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Sunday, September 25, 2011

Heritage Breed Chickens for Meat: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

I have mentioned before this year’s experiment with raising heritage breed chickens for meat here in Alaska.  You can read here about our chickens and our plan.    Well that experiment has come to a close, and I thought it was about time I shared our results.

The Good –
1.     We successfully raised about 27 chickens; we kept 5 or 6 (I say or because we thought we chose 6, but now we only have 5, so either we lost one, or we really only took 5 in the first place).  So that left 21 or 22 that we butchered for meat.
2.     They act like real chickens.  I really enjoy watching them beg for greens at the fence, dig around looking for bugs and taking dirt baths.  My main reason for not raising the Cornish Cross again, is that they don’t look or act like real chickens.  This was definitely a success!
3.     They averaged 1.5-2.5 with maybe a few closer to 3 # each, which is what was expected for the size and age.  We butchered at 12-16 weeks, and maybe a few made it to 20 weeks (in the end we couldn’t tell who was from the first hatching and who was from the second.
4.     The meat tastes good.  It’s slightly tougher than the Cornish Cross, because they are butchered at an older age, but it has a good chicken flavor.  There are some differences in cooking with heritage breed chickens, which you can read about here.  I dislike plucking, and I like the convenience of cut up chicken, so I often only pluck a few whole ones and we skin and cut up the rest, wrapping individually in plastic wrap, and then putting like pieces in a labeled freezer bag.  I can then choose which pieces I want, based on what I’m planning to use them for.  As I was out of town or at work when these were butchered, my husband just skinned and cut up all of them.  We’ve had one meal of chicken so far, I cooked it on the grill, as they were skinless I was afraid it would dry out, so I wrapped the pieces in foil until almost cooked, topped with the sauce, then put them directly on the grill to brown prior to serving topped with more sauce.  It was very tender, juicy and good.

The Bad:
1.     We had about 42 chickens that we put in the outdoor pen.  Something got in, I think a fox, but maybe a dog, and we lost many, leaving us with only 27 in the end. 
2.     Because of predators, we have to keep our chickens confined, and they have eaten every speck of green in their pen (which is pretty large, about the size of a city backyard, but it’s sectioned off into areas for layers, turkeys and meat chickens).  I fed them as much greens as I could out of our yard, but this is really not a great system.  Their area is in a boreal forest, and has some bugs and has a nice mulchy ground for them to dig in, but they certainly don’t get any substantial amounts of food from it. 

The Ugly:
1.     Because they are confined, the bulk of their feed is purchased.  I also choose to feed only organic feed also, so this was really not ideal (really the cost was pretty ugly). 
2.     Yes, the real ugly part.  The cost.  Going in, I thought it wouldn’t matter how much it cost, it would be worth it, but in the end, I don’t think financially that it was.  I’m sorry I don’t have actual numbers, but I do know it cost twice as much to raise the heritage breed chickens, for half as much meat.  Someone who posted on my blog figured hers out to be about $9 per pound? That is really about what I paid.  Yikes!!! Wow, really expensive, much more than I thought it was going to be.

Even though it wasn’t financially feasible for us, I won’t recommend against it entirely.  This is the chicken that all Americans ate until the Franken Chicken and industrial farming There are people who also posted on my blog who have been able to raise them for much less.  I think it would be much more financially feasible if you were able to free range or confined range them in areas with plenty of greens and bugs, particularly successful seem to be the people who have livestock that they are rotationally grazing and move the chickens after to dig through the fresh manure.  Certainly using non-organic feed would have reduced costs too. 
Results:  I won’t say it was a failure, we learned a lot, and have 21 (or 22) yummy heritage breed chickens in our freezer, but given our current situation, and no clear way to make it cheaper for us, we won’t be raising them for meat next year.  I think we will hatch a limited amount for replacement of our layers, which will leave us a few roosters to butcher, and the older layers for stewing chickens.   Then again, it probably is cheaper to just buy new layers instead, and not hatch any at all (hmm…. Should we keep our rooster?)  I’m not sure we have decided how we will approach it next year. I also know we won’t be raising the Cornish Cross either. I think we will decrease our dependence on chicken and focus more on rabbit and maybe more turkey, which seem more promising financially. We raised Bronze Turkeys (not heritage, but they do act like turkeys and will eat greens and forage some), which were about $2.5 per pound.  We have a male and female Flemish Giant, and a female New Zealand, I really don’t know the cost of the meat yet.  We did have 1 litter, but didn’t keep any records on the cost.  The meat was good, even though I thought I didn’t’ like rabbit, but again takes a little learning how to cook it properly.  I will be posting more about rabbit meat in a future post, once we have some litters raised, and have a better idea of the cost.  Of course I’ll share that information in a post also.
Conclusion and recommendations:
Even though it wasn’t financially feasible for us, I won’t recommend others not give it a try. This is the chicken that all Americans ate until the Franken Chicken and industrial farming changed our view of chicken, clearly it was done, and done affordably too.  I think in the right situation, it can be affordable and feasible.  Will it compare to the Franken chicken on sale for 69 cents a pound,?  No, never. Will it compare to raising the Cornish Cross for meat?  Not in time, it will always take double the time or more.  Not in taste either, those extra weeks, really improve the flavor. Nor for feed cost if you are raising them on a feed based diet.  There are people who also posted on my blog who have been able to raise them for much less.  Some ideas to make it more affordable.  Hatch your own, at $3.99-$4.99 each (Alaska prices) that adds a lot from the start compared to the $1.49 Cornish Cross.  Butchering sooner rather than later reduces cost.  If you have an area where you can free range, or confined range them in areas with plenty of greens and bugs, this would also reduce feed costs.  Those who have livestock that they are rotationally grazing and move the chickens in to dig through the fresh manure are particularly successful at this.  Certainly using non-organic feed would have reduced costs too. 

