Category: Breeds


The Chicken of Tomorrow needs to be the Chicken of Yesterday

GSTR_Chicks  GSTR_ManyChixBreeds

By Janani Lee

“The better the breeding, the better the eating,” Frank Perdue declares in an old commercial from Perdue chicken. He walks us through the breeds of chicken the Perdue company has raised throughout its history, listing the relative merits and drawbacks of the Barred Plymouth Rock through the Rhode Island Red, None of them, he claims, are up to his standards of “tender meat, plump breasts, [and] well turned legs.” So he had to develop his own. It is telling that a generation later, the breeds of these chickens are not nearly recognizable enough to be used in a television advertisement. In fact, the general pubic does not distinguish one breed of chicken from the next because they rarely encounter chicken that is not ready to cook or eat. The broiler industry came to rely on uniformity in size, growth rate, and behavior of its chickens in order to maintain a consistent supply for the consumer, and a bird was needed that could meet those specifications.

            Beginning in the late 1940’s, A&P Groceries sponsored the “Chicken of Tomorrow” contest for the “development of superior meat-type chickens.” The growing chicken industry sought ways to maintain and expand upon this boom by developing a chicken that would appeal to the consumer’s demands. The purpose of the contest was to find a “broader breasted bird with bigger drumsticks, plumper thighs, and layers of white meat,” which grew quickly with a high feed-to-weight conversion – a contrast to the slower growing, leaner hens that had been used mostly as laying hens in years past.

The chicken to come out of the contest victorious was a Cornish and White Rock cross-breed, which has been further refined by the broiler industry over the past few decades for “rapid growth, efficient feed conversion, broad- breastedness, limited feathering (for ease of plucking) and other traits considered desirable for rearing very large numbers of birds in confinement.” Most commercial and pasture raised chickens today are Cornish crosses, with breeding companies (many of them vertically integrated into meat producers) cross breeding to produce specific traits in male and female lines whose offspring is an ideal meat chicken. This crossbreeding also means that the offspring of the resulting chicks will not be true to either parent, protecting the breeding companies’ genetic research. While these crosses serve the meat industry well, they are far from the optimal breed of chicken.

chickens           Food Inc (2009)

Commercial chickens reach market weight of five pounds live in four to seven weeks; compared to the sixteen weeks it took in the 1950s. The physiological changes include the distribution of muscle mass (most of their weight is now located in their breasts) and the digestive and nervous system shift to give the birds “an insatiable appetite.” This bulky, hungry bird is highly susceptible to stress, cardiovascular failure, skeletal problems, and poor reproductive capabilities. One study showed that a modern chicken’s heart muscle was less developed than a heritage breed chicken of the same age and hypothesized that the “modern selection has diverted resources originally destined to maintain balanced heart growth into increased breast muscle mass.” The same study goes on to link the early development of the chickens’ livers and the increased length of their intestines to their need to metabolize feed quickly.Because these chickens are slaughtered at an early age, most of these health issues pose only a limited problem, but when other farmers raise the birds on pasture, the weak hearts and legs become more apparent since it takes longer to bring them to market weight. These farmers are showing a renewed interest in purchasing heritage breed chicks that are more suited to be raised on pasture.

       Heritage chickens are defined by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy as recognized Standard breeds of chicken that are “naturally mating, long lived, and slow growing.” Standard breeds are not crossbred and the offspring breeds are true to the parents, allowing farmers to maintain the genetic lines of their own flocks. Breeds like the Jersey Giant or Columbian Wyandotte can reach market weight in sixteen weeks, while some slower growing birds can take up to 24 weeks. Most of these breeds are also adequate egg producers and will live for up to seven years. They have healthier immune systems and are adapted to life on pasture, including the ability to forage for insects. While they are not as efficient at converting feed to muscle, their hearts grow at a proportional rate to their bodies and their skeletal structures are strong enough to support them.

