By Leigh -
Many people who decide to raise chickens for eggs do so after learning about the unfortunate suffering that battery chickens on commercial egg farms experience in their short lives. Unfortunately, birds raised commercially for meat face many frightening abuses also. If a person hasn’t already seen upsetting footage on the news, they probably already know that YouTube is teeming with undercover footage captured inside of various commercial poultry farms that will leave the most stable of stomachs churning.
While the idea of raising chickens just to kill and eat them may make many people uncomfortable, perhaps it is the idea of raising these chickens in a natural, healthy and comfortable environment and allowing them a quick and humane death that draws some to raise meat birds. Many would rather eat a bird that lived a happy life than one that never saw the sun, chased a bug through the grass and suffered unknown horrors on a commercial poultry farm.
Of course with concerns over the amount of chemicals, antibiotics and steroids in commercially-produced meat, others will gravitate to raising meat birds in order to feed their families healthy and organic meat.
Photo courtesy Marcia Fisher
If you have made the decision to raise your own birds for meat, it is important to remember that birds of any dual purpose or meat breed may (and should) be kept and raised in natural, healthy and comfortable conditions. The same generous coop and run space rules apply to meat birds as to the egg-laying breeds. See our article on space needs HERE. All breeds of chicken are prone to feather picking and cannibalism if kept in crowded conditions.
Cornish Rock / Cornish Cross
Photo from www.mcmurrayhatchery.com
Perhaps the most popular meat chicken breed is the Cornish Cross. For all intents and purposes, the Cornish Cross is a bit of a Franken-Bird. This breed has been selectively bred over the years to reach its full size in only 7-12 short weeks. Faster growth means more meat in less time. Of course this crazy-fast growth also has drawbacks including joint and heart problems.
Contrary to many of the write-ups on the Cornish Cross chickens, this breed CAN free range. In fact many chicken “Old Timers” will tell you this breed should free range in order to keep their muscles stronger and their joints healthier. Free ranging can help slightly reduce the rate that these birds put on weight, thereby avoiding many of the leg and joint problems these birds face on commercial farms. Being allowed to move, run and chase bugs will help keep their hearts healthier and make them less prone to heart failure.
That said, these birds are simply genetically predisposed to more health issues than other meat breeds, and this factor should be kept in mind when selecting a meat bird flock.
The Cornish (not to be confused with the Cornish Cross) was developed as a meat bird in Cornwall, UK. This is a slow-growing breed that reaches maturity (processing weight) at about 18+ weeks of age. Because it has not been subject to genetic engineering, it is far less susceptible to heart or joint problems like its cousin, the Cornish Cross. Many also prefer the taste and texture of Cornish meat to that of Cornish Cross.
These birds are excellent free rangers. They are wary of predators, with some owners of these birds telling stories of flocks of Cornish actually chasing off foxes and other smaller predators. Aerial predators are less likely to attempt an attack on a full-grown Cornish as these birds can weigh upward of 10 lbs. as adults.
The Cornish comes in a number of color varieties including Dark Cornish, White Cornish and some project colors like blue-laced red. While bred for its delicious meat, the hens are also fair layers of light brown eggs. Cornish hens are not overly broody, and can be quite friendly – mine have been known to follow me about as I do my chores. As with other large chicken breeds, a single Cornish can out-eat 2 birds of egg-laying breeds. Daily free ranging can vastly lower feed consumption.
Photo from www.mcmurrayhatchery.com
The Brahma is another breed primarily bred for meat. This is a calm, easy-going bird well suited to colder climates. It is very broad in stature and has feathered legs and feet. The breed originated in Asia and is a distant relative of the Cochin. Like other slow-growing breeds, it needs at least 18 weeks to reach a good weight for processing.
Common Brahma varieties include the Light Brahma, Buff Brahma and Dark Brahma, and while they are available in bantam size, the smaller birds are generally not kept for meat.
The Dorking is one of the oldest known chicken breeds, dating back to ancient Rome. It is considered a dual-purpose breed, used as both an egg-layer and meat bird. The breed reaches maturity at about 18-20 weeks of age. The Dorking is built a bit like a Bassett Hound with shorter-than-average legs and large, wide body.
Dorking hens are good layers of large, white eggs. They are not an overly broody breed. Dorking flocks enjoy free ranging from sunup to sundown, prefer mild climates and cohabitate well with other poultry breeds. Dorking hens can be a bit stand-offish, but the roosters tend to be mellow and calm. This is a great breed for those who might wish to raise a pure-bred flock for both meat and eggs.
Rhode Island Red
The Rhode Island Red is another wonderful dual-purpose breed known for its hardiness. The hens are very good layers of brown eggs, and will often lay regularly for more than 3 years. There are reports of RIR hens laying at 6 or more years of age.
A true, Heritage Rhode Island Red is a large bird with a body shaped like a brick. One could feasibly become quite self-sufficient by breeding these birds, keeping hens for plenty of eggs and processing all extra cockerels for meat.
13-week-old Heritage Rhode Island Red cockerel
As their breed name would indicate, they come in one color… white. (Just kidding.) Well-bred roosters will have deep mahogany feathering with black feathers in the tail, and the hens will range from deep red to mahogany. Be warned – some hatcheries mislabel Production Reds as Rhode Island Reds. To be certain what you are getting is a true RIR, buy from a reputable breeder.
RIR roosters are usually very mellow and tend to be good around children, and the hens are friendly and seem to enjoy being around people. With this bird you may not have the most colorful barnyard flock, but you will have a very useful and hardy flock.
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While I have touched on a few of the breeds best known for the quality and quantity of their meat, there are plenty of other dual-purpose breeds I did not have a chance to touch upon today. Do your research, and don’t be afraid to jump in with both feet if raising birds for meat is of interest to you.
For some great information on egg-laying breeds, check out "What Kind of Chickens Should I Raise? Help Choosing a Breed" on Fresh Eggs Daily!