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Jersey giants, heritage meat chickens: work for me

 
Adam Klaus
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well, computer crashed at the pinnacle moment last night, so I will attempt to retype now.
I have been raising meat chickens for the past 7 years, experimenting a lot with different breeds and systems of production. I wanted to share my experiences with breeds here, as there is ample discussion about housing and feed elsewhere in the forum.

I like slow-growing breeds for several reasons. Slow growing birds have lower daily energy and protein requirements, so they are not nearly as dependent on processed and soy-based feeds. Their lower energy requirements allow them to make better use of low energy/ high nutrient food sources, such as what is readily available in a range setting. I am to raise my chickens in the context of 'natural farming', and slow growth makes this more realistic than breeds that were developed for rapid growth with factory feeds.

Mortality is much lower with birds that are growing slower, and are under less nutrient stress. Last year, we harvested 63 birds from 65 day old chicks. That low mortality is crucial for the commercial viability of our operation. Amortizing the costs of mortality, including the feed consumed before dying, is expensive. Plus, it sucks to deal with dead chickens on a regular basis.

Heritage breeds are like heirloom seeds, and we should support these historical legacies. When small commercial farmers turn to the hatcheries for quadruple hybrid birds (Cornish Cross), we are telling the hatcheries that we dont care about heritage breeds. If only backyard enthusiasts purchare the heritage breeds, their stock will slowly degrade and we will be left with curiousities, not the historical workhorses that our ancestors developed. It is a cause worth supporting to keep our flocks biodiverse.

Slow growth means a long growing season, which happens to line up perfectly with the foraging resources of a temperate climate. We hatch chicks in mid-April in the greenhouse. The environment there is protected and bursting with bugs and forage. By mid-May, we move the chicks to their field house. They are well-feathered, robust, and ready to make use of the bugs that are hatching outside. All summer long, from May-Sept, the chickens are ranging during the season of optimal life on the farm. The chickens are still around in the orchard in Spetember to clean up the dropped orchard fruit. The life cycle of slow growing chickens is perfectly timed to the cycle of life on our farm. Remember, chickens are workers on a permaculture farm, and we work our chickens from last frost in spring up to the first hard freeze in fall. The whole farm organism benefits from this long life cycle.

The labor requirements of a five month grow-out are suprisingly similar to a shorter, more demanding grow cycle. Once our birds are three months old, they have 'gone pro' at being range chickens. They are perfectly trained to come home at night, large enough to withstand a hailstorm, and smart enough to avoid predators. All the work is getting the flock established.

At harvest time, we average over 5 pounds dressed carcasses per bird. The meat is dark and rich. The copious body fat is golden yellow. The birds are just on the brink of sexual development at 5 months, so we have maximized the natural life cycles of the chicken.

By now, you must be wondering, which breed? After years of experiment, I have settled on Black Jersey Giants. They are commercially available, heritage birds. They are smart but not devious. They grow large as a chicken can. The inexpensive assortment of hatchery meat chicks often is full of second rate meat breeds, like Aracaunas and Wyandottes, that never fill out a plump satisfying carcass before sexual maturity. The cheap choice is usually not the most economical, and that is certainly the case with meat chickens.

Finally, as the icing on the cake, the female Jersey Giants go on to lay quite well. So well, in fact, that we have taken to keeping a dozen hens and hatching out our own chicks this year. So the hatching of baby chicks is one more element in the cycle that we control and profit from. The vigor and vitality of home hatched chicks is something to behold! Such a joy to participate in. I'm raising a big, fat, fried chicken leg to this system right now! Cheers!


 
John Polk
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I am glad to see people using real chickens vs. lab designed Cornish X's.

The average age of a store bought "chicken" is 42 days. That is one of the reasons they are so tasteless.
Six weeks is not enough time for a bird to develop a full flavor.
(And, personally, I want more dark meat than the X's were designed for.)

I find it interesting that you have chosen the Jersey Giants. They are seldom used in 'conventional' meat operations because they have the worst feed ratio of all breeds. That is a critical factor for a farmer buying all of their feed, but an insignificant factor if they are free range.

