A Comparison and Evaluation of Heritage Breed Broiler Chickens on Pasture

Project Overview

FNC12-866
Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2012: $6,535.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2013
Region: North Central
State: Missouri
Project Coordinator:
Wesley Hunter
Providence Farm

Annual Reports

Commodities

  • Animals: poultry

Practices

  • Animal Production: general animal production
  • Crop Production: food product quality/safety
  • Education and Training: on-farm/ranch research
  • Farm Business Management: new enterprise development, feasibility study, agricultural finance, market study
  • Natural Resources/Environment: biodiversity

    Summary:

    The benefits of pastured poultry from a sustainable agriculture perspective are well documented, and there are many excellent resources available to assist and guide the aspiring pastured broiler chicken producer including Joel Salatin’s book Pastured Poultry Profits; the American Pastured Poultry Producers Association (APPPA); publications by ATTRA, SARE, and research done by SARE grant recipients. However, nearly all of these materials are concerned with the use of the Cornish-Rock Cross (or CRX) breed, a hybrid bird introduced in the mid-20th century, or in a few cases with a modern hybrid (such as the Freedom Ranger) with similar production qualities. These birds are chosen due to their obvious upsides: low feed conversion rate, quick rate of growth, the broad breast and high ratio of white meat to dark meat that suits current American preferences, and availability of CRX chicks from nearly any hatchery in the United States. The problem is that the CRX and similar modern hybrids have their downsides for the small-scale producer. First, the birds have a high mortality rate due to having been bred for such rapid growth and exaggerated features. Second, the CRX (but not the modern hybrids) was bred primarily for confinement operations, and simply does not thrive in pasture-based systems. Third, they are less voracious foragers as a result of being less mobile due to their size and growth patterns. Fourth, since these birds are hybrids they do not breed true-to-type, so a farmer must purchase new stock for each batch and thus cannot improve the genetics on his or her farm through selective breeding. Fifth, the farmer can never be certain of the quality of chicks from any particular batch he or she orders. Each of these problems can be overcome by raising heritage breed chickens, but these birds have been ignored by the meat industry for the last 50 to 60 years and there is very little information on them readily available for producers to consider when planning a pastured poultry enterprise. We propose to address this problem by raising and comparing a variety of heritage breed chickens, as these breeds overcome the shortfalls of the CRX and similar hybrids. Common knowledge dictates, and a small handful of studies confirm, that generally they do not approach the rapid growth rate, low feed conversion rates, and potential profitability of the CRX and modern hybrids, but there is a lack of information as to which heritage breed(s) specifically may be a potential alternative. Thus, we seek to raise, in a pastured setting, 30 each of eight different heritage breed chickens, purchased from a local hatchery. We intend to purchase the following mostly common barnyard breeds, subject to availability at the time: Barred Plymouth Rock, New Hampshire Red, Naked Neck, Delaware, Silver-Laced Wyandotte, Speckled Sussex, Buff Orpington, and Dark Cornish. They will be raised separately from each other, each breed in its own shelter, to ensure accurate data collection. All chicks will be purchased at the same time (mid spring) so that weather patterns affect all breeds equally. By keeping detailed records of each breed, including total feed consumption, periodic weight checks, carcass weights, mortality rate, and input costs per pound of meat yield, we will, at the end of the project, be able to determine how these breeds compare to each other, and which breed(s) shows potential as a possible alternative to the CRX and modern hybrids. This will give other farmers considering heritage breeds a starting point for their own flocks, providing them with concrete information on just how well each breed can be expected to perform, and allowing each farmer to tailor his or her breeding flock to meet certain desired criteria, such as cold tolerance in the northern states or drought tolerance in the Southwest, rate of growth, feed conversion rates, general hardiness, carcass qualities, and even customer taste preferences. We will keep detailed records of each of the eight breeds of heritage chickens we raise, tracking information in a field notebook daily which will be added to an Excel spreadsheet at weekly intervals. Data recorded daily will include pounds of feed given per breed, mortalities, apparent cause of mortalities (if reasonably ascertained), and general observations of development and behavior. Weekly we will weigh a random selection of birds from each breed using a produce scale. At processing time the breeds will be kept separate, and for each breed we will record total final live weight prior to slaughter, dressed carcass weight range, average carcass weight, and carcass weight percentage of live weight. By analyzing feed usage, feed conversion rates, mortality rates, and average carcass weight per breed, we will be able to determine the total input costs per pound of carcass weight, and thus potential profitability of each breed. Other farmers will then be able to access our data and input their own costs and selling price to determine potential profitability for each heritage breed in their own markets. At the very least, those farmers interested in raising heritage chickens for the table will have concrete data as to the performance of each of these eight breeds, and as such will have a solid starting point from which to develop their own heritage chicken program.

