Chicken genetics have come a long way. In fact, modern-day broiler chickens reach market weight in half the time of a chicken raised in the 1950s.
Modern meat chickens grow faster than old-style birds, and believe it or not, they consume about one-third of the feed.
The truth, though, is that anytime we focus on developing one or two traits, it comes at the expense of other genetic traits.
The industry standard today for broiler chickens is the Cornish Cross. These hybrid birds can reach a slaughter weight of five pounds (live weight) in half the time and on a third of feed that their ancestors did.
But this rapid growth comes with a cost. Health problems such as leg issues, heart failure, and breast blisters are at the top of the list.
In addition, these birds have a voracious appetite for feed but are so lazy they will do very little foraging on their own.
If you plan to raise these birds outside in a pastured setup, be aware that compared to other common breeds they will be lazy and off their feet as much as they are up moving around.
They can be raised inside (that’s what they were developed for) and do fine as long as you are careful to regulate feed to curb growth a bit, which helps prevent leg and heart problems.
In the last few years, another type of meat chicken has come on the scene. These birds go by names such as Colored Range Broilers, Freedom Rangers, Rainbow Broilers, and other names as hatcheries develop their own lines of range birds.
These meat chickens are filling the need for a fast-growing bird that has more of the traditional foraging ability of older breeds.
They will typically reach slaughter weight in eight to 12 weeks compared to the Cornish Cross’ six to seven weeks.
These chickens will do very well in outside or pastured poultry operations. Although each hatchery’s birds may differ slightly, for the most part these birds don’t suffer from leg issues and other maladies common to Cornish Cross.
If you are looking for older or heritage-breed chickens to raise for meat, you might consider breeds such as Delaware, Buckeye or Dorking.
These birds will take much longer to get to slaughter weight (up to six months), and they will yield more dark meat than either the Cornish Cross or the various modern colored broilers.
The carcasses on older breeds have the appearance of a rubber chicken you buy at the novelty store. They are not double breasted and they are more narrow than what you buy from the grocery.
If you’re looking for the shortest time to slaughter, the Cornish Cross is your best choice.
The newer Colored Range Broilers, Freedom Rangers, and other meat birds by similar names are the best of both worlds. They will attain slaughter weight in a reasonable time frame, and prove to be good foragers.
If your preference is old-style chickens, then research some older breeds and go for it!
What is your favorite meat chicken on the homestead? Share your tips in the section below: