Why We Won’t be Raising Heritage Meat Chickens Next Year
Almost everyone who raises chickens for meat chooses Cornish cross, because they mature quickly with great feed conversion. A second popular choice is red rangers or freedom rangers. As an experiment, this year we raised an assortment of heritage meat chickens to see how they compare.
While the birds were beautiful and fun to watch, we'll be switching back to Cornish rocks or freedom rangers next year. I'll explain why we decided to raise heritage meat chickens, and why we're likely only doing it once.
Why Choose Heritage Meat Chickens?
In years past, homesteaders would raise their home flocks, keeping the hens for eggs and culling the roosters for meat. (Hens would also be culled as they got older, and replaced with younger hens.) Chickens were duel purpose by default.
Enter specialized breeding for the selection of bigger and faster maturing birds, and we ended up with today's “Frankenchickens” – the Cornish cross. These meat birds mature fast – in as little as six weeks.
The problem is that with this freakishly fast growth, the birds often end up having joint problems and other issues as they get older. You have to take their feed away at times, or they will eat themselves to death. (This may vary by hatchery.) Butchering a Cornish cross is a mercy killing, because the birds get so big their bodies fail under the strain.
Red rangers still mature fast and large, but not nearly as fast as Cornish cross. Most people choose them because they are sturdy birds and more active foragers.
We knew these two types of birds got bigger faster than standard heavy breed chickens, but we were curious about how dramatic the difference would be. We also wanted to encourage the hatchery to keep breeding heritage meat chickens.
Our Heritage Meat Chickens Experiment Results
In May, we placed an order with Cackle Hatchery for their Special Heavy Assorted chicks. We ordered 25 birds and they sent 28. All birds were healthy and in great condition when they arrived in late May.
I'm still not entirely sure of all the breeds that we had, but we did take photos so we could ID them if needed. I know there was a salmon faverolle, a jersey giant, a Rhode Island red, a brahma and a barred rock. I believe there may have been a Kosher King in the mix.
The birds were fed organic broiler feed, along with sprouted grains, scratch grains, mixed greens, meat bits and assorted produce. They had access to a large outdoor run. (We don't free range the chickens because there are foxes in the area.) They had access to plenty of broiler feed at all times.
We ended up butchering the birds at just over 20 weeks of age. The average weight was 3.74 pounds – over 2 pounds less than the Cornish cross at eight weeks.
The chart below compares the slow growing heritage meat chickens with the other three types of meat chickens we're raised. The husky reds were a red ranger alternative offered by a local hatchery, but they grew out more slowly than red rangers.
|Average weight, lbs||
|Weight gain, lbs per week||
Pros and Cons
As I mentioned above, the birds were fun to raise. It was interesting to see their plumage change as they grew, and the different rates of growth. (The Brahma was by far the slowest to feather out.)
They were good foragers, and did a great job of cleaning up damaged or overgrown produce and leftover meat scraps. Everyone who visited admired all the different colors and shapes. All the birds were strong and vigorous, and some of the hens even started laying small eggs.
Where they fell short was the carcass weight. Even with a LOT more time, they were still much smaller than the modern meat breeds. That's more food, more chicken poop, and more weeks of too many roosters crowing in the wee hours of the morning for less meat.
Since they were older, the meat is also tougher. You wouldn't think it would be that much of a difference, but it is. I like the firmer texture of the red ranger meat compared to Cornish cross (they taste more chicken-y), but the first bird we cooked from this crew was downright chewy.
If we needed to maintain a flock ourselves, I'd probably consider some of the bigger heritage meat chickens, like the Brahma. They have good cold tolerance, and unlike the modern “meat only” birds, they're not likely to fail under their own carcass weight.
Heritage breeds can be dual purpose chickens and good egg layers, but when you want meat birds, modern birds are more cost effective. It's also easier (for me) to butcher birds when I know their quality of life will decline as they age. Cornish cross won't make it through a winter here in Wisconsin.
