Breed a Better Chicken?

Many of us rely on the Cornish x Rock “monster birds” as a primary meat chickens. As dull and stupid of a breed as they are, they get amazingly large in a remarkably short period of time. Nearly every hatchery carries a similar version.

We’ve never tried breeding our own meat birds, or experimented with “heritage” chicken breeds for meat. We have on occasion ordered a straight run (mixed male-female) chicks from an egg layer breed like Buff Orpington or Barred Rock, and butchered the cockerels for meat. But they were disappointingly small, and took a long time to get even that big. And, in the meantime, we had lots of juvenile crowing and cockfights to deal with.

Several years back, a friend recommended a new hatchery; the breeder was experimenting with a “sustainable” meat chicken that got almost as big as the “monster” birds almost as fast, but that was a better forager and could actually breed (and breed true). [The Cornish x Rock birds are hybrids, and at maturity are so enormous…well, let’s just say that natural breeding would be an interesting challenge. Just like with broad breasted turkeys.] We ordered a batch of chicks from that hatchery, and were pleased with everything about them. Much more interesting than the typical “monster” birds. In fact, we were going to order all our future meat chicks from that guy. But then…he sent word to all his customers that he was shutting down his hatchery and moving to China. Someone over there had offered an opportunity to set up a breeding program — and he also wanted to do Christian missionary work there. We never heard from him again, and never heard of anyone else attempting to carry on what he’d started. (If this story rings a bell with anyone, or if any of my readers know what became of that breeder, particularly if he’s gone back into business, please post a comment with the info.)

Anyway, I post this because a reader dropped me a note. He and his family have begun small-scale farming in our area, and our families have enjoyed getting together. He’s raised some Cornish Cross birds, but is interested in finding or developing a meat chicken that’s more interesting than the typical hatchery offering:

I was wondering if you’ve every tried any of the heritage breeds for meat. Based on my reading, I think the Delawares are good, but may take a few extra weeks to get to full size. I’ve also seen discussions of the “Freedom Rangers“, but their breeding program seems a bit involved. Any ideas or suggestions?

Readers: does anyone know of a hatchery that is attempting to develop such a bird? Or have any of you experimented with breeding your own hybrid meat birds, based on large heritage chicken breeds such as Delaware, Cornish, etc? Or are you aware of blogs/research postings from people who have done such experiments? He and I would both be very interested in hearing about it.

3 thoughts on “Breed a Better Chicken?

  1. I would also be interested in a meat chicken that might serve as a compromise between heritage/slow food and get-big-enough-to-butcher-before-I-go-crazy-and-the-raccoons-find-you! We just had a discussion a couple days ago about whether to get freakishly-fast-growing cornish Xs or a slower but more interesting meat bird, and opted for a heavy-breed assortment. I'll try to remember to let you know how we find different breeds fare in our free-pasture situation (part of our reason for getting an assortment), in case the info is useful to someone.

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  2. I'm interested too. We raise the Cross, but this year I'm experimenting with some Rhode Island Reds. From everything I've read, they should be sizable (though not as big as the cross) in 12 weeks. I looked into the Freedom Rangers, but I don't see any difference (on paper) between the Rangers and the Reds. The Reds were more readily available so I'm planning on trying a few. If there are other options, I'd be interested.

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