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One important aspect to keep in mind when looking for livestock for homesteading is that animals you choose should be self-sustaining. Once again, chickens top the list of great animals for self-reliance. They are small and take up less space than most meat animals, they produce both meat and eggs, they are easy to feed and require very little in the way of housing, and best of all, they usually breed and reproduce easily and without intervention.
Newcomers to the lifestyle are sometimes a little dismayed at the end result of dressing out some of the more commonly kept chickens however. Being used to supermarket chickens that are all plumped up on hormones or specifically bred to produce enormous sizes, they feel underwhelmed at the sight of a home-grown chicken.
It’s true that most of the dual purpose egg/meat breeds and even the heavier meat breeds that naturally reproduce have less meat-to-bone ratio than the hybrids or chemically enhanced birds seen in the produce aisle, but they are generally healthier, and best of all, will produce a self-sustaining food source for you and your family.
When new homesteaders start out looking through the hatchery catalogs, or stop in at their neighborhood feed store to look at the new spring chicks, they are often tempted to select a flock of hybrids that are very common, even in backyard and homesteading coops: the Cornish/Rock cross. These animals grow at an amazing pace and produce a dressed-out carcass that will rival just about anything seen in a supermarket. Cornish/Rock cross chickens will reach an eight-to-twelve-pound dress-out weight at about eight weeks of age. That’s an incredible growth spurt that just doesn’t happen in nature.
The super birds are appealing and seem to make sense at first, but there are some definite drawbacks. First of all, those new to raising chickens may not realize that these specialized birds require a little extra care to reach their full potential. In fact, these monsters of the chicken coop often die before reaching the chopping block, and new flock owners feel disappointed and their freezers remain empty. The reason so many die too soon is that the terrific growth rate of these birds is unnatural. It puts too much strain on their hearts and also makes it difficult for them to stand. Their legs simply can’t support the massive weight being put on them at such a young age, and they can’t get up to get to water or food, so they die.
How to Raise Meat Hybrids to Slaughter Weight
High-protein foods and vitamins in the water are a very important element in raising Cornish/Rock crosses. The higher protein level gives them more muscle strength, and the vitamins also help them maintain the strength they need both in power and cardio aspects so that they can thrive.
Cornish/Rock chicks also require a little more care in the beginning. They may actually crush each other if they have to huddle for heat, so making sure there is plenty of space under the heat lamps to keep them warm is a must. You should also be careful if you decide to keep other standard breed chicks with the hybrid chicks. The larger hybrids will easily crush smaller chicks and can keep them away from food and water sources if they are not plentiful enough or spread out enough.
Getting the Right Chick for Your Homestead
While the crosses are attractive and look like a great way to fill a freezer quickly, they aren’t the best breed of chicken for homesteading. First of all, they defy the first rule of homesteading: everything must be self-sustaining. If disaster strikes and you need to rely on your animals for food, those hybrids will provide for the current year, but what about later? Hybrids do not reproduce the way standard breed chickens do. First of all, they simply are too heavy to sit on any eggs they may produce. They also are not as inclined to seek out mating and set eggs. Chicks that do result from a miraculous mating and hatching do not necessarily carry on the traits of their parents because hybrids do not necessarily breed true to type.
The best breeds for homesteaders may be a little less impressive on the cutting board, but they will provide plenty of food and continue to provide it for years to come. They can exist on an easily grown diet that you can grow yourself, which makes them very efficient for those who want to be totally self-reliant. Selecting the best chicken breed to give you both eggs and meat is a little trickier. While many of the egg-producing breeds such as Rhode Island Reds are prolific egg layers, they don’t have a lot of meat on their bones. Wyandottes, Buff Orpingtons, Barred Rocks, Black Australorps, and White Rocks are excellent dual-purpose chickens that will give you a good supply of eggs and provide a good meat source as well.
Not only are the dual-purpose breeds a smart choice for homesteaders since they will reproduce easily and true to type, they actually save more money in the long run. It is true that it may take two birds to equal the same meat produced by a single hybrid, but the quality of that meat will be just as good, perhaps even better, and it won’t cost as much to raise the standard chickens.
Just the water soluble vitamins to put in the drinking water for a hybrid will run between $3 and $5 per week for twenty to fifty chicks and must be used for the duration of their growing life from birth to slaughter. That increases the cost of your meat a great deal and also further removes your efforts from self-sufficiency. You have to rely on outside resources to get your chicks every year and to purchase the vitamins they need to live and grow.
With the standard chicks, you buy them once, provide the proper housing and good healthy food from your own resources, and you don’t have to buy replacements anymore. So when looking at the options for your new homestead flock, keep in mind that in some cases, smaller is actually better, and go with the birds that will truly satisfy your needs and goals.