Get More Chicken Information
We have over 100 different homesteading posts on the site, including several about raising chickens. They include:
- What to Feed Chickens – Do’s and Don’ts for a Healthy Chicken Diet
- Quick Lock Chicken Door – Predator Resistant, Easy Latch Open or Closed
- Best Laying Hens – For Beginners, White Eggs, Brown Eggs
- How to Raise Chickens Cheaply – Tips for Raising Chickens on a Budget
- Top 7 Tips for First time Chicken Owners
Have you raised heritage meat birds or other meat chickens? I'd appreciate it if you're willing to share your experience or questions.
Also, hatcheries specializing in heritage meat birds or duel purpose birds, I would love to hear from you. We're planning to add a new coop with more room, and will have more room to grow out birds for a longer time.
Leave a comment below to share your thoughts.
Great article! Thanks for sharing your experience. Do you have any suggestions for egg-layers that would be decent to eat after they are too old to be viable egg-layers?
Provided your egg layers are well cared for, any breed should be decent to eat, just tougher meat than young meat birds. The only significant difference is carcass weight.
For comparison, we had an Americauna female that was butchered with this batch of meat birds. She was just over 2 pounds. The female heavy breeds were all 3 – 3.75 pounds. Most light breed chickens that are laying hens only will likely be in that 2 pound range. Check the descriptions in the listings of your preferred hatchery. They should note whether the birds are considered heavy or dual purpose, and rough volume of expected egg production.
Well, isn’t that the point of raising heritage birds? A more natural size and growth period? The older chickens also have more flavor and firmness. Back in the day before the CornishX took over, the age of the chicken was important. It represented the cooking method needed to have a good meal. Broiler, Fryer, Roaster, Fowl.
Also, hatchery birds are not representative of heritage chickens for the most part. Finding some Rocks, Delaware, or New Hamps from breeders who choose breeders based on production qualities would give you better results, but nothing like the Cornish X of course. A decent 3-4lb carcass at 16-20 weeks is doable in well bred chickens.
Red Rangers, Cornish X are not sustainable either, they’re hybrids. They can’t reproduce consistently and in the case of the cornish x, can’t reprocuse at all without artificial insemination.
Granted, heritage poultry isn’t for everyone and the hybrids have their place. They’re fast growing , can be cooked in many different ways, and provide a lot of meat. But basing conclusions on crowing, extra poo, and poor examples of heritage chicken breeds just seems silly.
The reason I shared this was because most of the articles I’ve read about raising different breeds of meat chickens completely skip any direct comparisons of how they grow out. As I noted, if we needed to maintain a stable breeding flock ourselves, then I would choose one of the larger heritage bird breeds. Given that we don’t, I won’t – at least not at this point.
I have no love of Cornish cross birds (you may have noticed the term “Frankenchickens”), but there are obvious reasons why they are so popular. I have seen too many budding homesteaders wax poetic over the years about how they’re going raise this type of animal in this specific fashion when they get their land – and then they try it and are left shaking their heads at why the animals took so long to mature or were so expensive to bring to harvest weight.
If someone wants to invest in a quality breeding flock and work on developing their own strain of chickens uniquely adapted to their growing conditions, optimizing for the traits they desire like mothering or good foraging, then I’d suggest Harvey Ussery’s book, “The Small-Scale Poultry Flock“. That someone is not me at this time.
Hervey gets into all the nitty-gritty details of recording keeping and the proper ways to cross and isolate birds, and what traits he’s found most useful for a sustainable poultry flock.
Also, Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms raises Cornish cross meat birds, and many people consider him the poster guy of sustainability and how farming should be done.
And the poop isn’t just poop – it’s many extra bags of bedding hauled in, as we use the deep litter system. It’s many bags of extra food, because although they got lots of different supplementary feeds, they were still chow hounds, scarfing down plenty of high priced organic chicken chow. All these costs add up.
