- Animals: poultry
- 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
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.