            It is necessary to preserve heritage chickens that are not being farmed by the poultry industry for the same reasons that advocates work to preserve heirloom seeds: biodiversity. Industrial broiler chickens have been bred to grow quickly and efficiently and not do much else. They do not breed, lay, brood, care for their offspring, forage, or grow like chickens have since they were domesticated 8000 years ago. They lack the genetic diversity that would allow them to adapt to a change in their environment. Unlike plants, however, the genes that dictate these traits cannot be preserved inertly in a seed bank. They survive only in living birds and the only way to ensure their continued existence is for farmers raising them. These heritage breeds require increased feed and a longer growing period, meaning that farmers either need government incentives or increased market demand to ensure that they remain economically viable. There is a niche market for heritage chickens and they can sell for a higher price, but that market needs to be expanded. Increasing market demand also brings up a culinary aspect of chicken – as the biodiversity of chicken breeds narrows, we loose variations in chicken flavors. While this loss is unquantifiable, cultural history gets lost when flavors are no longer valued and when chemical additives in fast food replace natural variations in flavor. The philosophical question also needs to be considered: what we view the chicken itself as – an easy source of animal protein for humans or an animal in its own right. Though humans have been subtly altering chicken’s genetics for centuries through domestication and hybridization, it is only in the past few decades that this has resulted in the vast dominance of birds that are not healthy past eight weeks old.

Patrick Martins, Founder & President

It’s the Meat…

Want a hot recipe? Here’s one: choose a lovely, well-sourced piece of meat — from a merchant that you trust, sourced from a farm that you know, and a breed you have come to love, and add fire. Et voila! There’s your recipe. Just remember, the fire is the constant, the meat is the variable. And don’t forget where it came from, so you can do it again.

Columbian Wyandotte

ColumbianWyandotteHen

We are about to begin our Heritage Rare Breed Chicken Tour here at Heritage Foods USA and could not be more excited about working with preeminent poultry farmer Frank Reese to revive these breeds. In the coming weeks we will post more info, recipes, stories, and videos about the project, but we wanted to start with an introduction to our inaugural breed: the Columbian Wyandotte.

This very old American breed of chicken was first exhibited in 1890 at the Columbian World’s Fair in Chicago. Wyandottes are hearty birds that can stand up to cold temperatures and are know for their good disposition in flocks. The Columbian Wyandotte is a medium sized bird with a white feather body and contrasting black and silver neck and tail plumage. There are currently fewer than four breeders in America who raise the Columbian Wyandotte to the true old standards, and most have less than 25 hens.

Columbian Wyandottes are good for frying and are sought after for their fine texture, taste, and healthy lipid fine yellow fat. Like all heritage poultry that are pasture raised, they have well developed legs and wings that respond best to slow cooking at a low temperature.

Stay tuned for more info and recipes!

The Angus Breed

Pure Black Angus is the premiere cattle breed for beef in the United States. The breed has ancient origins in Aberdeen and Angus, Scotland. The first Angus bulls arrived in Kansas from Scotland in 1873, garnering negative attention due to their naturally hornless heads. Because only bulls were originally brought over, many cattlemen bred them into existing herds, diluting the genetics. Later, more cows were brought from Scotland to from purebred herds, but it remains difficult to find 100% purebred herds in the US. “Certified Angus Beef” only requires 51% Angus genetics and that the meat and fat ratios are favorable.
Angus is now the most commonly used genetics in America. Black Angus is most common, but a recessive gene makes some cattle Red. Most European and Canadian breeders do not distinguish between Red and Black Angus, but register than as separate breeds in the US. Breeders favor Angus genetics because they are easy to calf and they are naturally hornless.

Craig Good’s Great Livestock

So you’ve enjoyed a grilled heritage Angus steak and have savored the buttery flavor of our Old Spot bacon, but now you want to know more about the origin of these finger-licking cuts? You may already know that Heritage Foods USA works with independent family farmers across the U.S. who serve as the foundation of Heritage Foods USA’s mail order division and supply America’s top restaurants with premium cuts of pork and beef- but who are the masterminds responsible for prolonging the blood lines of the exclusive breeds Heritage Foods promotes? Wonder no more! Introducing one of our hog and beef farmers: Craig Good.

