Why Heritage Chickens

Heritage breeds preserve genetic diversity

Prior to the mid-20th century chicken meat was largely a byproduct of egg production, with excess cockerels (young males) being grown out on pasture and then fattened for local markets. Because of the nature of regionally-developed chicken breeds these various markets were fulfilled by a variety of birds, with meat coming primarily from cockerels of the heavy laying breeds such as the Rhode Island Red, New Hampshire Red Plymouth Rock, Delaware, Jersey Giant, and others. But with the advent of industrial agriculture and the coming-of-age of the poultry meat industry, this variety was laid aside as steps were taken to produce a larger, faster growing meat bird. The intent to produce such a bird was not in and of itself a negative or unnecessary goal, and indeed early attempts focused on developing strains of specific breeds and simple first-generation (F1) crosses that would meet increasing consumer demand for chicken meat. (For a more detailed history, watch the fascinating “Chicken of Tomorrow” video.) But as is perhaps uniformly the case with things industrial (as opposed to biological), the question of where to stop was not considered and so the industry continued (and, to be sure, continues still) to produce birds who grow larger and fatter still.

And so today there are a small handful of multinational corporations who control 90+ percent of the broiler (meat chicken) genetics worldwide. By and large these corporations produce the same bird, a cross between a White Cornish and a White Plymouth Rock (commonly referred to variously as a Cornish-Rock Cross, Cornish Cross, Corn-Rock Cross in the United States, and often by their corporate trade names—such as Ross Cobb—in other countries), though the exact combination varies. This is not a simple F1 cross whereby the male of one breed is mated to the female of another, but a complicated closely-guarded genetic arrangement where grandparent and parent stocks are carefully mated to produce the veritable Frankenbird that fills confinement poultry houses and most small-scale pastured poultry flocks nationwide. In the end it is apparent that the vast majority of meat chickens worldwide are disconcertingly closely related and for all intents and purposes are the same thing.

That’s where heritage poultry comes in. The birds that we raise are standard-bred (that is, non-hybrids) which helps to preserve genetic diversity in our poultry flocks. A commonly asked question regarding this very point is: How can eating these birds (or cattle, or pigs, or sheep, etc.) possibly work to save and preserve them? And the simple answer is that eating them creates demand, providing a reason for them to continue to exist. When you choose to purchase and consume meat from heritage breeds of livestock (as with purchasing and consuming heirloom fruits and vegetables), you provide a farmer with a reason to continue to raise that particular breed. When you purchase a heritage breed chicken, you are voting with your wallet for genetic diversity rather than genetic sameness.

Heritage breeds are healthier animals

As a result of industrial agriculture’s continuous push for a chicken that grows fatter faster—that is, to put on the maximum weight with minimal feed input—modern hybrid broilers grow at an unnatural and unhealthy rate, to the point that they are in effect genetically obese. Specifically, the musculature of modern hybrid birds grows more quickly than their internal organs and skeletal structure can handle. As a result, it is common for such chickens to have difficultly walking, including complete lameness; in “The River Cottage Meat Book” (which should, in my opinion, be on the bookshelf of every conscientious meat eater), Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall notes that a report by the University of Bristol found that almost 90% of broiler chickens have leg problems and that more than 25% suffered “an abnormality of sufficient severity that their welfare was compromised.” Further, the inability of the birds’ internal organs to keep pace of development with the musculature often results in sudden death by heart attack and the like.

The proposed solution, if one can call it that, is to restrict feed intake of such birds from an early age. Specifically, many hatchery catalogs suggest feeding on a 12-hours-on, 12-hours-off schedule. The problem this presents, however, is that these birds have been bred with a 24-hour appetite and under such a feeding scheme are thereby kept hungry. In short, the chosen method for increasing animal welfare by reducing (but certainly not eliminating) problems from unnatural growth is to effectively decrease animal welfare by disallowing the birds to eat to satiety.

This problem is even worse with regard to the breeding stock of such birds. If fed and raised as their broiler descendents are, these breeding flocks, if they were to even live to breeding age, would most certainly face diminished reproductive function as a result of inhibited sexual development. Therefore, these breeding flocks are kept even hungrier than their hungriest descendents; they must be starved to be kept alive and productive.

I hope it is clear in the face of all this why we have chosen to raise heritage breeds. Our birds grow at a natural—one might even say proper—rate and have natural—or proper—appetites to match. They are not genetically obese. They don’t go lame, have heart attacks, die suddenly, and they don’t require special feeding regimes just to keep them alive. As healthier birds they are also more active and when given the chance will range quite far in search of food and, I suspect, for the simple joy of ranging. If a hawk passes overhead they will scurry quickly to cover until danger has passed. And unlike even their pasture-raised hybrid broiler brethren they are able to actively forage and in so doing consume a more diverse diet.