    Introduction:

    Providence Farm is a fledgling 25-acre operation owned and operated by Wes and Ame Hunter. We are located in Webster County, Missouri, approximately 30 miles east of Springfield, which has a population over 400,000 in the metropolitan area. We have approximately 8 acres of woods, 14 acres pasture, 1 acre tillable/garden, 1 acre in beginning orchard, and 1 acre homestead (house, yard, and outbuildings). Our interests run largely toward historic agriculture, encompassing heritage breed livestock, heirloom fruits and vegetables, and historic practices. We currently run a small herd of dual-purpose Irish Dexter cattle, are raising Mulefoot hogs for pork and piglet production, and dual-purpose heritage chickens of assorted breeds for both eggs and meat. We have recently begun milking a couple of our Dexter cows for our own use, and in the summer of 2013 we processed two calves to be sold as pasture-raised veal. In 2012 we raised a small batch of Barred Plymouth Rock cockerels for meat, primarily for our own table, but with no comparative data we weren’t sure how economical of a breed choice they were. We rotationally graze our pastures, use the hogs to till the garden and clear brush from the woods, and largely let our chickens roam to clean up any spilled grain as well as consuming insects, seeds, and forage. As a small farm we believe it is necessary to target small markets, which has helped influence our choice of enterprises. For example, on our acreage any beef produced would be a drop in the bucket of local agriculture, even those direct-marketing their products, but by pursuing veal as an alternative we can set ourselves apart. Similarly, there are multiple farmers raising pastured poultry, using standard hybrid genetics, but we seek a different market with our heritage broilers. We are continually researching new enterprises, new markets, and new ways of doing what we’re already doing.

    Project objectives:

    The benefits of pastured poultry from a sustainable agriculture perspective are well documented, and there are many excellent resources available to assist and guide the aspiring pastured broiler chicken producer including Joel Salatin’s book Pastured Poultry Profits; the American Pastured Poultry Producers Association (APPPA); publications by ATTRA, SARE; and research done by SARE grant recipients. However, nearly all of these materials are concerned with the use of the Cornish-Rock Cross (or CRX) breed, a hybrid bird introduced in the mid-20th century, or in a few cases with a modern hybrid (such as the Freedom Ranger) with similar production qualities. These birds are chosen due to their obvious upsides: low feed conversion rate, quick rate of growth, the broad breast and high ratio of white meat to dark meat that purportedly suits current American preferences, and availability of CRX chicks from nearly any hatchery in the United States.

    The problem is that the CRX and similar modern hybrids have their downsides for the small-scale producer. First, the birds often have a high mortality rate due to having been bred for such rapid growth and exaggerated features (disproportionate body type). Second, the CRX (but not the modern hybrids) was bred primarily for confinement operations, and does not really thrive in pasture-based systems. Third, they are less voracious foragers as a result of being less mobile due to their size and growth patterns. Fourth, since these birds are hybrids they do not breed true-to-type, so a farmer must purchase new stock for each batch and thus cannot improve the genetics on his or her farm through selective breeding. Fifth, anecdotal evidence suggests that the chicks received can vary considerably from batch to batch, so the farmer can never be certain of the quality of chicks from any particular batch he or she orders. Each of these problems can be overcome by raising heritage breed chickens, but these birds have been not been actively selected for meat qualities for the last 50 to 60 years, and there is very little information on them readily available for producers to consider when planning a pastured poultry enterprise.

