Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Great Chicken Experiment

Here on Five Acres Farm, our goal is to produce good quality food in line with our personal belief system. A lot of words can be used to describe what we do: sustainable, renewable, self-sufficient. But these words are bolder and grander in meaning than the actual act. At the end of the day, we just want to eat while "doing no harm".

Last year, I ordered 20 meat chickens to raise and butcher. Unlike our resident layer flock, these birds are hybrids, often called colored broilers or Rangers, and are seen as an alternative to the much maligned Cornish Cross (rightly or no). They grew to impressive size in a mere 10 weeks and they are, quite honestly, the tastiest chickens I have ever eaten. Seriously, I am spoiled now.

I am a big fan of the Rangers, but the problem is, I still have to order them and have them shipped across the country every year. And in trying to minimize diesel miles for my food, that is one recurring expense I hoped to remove. And so we've started a breeding program to breed two flocks: A self-reproducing meat flock that tastes as good and produces as well as the hybrid Rangers, and a true "heritage" layer flock, restoring some of the breed characteristics lost from the mass produced hatcheries.

Life is never simple though, and learning to farm is all about making compromises. If I truly wanted to raise the *most efficient* meat bird, I would continue buying the hybrid Rangers or Cornish X birds and have them shipped to the farm every year. With feed conversion ratios around 2.5 to 1 (2.5 lbs of grain to produce a pound of carcass), they cannot be beat. And using less resources is always a good thing. However, my goal is not necessarily to make the most efficient meat, but the most... appropriate meat. I want a bird that can live to adult age, happy and healthy, that will put on weight on forage, that will breed easily and run/fly from predators. In short, I want a true small farm bird that doesn't need to be intensively managed. Oh and if they could lay golden eggs, that would be great, too! :)

A Speckled Sussex Hen

I mentioned two flocks before: a meat and a layer flock. But if the genetics of a heritage layer flock could be revived, they may become blended into a single flock. For example, we've chosen to focus our layer flock on Speckled Sussex birds, which were once heralded as excellent layers AND a great table bird, with hens reaching a hefty 6.5 lb live weight (4.5 lb dressed). The three Specked Sussex hens we have now, derived from hatchery stock, don't even come close to this size. It seems the Sussex breed has been able to maintain its true Dual Purpose label in both eggs and size in other color varieties (such as the Light Sussex) but not so in the Speckled variety. The Speckled coloring is much better suited to a free-range small farm environment where they blend more easily into their surroundings. A giant white bird might as well be wearing a dinner bell against a backdrop of pasture and leaves and so they aren't really an option.

To kick off this breeding program, we've order/reserved 4 batches of either chicks or hatching eggs from some pretty impressive Speckled Sussex breeders. One line won first place in a Kentucky fair for Large Fowl - English, which is pretty unheard of for that color variety. We will select for size first and then work on refining the color pattern, combs, and eliminating the curly toes prevalent in the breed. It will take many generations, but it's also a good investment. People are willing to pay top dollar for an excellent bird, and so perhaps this flock will start to pay for itself if we are careful.

In the meantime, we still need to eat. Although I am not opposed to eating scrawny culls, I still love -- LOVE -- my giant ranger birds. I can easily get 4 meals for two adults out of every bird and that's before we start making stock from the picked over carcass. As a comparison, I recently ate a culled Wyandotte rooster (butchered at 16 weeks) and we both polished off the 2.5 lb bird in a single sitting.

The Sweet Meat

So I would like to have the best of both worlds until the Speckled Sussex birds become meat-worthy. And for that, we have our ace in the hole: Sweet Meat. Sweet Meat is the pullet we retained from last year's Rangers order. She was the extra they threw in and after we processed her 20 siblings, she was spared and sent to live with our laying flock. Even though she is currently 12 lbs, she gets plenty of exercise and a ranging diet and she's managed to avoid heart attacks or limb problems (prevalent in the meat breeds once they pass butchering age) and has started laying quite nicely. Current layers, you are on notice!! We use our current Wynadotte Rooster over her and she has produced some nice "hybrid" chicks. They are not as fast growing as true Rangers, but they were also born on this farm. Time will tell (actually, 6 weeks more will tell) how they dress out, but they might just keep me satisfied.

4 week old chickens. Sweet Meat hybrid behind, Speckled Sussex/Wyandotte cross in fore

Our Wyandotte rooster is not exceptional and so he will be replaced, hopefully with a big strapping 9 lb Speckled Sussex rooster from our breeding program. If all goes according to plan, Sweet Meat will continue to thrive and we will get to see her chicks from that pairing which should grow even better than the ones from our Wyandotte rooster. And then another milestone will be reached on this farm: a full cycle, from birth to table, entirely on this soil.


AareneX said...

Applause! Applause! Applause!

One of the (huge) reasons we have thus-far opted to avoid meat chickens is the ungodly breeding practices that produce birds that pretty must be killed at 8 weeks. Please continue to document your chicken progress and insights--perhaps you can learn and teach us!

BTW, how are the goats?

Daun said...

Ha! Goats are fine. I promise the next post will be goat related. :)

I am not a big fan of the genetics behind the meat birds, but they ARE efficient and feed a lot of people with few resources. I can see both sides, but for now I am opting to try it on my own.

MD said...

Great article!