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All birds are not created equal

What you need to know before choosing your meat bird

By AMY HOGUE

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So you’ve seen the brochures advertising the yellow fluffy chicks at your local feed store and you’re thinking about taking the leap into raising meat birds. Before you place your order, read on to ensure you aren’t unpleasantly surprised with the reality of the breed you choose, because in the poultry world, all birds are definitely not created equal.

There are two basic options for meat birds: the commercially developed hybridized Cornish cross, or the dual purpose breeds, including the selectively cross-bred ‘heavy’ birds touted to preserve the best of both worlds.

Cornish Cross broilers — an eternal debate?

Contrary to popular belief, the Cornish Cross is not a genetically modified bird, but one that has been created through aggressive crossbreeding to create the most optimal feed to meat conversion rate while producing a heavy, large breasted and mild flavoured bird.

Reaching an average weight of seven or eight pounds (live weight) within eight weeks, the Cornish Cross has revolutionized the broiler industry, moving consumers away from the traditional dual purpose breeds that before the 1950s had been the accepted meat bird. On the downside, all that rapid growth comes with a price.

Cornish Cross are well known for being poor foragers, and will typically spend most of their time eating and drinking, trying to keep pace with their own rapid growth. The rapid tissue growth of the breed often comes at the expense of its other systems; the Cornish Cross bird’s heart and legs are often unable to keep the same rate of growth as its body.

This is primarily why this breed is notorious for health problems and early deaths, and requires more care for successful growth to maturity. In commercial industries this care often involves the use of antibiotics and/or a closely controlled environment. Ailments such as acities (accumulation of fluid on the breast), flip-over disease (Sudden Death Syndrome), and legs literally broken from the weight of the bird, can all impact a grower’s bottom line — to say nothing of making for an unpleasant farming experience.

So after this information, much of which may be intimidating for a novice, why do growers raise these birds for meat? The answer is simple:? the Cornish Cross chicken features the meat people are most used to eating from the grocery store.

For a farmer whose customers are expecting the same kind of large breasted, mild flavoured bird they are familiar with, this places pressure on them to produce this bird almost exclusively. For an at-home grower, no one can deny the advantages to raising the Cornish Cross. In only eight weeks you have a freezer full of plump, uniformly sized chicken, leaving the remaining summer months to either raise another batch or take a well-earned vacation.

The dual purpose alternative?

For those not interested in the Cornish Cross’ rapid gains and impressive size, dual purpose breeds are an excellent alternative. Once the only choice for broilers, these birds are called dual purpose for a reason, since they are considered equally acceptable for either egg or meat production.

Before the 1950s, farmers would either hatch their own chicks or order a batch of straight run chicks; the hens were kept for eggs while the cockerels were raised for meat. Dual purpose breeds grow more slowly than Cornish Cross birds and are smaller in weight, particularly in breast size.

Unlike the Cornish Cross, dual purpose birds do equally well on pasture as in confined growing, which can help reduce feed costs. Keep in mind any savings will be offset by the length of time you must raise a dual purpose bird until they reach an acceptable weight. It will take roughly 18 or more weeks for a dual purpose bird to achieve a live weight of six or seven pounds, as opposed to the typical eight weeks for the Cornish Cross.

Reputed to have a more flavourful meat, some growers prefer the taste of a dual purpose chicken over what is sometimes described as the bland and wet flesh of a Cornish Cross. Some optimal dual purpose breeds for meat are Rhode Island Red, Plymouth White Rock, Chantecler, New Hampshire Red, Cornish, Delaware, and Wyandotte.

The best of both worlds

The answer to the debate between Cornish Cross and dual purpose meat birds may lie in the ‘heavy’ dual purpose meat bird breeds touted by many smaller hatcheries. Similarly to the Cornish Cross, these breeds have been created by selectively cross breeding dual purpose birds to produce a larger, quicker growing bird, but in this case one that retains many of the advantages of a dual purpose bird.

Larger than an average dual purpose, these heavy meat birds retain their flavour, ability to forage, hardiness and resistance to illness in adverse conditions. They are also ready for slaughter a little bit earlier than dual purpose, at roughly 12 to 14 weeks of age, weighing in at approximately seven pounds, live weight.

Some examples of these breeds include Mistral Gris, Freedom Ranger, Label Rouge, Black Broiler, Kosher King, Red Broiler, Silver Cross and Redbro. Check with your local hatchery to see what they have to offer in the way of slower growing heavy meat birds.

Tips for Cornish Cross success

  • ??Keep high quality food and water sources within easy reach to keep chicks well fed and hydrated
  • ??Provide access to shade, sparse feathering and fair skin can result in sunburn
  • ??Follow the hatchery’s instructions for feeding, chicks may gorge with unlimited access to food
  • ??Don’t delay slaughtering
  • ??Keep bedding dry and keep birds in a well ventilated area, paying close attention to temperature
  • ??Keep a close watch for signs of illness or disease and remove infected birds promptly
  • ??Ensure chicks consume quality starter and grower; due to rapid growth they can’t be shortchanged for nutrients

Keep the end date in mind

When ordering Cornish cross chicks it’s important to keep your slaughtering options at the forefront of your planning. If you are planning on taking them to a poultry abattoir for processing (a requirement if you will be selling them), it’s a good idea to book your slaughter date as early as possible, preferably eight weeks from the day you receive your chicks. There’s nothing more frustrating than watching your previously healthy birds weaken or break their legs from the weight of their own breasts because of a two week delay in getting to the butcher.

If you will be processing dual purpose birds at a slaughterhouse, be aware some abattoirs will not take on the processing of these birds. The smaller body cavity of a dual purpose bird makes it more difficult for it to be processed in a traditional poultry facility, and some abattoirs may refuse to even make the attempt. Check with your local abattoir ahead of time or you may be forced to slaughter them on-farm.

For more information

For a list of Canadian hatcheries, contact the Canadian Poultry and Egg Processors Council: bóng đá trực tuyến http://www.cpepc.ca/hat.html

Raising Chicken and Turkey Broilers in Canada (Publication) bóng đá trực tuyến http://publications.gc.ca/collections/Collection/A63-1860-1991E.pdf