Welcome!

Welcome to HighTail Farms, LLC! We're a small farm located in Hammond, Louisiana. We are dedicated to providing people with ethically raised and humanely processed pastured poultry and sheep, fresh eggs, and raw meat for pet food.

Please follow the links in the top bar for more information on our products and their availability. Continue reading below for our blog where we detail the adventures of raisin' animals and whatnot.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

To breed, or not to breed ...

What you lookin' at?
Since we've received our approval from the state to begin processing poultry on the property, we spent some time talking about what we wanted to continue raising. When you buy a bird from the store you hardly hear about what breed of chicken, duck, or turkey it was. To most people, perhaps even you, a chicken is a chicken and a duck is a duck and a turkey is a turkey, and that's not always the case.

Let's talk a bit about breeds ...

The commercial industry has settled on a few specific breeds (mostly cross-breeds, as you'll see). They grow fast, are very feed efficient, and put on a lot of weight very quickly when fed a very specific diet under very specific conditions. All birds are handled the same so typically the variation in weight is very small. If you've ever spoken to me about commercial vs. small farm, you might hear me refer to the commercial grows as "factories"; and in this regard -- growing animals to be identical size and weight in a given time period -- this is ideal factory production. The conditions that these occur in aren't always the greatest, but that's another post for another day.

Typically, these are the breeds that are used, and you've probably seen them before:

Turkeys: Broad-breasted white
Chickens: Cornish-Rock hybrid
Ducks: Jumbo Pekins

Turkeys

Broad-Breasted White Tom (male) Turkey
Broad-breasted white turkeys resemble White Hollands, large heritage breed white turkeys, but are a separate breed altogether. Originally marketed as Beltsville Small Whites, they were bred with other large turkeys to create the Broad-breasted white. They grow extremely fast, often so fast that their legs cannot support them. They are bred for their large breasts portions; the breasts grow so big that they are unable to reproduce naturally. Artificial insemination is required to produce fertile eggs. If you've ever watched Dirty Jobs, you've probably seen this episode. If left to live too long, they often drop dead from their hearts being unable to support the large body. In fact, President Obama "pardoned" some Broad-breasted white turkeys in 2010 during Thanksgiving and they died soon after. Even when regulating diet, they just grow too fast. The USDA hosts a great article (PDF) about the history of this breed of turkey.

Ducks

Our Pekins/Crested-Pekins
You all know what a Pekin is: think of the insurance company mascot with the funny quack, or that Disney character with the speech impediment. These white ducks were originally bred in China up to 3,000 years ago from Mallards. Jumbo Pekins were selectively bred from regular Pekins, often taking the largest drake (male) and breeding with a highly productive egg-laying hen. They are the quintessential commercial duck due to their fast growing size and calm disposition.  Unlike the broad-breasted white turkeys, these ducks are able to reproduce naturally, however we've been told they can develop issues in their legs from their large size.

Chickens

Cornish-Rock hybrid chickens
Cornish-Rock hybrid chickens are a cross between a Cornish cock and a Plymouth Rock hen. The result is a fast-growing bird. This is due to something called hybrid vigor which, if you're raising animals for meat, is something definitely worth knowing about. They can reproduce naturally like the jumbo Pekins, but they suffer from the same health issues as the broad-breasted white turkeys. You can see in the photo above that the chickens grow so fast that the feathers cannot keep up with the growth rate, often leaving bare spots on their sides and breasts. This is something you see in commercial turkeys as well. There is often a complaint that because they grow so fast the meat loses a lot of flavor. I think that depends more on how the bird is raised: commercial farms remove the grass, the bugs, the sunshine, and the dirt, then remove space for flapping wings, space for roosting, proper nests, and beak tips. After removing all of the things that chickens need to live, and then removing the things that makes a chicken a chicken ... how do you expect it to taste like chicken?

Hybrid Vigor

I mentioned hybrid vigor a moment ago, and it's certainly something worth explaining if you don't know what it is. Hybrid vigor (also referred to heterosis) is, in short, combining two breeds with some similar qualities to receive an offspring that exhibits an excess of those qualities. In this case, Cornish and Plymouth Rocks are both considered heavy birds. By combining the two, the heaviness is expressed more in the offspring than in the parents. You can read the Wikipedia article for some explanation of the genetics behind it and theories on exactly how it works, but the key here is that most of these breeds of commercial birds are the result of genetic manipulation -- just not the laboratory kind that we often think of when we hear the phrase. This isn't something new, it's something that farmers have known for a long time and is used in all forms of animal husbandry. (We even use it in the rabbit we will be selling as pet food: crossing two meat breeds of rabbits generally give large offspring.) Commercial industry may have made it easier by doing it in extremely large numbers, but it is nothing new at all.

We plan on using this strategy for our sheep. Currently we are raising a breeding flock of Katahdin sheep, a breed developed in the mid-1900s. They were bred to be hair sheep, which I'm sure we've discussed on here before, parasite resistant (big deal for sheep) and good at meat production. When time to breed for meat, however, we will bring in a ram from a non-hair breed, such as a Dorper. Also known for meat production, Katahdin/Dorper crosses will grow faster and exhibit a lot of the same health qualities found in the individual bloodlines. The University of Maryland Extension office has a great article on this method of hair sheep breeding.


