Raising Heritage Breed Chickens for Meat

| 10/7/2015 9:45:00 AM

Rachel FalcoRaising heritage breed chickens for meat is difficult for a farmer to gauge timing of harvest. Currently the industry harvests birds at about 6 through 8 weeks of age. These super-sized industrial breeds grow very, very, very quickly. The industrial breeds such as the Cornish Cross are a hybrid that has been bred to build lots of muscle structure, super fast. These birds are big. These birds are flavorless. And I do mean flavorless.

Once you have tried a heritage breed chicken you will never go back to the Cornish Cross. There is a significant difference between the two options. Which would you choose; flavorful, rich, unctuous chicken meat or big-breasted, marshmallow-y, spongy chicken meat? Hardly a choice … Oh, glorious true chicken flavor! You will find yourself snitching the chicken skin and discussing how to render chicken fat into a perfect schmaltz (clarified chicken fat) with friends.

Heritage Breed Chickens
Australorps, Brahmas and Wyandottes, oh, my!

Unless you have had a heritage breed chicken, you have yet to taste real chicken. Flavor takes time. This, at first, seems to be a disadvantage. It is not. You will know what I mean when you taste it. Heritage breed chickens are leaner than their industrial counterpart.

In order to fully extract every ounce of flavor from your heritage breed meat bird, we have to go back in time when we had traditional country skills. There were four classes of chickens: broiler, fryer, roaster and stewing chicken. These classes spoke to how the woman of the house would cook and prepare the bird. If you decided to fry a stewing hen, it would be as tough as rubber. If you opted for using a broiler for a soup, well, where’s the flavor?

A broiler is for, well, broiling. This cooking process is a fast and hot heat; therefore the chicken should be young and tender. If you want to broil (or grilling for that matter) than you should harvest your heritage breed birds when they are 12 weeks old and will have a live weight of about 4 pounds and a dressed weight of 2 through 2 1/2 pounds. They will have much more flavor than their grocery store counterparts and, if you free range your chicken (as was the tradition), they will have had plenty of exercise and a diverse diet. This yields a healthier, more nutritious, flavorful bird.