Many people are interested in raising their own meat chickens but are looking for something other than the hybridized blimps that have become the standard meat bird. The Cornish Rock that are packed like sardines by the thousands in enormous broiler houses and are plagued by weak immune systems, leg abnormalities that often lead to broken bones just from walking, and organs that can not keep up with the rapidly growing bird, leading to heart attacks. The soft white meat lacks flavor and texture without oodles of sauces spices and marinading.
Granted, these birds fare better in a small-scale, free range environment (we have raised many batches ourselves) but these health issues are still far more prevalent than they should be. Even in the most ideal conditions, these birds are so over sized, that the closer they get to slaughter weight, all they can do is is take baby-steps from point A-point B, and lie down again.
So what is one to do?
Once again, looking to days gone by, we find many heritage breeds that were, at one time, prized for their excellent meat, and egg laying abilities. Dual purpose! They are hardy, with no breed specific health issues, and are capable of leading a normal chicken life.Let’s look at a few of these breeds.
You may have guessed this already, but the White Cornish is one half of the modern Cornish-Rock meat birds. Although the original Cornish, or Indian Game Bird, has similarities to it’s modern counterpart; broad breasts, short legs, and a wide stance, it grows much more slowly, taking 20-ish weeks to come to weight. The Cornish comes in many colors, including black, blue, blue laced red, and spangled. (And yes, white as well.)
I really wish I had a picture of Jersey standing beside one of our other roosters so you could see how big he really is…
Jersey Giants really do live up to their names, with Rooster’s reaching weights easily exceeding 10 lbs. Although Jersey’s take 6 months to get to full size, they do so with minimal health issues, and make an excellent alternative to the ordinary meat bird. The hens are also wonderful layers of extra large brown eggs (My girl’s eggs regularly fill the palm of my hand).
Dorking’s are one of the oldest dual purpose breeds. The are very sweet birds, with a docile nature, and the hens make excellent mothers! I sadly lost my dorking hens to a coyote, but I would love to replace them one day. Apart from their egg laying abilities (3-4 eggs a week) they are also known for their tender delicate flesh. These birds are excellent foragers as well, and do well in a free range setting.
This is just an example of the great, dual purpose breeds that exist. There are many alternatives to the modern meat bird, and consumer based conservation is the best way to ensure these heritage, dual-purpose birds remain available to us. If we can practice a little patients, these birds will bless us with healthy, tasty food source for centuries to come.
Check out http://www.slowfoodusa.org/index.php/programs/details/ark_of_taste to learn about other exceptional breeds we may lose if we’re not careful.