Are heritage breed chickens better than commercial breeds?
With that question in mind, I set out on a little experiment of my own. An experiment that involves over 40 little peeping feathered friends. I wanted to compare two different breeds of chickens, raised the same way, and for the same purpose. That purpose is meat.
I also want to figure out if this is something that is economically viable for a small scale farmer, and if I want to pursue this business model on the farm I am going to start. I learn best by doing.
There are many schools of thought on all of the topics I cover here. I believe that humans should eat meat if they enjoy it. There’s nothing wrong with meat eaters or vegetarians. There’s just no way I will ever be a vegetarian. Now, if you are going to be a true omnivore, I do think you should put some thought into where your food comes from and, in this case, how it is raised.
Free Range Chickens
My first decision was to free-range my meat birds or broilers. Since “you are what you eat”, my birds were going to live an awesome life, so that I too may live an awesome life. So what does “free-range” mean in this case? Well, I am following a model that has been in place for (I am guessing) hundreds of years. It was recently made popular by Joel Salatin in his book Pastured Poultry Profits and by his appearances in Food Inc. and The Omnivores Dilemma.
The basic idea is to create movable chicken coops with no floors. Those coops give the birds plenty of room, and are moved along fresh pasture once, if not twice daily. The movable coop, or chicken tractor, allows the birds to eat grass and bugs, protects them from the weather and predators, and helps build soil fertility through their waste. The chickens have plenty of sunlight, fresh grass, supplemental grain (they cannot survive on grass alone), and fresh water.
Types of Chickens
Cornish Rock Cross
For my free range meat birds, I had two clear choices for what chicken breeds to choose from. The first is an industrial breed know as Cornish Rock Cross. These birds are what you would see in any huge meat bird operation. They have been bred through the years for one thing, and one thing only, putting on weight. They only eat, drink, poop, and sleep. All the while, their metabolism races to put on as much muscle as it can, as quickly as it can.
These all white-feathered birds should be at butchering weight 6-8 weeks from birth.
The second breed of broiler I found was a heritage breed known as Rainbow Rangers. They come in all different colors. Nothing exotic like green and purple, sorry to say, but still interesting. They can be golden, black and brown, and black and red. While they have been selected to grow meat, just like the cornish rock cross, they will not reach butchering weight until 9-11 weeks.
Both birds will not lay eggs. Their bodies will be too busy packing on the pounds.
Ordering Baby Chicks
Did you know you can get baby chickens in the mail? Seriously. You can go online, place an order for baby chickens, and get them delivered in the mail. You pick out a time frame when you want the chicks, and around that time you get a call from the local post office letting you know there’s a cardboard box that is peeping like crazy in the post office, and could you PLEASE come get rid of it.
When chicks hatch, they can survive 48 hours on the nutrients in their stomachs left over from the egg. This allows hatcheries to over-night ship the little chicks to your neighborhood. I used Meyer Hatchery. Patty & Erick have ordered chicks through them before, and had a good experience. My chick delivery went pretty smoothly, with the exception of their website. I don’t know if they have fixed it or not, but their online shopping cart would not work for me at all. And I am a computer geek. The chickens had to be ordered over the phone. In the end I got the chicks, and they’re crazy cute.
For the first two weeks, I kept the chicks inside under a heat lamp. These little guys and gals are very fragile and need to be kept at 90 degrees to stay warm enough.
Building a Chicken Coop
While the birds were on their way, and while they were safe in their chicken brooder, I build my mobile chicken tractors. I built two so that I could continue to keep the two breeds separated.
Free Range Chickens in Chicken Tractors
After about two and a half weeks I moved the birds outside. I started them all in one pen as I finished the second. They adapted quickly to their outdoor life. It is best to move chickens outdoors in the morning. They way they have the whole day to adjust before nightfall. It is important to keep things calm and collected and make the process as stress free as possible for all parties.
I am eager to see how this whole thing turns out. Already, the cornish rock cross birds are far outpacing the rainbow rangers in weight gain. I am interested to see the differences in behavior, the differences in consumption, and eventually the differences in the flavor of meat. I plan on starting my own farm next year, 2013, and I plan on raising birds this way. I will of course make a few changes to how I go about it, but I really like the way these guys and gals are growing up.
Chicken Sales in Connecticut
Because I work on a farm and am a farmer looking to make a living off the land, these birds will be for sale. I have 41 birds (17 cornish rock cross, 24 rainbow rangers) and I will be selling about 35 of them. There are a lot of funny laws surrounding the sale of chickens in this country, in particular Connecticut. The ridiculousness of those laws merits a blog post to call their own. For now, know that I am planning to sell around 35 of the birds, I will be looking to get around $7 a pound (which doesn’t net me much when I show you the costs), and they will be ready sometime around the end of September.
Thank you for reading. I love doing this. Both raising chickens, and telling you about it.