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Our pal, Rusty

Our pal, Rusty

While a lot of people are enthusiastic about heritage breeds (that’s what we raise), you have to know that this chicken is not going to give you the sort of chicken you buy in the store. First of all, most heritage chickens were bred for multiple purposes: they might have been bred to look pretty on the lawn, survive extreme weather or limited feed, be friendly toward children, or produce a lot of eggs.

The chicken you buy for meat in the store is meant for one thing: meat. This it does extraordinarily well. A few short years ago, a high-performance meat chicken would be fattened up and ready for the table in, say, six weeks. Now, you can get day-old chicks and have them ready in 36 days. It is incredible. Also, the meat is very tender. This is a terrific chicken: it is fast growing, environmentally very sensible and tastes terrific. I have no problems with high-performance breeds, especially since some of our heritage birds take almost a year to mature.

But you cannot treat these high-performance birds like heritage chickens. You must kill them at around 36 days or they will die painful deaths. Their legs give out under the weight of all that flesh, or they keel over from heart attacks. These birds are bred to put on weight, and do not have the bone structure or internal organ capacity to survive beyond those few weeks. Again, I am all for raising them – they are a great source of protein for a hungry planet and you can let yourself off of a lot of work by raising them – but you’ve got to schedule your slaughtering and stick to it, or you’re just being mean.

Heritage breeds take a whole lot more food, water and energy to get the same amount of meat. Heritage bird meat is nothing like a high-production chicken. It will seem very, very tough to you, if somewhat more flavourful. We raise heritage chickens because they are pretty, will survive an apocalypse, and because we don’t want to kill a bunch at once and store them in a freezer that runs on electricity. Also, I want to be part of preserving heritage poultry genetics: bird diseases are a very, very big deal and so I want to make sure that I won’t lose my whole flock because of a virus that floats over the fence. But that’s just us.

If you want to take a middle road, get dual-purpose birds from your hatchery. These are birds that will give you nice meat and eggs, and will live a lot longer than the high-production meat birds. They may not be as robust as heritage breeds and they are certainly nowhere as pretty, but you’ll get excellent value for your feed and work.

Note: we kill our roosters when they are a year old, and tough as shoe leather. We don’t bother plucking; just skin and cook them in the slow cooker with some apples and onions, and a bit of BBQ sauce. Are they lovely and tender after eight hours? Hell, no. We have to slice them up and make a Shepherd’s Pie. Then they’re great.

(Rusty, in the photo above, is a pet. He’s alive and well; and if my husband has his way, he will probably have a formal burial and tombstone when he goes: 25 years from now.)