We’re now moving on to selection points to consider and cull for when breeding chickens for a meat flock. In the first part of the series we talked about general selection for a healthy flock and in the second part we discussed breeding for egg production. Now, it’s time to bring on the meat!
Selection Points for Meat Chickens
Breeding a great meat bird is a little bit trickier than breeding a chicken for egg production. Most animals will drift towards a smaller size if left to breed willy-nilly. An excellent example of a chicken that’s smaller than it ought to be is pretty much any “heritage” chicken that came from a hatchery. They don’t select for size, or anything really, at hatcheries – their ultimate goal is simply to sell lots of chicks.
The first selection point to consider is what age you want your birds to be ready to butcher out at. Traditionally there are 4 different ages for butchering:
- Broiler (7 to 12 weeks)
- Fryer (14 to 20 weeks)
- Roaster (5 to 12 months, most commonly between 6 and 8 months)
- Fowl (over 12 months)
While any true heritage breed (NOT a bird from a hatchery) can be butchered at any age, certain breeds to lend themselves to butchering out better at a particular age.
The ideal age to butcher out a chicken is when they have reached the peak of their growth. After the peak, many birds tend to go through a lean, lanky stage before putting on more meat again.
So, when should you set your ideal butchering age? If you’re raising a breed known for rapid growth such as Leghorns or other small egg breeds, they fall best into the “broiler” category. The “fryers” are more modern heritage birds like Plymouth Rocks, New Hampshires, and Delawares. Brahmas and Sussex fall into the “roaster” category. All chickens can be butchered as “fowl”.
Selection Point: Choose the most appropriate butchering age for your breed of chickens. If you are crossing breeds then select an age based on the breeds that you are using.
Obviously the bigger the chicken is at butchering the more meat you’ll have. How then, do you get a chicken who is nice and big at the butchering age you’ve picked? You start by culling your chickens for weight at butchering age!
You’ll need a way to ID each chicken so you can keep accurate records. I use (affiliate link time) zip ties and alphabet beads. If you go this route you have to keep a close eye on the zip ties and change them frequently as the chickens grow. Assign each chicken an ID as soon as they hatch.
Once your chickens reach your ideal butchering age simply weigh each one. Cull all of the chickens that fall into the bottom 50% based on weight. You will be left with the heaviest 50% to choose your breeding stock from.
Now you might be wondering about that great big cockerel running around your yard. He’s nice and big, so he should sire some nice big chicks, right? Well, not exactly. You see, the most important weight is the one the chicken is during the time you want to butcher. From a meat production stance, it doesn’t matter very much if the chicken is huge when it’s full-grown when you’re wanting it to be in your freezer when it’s 14 weeks old.
Selection Point: Cull out the smallest 50% at butchering age.
How much food does the chicken need to eat to gain each pound? Right now, the industry standard for Cornish X is about 2 pounds of feed per 1 pound of gain (2:1). It took over 60 years of selective breeding to get the Cornish X to that point, so it’s unlikely that you’ll have numbers that great in your own backyard flock. However, that doesn’t mean you should neglect this selection point!
You’ll need to keep accurate track of feed consumption and weights among your flock, but basically keep the birds that eat less and gain more.
Selection Point: Keep chickens that put on more weight while eating less feed than their flock mates.
How does the chicken look sitting on the platter at your dinner table? You can expect most heritage breeds to have longer, meatier legs and smaller breasts than the Cornish X. You’ll want to select chickens that have wide, flat backs so the butchered birds don’t roll all over the place on the platter. Other things that effect carcass appearance are skin and feather color. These will depend on the breed and variety of chicken that you raise.
Selection Point: Keep the chickens with wide, flat backs for breeding.
Taste + Texture
How does the chicken taste after you’ve cooked it? What is the texture of the meat like? Make note of the parents and siblings of each chicken that you butcher so you can keep those lines for breeding if find the taste and texture to be to your likely. Obviously taste and texture are very dependent on your preferences, but generally most people prefer a flavorful meat with fine grain.
Selection Point: Keep breeding lines that produce the desired taste and texture in the birds that you butcher.
How much meat do you have compared to bones when you butcher? While bones are great for making broth, most people don’t actually eat them. You might want to select for a better meat-to-bone ratio among your flock. You can do this by deboning each carcass and weighing the meat and bones separately and then keeping the parents and siblings that produced the best carcasses.
Selection Point: Keep the breeding lines that produce the best meat-to-bone ratio.
You might be wondering what egg production has to do with meat chickens, right? Well, you can’t breed more if they don’t lay any eggs! Obviously you don’t need heavy egg production among a meat flock, but you do want enough eggs that you can have a large number of chicks to select from each generation.
If you really want a challenge, you can try and balance out the meat and egg production for a dual-purpose breed. Now, keep in mind that there’s actually no such thing as a truly dual-purpose chicken. They will always be slightly better at one thing than the other. I prefer the term “general purpose” which is much more accurate because they’re just an all-around chicken. Another thing to note is that dual-purpose chickens are typically less productive than a chicken that is bred exclusively for eggs or meat. However, it’s frequently easier for most people to keep one flock of slightly less productive birds than two flocks of very productive birds.
Selection Point: Make sure you still get enough eggs to ensure the next generation!
Well folks, this is the conclusion of our little series on chicken selection and culling. If you have any questions or want another topic covered, please feel free to let us know!