By starting to breed your own, you are taking a giant step to making this more sustainable. Besides eliminating the need to buy fresh chicks each year, you are avoiding the often deplorable conditions at many commercial hatcheries. By following the "Breed the best, eat the rest" philosophy, you can further improve the quality of your flock(s).

Drum rolls Drum sticks to you!
 
Adam Klaus
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hi John-
That's interesting that the Jersey's have the worst feed conversion ratio. I have calculated my feed costs, which includes commercial chick starter for the first month, and then whole grain wheat for the next four months, and I figure that it costs me under $3 per bird in feed.
For 5+ pounds of meat, this is cheaper than hogs per pound of table meat, and cheaper than my grass fed beef (which requires hay for three months during their one winter). But I am always keep to find ways to get the numbers even better. I tried sprouting one year but the increase in labor wasnt worth it. This year we are fermenting the wheat which I hope has some of the best of both worlds.

Which breeds of heritage chickens had better feed conversion ratios?
I wonder if the experiments were in confinement? Being on range, with access to skim milk, I find that I can feed very little grain and still see healthy gains in weight. This is why I like the slow grow.

One thing I really like about the Jersey Giant is the quality of their carcass. Not a lot of long, shank-y leg bones. Just a huge, solid carcass. Dark meat, yellow skin. Feathers pull clean.
The other breed I liked, though they have issues with egg productivity and commercial availability, are the old-school Dark Cornish. Because of my desire to hatch out my own chicks, I have abandoned the Dark Cornish, though there is a little bit of Dark Cornish genetics crossed up in my flock, which I like. So they arent technically 'purebred' Jersey Giants. They are real country chickens, performance first.

I call my homespun chicken cross the Eldorado. Like elders from Colorado! Good times.
 
Jay Green
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Currently raising some heritage line Delawares out of Missouri and find these DP chicks to be just as voracious as CX and foraging like them also....they don't stop from daylight to dark in their quest for food. They seem fearless and have good foraging instincts and good body type for meat production.

These are a month old and have been free ranging since 2 wks old. They compete vigorously for food with the much older flock of DPs and act much like the CX bird about food..they can never really get enough and are constantly foraging, fighting for food at the feeder, etc. They are being fed once a day, in the evening, on fermented grains and mash.





 
Fred Morgan
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Very interesting. Here in the tropics, we have chickens year round, they are called pollos de patio, because that is where you have to keep chasing them off. lol Now they are becoming pollos de potraro, ie. lot chickens...

The other problem I have found in having free range chickens is that they lay their eggs where ever, and often forget them. So, now they have nesting boxes.

Ours get NO additional food, but we have fruit trees everywhere, pidgeon peas, yuca, and they get about a half a bucket of scraps from the kitchen a day. Also, when I go fishing, they get all the fish that were too small, or I didn't want to fix. They love fish!

Biggest, healthiest chickens I ever saw.
 
Ann Torrence
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Adam,

How are the Black Jerseys handling the cold? I am researching breeds for our work chicken breed right now, want a bird that is robust enough to take the winter, mostly for the table but keep a few and hopefully they keep laying. Last year the random chooks laid through the winter, but this year, they quit, molted and sulked. They were eating grasshoppers in the orchard, so still net positive, but I think we can find a better breed. Looking at the Cochins for their rose combs and size. Have you tried them?
 
Adam Klaus
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Ann Torrence wrote:Adam,

How are the Black Jerseys handling the cold? I am researching breeds for our work chicken breed right now, want a bird that is robust enough to take the winter, mostly for the table but keep a few and hopefully they keep laying.


Hi Ann,
That is exactly the beauty of the Jersey. They take the cold. They lay pretty well too. I plan to not have to buy any chicks next year, I will hatch all my meat chickens.

Cochins dont have the carcass quality of the Jersey. Totally inferior meat bird. Pretty birds, hardy, but not good enough meat birds for me.

Can you tell I like Jersey Giants? Love em!

good luck!
 
Colleen Sommer
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Great read, thanks for sharing.
 
