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.

12 thoughts on “The Chicken of Tomorrow needs to be the Chicken of Yesterday

  1. I appreciate this article, and do agree more heritage breeds need to be eaten in order for them, as a breed, to survive. So many people order heritage female chicks for egg laying, and what happens to the males? We all know by now, they are commonly gassed or put live into trash bags to suffocate. It is hard to make a profit on pastured poultry that takes so very long to mature, never reaching customer-desired sizes. Kingbird Farm is one example of an innnovative business that raises and integrates heritage breed chickens for both meat and eggs, raising Australorpes.
    On our farm, we raise both heritage cockerels and Cornish Cross. And we sold out of both ahead of time. We charge more per pound for heritage, as they will not weigh as much, and they take longer to mature- hence more feed and months caring for and worrying over them. The cornish cross is a hybrid, just like many of the vegetables we buy in the store and grow in our gardens. The “Freedom Ranger” and red broilers are also hybrids, and it’s funny to me how people act that they are superior to the Cornish Cross, when they are essentially they same in being a genetic combination. The Freedoms or Reds just grow slower and are smaller dressed weights, bigger than pure heritage breeds, but still smaller than a cornish. I just think all life is sacred and all beings need to be respected, it hurts my heart when people say the Cornish is fat/lazy/stupid. From day one our little “Bubs” get greens and then they know how to graze and run about when they go out on pasture. It is simply not true what people say about them, but perhaps, as a friend says “you get what you give”- or you mainfest it by treating them poorly. Efficiency in feed conversion is something that cannot be dismissed in our climate changing world. If we truely have an apocalypse, then yes, we cannot raise the cornish cross as they cannot breed true. But how many people who have their own heritage flocks actually eat their roosters? I know one person besides us! Just some thoughts, thanks again!

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment. Cornish Crosses can indeed be very good birds to keep alongside other hybrid and heritage birds. It’s all about maintaining diversity and good farming practices, which it sounds like you’re doing. Keep up the good work!

    2. Just wanted to reach out as our farm (Epic Blue Acres Farm) started raising strickly our heritage roosters as our meat birds. They are raised in pasture tractors with full access to organic feed when they wish.

    3. Not all hatcheries kill their roosters, some only sell straight run. One, I have a order in with them SandHill Preservation Center, does not over hatch either.
      Those people that won’t eat their roosters also don’t raise chickens for meat. I raise for both eggs and meat and prefer roosters, it doesn’t take many hens to have to many eggs.

  2. just started to raise balck jersey giant chicks first time ever love what I read on them ..hope all goes well…

    1. You will love them Dennis, My favorite eggs are from my Jerseys. We too like Kingbird farm hatch, raise and process the males we don’t keep for breeding. Here on Sunset Acres Farm, we have Brown Leghorn, Buff Orpington, Black & White Jersey Giants. The meat is very flavorful. They eggs are just so creamy tasting, very silky. Make sure you slaughter before 22-23 weeks though, meat can get tougher, I like to crockpot them, save all skin & carcasses for soup & stew, its so rch, yellow & chickeny flavored. Enjoy them, they are so funny & friendly too.
      Best Regards, Amy

  3. The reality is that if you look at the price for “heritage” breeds at the farner’s market or store that carries them they are far more expensive since they take more feed per pound of meat and they take much longer to grow out. I am not sure that the average family in this era of ongoing economic depression can afford to eat “heritage” chicken. Since I spend part of the year abover 5,000 feet, my choice is really limited to a freedom ranger type bird or what are referred to as “slower growing Cornish cross” – a bird that apparently is more like the bird of the 1970s – 1980s; the faster growing strains tend to die before reaching weight at higher altitudes.

    Ironically, the development of the Cornish cross led to the end of the use of hormones in poultry production; hormone capsules were used as a substitute for caponization in order to produce larger birds that were not tough and staggy.

  4. I’m currently designing my pasture broiler operation as the egg department is locked into heritage breeds. The sad truth in my region is there is simply not a market for heritage broilers. I’ll still test it out tentatively with the males from my egg operation but Joel salatins experience on the other side of the valley has not been favorable.

    1. It’s difficult for small farmers, especially those who focus their operations around heritage specific breeds. We commend the work you do and hope you find your market. It’s out there. People want better options, but they don’t always know exactly what that means. Best of luck.

  5. It seems the heritage breeds have the wrong “shape” for many consumers as they lack the ridiculously overdeveloped breast of the Cornish Rocks. I think the closest heritage breeds in shape to what consumers who think they want heritage may accept are Cornish or Wyandottes.

    An acquaintance in Nevada who runs a small family farm told me that people said they wanted heritage birds, but didn’t like them once they ordered them. She went back to raising the slower growing older style Cornish Rocks; the super fast strains tend to die at our altitude.

    Some of the old style commercial Barred and White Rock meat strains were ready for processing at 12 weeks – of course the desirable size and shape of bird was different in the 1940s and 1950s. In the 1910s, Dryden saw the smaller size of the cockerels of his laying strains as highly desirable because *smaller* meat birds than the six and seven pounders of the era could be consumed in one sitting, a definite plus in the era before widespread home refrigeration.

    I have no solution for the problems.

    1. Thank you for your comment.

      It’s true that most consumers have become accustomed to the proportions of modern chicken stock and are surprised when they first encounter heritage breed chicken at their table – especially because heritage chicken can benefit from different cooking methods. We have noticed that once people taste the difference between heritage and modern crosses they begin to develop an appreciation for birds who are healthy and are able to forage. As with any large cultural shift, it takes time. We believe that maintaining diversity of breeds is a solution as it will afford us the most opportunity now and in the future.

      1. Even with the instructions for how to properly cook the birds, their customers didn’t like the smaller breasts and thought they had excessive dark meat.

        It may be a matter of a cultural shift, but neither Joel Salatin nor the Plamondons have had much luck promoting heritage birds. Good Shepherd Farm depends on internet customers from all over the country, and I’m not sure there are enough of those to spread out for all of the rest of us.

        Meanwhile, back at the ranch, I keep hens for eggs. I’d raise cockerels for meat, but I don’t have the facilities to do so.

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