding 14 pounds, but could take up to 2 years to reach this peak weight comparably to a Cornish Cross that can weigh upwards of 10-12 lbs in a matter of 6-8weeks and baby chicks from the hatchery can often cost twice as much as the standard X's. Clearly raising a heritage breed is not the most economical way to go; if you are only in this for the money, a heritage breed likely will not be your first choice.

Several backyard farmers who have been there done that give me the crazy eye when I mention I'd like to start raising heritage birds for meat. Economically it just doesn't make sense. But when more and more industrial and backyard farmers are only using these hybrid birds for production, the true breed birds are becoming threatened and some are near extinction. Maybe you're wondering how serving an endangered bird for Thanksgiving dinner is helping it? (ok...good point) Raising awareness and gaining popularity in a breed is what keeps it alive, after all, these animals were originally kept and bred only for food purposes. If everyone tasted a roasted true breed Buff Orpington and thought it was the best thing they had ever tasted, the demand for it would sky rocket therefore the demand to keep these birds for breeding and selling would sky rocket and the breed in general would have a really big boost in popularity and growth; all because it's a really tasty table bird. Eating the birds is what keeps their breed alive.

Dorking Rooster
After reviewing several different breeds and getting some information from farmers who raise them I think I will settle on the Dorking. This is a rare breed that is believed to have originated in Italy during the time of the Roman Empire. It is also believed to have been a favorite of Julius Cesar. During the Roman Conquest it was introduced to Britain, making it one of the oldest English breeds. The Dorking has a medium to large sized rectangular body with odd very short, five-toed legs. To my benefit it lays white eggs; all of my current hens will lay either a brown egg or a blue egg. When it is time to hatch more babies, I will know that the white eggs belong to the Dorking and I can hatch only those.

The Dorking is not only a very old and very rare breed, it is also exceptionally tasty and has won first place in many taste tests; this is obviously very important if I'm putting all this time, money and effort into raising this breed.

As I said before this venture is not necessarily to make money. I want to have that big backyard BBQ with homemade sauce smothered over smoked chicken without the heartburn of guilt from cooking industrial farmed or even hybrid chickens that are so selectively bred they will have a heart attack if you don't butcher them at exactly 7 weeks of age. The heritage breed also offers a deep flavor you just cannot match and the satisfaction of helping a breed that may otherwise become extinct as fast food farming methods become more and more in demand.


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