Craig and Amy Good
Craig and Amy Good of Good Farms

For more than 50 years, Craig Good has worked with livestock at Good Farms, located on the northern edge of the Kansas Flint Hills in Olsburg, Kansas. Historically, this area was known as the last vestige of the Tall Grass Prairie- a fertile strip of grasslands that supported untold numbers of bison in our country’s formative years. Given its history, Craig’s father, Don, bought the farm in 1961. Don quickly became a nationally recognized authority on beef cattle – an honor that has been passed down to Craig through hard work and close attention to genetic refinement. Early on, Craig took an interest in the family business, and after graduating with a degree in Animal Science from Kansas State in 1975, he began working for a pure-bred swine breeder. In 1981, Craig and his wife, Amy, decided to move back to his childhood home to carry on the legacy of his family’s farm.

The Good Farm is very diverse – raising various crops, 100% Angus cattle, and several heritage breeds of hogs. The farm’s modest size allows the couple to focus on quality, rather than quantity,  through the enhancement of their livestock’s genetics. Working with Heritage Foods USA allows the Goods to make a living without converting into an industrial-sized farm.

“We feel that true quality is achieved by working with detail and care in breeding our hogs, not just cranking numbers and pounds off the farm,” Craig explains.

Good Farm’s size offers other benefits, too. Recently, Craig had the opportunity to experiment with the diets of his pure-bred Duroc hogs. Instead of the traditional feed, oats, Craig tried feeding these special swines a meal of dried cranberries and plums. Not only did he receive a positive response from the chefs to which he supplies pork (the Duroc’s normally tame fat became much more fragrant), but the pigs enjoyed this tasty change to their daily diets, as well. This experiment  is just one example of how Heritage Foods USA and its farmers are finding creative ways to revolutionize the food industry.

Craig and Pigs
Craig Good and his Duroc Hogs

The Goods are selective with their breeding, and are working to create the best possible future generation of swine. In addition to the Duroc, Craig and Amy raise a small number of Old Spot and Spot Rock pigs – a cross between Old Spot and Duroc pigs. Previously, the couple raised Yorkshire hogs as well, but decided to focus their attention on the Duroc breed due to their rapid growth rates, great muscle quality, and pure, yet mild flavor.

During a recent visit to his farm, Craig told the Heritage Foods USA team that his favorite thing about his farm is being surrounded by his pigs.

“I’ve loved pigs ever since I was in 4H, back when I was thirteen years old. Some people don’t like pigs but I do… I like to think there’s a really good relationship between us and our pigs.”

Craig and Amy feel a strong responsibility to our nation as farmers.

“We are proud of our place in the farm economy and hope that we can continue to serve the producers that have been true to us over the years,” Craig says. “We feel that the family farm has been a true asset to America and we strive to work together with our fellow producers to remain a viable part of the future. We have a strong commitment to produce pigs that are of the highest quality possible.”

 

Highland Cattle: A Regal Heritage Breed

As previously announced, our annual Eighth Cattle Share is in full swing! Following America’s most popular breed, the Angus, Larry and Madonna Sorrell present the truly regal choice of England: Highland beef.

Highland cow
A Highland Cow grazing at Lazy S. Farms

The Highland is the oldest registered breed of cattle, officially recognized in 1884. The Queen of England maintains her own Highland herd at Balmoral Castle, which satisfies her cravings for a royal burger. Highland cattle have lived for centuries in the rugged, remote, Scottish Highlands – qualifying them as a true heritage breed. Cold weather and snow have little effect on this breed, allowing them to be raised as far north as Alaska and Scandinavia.  These extremely harsh conditions propelled the process of natural selection, allowing only the fittest and most adaptable animals to survive and carry on the legacy of the breed. Originally, the Highland breed was comprised of two distinctly different herds; today, however, these strains have evolved into one, hearty Highland lineage. Despite their long horns, long hair, and unusual appearance, the Highland is considered to be a docile and calm animal. They are extremely intelligent, which makes them quite easy to train.

Highland cattle are approximately 2/3 the weight of Angus cattle, so their meat yield is slightly lower. They mature slowly and are typically taken for slaughter later  in life than other breeds, making their meat  tender, lean, well marbled, and flavorful.  This hard-to-find beef is dry-aged three weeks before we ship it, reducing each cut’s weight, but enhancing the savory flavor of this delectable beef.