My daughter works for Joel and even though I personally don’t use CC, I understand he is a businessman and has to keep costs in mind in order to remain viable. His customers know what he is growing and they don’t seem to object. It is a personal choice for me. I bought CC once, the first and definitely last time I will ever use that breed. I have bred and eaten heritage birds for years and I will be trying FR this year for stocking my personal freezer. I appreciate both, CC also, and don’t have any qualms using the FR. I learned from recent research that FR were originally bred in France for their Red Label program, a very highly controlled humanely raised, organic and sustainable program specifically bred from heritage french meat breeds to give the public the ‘old time’ taste they were looking for. Here 99% of commercial chicken is CC. In France 40-60% is now what we here call FR. They are also bred under the names Redbro, Redpac, ColorYeild, and others. Google Hubbard the company that originally developed the breed. FR do not breed true sadly, but for quick turnaround and the ability to wait longer to process, or process as needed without fear of your stock keeling over, I for one am looking forward to experimenting with these. Thank you for your chart it was especially helpful to me!
Thank you for sharing your experience.
In 2020, we tried a Cornish Cross type from another hatchery (Sunnyside Hatchery) because we were tight on coop space so we wanted the fast grow out. (New coop in planning stages for 2021.) I was blown away with the vigor of the 2020 birds and how fast they grew. They were still not overly mobile because of their stocky frames, but we had no crossed beaks or other health issues. They loved to peck at the “pinatas” we made from greens and other garden goodies. We may still switch back to a “Ranger” type when we have more room, but I was really impressed with the stock quality of the 2020 birds compared to the 2017 birds.
Good luck with your breeding experiments.
Thank you for your post. Each homestead is unique and each homesteader has their own preferences. We learn from each other.
We are “rebooting “ our poultry and counting the cost of all options in terms of money, time and resources.
I don’t believe the question has been asked, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if they also increased the risk for phytophotodermatitis.
From RXlist duloxetine side effects listing:
(But you probably guessed that yourself, since you mentioned photosensitivity.)
If the goal is to have a flock of birds you can breed yourself, and the slow maturation time is not an issue, then heritage birds would be the way to go. We did keep three Wyandottes, and one of them went broody and is currently setting duck eggs for us.
If you want to quickly fill the freezer (or canning pantry), the fast growers are the better option.
If you are looking into raising a self sustaining flock of birds for meat production, I would strongly suggest looking into Bresse chickens. They are bred as meat birds but can be self sustaining as a flock, and are considered a highly delicious meat bird. They are rareer in this country and you’ll need to find a private breeder, but they are worth the search. Another thing you can do to help keep boys intended for butcher only is to caponize the boys. Capons are usually considered a more desirable way to do meat birds, at least before the advent of those poor cornish cross. Another thing to consider for your backyard floock for bothe meat and eggs is ducks, and muscovy ducks especially. My girls are always going broody and happily raise their babies themselves. The males get huge and are considered a premium meat. The biggest advantages of muscovies is they are quiet! No crowing and no loud quacking and aren’t as messy as normal ducks. They truly are a dual purpose bird that is incredibly healthy and easy to raise.
If eventually we get to the point where we want to raise breeding flocks of chickens, I’ll look into the Bresse.
I’ve had muscovy duck before and it wasn’t a favorite. We’ve had problems in our area with muscovies refusing to return to shelter at night and instead perching in trees – and getting eaten by owls or other nighttime predators. (My sister in law used to raise them.)
Given the learning curve for extracting the testes from birds for caponizing, it’s not something I would approach casually.
I find this quote from the article “Capons: Are Chickens Without Their Testes a Forgotten Delicacy or Disturbing Luxury?” rather disturbing:
For those unfamiliar with capons, the same article also explains the process:
I am speaking strictly from a consumer standpoint. I can’t, won’t eat the chicken in most stores today, I have to search far and wide for reasonable sized chicken. The monster breast etc taste and texture is sickening to me. I stumbled upon this as I am searching for good chicken online now.
