Sustainable Poultry: Hybrid vs. Heritage

Many bursts of new life at the Grange Farm School this Spring! Seedlings push their heads up, preparing for their bursts of growth, lambs chase butterflies around the lush green pasture, chicks pip through their shells and miraculously emerge as small fluffs.  The chicks we are hatching are Ohio Buckeyes, a threatened heritage breed that once held a spot as a favorite dual purpose (meat and egg potential) bird in America.  The Ohio Buckeye was developed in the 19th century and is the only breed that is known to have been developed by a woman, Nettie Metcalf.  Nettie was part of a rich tradition of improving genetics to achieve a 4 pound carcass in 16 weeks as well as excellent laying capability.  This tradition has largely been lost, as the poultry industry- organic and conventional- now relies so heavily on hybridized birds.

So what is the difference between a hybrid and a heritage chicken?   A heritage breed is one that was developed before 1950 and is standardized and classified by the American Poultry Association.  Before poultry production took on the monstrous scale it has in the last half century, the most common chickens were meaty egg layers so that both male and female offspring had a use (dual purpose.)  Hybridization is a process that involves cross breeding intensively (line breeding) to achieve offspring that exhibit strongly one or two traits. Typically, hybrid birds are specifically bred for a meaty carcass OR extremely high egg production, and since these are the favored traits, many other traits are deselected and vanish from the genetic pool.

The most common meat bird produced today is the Cornish Cross, putting on 4 pounds of weight in as little as 6 weeks.  These birds have lost the ability to forage, reproduce, or even survive much longer than two months, and are bred to have chronic hunger.  Here at the Grange Farm School, we will be keeping two separate flocks of meat birds to demonstrate the differences. One flock will be comprised of Red Rangers, a slower growing hybrid bird that should survive better on pasture, and the other flock will be comprised of a breeding flock of Ohio Buckeyes.  Our hope through several generations of intentional breeding will be to produce a tasty broiler chicken that can be raised on pasture for optimal flavor and health, reproduce on it’s own to reduce reliance on hatcheries, and produce useful male AND female offspring.

Working with Jim Adkins of the Sustainable Poultry Network will launch the Grange Farm School and Mendocino County onto the map of sustainable poultry breeders, growers, and distributors as we revive a threatened breed of poultry and teach the skills necessary to raise and market poultry with the underlying goal of animal welfare, ecological stewardship, and breed preservation.

This year we are launching a PoultryShare program so that locals can participate in the local poultry resilience project here at the Grange Farm School. The PoultryShare is similar to a CSA with customers purchasing chickens at the beginning of the season that are then custom grown to butcher weight and are delivered  ready to eat right to their freezer!  This model creates a connection between producer and consumer by providing the costs of feed and husbandry up front at the beginning of the season, ensuring that the birds are getting the best treatment and care while the customer has the guarantee of a properly raised and processed broiler. Put in your order today for quality, local chickens raised intentionally for you. Keep your eyes open for sign up forms in the community. For more information E-mail: info@grangefarmschool.org

Written by: Ruthie King, “Director of Operations” at the Grange Farm School

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