Larry and Madonna Sorell have been farmers since 1970, when they purchased 200 acres of land in Cloud County, Kansas. Larry Sorell continues a family tradition that was passed down from his grandfather to his father and then, to him. Today, the farm is a bit smaller, but the Sorrells still maintain true biodiversity amongst their livestock. Madonna fondly recalls Larry returning home with a surprise in his truck – once a few lambs, another time a beautiful horse. The couple raises numerous heritage breeds, including a handful of Highland cattle, Katahdin lambs, and several pig varieties, which can be found on our storefront.

 

Heritage Chickens: A Year-Round Treat

Good Shepherd Turkey Ranch is widely regarded as the premium provider of heritage turkeys, and Heritage Foods USA relies on the genetic integrity of Frank Reese’s birds each and every holiday season. But did you know that the Reeses also produce genetically pure, delicious chickens year-round? These heritage breed Jersey Giant and Barred Rock chickens come from a long lineage, akin to those your grandparents may have eaten growing up prior to the industrial era.

The Jersey Giant chicken was developed between 1870 and 1890 by John and Thomas Black near the town of Jobstown, New Jersey. These typically mellow chickens are impressive in size, reaching 10-13lbs at maturity, making them the largest purebred chicken breed in existence. The commercial standard developed for poultry includes a rugged gigantic frame, with an angular shape, single comb and black shanks. Reese chose to raise Jersey Giants to illustrate the diversity of heritage chicken breeds. The Jersey Giant is a slow growing bird: it takes 24-28 weeks to reach market weight, as compared to the Plymouth’s 16-18 weeks. With such a long growth period, these chickens often fall short in the eyes of the commercial industry to more rapidly growing birds. Currently, there are fewer than 5,000 Jersey Giants in the U.S.; however, with its large size and silky, rich meat, this is the perfect chicken for roasting. Dress it simply to taste its natural flavors.

Cooked Jersey Giant
A Jersey Giant Chicken, cooked low and slow

The Barred Rock, a variety of the Plymouth Rock (or simply “Rock”), originated in the United States and was admitted to the APA Standard in 1874.  They possess a long, broad back, a moderately deep, full breast, and yellow skin. Developed in New England in the middle of the 19th century, the Barred Rock was first exhibited as a breed in 1869. This breed is considered a dual-purpose fowl, meaning that it is valued both for its meat and for the hens’ egg-laying ability. The breed gained popularity very rapidly due to its hardiness, docility, broodiness, and excellent production of both eggs and meat. In fact, until World War II, the Barred Rock was the most extensively kept and bred breed in the United States.

As with all heritage products, Heritage chickens are humanely raised on open pastures, providing them with a healthy lifestyle and lots of exercise. This method of raising livestock yields a larger muscle-mass, and for this reason, heritage fowl require a cooking low and slow cooking technique.

 

 

Eighth Cattle Share

For the fourth year in a row, Heritage Foods USA is taking part in a uniquely sustainable model of meat consumption: the Eighth Cattle Share. Though Heritage supports eating sustainably year-round, this nose-to-tail project allows our customers to purchase an entire eighth of a steer – including all of the cuts – leaving minimal waste in its path. By using the entire cow, small cattle farmers need not worry about selling individual cuts, lifting the heavy burden that comes along with the traditional model of selling cut-by-cut. However, this opportunity also provides our customers with special cuts of heritage cattle breeds at one low price.

Eighth Cattle Angus
Good Farms Pure Black Angus Cattle



Heritage Foods USA considers this project to be one of our most important of the year. For our initial eighth cattle share, we’re teaming up with Craig and Amy Good of Good Farms. Located on the northern edge of the Kansas Flint Hills, this area is the last vestige of the Tall Grass Prairie – a fertile strip of grasslands that supported untold numbers of cattle in our country’s formative years. Grass is arguably the best feed for cows, and the mix of Big Bluestem, Little Bluestem, Indiangrass, Switchgrass, Prairie Dropseed, and Sideoats Grama is responsible for producing the tastiest grass fed, American-bred Angus cattle in existence.

Though Pure Black Angus genetics are the most commonly used in America today, a 100% Angus herd like Craig Good’s is rare and hard to find. Good Farms has become one of the most reputable sources of pure-bred livestock in the country, and we applaud The Goods for caring so much about the quality and integrity of their cattle.

Heritage offers three ways to support this year’s eighth cattle share project, all of which will fit in a standard-sized freezer. Our largest package, the True Eighth, features sixty pounds of ground beef, brisket, short ribs, and three different cuts of steak. For those with a smaller apetite, The All Star Cuts package offers the same prime cuts with significantly less ground beef.

