Friday, March 24, 2017

The Great Chicken Experiment

Updated on 3/27/17 to add the last two breeds.

Since starting with chickens a year ago, we've been talking about raising birds specifically for meat. The birds we have now were chosen for laying, and while the ones we've culled were eaten; we want to be stocking the freezer, not just having the occasional stew when someone meets an untimely end.

Life seems to have been crazier than usual this season, so after talking over all the pros and cons of heritage vs. meat bird crosses, we decided to go easy this year and bring in ten Red Rangers for meat. Instead of a big project, we'd have a manageable number of chickens ready to process in a handful of weeks.

I was so determined to stick with this plan that I repeated my mantra of I'm not buying ANY chicks today! over and over all the way to the local feed store. Twenty seconds through the door, my eleven year old and I succumbed to what I like to call Peep Hypnosis: the Lure of the Fluff. (That could be the title of my memoir about my chicken addiction...)

And so, true to form, I threw logic and reason to the wind. After discussing all the numerous and weighty reasons why we should only try a couple of meat birds this year, I accidentally impulse purchased a small number of heritage breed birds from The Grange when I went to meet one of the coolest poultry gals around, Lisa Steele, of Fresh Eggs Daily. About an hour later, we walked out with a signed copy of Lisa's book, a sample bag of Scratch and Peck Feed, and a small carton of fluff balls.

No problem! These little guys were on the original list of heritage breeds I was considering anyways!


If I had these chicks, I might as well go ahead and pick up some of the other heritage breeds on the list...

And that, my friends, is how I wound up with a box of peeping chicks sitting on top of the bag of dog food I bought the following week at Reber Ranch.

It's also how I found myself unloading a tub of Cornish Rock chicks a few days after that. Honestly, what's the point of trying out all the heritage breeds if we can't compare them to the cross breeds?

And so, because of my complete lack of self control, we are now ignoring all restraint, and are embarking on what was slated to be The Great Chicken Experiment of 2018.

I'm calling it The Great Chicken Experiment of 2017. It has a nicer ring to it.


So here's what we're raising, and what I've learned about them:

Cornish Rock - a cross breed developed for very quick growth which can result in leg, respiratory, and heart problems. Good flavor, but need to be fed on a rationed diet to keep growth from happening too quickly. They can be layabouts, and they need to be encouraged to move. Ready for processing at 8 weeks, and shouldn't be kept much longer as their growth is so rapid. I've heard people either love or hate this breed, due to their growth related health issues.
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Red Rangers - a cross breed developed for quick growth and good flavor. They take about 12 weeks to reach a weight of about 6 lbs. Good foragers and healthier meat birds than some of the faster growing meat bird crosses. 
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Speckled Java - an active heritage breed, this is one of the earliest American chicken breeds and is critically endangered. A slow grower and good forager, Javas are docile, heavy, and good layers of large, brown eggs. These birds are known for excellent flavor, do well in confinement, and reach an adult weight of 7 - 8 lbs.
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Buckeye - a very active heritage breed that needs room to roam, these chickens have lots of personality. They are known to hunt mice, make very un-chicken-like noises, and are extremely friendly. The only American breed developed by a woman, on the Watch list with the Livestock Conservancy, good layers of medium, pinkish-brown eggs, these dual purpose chickens reach an adult weight of 6.5 - 9 lbs.

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Wyandotte - these are beautiful birds with lacy patterned wings. They're also a heavy breed, and consistent layers of medium, light brown eggs. In 2016, they graduated off the Livestock Conservancy's endangered list. A calm, but sometimes bossy breed that does well in confinement, they reach an adult weight of 6.5 - 8.5 lbs. 

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Delaware - these lovely heritage breed birds were developed to be broilers in the 40s, and were hugely popular... for about ten years, until they were replaced by the Cornish Cross. They're now on the Livestock Conservancy List as critically endangered and are a great dual purpose bird with rapid growth that does well in confinement. Consistent layers of medium sized, medium brown eggs. A calm, friendly breed, they reach an adult weight of 6 - 8 lbs. 

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Plymouth Rock - a heritage breed with a rapid growth rate, this breed is a prolific layer of large, pinkish brown eggs. Docile, friendly, and good foragers, these birds do well in confinement. They reach an adult weight of 7 - 8 lbs.

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Rhode Island Red - This is a tricky bird to get, if you're looking for the original. Rhode Island Reds are possibly the most famous chicken breed, and they've been selectively bred over the years to make the breed more productive for industry production. Some breeders still raise "heritage" RIRs, though, and that's what we're raising. These birds are calm, love to forage, and they're reported to have an amazing flavor. Great layers of large brown eggs, the adult birds weigh in between 6 - 8 lbs.

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Rhode Island White - While this chicken looks similar in size and shape to the Rhode Island Red, it's actually a separate breed. Listed as threatened by the LSC, these calm birds like to range, lay large amounts of large, brown eggs, and make a great dual purpose addition to a homestead. Adult RIWs weigh in around 6.5 to 8.5 lbs.
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Brahma - Nicknamed the King of Poultry, this breed is taking the internet by storm right now. They're gentle giants, and some have been weighed at nearly 20 lbs. These chickens do well in confinement, in colder climates, and lay medium to large light brown eggs, laying throughout the winter. They can go broody during the summer, and the adults typically dress out between 8 to 10 lbs. 

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Buff Orpington - A very popular dual purpose bird, this breed graduated off the LSC list in 2016, and is no longer an endangered breed. This golden chicken is an excellent layer of large brown eggs, is known for rapid growth, and a good dress out weight. Adults weigh in between 8 - 10 lbs.

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Dominique - These striking birds are the first American chicken breed, and have nearly gone extinct several times, only to be saved by breeders dedicated to the breed. Adults weigh in between 5 and 7 lbs. and while this is a dual purpose chicken, they're primarily kept as consistent layers of small to medium light brown eggs. They're calm, good foragers, and beautiful to watch.

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This is the breed of chicken that shows up frequently at our front door when people find them wandering around the neighborhood. While none of these feathered party crashers were from our flock, we took them in until their owners were found. This has led me to believe that Australorps are flighty escape artists. They are reported to be an active breed and I'm curious to see how this one does.

They're excellent layers of large brown eggs, they do well in hot and cold weather, and they have an excellent growth rate. Adult birds reach 6.5 to 8.5 lbs.

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Speckeld Sussex 
This is a heritage breed dual purpose chicken that lays lots of pinkish brown eggs, frequently even laying through the winter months. It does well in confinement, is a good forager, and dresses out well for the table. Adult birds weigh in around 7 to 9 lbs.

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