Meat birds: searching for the perfect heritage breed

Initially, when we decided to raise chickens, it was going to be strictly for meat. We eat a lot of chicken in this house. A lot. We probably eat chicken three or four nights a week, mostly breast meat. It gets a little expensive, especially when you buy organic like we do. So we thought we would raise some ourselves and stock our freezer. I read a lot into the different breeds that were out there and talked to a couple of local farmers about their chickens. They recommended the Cornish Cross (around here it’s also called a White Rock) which is the standard in the poultry industry. I was ready to follow the flock and raise these guys since their conversion rate is amazing. In just eight weeks these guys are ready for the dinner table — and you better be ready, raise them much longer and they are known to keel over because of their enlarged breasts or have heart attacks. If you are truly looking to save money on food costs, I would go with this breed.

The search is on for the best heritage meat birds | www.pickytoplenty.com

The search is on for the best heritage meat birds. Image courtesy of Simon Howden at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I just can’t bring myself to raise Cornish Cross

As I said, I was prepared to buy a dozen or two Cornish chicks and raise them for eight weeks. Then I read the brochure from the local hatchery. The breed has changed dramatically over the years to suit the needs of consumers. We demand breast meat and the industry scrambled to deliver. What they did as a result was engineer the “perfect” bird. It was ready in a short period, it’s breasts were large and meaty and it had a great food conversion rate. Each bird is about a $10 investment from day-old to slaughter, much cheaper than the $20+ you will pay for an organic, free-range bird in the grocery store or from a local farmer.

According to the hatchery, the Cornish Cross was not always the Frankenbird it is today (some will say the “Frankenchicken” title is a little harsh but I have seen these birds up close on several occasions and they just do not look healthy. Most have bald patches and waddle slowly, if at all. Local farmers I talked to said they had to clean the Cornish pen three times as much as that of their laying birds). In 1957, the Cornish Cross weighed 2 pounds at eight weeks. Today, the same bird weighs 7+ pounds. According to this article from Small Farms Canada, the chicken is the most scientifically engineered animal of our time with 40 billion of them moving through the global food system each year. That’s a lot of chicken.

I have read many opinions on this breed and spoken with many who raise them, but I just cannot consciously bring myself to raise something that has been engineered to such an extent. You’re either part of the solution, or part of the problem.

The search for the perfect meat birds

We have raised one batch of meat birds on our homestead and I would never raise this breed for meat again. We were gifted a box of day-old Barred Plymouth Rock chicks from a friend. They were unsexed and after reading they could be raised for meat, decided to keep the hens for eggs along with one rooster and stock the freezer with the rest. We ended up with 10 roosters and 7 hens. We lost two to natural causes over the winter.

Searching for the best heritage meat birds | www.pickytoplenty.com

We raised Barred Plymouth Rocks dual purpose, butchering seven roosters and keeping seven hens and one rooster.

We raised them for about six months before butchering them and they were still pretty small. The leg meat was really dark and tough, likely because they free-ranged and ran like crazy sometimes.

Barred Plymouth Rock are great as layers, but I wouldn’t raise them for meat. There is no cost savings (especially if you fork out the extra cash for organic) and it’s a lot of work.

So it was back to the computer to look back into heritage breeds. The local hatchery has a dual purpose bird that it recommends in place of the Cornish, but a local farmer told me not to waste my time on it. So what heritage meat birds are best on a homestead?

Which of the meat birds is best?

I wish I had the answer to this question, it would make my quest to find it a whole lot easier. One alternative I found to the Cornish Cross is the Freedom Ranger. It seems to be the most popular alternative to the Frankenchicken, but there are many out there who have had much better luck with the latter than the former. Some say they forage much better than the Cornish and that they are healthier overall while others claim to have lost several for no reason and complained that the Rangers grew faster than the Cornish in the beginning causing several to have weak legs (normally a problem associated with the Cornish as their large breasts cause them to bare too much weight on their little legs). Many also complained the Rangers were much smaller at a later butcher date than the Cornish. Most went back to raising the Cornish. I have also read many reviews that say the Ranger has a much better flavour than the Cornish. Some are satisfied, others are not. You will have this with every breed of every animal.

Searching for the best heritage meat birds | www.pickytoplenty.com

When we are at our forever homestead, I would love to have a mixed flock of heritage meat birds. Image courtesy of Simon Howden at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

So how do you know which non-Frankenchicken meat birds to raise to stock your freezer with home-grown meat while saving at least some money? I guess the only way to know is to read, ask around and experiment. Not everyone likes the same thing. Some people love coffee while others prefer tea, just like some prefer the Cornish while others prefer slower-to-mature meat birds. I wish I could bring myself to raise the Cornish, but I just don’t feel comfortable with the idea of it. I don’t judge those who do raise them. I am guilty of consuming them. We all are. Which is why I want to be a part of the solution. A chicken that can’t live past eight weeks is not sustainable. Eventually, when we are in our forever homestead, I want a sustainable flock of meat birds. I want to be able to hatch chicks and raise them to slaughter. We could never do that with the Cornish. It is not designed to survive on its own. It’s creation is a trade secret and offspring are available from hatcheries only. To raise the Cornish means forking out $3 a chick every year. By raising a heritage breed, you simply take eggs from your nesting boxes and incubate them.