Heritage breeds provide healthier & higher quality meat

Pasture-raised chickens are known to have considerably higher levels of vitamins and minerals in their meat than their confinement-housed counterparts, the result of ready access to forage. This increase can be seen again in heritage breed chickens, which consume a higher amount of forage than even pasture-raised hybrids, both because of their increased activity level (non-sedative lifestyle) and their greater age (and thus greater time spent foraging) at slaughter. This higher ratio of green forage to grain in their diets also results in a lower level of saturated fat and a greater level of chlorophyll, a natural detoxifier, the latter being indicated by bright yellow fat and orange egg yolks.

The meat from heritage chickens is also of higher table quality than meat from the fast-growing hybrids. There are multiple reasons for this. For one, greater age at processing means that the muscles of heritage breeds have been put to greater use; this strengthens and tones the muscles of the live bird and gives a certain toothsomeness to the bird on the table. Whereas fast-growing birds—particularly those that have been raised in confinement and to a lesser degree those that are raised on pasture—have meat that might be best described as “soft” or “mushy,” the result of minimized usage, slow-growing heritage breeds have meat that is firm and dense. As the birds continue to age this will eventually result in meat that is tougher and which must be slow cooked with liquid (think coq au vin) to render it palatable, but at the age we process—16 to 20 weeks or so—they are not yet at this stage. In particular, the much-used leg muscles of our heritage chickens, which contain relatively large amounts of collagen, will have a much greater texture than the leg muscles of the faster-growing breeds, which as the result of breeding simply cannot move around much during their last few weeks.

For the same reasons, our heritage chickens are granted a greater degree of flavor than their fast-growing counterparts. The fat cells in an animal, along with storing energy in the form of fatty acids, store substances and compounds that are fat-soluble. When cooked these substances and compounds are released and subsequently conveyed to our palates as flavors and aromas, making for a more satisfying bite. A greater diversity of foods—such as that which is found in a diverse pasture versus an all-grain diet—results in a greater diversity of flavor compounds stored in the animal’s fat cells, while a greater time spent foraging results in a greater concentration of those compounds.

While not scientific, the greater quality of our heritage birds has been borne out twice in blind side-by-side tastings we have conducted. Both times we pitted multiple breeds of our heritage birds against a pasture-raised Cornish-Rock Cross. The chickens were roasted with a simple preparation, cut into pieces, and each breed put onto its own plate. Participants were encouraged to try a few bites from each plate and to rate them each for flavor and texture and overall impression. While there is a noticeable difference between breeds when tasted in this manner (both times the Speckled Sussex was crowned the winner), the most noticeable difference was between the heritage breeds as a group and the Cornish-Rock Cross; the slower-growing heritage breeds are simply more flavorful and more toothsome and as a group have scores that are clustered together while the CRX lags behind considerably. (For more details on the most recent tasting we conducted see this blog post.)

Heritage breeds are more enjoyable to raise

It goes without saying that it is not enjoyable to pick up dead birds. Less so when one must pick up many. Less so again when one must do this time and again over the course of the growout period. But such is not at all uncommon with hybrid chickens, particularly the Cornish-Rock Cross but not excepting the modern slower-growing hybrids such as the Freedom Ranger. (These death losses, as noted above, can be minimized through questionable feeding practices.)

Thankfully, we can avoid these problems with heritage breeds. Turning them out to pasture is not a move wrought with uncertainty and worry. When spring thunderstorms dump rain by the inch, there is no worry that we’ll find piles of dead birds in the wake. When summer temperatures rise to triple digits, our birds roam around unconcerned, and so do we. The stress level on the part of the farmer is reduced considerably when a conscious choice to raise heritage breeds is made.

Furthermore, we find the heritage breeds more enjoyable because they offer so much more on the plate than other chickens. While it is doubtless that a pasture-raised chicken is better than an industrially-raised one, I would be careful not to assume that the pasture-raised chicken is good. Indeed, it is my considered opinion that a pasture-raised Cornish-Rock Cross is decidedly not good. No, they aren’t bad, but they aren’t good either. Our slow-growing heritage chickens, on the other hand, are good, plain and simple. There is great enjoyment that with every heritage bird I sell, I know that I am giving a customer a truly good product, not a product that is merely better than its industrial counterpart.

Heritage breeds are not part of the industrial agriculture system

The Cornish-Rock Cross was bred for confinement production, to be raised by “agribusinessmen” (not “farmers”), packed into windowless houses with thousands of other birds, and is not well suited for pastured production.  Heritage breeds, on the other hand, were bred for a life outdoors, foraging on green grasses, legumes, insects, and seeds. The genetics of our heritage birds are not closely-guarded secrets, controlled by a small few multinational corporations, but are the result of decades of breeding by real farmers on real farms.

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