Chickens For Meat - What breeds work best?

Published on Tue, 06/21/2016 - 11:32am

 

 By Sher Jennings

 There’s a lot of information coming at us about our food. At every turn, you’re being ambushed with issues like GMO or non-GMO; various chemicals used for fertilizers, coloring, preserving, enhancing, and flavoring; and antibiotics being fed to our food animals to protect them from the diseases rampant with overcrowding. Labels, like "natural” turn out to mean nothing, while “organic” might only mean “not as much bad stuff.” Tired of trying to pick through the offerings in the market and figure out what to feed our families, we start growing a little something on the patio, or put in a garden, raised beds, or even replace the lawn with plants that give you fruits and vegetables for your efforts—and give us an opportunity to take advantage of all that compost the chickens provide!

Ah, yes, consider our delightful bug- and weed-eating foragers who provide us with eggs and compost. Perhaps you’ve even entertained the notion of growing your own meat, but where do you start? Should you start looking for someone who raises and processes chicken responsibly so you don’t have to do it yourself? Or should you raise your own chickens for meat and find a processor? A third option would be to you learn how to do the processing yourself, which begs yet another question: What chicken breeds are best to work with? All are good questions and some of your answers will change over time as you learn and grow. For now, let’s take a look at your basic options.

Two basic choices

Do you want to work with Cornish Cross or a real chicken breed? Cornish Cross, or CX, is what is generally available at grocery stores. The result of years of selective breeding, they are five- to seven-weeks old at butcher, and have been greatly improved over the past decades to grow out even bigger and faster. Regular chickens, on the other hand, come in various breed choices and take much longer to get to butcher age, starting around 12 weeks for a broiler stage. But they have also gone through some selective breeding.

Cornish Cross

If you want to raise your own CX, chicks are usually available in the spring (and sometimes fall) through a local feed store, or you can order them from a hatchery. Sometimes referred to as the "Franken-chicken," they are not actually genetically engineered, although you can't reproduce like a normal chicken. These super hybrids are produced specifically to get from chick to the dinner plate as quickly and inexpensively as possible. They grow out fast, butcher easy, and provide a maximum meat-to-bone ratio—your great-great-grandparents would be amazed at the sight of one. During their short seven weeks of life, they consume high-protein feed almost constantly, move only as necessary, and show little to no interest in foraging, all while producing a lot of “compost material.” In fact, a popular option for raising them is to build a chicken tractor for them to live in, and rather than moving it around, cover the current manured layer with a fresh layer of hay or straw every day. This builds up to more than a foot by butchering time, after which the frame is removed and the remaining pile is covered so that it can break down into compost, then planted as a garden in the spring. CX grow so quickly that by butcher time, much of their body has no feathering and their “giblets” are tiny and almost unable to sustain them (heart failure and kidney issues can be common, especially if you grow them out too long). Consumer demands have resulted in some newer strains that can do some foraging and are frequently offered by hatcheries online. All CX are considered “broilers” because they are babies and able to be cooked quickly and stay tender.

The advantage to using CX is that a large quantity of meat will be produced quickly in a relatively small space. You will know what kind of feed and care they require, and the meat will be extremely tender because they are so young at butcher. Disadvantages include the need to butcher on time or they’ll begin to die off from organ and joint issues; they rely on you for everything—including temperature control so that they don’t either chill or overheat; they don't forage well so you have to keep those feeders close by and filled; and their meat lacks the flavor and texture that comes with time.

Chicken breeding history

There are many breeds of chickens that were specifically developed by our great-great-grandparents for the specific purpose of meat and egg production. These “dual purpose” birds are commonly referred to as heritage breeds.

The important thing to remember about the dual-purpose breeds is that someone already did the heavy lifting and made a successful chicken breed so you don’t have to. The most common breeds that you’ll be choosing from will be from the American Poultry Association's (APA) "American Class” category. These breeds, developed in this country generations ago, survived our weather, soil, germs, and bugs, flourishing in the process.

Life for our ancestors was very different before Franken-chickens first made their appearance in markets in the late-’40s and early-’50s. Everyone, whether on the farm or in town, generally had gardens and chickens. The markets sold chicken carcasses still unprocessed, hanging in the window complete with head, entrails, and usually feathers. Every member of the family knew how to pluck, eviscerate, and cut up a chicken as part of helping to prepare dinner. There was no “chicken seasoning” at the markets. The chickens had great flavor because they had some age on them and had eaten real chicken food, like bugs, weeds, seeds, scraps, etc. You didn’t eat “fresh” chicken. It was normally bled out and then hung so that the meat would tenderize. The difference in flavor to a CX is similar to the difference between a vine-ripened tomato out of your garden and one from the store. So let’s talk about some of the breeds they successfully developed that you can consider now.

The American Class breeds:

Plymouth Rocks, Dominiques, Wyandottes, Javas, Rhode Island Reds, Rhode Island Whites, Buckeyes, Chanteclers, Jersey Giants, Lamonas, New Hampshires, Hollands, and Delawares.