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  1. Thanks for all the great info! While it may have been more expensive to rasie them organically, it is certainly worth the cost, IMO. Oragnic chicken at the store is expensive and just because it's labeled organic doesn't mean that it has been able to be outside or that the butchering process was humane, or cleanly.
    Who wants to eat chicken from the store anyway or even a chicken that has been fed GMOs all it's life? Certainly not me. :)

  2. Great summary! Thanks for sharing your story. I commented on your original post about our experience raising $9/lb heritage breed chickens. Yes, with death loss and super high feed costs here on the west coast, it was very expensive.

    Our chickens had lots of grass and bugs too, but they still needed bought feed to grow out to size. The first year, we tried feeding them locally grown wheat, which is much more affordable than mixed ration. We figured with all the great range, they wouldn't need anything else. WRONG. After almost 6 months, we still have very skinny chickens. Heritage breed raised for meat still need protein, and in our experience, bugs just won't do it.

    So now, we just raise layers and "retire" them as stewing hens. Our Gold and Black Sexlink hens do very well on wheat and scraps and range. We also feed them meat scraps when we butcher a beef, venison, or hog. It is a great, sustainable, source of protein for them.

    As for hatching chicks, at Alaska prices I think you would do best to rais you own. Here, poults are not so expensive. Roosters of laying breeds ar not that good eating, in my opinion. Once you raise then up long enough to tell that they are roosters, you've got a quite a bit of feed into them...and still a pretty skinny, tough bird. But still, it might pencil out with your high cost of poults!

  3. Lots of wonderful info, I have never grown chicken for meat only eggs- I hope to one day have more land for raising some for meat, great info- thanks!!

  4. Great info...I sometimes have to weigh the cost against the health...and even though it costs more...knowing where my food is coming from makes up for it.


  5. i agree...organic any way you look at it be it for humans or animals is expensive!!

    you never know if you don't try and i commend your efforts! it's really amazing just how fast they can eat every single bit of green isn't it?


  6. Thanks for posting this. I love that you tried it and had unforeseen things happen and expenses to write about. Keeps it real.

  7. Thanks for the write up. Hubby and I have been wondering about raising "other" chickens for meat(I won't do Cornish Cross either). Our neighbour raises turkeys every year. He says they are much cheaper than chickens (more efficient feed to meat ratio).

  8. I have not raised the Cornish Cross but we have raised the Freedom Rangers. They do not act exactly like the Cornish X's but they are similar. They take longer to grow but not as long as a heritage. and can free range pretty well. I decided not to raise the FR's again because I didn't want to have to purchase chicks anymore and they still are similar to the CC's. I am now raising my own chicks from my hens.
    Two things you might want to consider:
    1.Raise Dark Cornish roosters. I have found that the Dark Cornish (heritage breed) is a great dual purpose breed. They look smaller but are much more heavy than the other breeds. They grow at a decent rate too (not to fast not to slow). The hens lay medium sized eggs on a regular basis. I have crossed the Dark Cornish with White Rocks and seem to be getting a really nice sized bird. Also, I don't plan to butcher before 20 weeks because most heritage birds don't mature before 20 weeks.
    2. Feed your chickens whole grains in addition to the organic feed. I buy whole organic oats, barley and wheat to supplement their feed. The bags of grain are a lot less money than the organic layer feed. Also, grow White Russian Kale for your chickens. All of my birds (and goats) love the kale and it grows in the summer too. Not sure if it will grow in really hot weather but I know they are good for cool and under 100 degree temps. Kale also grows a lot and can be picked throughout the growing season. Swiss Chard is another good one.

    I hope my tips helps you for next year.Thanks for sharing your results. I will be posting my experiences with both the FR's and the heritage on my blog as well. I think I will wait until I have butchered my heritage chickens before I write about it :).

    1. Kale!!!! Wow!!!! Thanks for the tip...

  9. I read every word of your post. I was so fascinated and almost jealous that your are getting to live in Alaska and trying to live off the land etc. It is my dream, though I just keep getting older and it doesn't seem to be happening. My daughter and her husband are seriously thinking about trying to get away from being so dependent on store bought everything....and living off the land. Anyway, I found you on The Aulf Grey Mare and your blog name intrigued me so I followed. Glad I did.

  10. Thanks everyone for your comments and suggestions, I always love reading them and "meeting" you all!