According to the Livestock Conservancy, heritage chickens are naturally mating, long-living and slow to mature — none of which the Cornish can claim to be. In fact, the Cornish Cross is the exact opposite of a heritage chicken. It is an animal designed to be efficient at converting feed to meat. It does little other than eat and grow. They were not designed to survive in nature. They were designed for factory farms where they can be raised by the tens of thousands in small spaces where they are not required to move around. They can have success on pasture, but not in the same way that a heritage breed would. They were designed, much like genetically-modified crops, to provide maximum output with minimum input.

Just like with growing heirloom seeds, raising heritage chicken breeds ensures they have a future. According to Rare Breeds Canada, the Barred Plymouth Rock is an at-risk breed of chicken. The Black Jersey Giant, Minorca, New Hampshire Red and Rhode Island Red are vulnerable. The Chanecler, Shaver White Leghorn, Columbian Rock, Hungarian Yellow and Light Sussex are endangered. Sadly, the critical list had the most breeds listed: Ancona, Houdan, Silver Grey Dorking, White Wyandotte, Brown Leghorn, White Jersey Giant and the Saskatchewan Plymouth Barred Rock. One trouble with population numbers is the number of people who keep a flock without a rooster (the other reason we keep our rooster around). You don’t actually need a rooster to get eggs. A hen will produce eggs on her own, with or without a rooster. The difference with a rooster, is that the eggs will be fertilized (which is fine for eating) and can be hatched, should you choose to incubate them or if you have a broody hen who wants to hatch eggs). Many backyard flock keepers opt out of keeping a rooster as they can be aggressive (and loud).

Searching for the best heritage meat birds | www.pickytoplenty.com

While heritage meat birds take longer to reach maturity, they generally have fewer health problems. Image courtesy of suwatpo at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Raising meat birds for sustainability

The whole reason we ventured into this lifestyle was to cut down on food costs and get back to our roots. If we are going to be raising an animal for meat, we want it to be a variety we only have to buy once. Sure, it would be less expensive to raise the Cornish Cross with its eight-week lifespan, but over time, the $3 start-up cost will start to add up. This also means you are tied to a greedy meat industry that does not look out for the welfare of animal.

I love the idea of keeping a sustainable flock. Of hatching our own chicks and growing them out, keeping some for eggs and stocking the freezer with the rest. What I don’t love is the idea of is looking out at a pasture full of Frankenchickens who eventually get so lazy that they may dehydrate and die a few feet away from their waterer on a hot summer day. I would much rather look out and see a colourful flock of birds happily pecking at the ground.

If I am going to truly raise heritage birds, this means the Freedom Ranger I was set on raising, is out. While not as downgraded as the Cornish, it is a hybrid bird. Aside from the sustainability issue, another benefit of raising heritage chickens is helping keep a breed from extinction.

Searching for the best heritage meat birds | www.pickytoplenty.com

There are several heritage breeds that make great meat birds on the homestead. Image courtesy of xedos4 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Luckily, I have a stack of Mother Earth News magazines in my homestead reference collection. One edition has a great chart on various heritage breeds. There are nine breeds on the list that either dual-purpose or meat. Let’s take a look at the breeds:

Australorp

A medium-sized, dual-purpose bird with black plumage and brown eggs. This breed was developed in Australia using Black Orphington stock from England. This variety is an excellent layer. An Australorp carries the title of world-record layer, producing 364 eggs in 365 days. According to Mother Earth News it is an excellent homestead breed because of its laying abilities and compact, meaty frame.

Australorp Rooster

Brahma

A large-sized chicken with feathered legs with mostly white plumage with some darker feathering along the hackles, feet and tail. This breed originated in North America and is on the watch list. While it is listed as dual purpose, the Brahma is also considered among the meat birds.

Cochin

This large breed is considered to be moth an ornamental and meat bird. It originates in China and is one of the largest domestic chickens. This breed is also on the watch list. The downfall of this breed is its pretty, fluffy feathering which can interfere with fertility.

Cornish

This large, light-brown bird which originates from Cornwall, England was once bred steadily for meat production as it was known for its massive breasts and thighs. Of course, the meat industry was not satisfied with this meat bird on its own and used it to create the Frankenchickens we have today.

Dorking

A medium-sized bird with striking plumage. Although it is a good layer, the Dorking is renowned in England for its delicious meat. The flesh is said to be tender and delicate. The Dorking, which has five toes instead of the standard four, is listed as threatened.

Jersey Giant

This extra-large bird was originally bred to replace the turkey as the standard table fowl. These mostly-black birds (similar to a Barred Plymouth Rock but darker) are the largest, purebred chicken breed. A mature rooster will typically weigh about 13 pounds, with a mature hen weighing in at about 10. The Jersey Giant lays extra large, brown eggs and is currently on the watch list.