    Our proposed solution was to raise and compare a variety of heritage breed chickens. While these breeds overcome the shortfalls of the CRX and similar hybrids, they come with their own drawbacks. Common knowledge dictates and a small handful of studies confirm that they do not approach the rapid growth rate, low feed conversion rates, and potential profitability of the CRX and modern hybrids, but there is a lack of information as to which heritage breed(s) specifically may be a potential alternative. Thus, we wanted to raise, in a pastured setting, 25 cockerels each of eight different heritage breed chickens. The criteria for breed selection included how common each breed was (with preference given to commonly raised “barnyard” chickens), size at maturity and rate of growth (for example, no Leghorns, which are a solely egg-type chicken, and no Jersey Giants, which grow large but do so slowly), and availability from our chosen hatchery. Thus we settled on the following breeds: White Plymouth Rock, New Hampshire Red, Naked Neck, Delaware, Silver-Laced Wyandotte, Speckled Sussex, Buff Orpington, and Dominique. I had originally intended to include a standard Cornish but was informed that the hatchery would probably have a difficult time providing a full 25 cockerels from any one hatching.

    I initially went into this project hoping to find the “best” heritage chicken candidate to be raised for meat, but in fairly short order realized the downfall of that particular attitude. The quest for the “best,” after all, is what led us to the stranglehold the Cornish-Cross has on the chicken meat industry today. Rather, I realized the ultimate benefit would be in gaining a more complete picture of each breed—from cost of production to temperament to ease of processing—and the ultimate application of this research might be to equip farmers (including myself) with the information necessary to determine which breed or breeds best suit their own operations and markets.

    My objectives with this project were, through detailed record keeping of feed consumption, weight gain, carcass weights, mortality rate, and input costs per pound of meat yield, to determine how these breeds compare to each other and which breeds shows potential as possible alternatives to the CRX and modern hybrids. I had—and still have—no illusions of a heritage breed replacing or even really competing with the CRX in terms of growth rate and production cost; rather, I recognize the raising of heritage breed chickens for meat as a decidedly niche market, though a growing one. My hope is that other farmers considering heritage breeds might be given a starting point for their own flocks, and that through a combination of my project results and relevant research of their own they could come up with the breed or breeds that best suit their own farm, methods, and markets.

    As a side note, I should perhaps explicate my usage of the term “heritage breed.” I do not hold fast to the definition of “heritage chicken” as provided by the Livestock Conservancy (formerly the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy), specifically the requirement that “heritage chickens” be used only with breeds recognized by the American Poultry Association (APA) prior to the mid-20th century. There are two reasons for this. First, there are chicken breeds—and feather patterns within a breed—that have been raised since before that time period that have not been recognized by the APA, namely some breeds recently imported from overseas. I don’t feel that these breeds should be barred from being properly considered “heritage.” Second, breed development is dynamic, not static, and the current definition disallows new breeds from being properly considered “heritage.” The Plymouth Rock breed, for example, does not necessarily have any greater merit as a useful and important chicken than a newly developed (or yet-to-be developed) breed, yet the former is “heritage” while the latter is not. Really, this is just an accident of history that certain breeds were developed a certain number of years prior to our non-objective point in time. But that’s more of a personal soapbox than something necessarily relevant to this grant project. Suffice it to say that, in my opinion, a breed’s point-in-time of development should not necessarily be a (dis)qualifying factor from marketing said breed(s) as “heritage,” especially as an alternative to modern hybrid chickens.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.