The decision on which chicken to raise for meat was almost as hard as the decision to raise meat chickens at all! For whatever reason, there wasn’t a clear favorite that matched our requirements, values, and vision. Instead, we found ourselves mired in the multitude of breeds, trying to sort through the fluff (and feathers) to find a chicken that we could really get behind and support. Our difficulty stemmed from the lack of specialization in the non-industrial breeds, an abundance of fancy show breeds, and the presence of hybrid varieties targeting the alternative market.
From a homesteading perspective, a “dual purpose” chicken would be a good thing, a relatively good egg layer that was somewhat edible when that time came. The problem with that concept from a business perspective, and ultimately the reason why breeds like the Cornish Cross (meat) and the White Leghorn (eggs) are so prolific in the industrial system, is that dual purpose birds fulfill neither roll well enough to be financially viable. I’ll probably step on all sorts of toes during this post, so let’s start right here: Dual purpose birds are relegated to a secondary, hobby farm, novelty role for a reason… they are generally unable to pay their own way. I’m a huge fan of homesteading, and am totally fine with folks pouring their effort into something worthwhile like backyard chickens, but dual purpose birds didn’t make sense from a business or financial point of view. We needed a meat chicken that offered a growth rate quick enough to prevent massive feed costs (Cornish-X!), but robust enough to fit our hands-off management goals (Cornish-X, not so much!).
When we started our search with The Livestock Conservancy, we quickly found that many of the endangered chicken breeds were… silly looking. They were fancy. Showy. Frilly. Not your average meat chicken, and NOT what we were looking for. And if they happened to look somewhat normal then they were “needy”, taking 3 years to mature (Cubalaya) or extremely ornery in nature (Malay). Many were ornamental breeds, meaning that they served no purpose except to look good! Needless to say, we got pretty discouraged as our research turned up dead end after dead end. We were challenged to stick to our values, and tempted to accept the status quo solely for financial reasons. We considered not raising meat chickens at all. Instead, we decided to explore alternatives to the slow-growing heritage breeds to see if another breed of chicken might fit the bill.
With heritage breeds set aside for the time being, we turned our attention towards what almost everyone else like us does: the non-descript “Red Broiler”. Each hatchery has their own version of this bird, and as the name implies they are bred specifically for meat production and feed conversion, but are more suited for free-range or non-industrial environments than the Cornish-X. They typically have faster growth rates and cost less to purchase than heritage breeds, but still take approximately 12 weeks to grow out compared to the Cornish-X’s 8 to 9 week lifespan. One problem with this option is that the birds are hybrids, or cross-breeds. That means that
if when we decide to incubate our own chickens, the offspring won’t breed true to their parents. They will be mutts, with some getting the beneficial gene combinations and others getting the short end of the stick! We wouldn’t know which we had until it was too late to do anything about it.
With all of these factors to consider in our decision, we basically didn’t make one. Instead, we thought we would try some of each option and see which one we liked best for ourselves. So, this year’s first batch of meat birds will be a heritage breed called “Delaware“, the next batch two weeks later will be McMurray Hatchery’s “Red Ranger“, and the third batch will be a hybrid called “Freedom Ranger“. We will see how each breed fits into our management style, and we’ll be taking lots of notes and recording data points like grow rate, feed consumption, mortality, disease immunity, heat tolerance, etc. And of course we’ll eat them! In fact, we’ll be reaching out to our email subscribers asking for volunteers to buy one of each bird at a discounted price, cook and eat them all (not in one sitting, of course), and report their perceptions and opinions back to us in the form of a survey.
By the end of this summer, we should have a very good idea of not only if we’ll continue with meat chickens at all, but if we do, which breed suits us and our customers the best. Good luck to all the contestants, and may be the best (tasting) chicken win!