Reality check time!
When we started to think about raising poultry, I had the misconception that a chicken is a chicken is a chicken. They come in different colors but it's the same bird, right? LOL. There are many many breeds of chicken each with different traits. I've since learned that the modern meat chicken, sometimes called a "broiler" or "cornish x", is a freakish hybrid which grows at an unbelievable rate and is known for it's health issues. Simply put: if allowed to live for too long it will outgrow it's ability to support itself. Modern broilers can't breed naturally, and due to their hybrid genes: can't be produced without the exact genetic recipe. Because of this, all modern broiler chickens come from about the same 5 companies - in short: no one raising these meat birds can do it sustainably. You will always need to go back to them to provide you with more chicks.
Well, this didn't sit with the goal of sustainability and avoiding intensive industrial farming operations, which are arguably not great for both producer and product. If you're unfamiliar with the poultry industry, comedian John Oliver does a nice job of introducing that issue in this segment. I've seen a lot of other folks who raise broilers every year in their yard or pasture, but despite the improved living conditions of those birds, all the chicks have to come from somewhere. Broiler breeders are kept in operations like those seen here, and supply the same "grower" operations that I was trying to get away from.
So, what are the options?
One option you'll see often are chickens called 'dual-purpose' breeds. These are birds known for both egg laying and decent meat characteristics. A few of these breeds are: Orpingtons, Australorps, Plymouth Rocks, Dominiques, Cornish, Turken, and Rhode Island Reds. When it comes to 'dual-purpose' breeds there are many choices, but they all share the same basic trade off: you can have a sustainable flock, but they develop slower and have a narrower, less meaty frame than modern meat birds. More work and cost for less meat. However, to fit the goals I have for my flock, there isn't much else I can do. Fortunately, even the dual purpose breeds are really cool. The Turken for instance, a.k.a the 'Naked Neck' looks like something out of Jurassic Park, and because it grows 50% less feathers, it converts feed more efficiently. There's a lot out there to learn about and choose from.
Other types of birds?
Well at first I got all excited about quail, which seem cool, but their size just puts me off. The eggs are tiny, and if you already have chickens, superfluous. If there were other considerations, such as space or noise that I needed to pay attention to perhaps they would be perfect, but given my situation it just seemed like a lot more work to produce just as much. Anyway, I haven't ruled them out, but I don't want to try this as a primary source of meat.
We are raising Bourbon Red turkeys, an American heritage breed. Prior to the development of the modern meat turkey, the Bourbon Red was one of the more popular choices of turkey for the table. However, they require a long grow out and we'll most likely only try to produce several each season.
We Chose To Raise...
After reading articles about a French dual-purpose breed which is world-renowned for it's meat quality, I decided to give the "American Bresse" a try. It's been hailed as "the Chicken of Kings" and is the only AOC (appellation d'origine contrôlée) protected poultry in the world. Because of it's protected status, outside the Bresse region in France the same bird cannot be called poulet de Bresse, so when raising them in America we call them "American Bresse". Due to differences in husbandry methods birds raised anywhere else in the world may not grow exactly the same as the french birds - so perhaps they won't taste the same. Nevertheless, I drank the gourmet kool-aide, and am now the proud caretaker of a small flock of 13 of these birds. Their 'gourmet' status set a high bar for quality, and I think it will be fun trying to produce a chicken that rivals its reputation. Sure they'll cost more to raise than the Cornish X, but I want a bird I can be proud to produce. I'll try to raise them using similar methods as French growers, so stay tuned for an update on this adventure.
Just wrapped up our first batch of American Bresse and put a few thoughts down about here.