I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but the way the bird is raised and what it’s fed has a huge impact on the texture of the meat, no matter what breed of bird it is. Our home raised birds, no matter what breed they are, aren’t “mushy meat” like store birds. The faster growing birds are more tender, but not mushy.
I am not aware of any commercial meat production businesses that raise heritage birds for sale, because they take so long to grow out.
I know its an old post but here we go. The problem with the people raising heritage is that they go straight to a comecial hatchery then complained about the meat ratio. Hatcheries are in for the money not breeding quality meat chciken. You want to really try a heritage bird then get it from a small indepedent breeder and get a real heritage bird not a water down version. Did you know delawares were butchered at 12 weeks? Can you do that now with a hatchery bird? No. you will get a bone in carcas. Now go get a heritage bird from a real breeder, they are out there. I got a seven diferent heritage breeds to make my own experiment. Go try a real Heritage you wont be dissapointed.
Do you have hatcheries you recommend? I’m more than happy to try other options, especially once we get our new coop built where we will have more room to maintain a larger flock.
This is great, in theory. I’ve been on the hunt for semi local breeders of both heritage breed rabbits and heritage breed birds for nearly a year. They’ve proven exceptionally difficult to find in my surrounding area. My husband and I would love to preserve breeds and also create our own good meat bird using heritage breeds, but it’s proving incredibly difficult for us.
We had the same experience when trying out various “Dual Purpose” Heritage birds, with the slow growth, poor fleshing, high cost and just general unrewarding results. We’ve since learned that bloodline within a breed matters much more than the breed itself. After so many inconsistent results we turned to breeding our own and we now see predictable results every season. It’s been very rewarding to own the whole process from egg to freezer. We’ve found a flow to our hatch schedule and grow season, with ample to eat and plenty to breed from the following season, after much selection and breeding consideration has been given to the individuals in the flock. In that way, we can keep a good thing going. I’ll never buy another chicken again, unless we have a catastrophic flock loss. Though I have taken the time to place our genetics elsewhere, as protection against having to start completely over. Our typical table weights are 4lb-5lb in 16-18 weeks time, before the male hormones start to take over. Our typical live pullet weight at 12-14 weeks is 4lb-5lb, which is double or better than a slower grown bird of hatchery decent. There will always be a place for the commercial strains, but I don’t feel that they’re truly sustainable since they cannot breed true or breed more of the same in a consistent manner, since they’re hybrids. It takes a very long time to achieve consistent results in breeding poultry. The CornishX are a 4-way terminal cross hybrid, meaning that it takes 2 different parent flocks to breed the single-use meat bird. The parent stock to make them are bred differently. The most important aspect of good chicken is the sort of breeding selection that went into them. Without good selection, the results vary widely and any consistency they once had as a line is lost. I’ve found it much easier to maintain/improve purebred birds rather than dabble in the time suck of working with hybrids. The hatchery hybrids are already “done”… ready made for the task. It’s the historical dual purpose types that are being lost to poor breeding, their purpose geared more towards efficient egg laying when raised at scale. What’s sad is that you cannot just decide one day to start with quality dual purpose birds and click “buy now”… it takes research, planning and to some extent relationship building with those who raise them. As a general rule, if they’re easy to find, they’re not going to be that great. The great ones have waiting lists and the birds are not often advertised. I found ours through luck and happenstance, after putting feelers out.
If you’re willing to share more of your experience, I’d be interested in learning about it. In the book “The Small Scale Poultry Flock”, Harvey Ussery talks about breeding for specific traits, but his focus was a low input laying flock. How large of a flock do you need to maintain for a stable gene pool, and which breed or breeds are you working with? How long did it take you to get to a dual purpose flock with consistent results? Any tips you are willing to share are much appreciated, for myself and for others who would like to be able to get more reliable results.
If you are ok with raising genetically engineered birds who have been designed to eat continuously, whose legs often break from fast weight gain or hearts explode before being butchered than I would recommend that you don’t call yourself a homesteader, instead you’re someone who emulates factory farming practices.
