Episode 6 – In this episode we explore the many reasons you should consider raising heritage chickens in your backyard or urban chicken flock.
More Interest in Backyard Meat Chickens?
Suzy and I held another “Hands-On Backyard Chickens 101” class this last weekend and this was a really great group of people. You could tell they were very eager to learn and get started with their backyard chicken flocks.
Suzy pointed out that this group was a little unusual in that three-quarters of them said that they wanted to raise chickens for meat as well as eggs. In past classes, you would never find more than one person who embraced this possibility. Are backyard flock keepers getting more interested in raising their own meat?
USDA Will Allow China to Process U.S. Chickens [03:15]
According to foodsafetynews.com, “The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is about to allow U.S. chickens to be sent to China for processing, and then shipped back to the U.S. for human consumption.” You can read the full article here.
In order to save money, chicken processors will now ship chicken 7,000 miles to China where it will be processed in plants that do not have U.S.D.A. inspectors, and then shipped back to the United States for you to eat. It is cheaper to do this because American chicken processors make about $11 per hour and Chinese chicken processors make about $2 per hour.
The most disturbing thing about this story is that the U.S.D.A. will not require chicken vendors to label meat that has been around the world as such. As the consumer, you have no right to know that this is where your chicken comes from.
Suzy and I are both free-market thinkers. I believe that chicken suppliers have the right to send their chicken to be processed wherever they wish. However, the free market is hampered when consumers cannot get the information they need to make an informed decision about what they wish to buy.
For Suzy and I, this means that we are going to move up our timetable in regards to processing our own meat chickens.
Why You Should Consider Raising Heritage Chickens [09:00]
As a backyard flock keeper, you can choose to raise heritage chickens or hybrid chickens. Heritage chickens are purebred, old-fashioned breeds that are included in the American Poultry Association’s Standard of Perfection. Hybrid chickens are a cross between two parent chickens who are not of the same breed. Furthermore, for the purposes of this discussion, when we say hybrid, we mean an intentional hybrid that was crossed for a specific purpose, not an accidental hybrid that was created by ‘free-love’ chicken keeping.
We are not going to tell you that heritage chickens are for everyone, but rather give you the reasons you might prefer heritage breeds. In the end, you need to decide what works for you.
For us, we raise both heritage and hybrid birds for different purposes.
Diversity of Plumage and Size [12:19]
Heritage breeds come in a great variety of feather patterns. It is even possible to find diversity within a breed, with many varieties displaying different plumage types. Intentional hybrids are developed for production ability rather than aesthetics. Therefore, they tend to be more plain.
Plumage is likely not the first requirement on your list when trying to find the breed for you, but it is nice to see a good-looking flock when you look in the backyard.
Heritage breeds also come in a greater variety of sizes, from tiny bantams to the towering Jersey Giant.
Longer Lives and Longer Egg Production [14:16]
Industrial hybrids are not developed for longevity. It is more economical to have a layer who will put out eggs very quickly for a year and then they are replaced by another young hen who will do the same.
Heritage chickens will live longer lives and their egg production is spread out over more of those years than a typical laying hybrid.
Dual Purpose Chickens [15:21]
Intentional hybrids are developed to be very good specialists at either egg or meat production. There is no dual purpose hybrid. If you want to raise your chickens for both meat and eggs, but don’t want to maintain two distinct flocks, dual purpose birds are the way to go. And the only way to have dual purpose chickens is to select from the heritage breeds.
Heritage Birds are Less Friendly [16:12]
Wait… that sounds like a negative thing. Not necessarily. Heritage chickens are more likely to be startled by, and run from, predators (stranger danger!). This might give your flock a slight edge at survival if you live in a predator-rich area.
Greater Heat & Cold Tolerance [17:03]
Heritage breeds have been developed for just about every environment. If you live in an area known for extreme heat, you can find heritage breeds that are suited for that. Likewise, if you live in an area known for harsh winters, you can find heritage breeds that will feel right at home there.
Hybrids on the other hand, are not particularly well suited for extremes of heat or cold. Does that mean you can’t have them in either climate? No, but you will have to put some thought and effort into helping them overcome their deficiencies.
Heritage Chickens Taste Like… Well… Chicken
“But all chickens taste like chicken,” I hear you cry. Not so. The chicken meat you buy in the store all come from the same type of hybrid, a bird developed to put on weight twice as fast as any heritage chicken. While raising that hybrid might be the most economical way to raise chicken meat, it does not develop the tastiest chickens. Because they grow so fast, they have half the time to develop flavor which makes for a very bland chicken.
Because of their slower growth, heritage birds have twice as long to develop the rich chicken flavor that your grandparents knew, but you have likely never tasted before.
Heritage Chickens Can Replicate Themselves [18:35]
If you like the idea of hatching baby chicks and continuing your flock without having to keep buying replacement chickens every year, you will need to have heritage breeds to do so. You can certainly mate two hybrid birds together, but you will not end up with a hybrid bird that shares the characteristics of either parent. They will be a mutt chicken.
When you mate a heritage breed rooster with a hen of the same breed, you will always get chicks of that breed, and they will have roughly the same characteristics of their parent birds.
Help Preserve Genetic Diversity of Our Chickens [19:10]
As the industrial egg and meat providers have narrowed their focus to a few very specific hybrids, the popularity of many incredible breeds has waned and some have even found themselves on the brink of being wiped out.
Even with just a few backyard chickens, you can help keep some of these old great breeds in existence. Suzy and I fell in love with the Light Sussex breed. While not endangered, they are difficult to find. While our other breeds are very common, we have made the Light Sussex one of our little pet projects. Whenever people come out to the hatchery to buy chicks, they always inquire about those big beautiful Light Sussex.
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