Each breed of chicken recognized by the APA falls into a “Class” which frequently (but not always) reflects the origin of the breed. American Class breeds were developed in the U.S. and are considered “dual purpose," i.e. eggs and meat production. These breeds held value not only in the eggs and meat for the individual families and producers who utilized them, but proved themselves to be hardy and a good fit with the lifestyle of farm and urban families. They withstood the weather, cleaned up feed dropped by other livestock, ate bugs and weed seeds, sounded the alarm when a predator showed up, cleaned up family scraps, and cleared grub worms out of the compost pile as it cooked down before being added to garden soil. These were the breeds that you found in the markets.

As urbanization took a stronger hold and lifestyles continued to change, certain breeds were favored by the growing number of poultry meat producers right up until the 1950s, when CX began to replace them. These popular breeds tended to be Plymouth Rocks, Wyandottes, Rhode Islands, Buckeyes, and New Hampshires, a Rhode Island Red hybrid. Some, like the hybrid New Hampshires, were bred even further to produce quicker growth and finish faster. By the 1950s, New Hampshires were what folks mostly found in the markets.

No matter how tall or short each of these breeds stood, the angle of their backline, or the color of the plumage, the shapes of the most productive breeds always included a wide frame front to back, and depth from front to back as well. (Picture a rectangular shaped box from the top and from the side). You want a wide deep frame (rack) for hanging plenty of meat, and for plenty of room inside for an egg-production factory. It’s that simple. The rest is pretty much a matter of how you want your factory to look outside. All of these breeds are pretty docile.

Europe has their heritage breeds as well. The same principles generally apply: Don’t make it complicated—look for that depth and width from every angle, or "the rectangle." You see it in most meat stock, like cattle, pigs, sheep, goats, and even guinea pigs.

Where to get them

If you want CX, go to the feed store or a hatchery with a good reputation. It may also be the only option if you want 30 or 40 males of a specific breed.

If you want a particular breed and you hope to keep a small flock so that you can provide your own chicks in the future, I recommend you do your research and visit a good breeder. You can certainly go to a feed store, or a good hatchery with a good reputation. But a breeder who specializes in your breed and uses the APA’s Standard of Perfection— the "recipe" book of sorts to select his breeding stock—is going to get you where you want to go.

Where you get your birds from will make a big difference to the end result.

“But I’m not interested in showing chickens!” I hear some of you protesting, but hear me out: Hatchery-grade chickens are often not the best representation of their breed. That has nothing to do with showing. You picked your breed based on your goals and your research. Let’s say you want to get Jersey Giants, the heaviest chicken breed in the world, so that you can have big broilers, fryers, and roasters. And you don’t want to show your Giants you tell yourself, so you get a good cheap price at a feed store. You can do that, and it may work out. But there’s also a good chance that you may end up with little black flighty chickens with bad tempers that end up weighing 5 pounds soaking wet before butcher, rather than the real deal that finishes at 13 pounds and gives you a 10-pound carcass.

In both situations, you invested the same time and effort. Besides, when you work with a breeder, you’re getting a bigger package. You can actually see their birds so you have a better idea of what you’re getting into. You can talk with the breeders and ask questions. And better yet, once you buy your chicks or breeding stock, you have someone with whom to go back and consult—and good breeders are happy to do so. Can you get what you want from a hatchery? You bet. Give it a try and it may work out. If it doesn’t, don’t give up on the breed. Find a good breeder and give the breed another chance. And like everything else you want to buy, do your research first!

Cooking real chicken breeds

It’s not the same as cooking CX. We have to cook these birds like our great-great-grandmothers and their mothers before them: At much lower temperatures and for longer periods of time.

Here’s a chart to help guide you with butchering and cooking:

Age Range Cooking Type
10 – 16 weeks Broiler
16 – 20 weeks Pan fry (the old-fashioned way: brown, then low heat)
20+ weeks Slow fry or slow roast
2 years+ Stew

Quick tips

  1. Name your kids, name your pets, but don't name your food…not even with a food name like “Drumbstick.” This simple rule makes butchering less traumatic.
  2. Limit your CX flock to around 25 birds, especially your first time.
  3. When figuring feed-consumption ratios, don’t assume that the fewer weeks that you feed your CX equates to less feed than your regular chickens would eat. Nothing eats like a CX.
  4. Chicken carcasses—especially dual-purpose breeds—should be “rested” in the refrigerator for 24 to 48 hours before freezing or cooking. When the bird dies, blood stops circulating, and there is no supply of oxygen or nutrients to the muscles. Without them, muscles contract and become stiff for a very short period. This period is called rigor mortis. Later, the muscles become soft again, which makes them more tender when cooked. The two biggest mistakes when processing chickens are the lack of appropriate resting time and trying to cook them like a CX.
  5. Real chicken carcasses look different than CX carcasses, so don’t think that you did something wrong when you see the keel bones and lanky legs on your carcasses.

About the author

Sher Jennings is the president of the Pacific Northwest Poultry Association, administrator on two poultry education sites, teaches classes on poultry processing and canning, and is a breeding partner with West Coast Jersey Giants Breeding Partnership (WCJG). For more information on working with heritage breeds, cooking, culling, processing, and educational information, see the WCJG Facebook educational group at: www.facebook.com/groups/jerseygiantssop/