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December 11, 2017

Raising Chickens for the Freezer: Heritage Breeds vs. Meat Birds


Raising chickens for the freezer: should you choose a heritage breed or meat chickens?

We haven't put chickens in the freezer for several years. Before moving to Oak Hill, we lived about fifteen minutes from a custom poultry processor. We didn't know how blessed we were to be so close to such a resource until we moved away from it.

The nearest processor to our new homestead was several hours away, so we stuck with laying hens only. Time brings change though, and now there is a poultry processor a bit closer to home.

This spring when I was given 25 straight-run Rhode Island red chicks for free, we planned to send the cockerels to the poultry processor when they were big enough. On the duly appointed date, we took ten five-month-old cockerels (young roosters) to their appointment.

Rhode Island red roosters

Heritage breeds such as the Rhode Island reds are much different from the chicken you bring home from the grocery store. Even the so called "dual-purpose" breeds - those that are supposed to be good producers of both eggs and meat - aren't the same as bred-for-the-table birds.

While some folk say that those white "Frankenstein" chickens that are grown solely for meat are genetically modified (GMO), they are simply bred for super-fast growth. Let's be honest, chickens reach maturity between four and six months of age, and their eggs hatch after just 21 days, so it doesn't take long at all to see the results of your breeding plans; several generations of birds can be tracked within a relatively short period of time. Compare that to goats, cows and horses (not to eat, of course!), where you have to invest several years before an animal is old enough to be bred, carries the baby to birth, and the next generation grows up to be bred again. It takes much longer to change the characteristics of large mammals.

Rhode Island red chicks
Day-old Rhode Island red chicks

The neatly-packaged chicken you bring home from the grocery store are usually white chickens called Cornish cross or Cornish Rock cross; basically they are a cross between Cornish and Rock breeds. Some hatcheries might give them a different name, but they are basically the same birds.

Our Rhode Island red cockerels, and other heritage breeds like them, take longer to reach butcher size. They are a bit tougher to eat, but they are still very good. They are best cooked slow and moist: stewed on the stove-top, cooked in the slow cooker or pressure cooker. The clerk at the feed store told me they are very good in the smoker too.




Aside from taste and texture, one of the biggest differences between heritage breeds and Cornish cross chickens is time: the time it takes to grow them out. Heritage breeds take about 4-5 months to reach butcher size, while Cornish cross birds are ready to butcher at about 8-10 weeks of age. The heritage breeds take roughly twice as long, which means they require approximately twice as much feed and twice as much labor. You can free-range your heritage birds so that they're foraging for some of their food as well as earning their keep by eating bugs, but you're still feeding them twice as long as the Cornish cross chicks.
We don't have running water near the poultry coops, so I had to carry water to the Rhode Island reds for twice as long as I did to the Cornish cross.

Cornish cross chickens doing what they do best: eating.
The Cornish cross chicks sit in front of the feeders and eat all day.
They aren't interested in exercise and aren't good foragers.

Since the Cornish cross chicks tend to stand in front of the feeders all day long and eat, eat, and eat some more, they also produce a great deal more droppings. I find their droppings to be much wetter, heavier and smellier. Their coop needs to be cleaned much more often. On the other hand, there's a greater quantity of droppings to add to the compost pile too.

Cornish cross birds are likely to have leg problems because they are so heavy. They are also prone to heart attacks for the same reason.

Meat birds will give you a greater yield after butchering. I compared the final weight of our Rhode Island reds with our Cornish cross chickens in another post, Raising Cornish Cross Chickens.

In comparison:
Heritage breeds:
  • 4-5 months to reach butcher size
  • tougher meat
  • not as heavy
  • must be fed for a longer period of time
  • better foragers

Cornish Cross:
  • 8-10 weeks to reach butcher size
  • tender meat
  • heavier/meatier
  • consumes about 1/2 ton of feed
  • not good foragers
  • produces wetter droppings in greater quantity; it's harder to keep them clean
  • smelly

So, is one type of chicken better to raise for meat than the other? They both have their pros and cons, and the final decision is up to you. You might prefer to incubate your layer hens' eggs and process the extra rooster chicks when they are old enough, or you might want to buy Cornish cross chicks and raise a year's supply of meat at once. Isn't it wonderful that we are all free to make our own choices?

A comparison of Cornish cross and Rhode Island red birds for the freezer.

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