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The Billion Dollar Chicken

Is there a realistic purebred alternative to the modern industrial hybrid meat bird?

By DAN NEEDLES

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Anyone who raises backyard meat birds for the freezer knows the routine. Place an order for 50 Cornish Cross hybrid chicks with the hatchery in late winter, pick them up as day old chicks on the appointed date in the spring and pop them under a brooder lamp. Three weeks later they go out into a pen and somewhere between the 6th and 10th week, they’re off to the packing plant.

But the cost of raising these fast-growing meat birds climbs steadily. At nearly $3.00 for the chick, $3.00 for feed and $3.00 for processing, plus gas to run them around, I’ve got ten dollars invested in each bird by the time I put it in the hands of a customer. For nine dollars they can buy the same bird, cooked, in the grocery store.

It’s got me thinking. “Why can’t get I raise my own meat birds and incubate them myself?”

The answer is . . . you can, but it won’t be easy and you’ll have to do it for a very long time before you get anything that resembles the chick in the flat cardboard box with the holes in it. The genetics of a Cornish Cross (Cornish X) broiler are a carefully guarded trade secret. Chickens are the most scientifically engineered animal of our time and 40 billion of them move through the global food system every year. The retail value of the industry is equal to the market value of Exxon Mobil, the largest corporation in the Fortune 500.

To understand how that happened we need to study a bit of chicken history. Humans domesticated Asian jungle fowl about 4,000 years ago and we’ve been breeding them ever since for eggs and meat. Ships and sailors spread them around the world and many of today’s breeds are named for their place of origin.

In 19th century England, chickens were kept primarily for eggs and women looked after them. Meat from chickens was viewed as a by-product of the henhouse and of secondary importance. But breeding chickens was very much a man’s world, especially in England and Ireland, where cock fighting was a popular sport. When it was banned in 1858, men continued the craft of breeding chickens and founded the British Poultry Club in 1863. The British Poultry Standard, the bible of craft chicken breeding, has gone through at least six editions and today lists 92 standardized (i.e. pure) breeds. These are birds that are proven to breed true to a specific type. Many of these 92 breeds are now threatened because so many of them have fallen out of use.

Craft breeding has all but disappeared because corporations stepped in about 60 years ago with a new approach to raising a chicken for the pot. The most important event in chicken history in North America occurred in 1948 when the Atlantic and Pacific supermarket chain sponsored a “Chicken of Tomorrow” contest. A&P felt that the country needed a uniform meat bird and they sponsored a three-year competition among the craft breeders of America to find that ideal specimen.

The winners of that contest were hybrid birds. They set a new benchmark for feed conversion, hatchability, hardiness and uniformity. The result was a blueprint for the modern industrial broiler, a combination of bloodlines from New Hampshire, Cornish, and Rhode Island Red on the male side and a Plymouth White Rock on the female side.

Prof. Margaret Derry of the University of Guelph is the author of Art and Science in Breeding, a fascinating look at the development of the modern meat chicken industry in North America. She says that this contest did more much more than identify a better bird. It paved the way to complete acceptance of crossbreeding for hybrid vigour. The industry stopped looking for one ideal pure breed and never looked back.

Hybrids appealed to breeders for two reasons: they encouraged a geneticists approach to breeding for practical improvement and they gave the breeders a biological lock or “terminator gene.” Hybrid stock does not breed true; in fact, the Cornish X is too bulky at maturity to breed at all. This means growers have to come back to the breeder every year to buy new stock. Agribusiness loves a biological lock because it makes customers captives of the company and produces a very reliable revenue stream. The winners of the Chicken of Tomorrow contest moved to head large corporations and chicken genetics became trade secrets. Soon the same practices were applied to egg production. The history of the industry since that time has been one of relentless specialization, integration and corporate concentration. Today, only three corporations control the genetics for 90 per cent of the world’s broilers.

Almost no information is available publicly about the development of the hybrid broiler chicken since 1951. Craft breeding of chickens gradually became a sandbox for hobbyists and ceased to have any relevance to commercial production. Today’s poultry show judge at a fall fair has become a ‘feather fancier’ and is looking for visual qualities unrelated to the bird’s suitability for eggs or meat. I tried raising my own Black Minorcas for a few years, starting with prize-winning stock from a poultry show. At one time, the Minorcas were North America’s most popular white egg layer. But mine didn’t lay very many eggs. When I met the breeder at another show he laughed and said, “They’re a show bird! I didn’t know you wanted them for eggs!”

