Heritage Chickens and Why?

Heritage Chickens are the breeds that our grand parents and great grand parents had on their supper tables.  

Technically, according to the Livestock Conservancy, a heritage chicken is a bird that adheres to four basic conditions:

  1.  They must be an American Poultry Association breed recognized with a breed standard prior to the mid-2oth century.
  2.  They must be able to Mate Naturally.
  3.  They must have a long productive lifespan.  
  4.  They must have a slow to moderate growth rate reaching market weight of no less than 16 weeks. Giving the birds the chance to build stomng bones and healthy organs before building muscle mass.

The heritage chickens of bygone days are flavorful and the meat is lean and healthy.  I often wondered what happened to these birds when I was a teenager.  As a youth, I remember my mother and my aunt preparing chicken for dinner.  The chickens where long and had a small amouns of breast meat with good long drum sticks.  I used to love those drum sticks.  I remember going to specialty markets with my mother and going up to the butcer counter and watch as they cut up the specific cuts of meat that my mother was seeking.  I thought it was fascinating. The counter was full of sausages hangin in the back, hams, hanging and all kinds of poultry, from chickens to quail. There were also several varieties of chicken, red chicken, black chicken, frying hens, roasters and stewing chickens.  They all had different shapes and sizes.  Everything was cut and wrapped in brown paper.  over the years those butcher counters started to disappear and so did the chickens.  No more butcher sops just really fat chickens in plastic bags started showing up everywhere.  My parenst would make considerable effort and drive substantial distances to find smaller markets that still had a butcher counter.  Eventually, they all disappeared.  Why?

I had to find out becasue I really missed the flavor of good chicken in dishes such as Coq Au Vin, Chicken Fricassee, or Chicken and Dumplings. 

So I did some homework and found out that in the 1930's the quest for a hybrid meat bird had begun.  Heritage birds take anywhere from 14 to 20 weeks to mature.  As they mature, the quality of the meat becomes more flavorful.  The select fat deposits are in the meat, not laying underthe skin on top as it does with the commercial breed of chicken that is in every grocery store, warehouse food supplier and resturant across North America and beyond.  This bird is highly selected and converts food into muscles so fast that they are at full weight in as little as 35 days.  These birds are produced by artificial inseminations and cannot breed on their own.  They are lack luster foragers and many do not even grow feathers well.  The skin is a poor pale yellowish  and while there is ample breast meat, there is a complete absence of flavor.    Enter our industrial age, when mass production of chicken for increased commercial profit is paramount over flavor, the health of the animal and the health of the humans that eat these birds.   

Back to my investigation.  I could go on to share more about how commercial birds are raised, but Ill save those details for another post.  For now, I just want to share that after scouring the countryside,  I came up empty on finding any farmer anywhere that had heritage chickens.  So the quest became my own and after three years of raising heritage birds and enjoying there great flavor, I can never go back.  To be fair, I tried to raise 25 cornish crosses. I lost 9 or so due to bad legs and two others to deformity.  Those birds would not forage, they just walked around in the grass and sat near the food supply.  You need to regulate their food or they will literally eat themselves to death before dispatch.  many did not grow nice feathers and despite all of my efforts to give them the best environment, with the healthiest organic feed, they were just sorry looking birds and were so heavy at 5 weeks, they had to be dispatched.  The meat was as flavorless as the store and the birds were not a delight to have around if I dare say so.  

The heritage birds are totally different, they are a credit to their ancestry.  They have beautiful plumage, pursue their natural instincts, lay and brood theoir ownyoung and raise their chicks well on the pasture.  They enjoy a life of dusting baths, scratching for bugs in the earth and climbing in the low branches of trees.  They are a delight in their character and manner.  They do take a considerable amount of time to mature as a meat bird, but for me it is worjht the time.  They are happy birds and the meat is full of flavor.  The dense protein seems to full up my tummy quicker and I eat a lot less when I eat heritage meat.

For me, there is nothing like a heritage bird.  It is true that they cannot compete in price with the commercial chicken.  It just takes them longer to achieve a nice growth and that means more feed and that means a higher cost.  But if quality is a factor and we are not just comparing pennies to the pound, then the heritage chickens cannot be beat.  They are healthier for the land, healther for us and they are and asset to our genetic diversity.  For me and my family, there is no other chicken than a heritage meat bird.