We raise a combination of breeds from year to year as I continue to experiment and consider which breeds I would like to focus on when I establish my own breeding flock. I select breeds based on the following criteria:
|Is it pretty?|
|Grows to a reasonable size?|
|Looks nice and plump in a roasting pan?|
|Grows at a reasonable rate?|
|Will go out and forage for itself?|
|Knows how to hide from hawks and owls?|
|Pleasant to be around?|
There are enough wonderful breeds out there that you can start with the insistence that your chickens must be a pleasure to look at without compromising on the other considerations. My primary focus is on great taste, and second on the size and shape of the bird, as well as the appearance of the skin.
In general, the traditional breeds look a little different from what you would buy in the store. A roasting fowl of a traditional breed will be substantially larger than a broiler of commercial hybridization, but smaller than a roasting size hybrid. The breast will be a little narrower and the legs a little longer. Commercial hybrids have been developed to have short legs so they don’t move around as much and so the bird looks as if it is all breast meat when you see it in a package. I have included an explanation below for why we do not raise the commercial strain hybrids, although we can do so on range and without drugs.
I select my birds from those breeds generally called “heavy meat” or “dual purpose” breeds. They are all breeds recognized by the American Poultry Association as real breeds, although not all are of American origin. Many of them have histories going back hundreds of years, and were part of the earliest farmsteads in this country. You can hear the history of their development in their names: Plymouth Rocks; Rhode Island Reds; New Hampshire Reds; Jersey Giants. Others, like the Gold-Laced Wyandotte, were developed in the 19th century here in Wisconsin. In some names, you can spot the county in England or the estate where they were developed: Speckled Sussex; Orpington, or Dark Cornish, which merits its own description below.
I raise my chickens outside and on free range to the greatest extent possible, considering the weather and risk from predators. You may wish to consult the portion of the drop menu labeled Our Free Range Methods for a more detailed explanation. When mature, which takes about 12-14 weeks for these breeds, I transport them to a licensed facility for butchering. I wait for an hour or two while they are butchered and chilled, and then transport them home in large coolers. They are then packaged, labeled, and frozen immediately. I sell them as whole birds, based on packaged weight. Our prices are listed in Products & Prices, available on the menu above.
Dark Cornish Chickens
The Dark Cornish is a traditional chicken developed purely for great taste. To back up, the Cornish/Rock hybrid cross was developed to meet the demands of the commercial market, and that is the type of chicken you see in the average store. Way back when, the Rock was chosen to contribute its size and fast growth to the hybrid mix. The Cornish was chosen to add better flavor. That hybrid cross, many generations later, has resulted in a product of breeding so selective and so specific as to bear no resemblance to any of the original heavy meat breeds used to produce it. It can be grown, and we have grown it, on pasture and without drugs. The bird of choice here is the uncompromised original, the Dark Cornish.
The Dark Cornish is indeed a small bird. It is a luxury. I have been growing them for myself for years. It results in a bird a little larger than a Cornish Game Hen, with the appearance of a plump roaster. We grow them to about 12 weeks and they are still small. They are very active birds, forage as aggressively as anything I have ever raised, and the worst thing I can say bout them is that they are very, very hard to catch. I refer to them as my feral chickens. They have great instincts about avoiding predators, although they are not very nice-natured. If I ever go out in the morning and find a red fox dead in the yard, I’ll know that one of the Dark Cornish got him. They are expensive to raise. You will have a tasty little dinner for two with leftovers, or for four without anything to put away.
A NOTE ON WHAT WE DO NOT RAISE: We do not raise the over-sized, double-wide birds you see in the grocery store. Almost all of the chicken you have ever seen in a supermarket is of one general type, derived from the Cornish Cross hybrid. The Cornish Cross is a large broiler/roaster designed for commercial production, but amazingly adaptable f or pastured, no-drug rearing. The controversy over this bird arises from the fact that it owes its existence to the industry’s desire to create a creature that could survive the abuses of confinement rearing, grow at an abnormal rate and be ready for butcher in 6-8 weeks. It is not a breed; it will not reproduce true to type. It the end point of selective hybridization, and the industry will create more next year from the same hybridization methods. It is a food source whose genetics are owned by corporations. It has been developed to withstand the cruelty and abuses of the commercial poultry industry. If it disappeared tomorrow, those abusive management practices would have to change. All of that has led me to be concerned about raising these hybrids, as has the fact that raising them is disapproved of by people whose opinion I respect, like the folks from the Animal Welfare Institute, and the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. It concerns me even though pasture rearing that bird is an improvement over buying one in the store, for you and the bird. On balance, I have decided against doing so. In part that is because I have raised them on pasture and concluded that while they thrived and foraged in a pastured, no-drug environment, their failure to run around like other chickens suggested that they were not comfortable trying to support their immense bodies on what are after all, little chicken legs.