Still, for some, buying in bulk can be a pretty big commitment. Want to support the Eighth Cattle Share project and the small farmers it benefits? Buying ground beef helps these farmers significantly during the butchering process, because virtually any left over parts of the steer can be ground. For this reason, Heritage Foods offers three different ground beef packages, in varying quantities. What better way to prepare for the summer grilling season than by stocking your fridge with the best Angus beef that money can buy?

Stay tuned for additional eighth cattle share packages from Highland, Simmental and Belgian Blue breeds of cattle throughout the summer.

An Intro to Heritage Pork Breeds

The core of Heritage Foods USA’s mission is to preserve rare heritage breeds. We work hard to support family farms that raise their animals on natural diets and without the aid of antibiotics, which are common on industrial farms.

Red Wattle Pig
A Red Wattle pig raised by Larry Sorell at Lazy S. Farms

 

Heritage pork is sourced from  Certified Humane Red Wattle or Six-Spotted Berkshire stock. Some of our farmers, however, also raise other rare breeds – Duroc, Old Spot, Large Black, and Tamworth – which are available for purchase by request, or as porterhouse chops and cured hams.

Sorell_Sow_BreedBerkshire
A Berkshire sow with one of her piglets

Berkshire meat is elegant, luscious and smooth. The streaks of fat that run through Berkshire meat produces a round, buttery flavor that melts on the tongue. The firm and substantial texture of Berkshire meat was so cherished by the British monarchy that they exported the breed as far as Japan, where it is called Korobuta.

As seen above, the Red Wattle is the only pig left in the world that still has a wattle hanging from its jowl. Red Wattle meat is charmingly inconsistent; its expressive porky flavor is concentrated and even a little racy. Originating in the South Pacific, the Red Wattle pig populated the backyards of New Orleans during the 18th and 19th centuries where it was bred to stand up to the strong and flavorful Creole cuisine. These gentle red hogs are renowned  foragers: when allowed to roam, their meat develops earthy, herbaceous traces of the vegetation within their locale.

One of Craig Good's Duroc hogs
One of Craig Good’s Duroc hogs

Duroc meat is clean and crisp. Its taste and texture are polished and easy on the palate. Duroc pork is a standard – not too fatty, not too lean, not too strong – but is certainly more flavorful than its factory farmed cousins. In fact, Duroc genetics were used in the foundation of the pig industry, which gained momentum in the 20th century.

Tamworth meat is robust and gutsy, and is the leanest of the heritage pork breeds- making it an excellent source of bacon and jowl. Its balanced flavor is the pork equivalent of a red beer. Despite its presence on the Threatened species list, the Tamworth is a hearty, strong, resilient animal – making it an excellent candidate for the growing urban farm movement around the United States.

A Gloucestershire Old Spot sow from Craig Good's farm
A Gloucestershire Old Spot sow from Craig Good’s farm

 

Large Black and Gloucestershire Old Spot pigs are listed as critically endangered by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. Along with the Red Wattle, they are the rarest pig breeds that Heritage Foods sells.

Originating in the Berkley Vale of Gloucestershire during the 1800s, the GOS was bred to lounge around in the orchards of England, where its sole responsibility was to clean up fallen fruit.  The breed became rare after World War II, when the shift to intensive pig production reduced interest in grazing pigs. Due to its supreme laziness, GOS meat is very delicate – even its fat is edible and milky. Old Spots carry a distinct layer of backfat and marbling within their meat, making them the bacon pig of choice for many.

The Large Black is a favorite of farmers who appreciate the breed’s intellect and docility. Its strength, hardiness, and ability  to forage make it a valuable asset for pasture-based farming. The breed is native to southwestern England and gained popularity in the 1800’s as farmers began to see that the animal could easily turn poor-quality feed into large quantities of high-quality meat. The Large Black’s physical characteristics – its dark skin and large ears – make it stand out in terms of appearance and efficiency: its dark skin protects it from sunburn during long hours of grazing, and its long ears shield its eyes from dirt while foraging. Large Blacks are also known for their lean consistency; however, they lack the excess back fat found in the GOS.

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