Our long-awaited poultry order is only a week away from arriving on our farm. We are so excited. We ordered these little guys and gals back in January. We’re used to Amazon orders where you get whatever you want within a week or two at the most. Not so with chicks! You have to wait for hatching season and if you don’t place your order early in the year, the breed you want may be all sold out and you have to wait even longer.
We chose all dual-purpose, heritage breed poultry for our farm, with the exception of about 30 broilers, which are fast-growing meat birds.
Heritage breeds tend to be dual-purpose because they have not been specialized for only meat production or only egg production like the chickens used in commercial farming today. They grow slower than broilers and lay less eggs than “layers.” So why bother with them when there are “better” options out there?
Heritage breeds are hardier, smarter, better at foraging (which reduces the amount of feed we have to provide), have better personalities and provide some barnyard eye-candy with their array of colors and patterns. Although they grow slower than commercial broiler breeds, research shows a direct correlation to fast-growing meat and reduced flavor. Indeed, many heritage breed chickens are reputed to provide gourmet meat for the table.
Why, then, did we get broilers? For science. We want to experiment with modern broilers and be able to compare and contrast the meat quality, feed conversion ratios and hardiness between the two. We may even conduct a blind taste test and invite some willing participants to sample a few varieties and cast their vote for their favorite flavor.
Here is a quick run-down of the breeds of poultry we are getting.
The Heritage Breeds
We ordered 5 hens and 1 rooster each of the following chicken breeds:
This is a very old breed of chicken originating in England. They are docile, great foragers and are able to raise their own chicks since they go broody during the warmer months. They lay about 200 light brown eggs a year.
The classic Cornflakes rooster is modeled after a Welsummer! Hens lay about 160 large, brown, speckled eggs each year. This is a smart, hardy, Dutch breed that will continue to lay eggs in winter and reputed to be one of the best foragers around.
This breed was developed by a woman in Ohio in the late 1800’s. They are an active, cold-hardy breed and do not do well in confinement. They are excellent mousers, often compared to cats in their ability to pursue and catch rodents. Hens can lay 180-260 brown eggs per year.
Black Jersey Giant
This breed was developed to replace turkey and was used in the commercial meat industry for a short stint long ago, now replaced by fast-growing birds as it takes months for them to reach their full size of 10-13 pounds. They are large, lay about 160 very large brown eggs per year, and are known for their docile nature.
This breed is said to be the United States’ oldest breed of chicken, arriving on the scene during colonial times. They are calm, excellent foragers and can successfully brood and raise chicks. Their white-and-black barred appearance is the best camouflage from predators. They’ll lay about 3 eggs a week, even into winter months.
We ordered 4 each of the following heritage duck breeds:
Developed in the mid 1800’s. A calm duck, excellent forager and provides flavorful meat. They will lay about 100-150 white or blue-tinted eggs a year.
Developed in Great Britain during the early twentieth century. A hardy duck with excellent egg-laying potential. They can lay up to 280 white, cream or blue eggs a year.
Developed in the 1800’s, this duck is easily tamed if hand-raised. The meat is supposedly gourmet quality. They also lay around 100-150 black (yes, black!) eggs per year.
We ordered 3 Bourbon Red turkeys. The turkeys and ducks are sold “straight run” meaning they aren’t sexed before they are shipped to us. I am hoping we have at least one tom for the impressive feather display. This turkey breed boasts superior flavor, survivability and health compared to commercial varieties (although poults are very fragile and I’m not holding my breath that our poults will survive). Once they are older they are extremely hardy. Toms can weigh up to 23 pounds.
That concludes the heritage breeds we ordered!
We ordered 15 each of the following varieties:
This is the current foundation of the commercial chicken industry. If you buy chicken from any grocery store or restaurant, no matter the brand name or how it was raised, you can be sure it’s a Cornish Cross. Even many small, local farmers sell Cornish Cross, raised out on pasture in fresh air. Bred for extreme meat production, these birds grow so fast that if you do not limit their feed, they will be unable to walk. They cannot reproduce naturally, either. In nature, they would be annihilated. They are poor foragers, having been developed on commercial feed rather than on family farms like heritage breeds. I have also read they do not know how to keep in the shade on hot, sunny days and will overheat simply because they stayed in the sun. Basically every positive trait has been bred out of these things in favor of rapid growth of breast meat. They reach 6 pounds by 6-8 weeks of age. If kept longer than this, their health begins to decline to the point of death.
These grow a little slower than the Cornish Cross, but are more attractive, healthier and better at foraging. These are said to be a great alternative for a free-ranging meat bird. They’ll be about 5-6 pounds at 9-10 weeks old.
I think we’ll have some fun experimenting with these different breeds and getting to know which characteristics and traits we want to keep around on our farm. I can’t wait to see our chickens strutting, flapping, crowing and scratching around the farm. I’m sure they will provide endless entertainment.