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Why Heritage Chickens Are Slow For More Reasons Than One

Mar. 18, 2014

By Josiah Lockhart, Executive Manager, Lockhart Family Farm

Lockhart Family Farm Heritage Chickens We live in a period of fast food, especially fast meat; only not in the way you think. Livestock is now bred for rate of growth and economic return to the expense of animal health. The desire for exercise along with protection from the elements (i.e. feathers) has been bred out in exchange for meatier birds. Taking these natural protections out of animals has made antibiotic laced feed a necessity to protect from disease in “stock” conditions. Heritage animals, on the other hand, come from pre-industrial breeds and maintain their natural instincts and ability to thrive outside. Often it is these very characteristics that led to their decline in popularity.

The Cornish Cross is America’s most common meat chicken accounting for over 95% of the market. It has defined what we expect, when we purchase chicken at the store. It reaches a dressed weight of 4- 5lb with large breasts all in just 5 weeks. These birds are bred to live in large scale confinement operations and grow at such a rapid rate their bones struggle to keep up with their weight growth. Many of these birds spending the last days, and even weeks, unable to walk, and if kept alive past 5 weeks suffer from heart disease, respiratory failure, and joint damage. A report published by the University of Bristol found that almost 90 percent of meat chickens have leg problems.

Despite these downsides, customers expect a large breasted chicken forcing even organic farms to raise the Cornish Cross. However, many studies show that despite being “free-range” they rarely use the additional space and perches made available to them largely due to their weak bone structure. To address this problem, a large number of these “pastured” Cornish Cross chickens are kept in outdoor confinement pens which are moved twice daily. I should put a disclaimer in now that although I dislike this breed, many farmers who I hold in high esteem and respect, raise these birds, due to their cost effectiveness.

Here on the Lockhart Family Farm, in Woodford, Virginia, we specialize in raising Heritage Ark of Taste pigs and turkeys, and are committed to finding a way to sustainably raise heritage chickens. But like most farms, we would struggle to meet the costs of raising heritage chickens because customers expect big breasts and a low price tag. It costs us $4.65 per lb. to produce these birds to 20 weeks, before paying us a wage. To make a wage, we would need to charge $8-$10/lb.Plymouth Barred Rock Hen credit TimVidra dot com Although customers may be willing to pay that for an Ark of Taste turkey bought once a year, very few households would willingly pay it for a chicken. The added cost is largely due to extra time a farmer keeps the bird. A heritage chicken takes 3-5 times longer than a Cornish Cross before processing. What the customer should know, however, is the slower growth develops richer flavor and more dark meat. The healthier bones makes for far better broth. Don’t take my word for it, you can read a review of one of our Ark of Taste chickens trials at Tim Vidra Eats.

In June, Slow Food USA is hosting the first Slow Meat gathering, bringing together 100 policy experts, food system practitioners and Slow Food leaders from across the country to begin to identify practical points of intervention to address some of these issues. More than anything though, consumers need to buy these breeds. Not only are they healthier animals, but eating them is the only way to save them. You can find Ark of Taste producers near you by visiting localharvest.org.

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