Genetics Matter, Why we raise the type of livestock we raise - Part 4 - Pastured Chickens
March 27, 2022
In 1955, the average size of a meat chicken in the grocery store was 3.07 pounds. It took 12-14 weeks to raise a bird that large back then. Today the average live weight of a chicken is 6.1 pounds that is after it is only 42 days old. That is a lot of change. Todays dominate chicken breed is the Cornish Cross 308. It doesn't even matter where you buy your peeps they are all the same genetics. These chickens have been bred to grow so fast that at 7-8 weeks they begin to have heart attacks because they were never meant to grow that old. Mostly these chickens sit next to their feeders all day and just eat. Sometimes they will get up and walk (if they can) over to the waterer take a drink and back to the feeders. These birds produce large breasts, over half the cutup weight is breasts. I have a farm hand that told me once "if we don't watch they will breed the feet off of these birds, They don't walk anymore so its just wasted weight".
Trying to raise this bird on pasture has been quite the challenge. They are very difficult to manage. Since they don't like to walk it can take literally an hour to move our range coops. That's an hour per coop, we can't move too fast because we would run them over. Last year in the newsletter I discussed a new breed of chicken we were testing. With these new chickens we are able to move in 5 minutes per coop. That's a big difference. In any event the Cornish cross birds are gross, stationary, pooping machines that produce breasts. Trust me I am not exaggerating the fact that they don't walk. Between growing so fast the legs don't develop fast enough to support them and the breast proportion being so large they were top heavy and falling forward. Another large issue with Cornish Cross is mortality. Cornish Cross are typically raised indoors in temperature controlled environments. So they really don't fully feather out until it is almost time to harvest them. They don't do well on pasture with the temperature swings of cold in the spring and fall with wet at any time. They weren't bred for that. They were bred for producing 2 -1 pound breasts in 42 days and thats all they did.
We tried and tried to be successful at raising Cornish Cross on pasture and last year I gave up. First I love all the livestock on our farm, I love my hens so it was not a chicken issue but hated meat birds. I was going to find a way to grow a chicken I could love or get out of the chicken business. Enter the Freedom Ranger. A hatchery in Pennsylvania started working on genetics based on the French Label Rouge program. The Label Rouge is a program to ensure a customer that an animal is raised in its natural environment with sustainable practices. It is really a quality assurance program for food products. But unlike our organic programs here in the states Label Rouge focused on animal welfare, which in the end makes a better product. I say frequently you can taste happy.
From the Freedom Ranger Website:
"Freedom Ranger broiler chickens are great alternatives to fast-growing white broiler chicks and slow-growing heritage breeds. These active, robust chickens are suitable for free-ranging, foraging, and pasturing. They like to spend the day scratching and dust-bathing in the sunlight. Freedom Ranger chickens produce tender, succulent meat with high levels of omega 3 fats and low levels of saturated fat.
Freedom Ranger Chickens come in two colors: tri-colored or red feathered. They also have yellow shanks, skin, and beaks, making them reasonably recognizable among flocks.
These birds are also moderately fast growers and can reach 5 to 6 lbs. in just 9 to 11 weeks. We find that Freedom Ranger Chickens are a great alternative to fast-growing broiler chickens or slow-growing heritage breeds.
These birds will naturally thrive when they’re allowed to forage, scratch and take dust baths in natural sunlight. As a result, you’ll have tender, succulent meat that contains more yellow Omega-3 fat and less saturated fat than other fast-growing breeds.
Most Freedom Ranger Chickens have a very calm and friendly personality. Even as they age, we’ve found that these broiler chickens tend not to peck or show aggression towards each other too often. Especially towards people, they tend to be very friendly and curious.
As we mentioned already, these birds are great broiler chickens. Unlike a lot of fast-growing breeds, Freedom Ranger Chickens take a bit more time to reach maturity. But because of this, they grow into healthier birds that have a higher and more flavorful meat density. They’re often sold to high-end restaurants for their savory flavor and create a rich, yellow soup stock.
You read that it takes them 9-11 weeks to grow to the same size Cornish Cross do in 6 weeks. That is a big difference both in quality of meat product and quality of life for the bird and its general genetic nature. It can walk, has feathers get to do all the chicken things chickens like to do. We are really excited about this change. Last year we ran a test and it took us a few batches to "get it right" but we are confident enough that we changed all of our broilers to Freedom Rangers this year. We should be happier farmers and we hope this change will make you happier customers. They will take longer to raise but if we can get a better tasting product we should all be happy.