Heritage Breeds

Welsh Harlequin ducks
Heritage breeds of livestock are gaining popularity right now. Perhaps it is people trying to hold on to the "old ways", or to get away from the factory farming of animals, but we find this to be a great thing for the consumer. As I said, commercial breeds are meant to grow fast and big. They breed for size only, but not for health. We've noticed our commercial breeds -- namely the turkeys and chickens -- suffer the most from these health issues. Our mixed breeds and heritage breeds have remained very healthy, hardly needing any care at all other than food and sunshine. Commercial birds raised in factory farms are often susceptible to disease along with their physical issues. This is important for small farmers who often operate with a very, very small profit margin. The downside, as there is always one, is that heritage breeds tend to take longer to reach a marketable weight. Where a Cornish-Rock cross may be full size in 9 weeks, a heritage breed may take 12 or more weeks. While they can mean more feed and a slightly higher cost, it does result in a better tasting and healthier bird. Quantity is a goal in commercial production, not quality.

Please do not read this as commercial breeds being something to shun. Small farmers who raise these breeds (for chickens, just "broilers") tend to provide them with better feed and conditions than they receive in the commercial industry. Our Cornish-Rock chickens, while they may grow large, receive plenty of time in the pasture and look fantastic. The turkeys may have issues walking but are otherwise in good health. The ones we have processed and cooked for ourselves were lean and tasted delicious in the end.


So, what does HighTail Farms raise? 

Birds ... birds, everywhere...
Our ducks that we brought with us have been a mixture ofWelsh Harlequins, Indian Runners, and Buff Orpingtons (mostly hybrids), and we have added some Cayugas, Blue Swedish, and Pekins. Each are breeds with very specific characteristics and considered "dual purpose", although we have mainly been breeding for egg production. They're good sized birds, but nothing near the Jumbo Pekins. Additionally, our birds are excellent foragers and do well on pasture. This cuts back on our feed costs and also lends to a tastier bird and healthier egg.

Not long ago we purchased some regular Pekins to mix in with the flock and recently separated the flock so that we have only Welsh Harlequin, Cayuga, Swedish, and Pekin drakes mating with the mixed hens. We will begin incubating soon, an in a few months will likely do another selected breeding. Welsh Harlequins are known to have tasty meat and the Harlequins, Cayuga, and Swedes are a good size. Although we have a mixed flock we should have some purebreds come from this mixture; a good thing considering most of those breeds are considered "critical" or "threatened" under the American Livestock Breed Conservancy watchlist. While some people may emphasize raising one breed, we are hoping that the mixture of breeds may result in some mixed-breeds that benefit from hybrid vigor. In the future we may settle on a few select breeds, but for now we enjoy the variety.

We have a small group of Red- and Silver-Laced Wyandottes and Ameraucana hens. These are considered heritage breeds, and known to be good egg layers and broody hens. Originally we were looking for a source of eggs (for ourselves) and something to perhaps do some hatching and raising of ducks for us. A couple of months ago we purchased and raised a small group of Cornish-Rock crosses, and decided it was not something we would do again. Some grew so fast they could hardly walk -- you may remember Kaela's post about this not that long ago (the one that looked like a late Marlon Brando). We decided to experiment and will be keeping one rooster from the Cornish-Rock crosses to breed with the Wyandottes and Ameraucanas. The rooster we are keeping is of a good size with no physical issues (no problems walking) and seems to be good with the ladies: he crows, they come running to him!

There are a few broad-breasted white turkeys that we will be processing for sale, leftover from the original five we purchased. We will never raise these here again. They may be easy to grow, but much like the chickens it happens too fast and they can suffer from too many health issues. We have a small flock of six broad-breasted bronze turkeys, similar to the whites, that do not seem to be growing nearly as fast. It is possible, but unlikely, that we actually have standard bronze turkeys. If this is the case they should be able to breed on their own and will make an excellent addition to the farm. We are looking at some heritage breed turkeys and will certainly post about them when we get them! We will try and have some ready for Thanksgiving.

Ready ... set ...

Keep your eye on the blog, on Facebook, and Twitter: we will be posting a price list shortly and will begin taking some orders! We will have a number of commercial bred meats for sale while we make way for our own breeds and I can assure you they taste great. Pastured poultry is something you need to try for yourself -- it's hard to describe but the closest we can come is, "The chicken tastes like chicken." 

 - Big Onion 

TL;DR - Commercial industry uses creepy meats. We got chickens, turkeys, and ducks of various breeds for sale.

4 comments:

  1. I would like to place an order pretty please!

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  2. It looks like you are breeding...LOL! I think if you have the means, the time, and the energy, why not? Only good can come of it...chicken, yummy!! Don't forget, the Pekings need a lot of water.

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  3. We recently tried raising some commercial meat birds at home. They were the kind bred for large breasts, and they grow quickly — the ones that break their legs easily and can’t stand up when fully grown. I was really uncomfortable with the entire thing. It didn’t go well for a variety of reasons. In the future we’ll be raising dual-purpose or heritage breeds.

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    1. My only issue with the dual-purpose or pure bred heritage breeds is the long grow time. They may not consume as much during their 18 weeks or so, but they do take double the time as a 9 week bird does, and still occupy physical space. We're hoping with breeding white Rock hens to a dark Cornish rooster (essentially the old school "heritage" broiler) we'll get something that grows out in about 12 weeks. We'll see!

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