Chris Kott
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I have temporarily forgotten the name, but there is a large Canadian breed, I think it starts with a "Ch," or maybe a "C," whose main purpose was to handle the cold. Not Jersey cold, I mean real cold. For that purpose, the size of combs and wattles have been selected for their relatively small size (to cut down on frostbite) and unless I am thinking of yet another winter-adapted breed, they have feathers descending farther down their legs than most other chickens.

Honestly, I think that individual operations need to breed their own birds. I can't think of a better way to get a bird specifically suited to specific individual situations, especially if the breeder selects the best specimens for breeding.

Breed the best, eat the rest.

-CK
 
Adam Klaus
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Chris Kott wrote:I have temporarily forgotten the name, but there is a large Canadian breed, I think it starts with a "Ch," or maybe a "C," whose main purpose was to handle the cold.
-CK


Chantecler.

The difficulty is finding production quality birds from a commercial hatchery. Tragically, most hatcheries have bred for appearances, conformation to the breed standards, at the expensive of utility. The breeds all look different, but the individual birds have lost the productive traits that originally earned the breed recognition. I believe this is the case for Jersey Giants, through most hatcheries. Finding a good hatchery for your specific breed, is just as important as the breed selection in the first place. It is a challenging situation, that definitely points the homestead farmer towards breeding and developing his own birds. Of course, you need a good genetic foundation to start a worthwhile breeding program.
 
Chris Kott
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Thanks Adam. I agree, practically speaking. Too much time and effort to start with inferior genetics unless you have no option.

-CK
 
Cj Sloane
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Chris Kott wrote:I have temporarily forgotten the name, but there is a large Canadian breed, I think it starts with a "Ch," or maybe a "C," whose main purpose was to handle the cold. Not Jersey cold, I mean real cold.


Chantecler - no don't do it!!!

Did you see this picture I just reposted:
No coop></a>

Yes, they handle the cold very well. These went all winter with no coop in Vermont
Yes, I barely feed them in the summer.

The are very lightweight. No way 4' electro-netting will contain them. Good luck planting that food forest!
They hide eggs. Multiple clutches hatched out unexpectedly. I would've preferred to eat the eggs if I could've found them.
A mature rooster dresses out to 3 lbs and hen even less.
 
Cj Sloane
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Adam Klaus wrote:
The other breed I liked, though they have issues with egg productivity and commercial availability, are the old-school Dark Cornish. Because of my desire to hatch out my own chicks, I have abandoned the Dark Cornish,...


Are you saying they didn't hatch out their own eggs? Or the eggs just aren't viable?
I've got about a dozen or so that I bought in late July, just starting to lay, I think. The hens don't seem that large - I was hoping for really heavy ones that wont fly over 4' fencing (see above post).

Well, if they don't work out, I guess I'll give the Giants a shot!
 
Adam Klaus
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CJ- Sorry that wasnt worded clearly. The Dark Cornish are an excellent meat bird. Arguably my favorite, if only considering meat quality. They are just poor layers. I need to get 84 eggs, to fill my two incubators, in a week or so, in order to maintain maximum hatchability from using freshly laid eggs. Based on my flock size, I wont get enough eggs in a short enough time fram for my hatching operation to be ideal. Additionally, after getting hatching eggs, I then use those hens for commercial egg production through the rest of the summer. Dark Cornish, laying many fewer eggs, are much less profitable for me.

I need big meaty birds that are good (not excellent) layers. Dark Cornish are fair layers at best, so they dont work for me.

Really important is sourcing our birds through top quality hatcheries. Murray McMurray is fine for 4-H, but isnt going to cut it for production qualities in heritage breeds. The hatcheries that Kelly Klober recommended to me 6 years ago, were Ideal Hatchery in Texas and Mt Healthy in Ohio. A lot can change in 6 years, but I have always been happy with my birds from those hatcheries, particularly Dark Cornish from Ideal and Black Jersey Giants from Mt Healthy.

hope the helps!
 
Ghislaine de Lessines
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Cj Verde wrote:

Chantecler - no don't do it!!!

Did you see this picture I just reposted:
No coop></a>

Yes, they handle the cold very well. These went all winter with no coop in Vermont
Yes, I barely feed them in the summer.

