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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.

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Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The search for the Holy Grail ... of meat chickens


Last year we blogged about an experiment in raising our own meat chickens. The results were good, but not great. Our plans, however, came to halt when our lovely rooster, Fernando, met an untimely end to a predator. I'd like to discuss this some more, and outline some of our plans for the near future.

I've talked before about commercial breeds of poultry, and I think it's pretty clear that it's something we want to try and avoid. It's worth noting that these commercial breeds aren't genetically modified in the sense that someone has gone in and tinkered with their genetics on a molecular level.  Instead, they are the products of very intensive selective breeding.  Farmers have been doing this for centuries, so it's nothing new. They've just taken that idea and, in the true fashion of modern industrialization, have figured out a way to condense those methods into something that was accomplished over a few decades. 

Most farmers would traditionally select their big, promising birds to breed. For birds, you wanted a good sized female that was a good egg layer and nice sized rooster, typically not from the same breed. Cross breeding like this, as I've mentioned before, can result in something called heterosis, or hybrid vigor. (Technically two different things but in a broad sense they are both very similar.)

Can you pick out the commercial broilers mixed in with our own crosses? 
(Hint: they grow so fast their feathers can't keep up!)

We made an attempt at this by keeping a large Cornish Rock hybrid rooster (one that grew fast, but not so fast it had health problems) with our heritage breed hens: Wyandottes and Ameraucanas. They're good layers, but very small birds that take a long time to get to their full size. The offspring were very varied. We saw some that had a lot of Fernando in them -- they grew faster than the others, but not really fast enough. On average they were dressing out to about 2.5 to 3.0 lbs. This isn't bad, mind you, but when you factor in the difference in age before processing (9 weeks for a commercial breed, 12-15 weeks for our own), the price difference in feed costs and time to raise is an issue. While our own birds may not consume as much a commercial broiler does, they still take up physical space and take up our time -- while our time doesn't cost us physical dollars, we do consider it a high value. Ideally, if they were all ready at 12 weeks we would be well off, but because the genetics were so varied (Fernando alone, being the Cornish Rock cross rooster we kept, was the product of four different lines of breeding) there was no consistency. Some of the birds were long legged, some had very narrow breasts. They all were, however, extremely delicious. People today don't know what a chicken is supposed to taste like. And this isn't the self-promoter in me talking: it really is more tasty!

We've recently expanded to include some Red Star, Buff Orpington, Plymouth Rock, Jersey Giant, Dark Cornish hens and have kept some of the results of the previous crossings (including some that did nothing more than win us over in personality). While we may benefit seeking out a good rooster and try our experiment again, we're looking to give this a more calculated effort by limiting the breeds we use.

A young commercial broiler

Prior to the modern commercial broiler, the "original" Cornish Rock cross dominated the commercial poultry industry. This Cornish supplied the double breast and weight; we've seen this in our one dark Cornish hen -- she's so heavy we joke she's made of dark matter. The white Rock provides the fast growth. Combined, and with the genetics falling into place, you may find a fast growing, heavy bird. This was obviously replaced by intensive selective breeding, but that cross produced a chicken that your grandparents may have bought from the butcher or grocery store.

And this is what we want. This is the Holy Grail of any small scale, sustainable poultry farmer. Ordering broilers (Cornish Rock crosses) from a hatchery is an extremely common practice right now, even from some of the more major pastured poultry producers. But there are costs to doing this: the mortality rate of young chicks is much higher, the cost of the birds, and shipping costs (maybe not a problem for the larger farmers, but for us it's an issue) are some of the up front costs. If you're focused on your environmental impact (I hate using the word "carbon footprint", but it applies here) the shipping and mass production methods have their own additional costs to more than just the wallet.

Not long ago we put in an order for 25 white Plymouth Rock pullets (female chicks) and 5 Dark Cornish cockerels (male chicks) that should be arriving later this month.  I don't know if our new efforts will produce what we want. I've read lots of people beginning a project like this but see very little follow up. Those genetics aren't a guarantee so it may not work right off the bat and may take us time to figure it out. At best, we end up with a chicken that is at an acceptable weight (4 lbs or more) and ready for processing at 12 weeks. At worst we end up adding more egg layers to our flock. Once we receive them there's about 22 weeks before the hens will start laying. Until then we have some of our own crossbreeds and may order some commercial broilers since the turnaround is much quicker. I look forward to the day -- however far in the future it may be -- that we no longer have to rely on the "creepy meats" or the "Frankenbirds". And I think you should, too. 

3 comments:

  1. My Dad used to get his chicks from Jefferson Feed (maybe a dozen at at time). Would that be any more cost effective for you?

    And he quit raising them (for eggs and to break down compost not for meat) when he had a major raccoon invasion.

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    1. We have purchased birds from the feed stores, but they come from out of state hatcheries. And, many times, those hatcheries obtain their birds (particularly the broilers) from one of the larger broiler hatcheries (I think there's a handful, but they produce the bulk of commercial broiler chicks). Hatching them on the farm is what we're really going for -- it's cheaper for us, makes us feel better about where our stock comes from, and we've found that birds hatched on the farm tend to be healthier than their commercially obtained counterparts!

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  2. I just hatched my first flock of Dark Cornish/white rock cross chicks. They are two weeks old today. of the hatch, I got 3 white chicks and 9 brown colors, varying from light to dark. They seem to be somewhat slow growing, but do have good appetites, And I noticed around day 10 a couple of them seemed to be a little aggressive by challenging eachother. Our intentions are to breed the hens with another breed of rooster and continue this process until we get a decent meat bird. I know I will not get the fast growing frenkenstein birds like we get from a hatchery, but I'm tired of buying chicks from the hatcherys.

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