Canadian poultry expert Frank Goodfellow says that is a common problem. “One of the characteristics of the Cornish X is uniformity. Many of the heritage breeds lack uniformity from strain to strain. As an example, my barred Rocks may appear similar to yours, but they can vary greatly in size, age of maturity, vitality and egg production.”

He notes the recent resurgence of interest in the Chantecler, the only Canadian breed of chicken, which was developed at the Cistercian Monastery in Oka, Quebec, in 1922. Brother Wilfred used some of the same foundation breeds that went into the Cornish X to breed a pure strain that was hardy to the Canadian climate, a good forager and a reliable producer of eggs and meat. After a surge in popularity it fell out of favour in the 1950s and almost went extinct, but flocks have been preserved in Quebec, where the provincial government designated the Chantecler a native heritage breed in 1999. Four years ago, the provincial marketing boards allowed ten producers to grow flocks of Chanteclers to encourage the development of a pasture-based bird that might appeal to the slow food market.

This approach has worked very well in France. Freedom Rangers are a pasture-based hybrid broiler developed by (Grimaud) Hubbard in the 1960s to serve the Label Rouge brand in France and now account for 30 per cent of that country’s poultry market. Breeding stock came to North America in 2000 but is still a rarity in Canada.?Again, because of?proprietary issues, the genetics?remain a mystery.

And, they do have one purebred meat bird that has become big business. The Bresse has a red crown, white body and blue feet and is the first animal to be given an Appellation d’Origine Controlle designation. Every year 1.2 million are raised under strict conditions around the town of Bresse (near Dijon) and?are snapped up by chefs across Europe for $21 per kg. Only the French would?produce a chicken that sports the colours of the national flag. Efforts to establish a Bluefoot chicken in Canada failed about ten years ago when the flock was eradicated during a bird flu scare in British Columbia.

Greg Oakes, a hobby breeder in Guelph agrees that the Chantecler is as good a place as any to start. The birds are docile, lay about four eggs a week and the roosters dress 4-5 pounds in 18 weeks. That’s more than twice as long as the Cornish X, but fans of heritage breeds insist that a slower-growing bird is more flavourful. And just by coincidence, with a red crown and a white body, it sports the colours of our national flag, too.

The big three

The companies that control meat bird genetics

? Aviagen (with the Ross, Arbor Acres, Indian River and Peterson brands)

? Cobb-Vantress (with the Cobb, Avian, Sasso and Hybro brands), and

? Groupe Grimaud (with the Hubbard and Grimaud Frere brands).

Purebred alternatives to the Cornish X meat bird:

Rhode Island Red – An older American breed, this breed is still popular for backyard flocks and is still used in commercial breeding to improve hardiness and egg-laying abilities. Non-industrial birds tend to be slower-growing and docile.

Plymouth White Rock – Originally developed in the U.S. in the 1870s, the White Rock became the most popular dual-purpose chicken in America by WWII. It is still used in commercial production as the female side of the broiler cross because of its hardiness, large frame and egg-laying abilities.

Chantecler – The only Canadian breed of chicken, the Chantecler was developed over eight years by Brother Wilfred a Trappist monk at the Cistercian monastery in Oka, Quebec. He crossed Dark Cornish, White Leghorn, Rhode Island Red, White Wyandotte and White Plymouth Rock to produce a hardy dual-purpose bird. The breed is enjoying a resurgence thanks to backyard hobbyists who want a slower-growing alternative to the Cornish X.

New Hampshire Red – A relatively new breed, developed from the Rhode Island Red in 1935. The Hampshire birds are favoured for large frames, early maturity and vigour, as well as the hardiness and egg-laying abilities of the Red.

Cornish ?– Developed in Cornwall, England and sometimes called the Indian Game, the Cornish has a broad meaty double breast and converts feed very efficiently. Originally bred as a fighting cock, both males and females sometimes show aggressive behaviour.

For more information: Brother Wilfrid’s?breeding strategy?over nine?years?is summarized?by Rare Breeds Canada in a post: bóng đá trực tuyến http://www.cfagrf.com/Chantecler_chicken.htm