Also, being raised on true pasture instead of organically bought grain from a feed store has more to do with meat tenderness. Most Heritage Breeds used for meat typically make butchering weight at 6-9 months, not 20 weeks. That would help with your weight issue.
If you don’t know the difference between genetic engineering and selective breeding, you probably shouldn’t lecture others on it.
Our birds – including the selectively bred hybrids (not genetically engineered) – are outside on forage as the weather allows. They are pampered birds, fed a wide variety of foods, including fresh organically raised produce, locally raised nuts, kombucha scobies, kefir grains, and yogurt for probiotics, and a wide array of herbs.
Eating nothing but feed store food and lack of activity will make meat softer, but older animals, in general, will have a firmer meat texture. Different breeds will also finish differently on the same diet.
So no, we don’t aim to emulate factory farm practices, we work with the space we currently have available to raise food for our family. As I noted in the article, once we have more space with the new coop expansion, we will probably change things up, but for now this works for us.
Instead of nitpicking what others are doing, maybe you might consider finding common ground, like the fact that we are working to raise our own food. The battle shouldn’t be between those who chose different ways of raising their own food, but between those who want to raise their own food and those who would take away their right to do so.
Some good points, but I’d disagree on the 6-9 months. We have always butchered our heirlooms at 5-6 months. Also, even pasture raised chooks still eat grains – just less of it. We have always pastured our chickens which means we don’t need to feed them as much of the organic grain (soy/corn-free Scratch & Peck organic), and supplement them with bags of scrap produce from my husband’s organic grocer where he’s a butcher. Finally, heirloom birds even at maturity won’t equal the ridiculous weights that grocery store or GM birds do. It’s only in today’s commercialized world that people suddenly expect one chicken to feed a family of 8 :).
To the best of my knowledge, there are no genetically modified chickens at this point, only selectively bred birds. There are also very few families of eight.
My Gramma talked about having to pressure cook their chickens and then they would use the ‘broth; mixed in with the ground chicken meat and form it into a load. They would slice it for sandwiches. That as their lunch meat…. so there is a way for everything to be used well….???
Older birds, especially free range ones, tend to have more collagen, so I’d suspect that chicken loaf would gel quite nicely.
You raised one breed of heirloom and made the generalization that their age made their meat tough and that they are all smaller. This is simply not accurate. First, different heirloom breeds come out at different sizes, and many need to grow to 24 weeks before being processed. Second, pasture raised heirloom chooks may take longer to mature to size, but the meat quality is actually improved, especially when they are processed humanely. Also, comparing size to the factory farmed and genetically modified crap that’s sold in most stores is not a smart comparison, since those birds – especially cornish cross and similar – are raised in very different circumstances, are pumped with water, and genetically modified so that they grow so large that you HAVE to kill them at 12 weeks otherwise they can’t walk on their legs because their bodies are too big. We’ve grown Delawares, Australorps, Wyandottes and – our favorite (they taste like buttah) – Houdans and they are exceptionally fun to raise, and because they are pasture raised, don’t require nearly the same amount of feed as ones in small runs, saving a lot of money. Our cost per bird raising 50 at time was the same as buying a whole one at an organic grocer, but tasted 10X better. Their dark meat is also SO much tastier because they’ve been allowed space to run around. As a side note, truly older birds (i.e., over one year, layers, etc.) can still be eaten, they just need to be cooked/prepared differently. Ground chicken with a little pork fat is our favorite way, but it can also be stewed slow & low in the crockpot for gorgeous soups.
I would encourage you to raise a variety of heirlooms before making the assumption that the quality of the meat will decrease based on age and the other things mentioned, or sit down for a meal with someone raising them regularly to do a taste test! We have literally stopped eating chicken that aren’t heirloom because it’s such a huge taste difference, particularly with the French Houdans.
I’m glad you are very happy with your birds. We raised a variety of breeds, and as mentioned, we may try them again later, we are simply limited in space right now.