The are very lightweight. No way 4' electro-netting will contain them. Good luck planting that food forest!
They hide eggs. Multiple clutches hatched out unexpectedly. I would've preferred to eat the eggs if I could've found them.
A mature rooster dresses out to 3 lbs and hen even less.


Darn it CJ, I didn't want to hear that! I'd settled on Partridge Chanteclers as the first chicken I was going to try. Where did you get yours from because I thought they would get bigger then that? Since I am allergic,I wouldn't mind losing out on eggs though.
 
Cj Sloane
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I bought mine from Game Bird Farm. If you're not so into eggs maybe he dark corning are a safer bet.
 
Victor Johanson
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Cj Verde wrote:Yes, they handle the cold very well. These went all winter with no coop in Vermont
Yes, I barely feed them in the summer.

The are very lightweight. No way 4' electro-netting will contain them. Good luck planting that food forest!
They hide eggs. Multiple clutches hatched out unexpectedly. I would've preferred to eat the eggs if I could've found them.
A mature rooster dresses out to 3 lbs and hen even less.


Chanteclers were bred in Canada by a monk in the early 20th century, specifically for cold hardiness, which is important to us here. The original breed was the white Chantecler. The Partridge Chantecler was bred some time later in Alberta for free ranging and was named the Albertan by its breeder, but somehow the bureaucrats renamed it. It has no relationship with the White. Now there are Black, Buff, and Red Chanteclers, but I don't think any of them are officially recognized and I don't know if they're related to any of the others. The APA standard weights for the White Chantecler are 8.5# for cocks and 6.5# for hens. We've grown the whites and partridge in the past. Never weighed them, but the whites were bigger. Now we have some Buffs, which are about the size of the Whites. There is controversy about how authentic today's Whites are; some claim they went extinct and were recreated, but others maintain that Quebec smallholders preserved small flocks of the originals. More info at http://www.chanteclerfanciersinternational.org/ , and there is a discussion board that will be useful for finding stock. I tried to get the Whites for a few years before I got some from Sandhill Preservation, but it looks like there are more options now. I saw a huge cock at the local fair some years ago which took best in show for all chickens, but was never able to get a response from the owner.
 
Cj Sloane
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I agree with everything Victor wrote. I just wasn't willing to work that hard to track down the real deal.

I do have a few dark Cornish chickens who are hanging out with the coop-less chanteclers and they have survived to at least -15°F. I just hope I can contain them.
 
Bev Huth
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I have Black Jersey Giants, Buff Orpingtons and, the resulting cross bred chickens. I love them. Amazing flavor, wonderful egg layers. Okay so the feed ratio isn't so great, with them foraging for half of their feed and me providing the rest, they do well enough and, the meat and eggs are worth it for me.

Much better survivability with the chicks and, I don't have to be in a big rush to butcher them, they are good anywhere from 3 to 12 months old.
 
Ann Torrence
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Adam,

How many weeks do you wait before slaughtering the Jerseys? How long can I wait and still have a great dinner. For logistical reasons, I had to get them a little earlier than I would have liked; they are at 11 weeks now. I'd like to go to Labor Day weekend, that'd be 24 1/2 weeks, but is that too long? I need to get my friend scheduled to come help.

BTW we put two Ameraucana week old chicks in with the day old Jerseys as we need to replace some upcoming "retirements." The Jerseys surpassed them in weight in about 7 weeks, look tiny in comparison at 11 weeks. They are very different than the Jerseys-more curious and interactive with me.


 
Adam Klaus
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Ann Torrence wrote:
How many weeks do you wait before slaughtering the Jerseys? How long can I wait and still have a great dinner. For logistical reasons, I had to get them a little earlier than I would have liked; they are at 11 weeks now. I'd like to go to Labor Day weekend, that'd be 24 1/2 weeks, but is that too long?


I generally butcher at about 18 weeks. Hens would definitely still be delicious at 24+ weeks. Cockerels would be getting pretty mature by then. They would still be good enough for me to eat, but defintely getting tougher my the day. All in all, cant really say how they would be, as I havent ever butchered cockerels at that age. I would try to slaughter by 20 weeks max, but that is really just an educated guess.

good luck!
 
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