As we enter the new year a number of people have asked me about that they working with some larger breeds of chicken to provide meat for the table. My first response is that its not the cheapest thing to do but thats primarily because the price of chicken meat in the supermarkets is so low. However to compare a slow maturing 20 week old pure bred table bird with a fast to fatten 7 week old shop bought broiler is a little like comparing oak with pine; and its not just a price difference but also weight and density of the wood that puts oak above pine. The same can be said of home grown chicken meat, the longer maturing bird is noticably different in texture and taste.
So whats behind these breeds of poultry? They were developed with the primary aim of providing meat for the table. The surplus cockerels from many of the laying breeds proved too lightweight to supply a practical source of meat, and whilst the dual purpose or utility breeds straddled the line well in terms of fulfilling the need for eggs and meat, neither gained weight fast enough to warrant them being an effective source of inexpensive meat. Original these breeds came about by unintentional matings
between different breeds that occasionally resulted in fast growing, heavy
weight offspring. Careful selection of these larger offspring and further
breeding then resulted in consistently weighty results. Post WWII many of these
breeds became obsolete by the emergence of the table hybrids designed to meet
the increasing demand for a cheap protein source, however some can still be
found on small scale farms and smallholdings.
Fundamentally, the breeds within this category are heavy and large with the males of some breeds exceeding 5kgs in weight, and the hens not too far behind thus maximising the potential of both sexes to be used in the kitchen. As such they are not really suitable where small children are involved. That said, a breed that is active and flighty is not a breed that will put on weight quickly, so table breeds do tend to be more placid and slow moving birds. They are also very tolerant amongst themselves and not prone to aggression towards each other or the keeper.
The breeds are also a fast growing (although not when compared to a commercial strain) with a lot of the weight being put into the breast. This shifts the birds centre of gravity forwards giving them a more full chested profile.
The development of them for meat meant little attention was paid to their laying qualities and as such some are relatively poor layers when compared with those developed for egg production. They do however show a greater propensity towards brooding than the laying types with the hens making excellent mothers Due to their size it also means they are capable of hatching quite large clutches of eggs.
The majority of these breeds do not readily take to the wing and can be kept behind relatively low fencing. In fact their general docility and mobility is such that they will quite happily live with a penned space as opposed to needing large areas to range over. Due to their size and nature they can have quite an appetite and it’s important to ensure they are adequately fed but not over fed, or with anything too rich in calories, as this can lead to the birds becoming fat and in turn result in leg problems if left unchecked. By the same measure they do need exercise to avoid running to fat. Within a small enclosure this can be achieved by hanging greens just out of reach so the bird has to stretch and jump slightly to access the fodder.
Due to their large size their accommodation needs to be given careful consideration. Pop holes need to be large enough for them to easily enter and exit the house, the nest boxes need to be large enough for the hens to sit comfortably without causing damage to their plumage and perches should not be situated too far off the floor level to reduce the risk of leg injuries when they alight.
At the end of the day though what you produce will hopefully give you an idea of what chicken actually does taste like. You will find that you eat less of it because its more filling and hence the bird may well last 2 or even three meals. And if you run that against the supermarket bird then perhaps it could well be price competitive.