The Jersey Giant is the largest of the heritage meat breeds| www.pickytoplenty.com
photo credit: Jersey Giant Rooster via photopin (license)

Langshan

Another dual-purpose breed that originates in China, the Langshan is large and lays dark brown eggs. The Langshan was introduced to the Western World in the mid-19th Century. They are extremely adaptable birds and are able to thrive on pasture. The birds are recognized by their high tail, long legs and stately appearance. This threatened species is said to produce notably white and flavourful breast meat.

Australian Langshan Pair

New Hampshire

This medium-sized bird originates from New England. It was bred for rapid growth and early maturity. It has fair egg-laying abilities but is prized for its meat production. Hens are prone to being broody and make good mothers. A mature rooster weighs in at about 8.5 pounds while a hen will reach 6.5 pounds. This brown egg layer is also on the watch list.

Orpington

The Orpington’s roots go back to 1886 when William Cook produced the original Black Orpington by crossing Minorcas, Langshans and Plymouth Rocks. This large bird comes in black, buff, mottled, speckled and white with buff being the most common colour. They are well-known for their fast growth rate and excellent egg production, making them a great choice for the homestead. They are also prone to broodiness and do well in cold climates. The Orpington is another breed which is on its way to recovery.

Just based on this information, it looks like my best bet will be a Jersey Giant or Cornish, although all of the above meat birds have their advantages. It might all boil down to cost and availability when selecting a heritage meat bird. That was another issue with the Freedom Ranger I was so keen to buy, there are few suppliers with the closest one being across the border.

Do you raise heritage meat birds on your homestead? Which varieties have you tried? Which ones did you have successes with? Which ones would you never raise again?

Simple Saturday Blog Hop

9 thoughts on “Meat birds: searching for the perfect heritage breed

  1. Stacey says:

    You got my attention with the title of your article! We have been raising our first batch of “Frankenchickens” and we are appalled at the state of these birds. We had no idea until now. While they will undoubtedly suit the purpose of putting a lot of meat in the freezer in a short time, we are truly disheartened watching these birds grow up. Whoever developed this breed should be truly ashamed. I guess there are many choices for heritage breeds, so we will need to make a choice for our next batch of birds, but it is good to see that there are others that feel likewise about the Cornish Rock Cross.

    • I haven’t raised the Frankenchickens, but I have seen them up close a few times and I just can’t bring myself to raise them. I like to look at my healthy-looking flock pecking at bugs and weeds and taking dust baths. I don’t want to look out and see half-feathered ugly birds waddling a few feet and then getting exhausted. I understand why people raise them, especially if they are trying to make a profit, but I just can’t do it. I am really interested in the Jersey Giants as they seem the provide the most bang for your buck out of the heritage breeds. Good luck with the search for your perfect heritage meat bird.

  2. We have Australorps. They are great egg layers. We also hatched some of their eggs. The chickens that hatched were long and skinny, which made me wonder if the babies come true or not or whether it was just our experience. We did harvest some roosters, older than eight weeks, and despite cooking them in the crockpot, they seemed kind of lean and stringy. They were free range birds and we harvested them about 8 months old if I remember correctly. Some people also say that if you might want to sell them, buyers don’t like the black specks in the skins. Of course, you could skin them.

  3. Aaron Seifer says:

    We jumped into the world of raising meat chickens this past year. However, we too, had no interest in raising a hybrid bird. So, we ordered 20 White Plymouth Rocks from McMurray hatchery and raised them from August-November/December (they ran around in our garden once the veggies were done growing).

    Of the 20, we processed 7 at 17 weeks and 12 at 20 weeks (1 we thought was a hen, but turned out to be a rooster later!) None of the birds weighed more than 6 pounds at the time of processing, and our dressed weight averaged 3.73 pounds. We were disappointed with the weight, but the meat quality wasn’t bad. (It’s gamey, of course, more like turkey than store bought chicken).

    We’re going to try three different breeds this year (Light Brahamas, White Giants, and White Orpingtons). We’re hoping for better yields.

    Thanks for your article — there are very few folks out there who are willing to reject the industrial chickens. And those that do reject the Cornish X simply choose Freedom Rangers and feel good about it. Our quest is to find a suitable heritage meat bird that has not been overly industrialized.

  4. Jessica L says:

    I loved this article. I came across another article a while back about chicks you get from the hatcheries.
    It explained that the chicks you get will very so far from what the breed is expected to do because the hatchery isn’t breeding for anything other than to reproduce and keep the appearance standard. It made so much since and I really had an “well duh self” moment. I have been researching meat breeds also and came up with nothing but mixed reviews. They suggest trying to start small and buy from local people that are breeding for meat and selling extra chicks on the side.
    Of course I don’t have the article link but if I find it I will post it here.

  5. Jessi says:

    We have tried out any breeds for layer and only eaten a few mixed birds from our flock. We are getting a flock of Rangers in the fall and I am excited because we too go through a ton of meat. I will say that I have come to realize if you want a bird that grisly fits what the breeds expectations are buy from a small place that actually uses them in their personal flock. Large hachories aren’t breeding for anything other than the physical requirements of that breed. I’m not blaming them because that’s their job. Just know if you buy from a actually hachory you may have to do a couple of generations of selective breeding to get what you want. I am experimenting with my Rhode Island reds though to get a pretty good meat bird.

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